The last photo I have of my wife Sara was taken by our grandson, Alex, while on a vacation on the island of St Bart's, in the Caribbean. It shows her in a bright terry-cloth jacket, looking serious next to her grinning husband, sitting on a beach in their swim suits. She was 70 years old, and looked as enchanting as ever, with that dimple on her left cheek that was so small, yet big enough that a grown man could fall into it and never be able to get out. Sara was in good health: she had no problems other than a little of what her doctor called "arrythmia", for which they had been treating her for several years. We had taken our daughter, her husband and two children for a winter vacation to this quiet island, where there was little to do but swim and sleep. After a restful couple of weeks we went home.
At the end of the first week at home Sara and I went to a concert in a series for which we had a subscription. The concert series, which had been going on for years, was arranged by a group of scientists at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD, and performances took place in an auditorium in the main clinical center of the NIH. We found parking in the basement of the clinical center, using a different entrance than usual, owing to building renovations that were going on. At the end of the concert we said goodbye to friends in the hospital lobby as they left for their cars in an outdoor parking lot, and we tried to find our way back to the basement parking garage.
It was a Sunday evening, and the offices we walked through were well-lit, but empty. We had only a general idea of where the elevator to the basement was, and walked in what we thought was the right direction. it was a little spooky, walking through those brightly lit but empty, silent offices, as if the end of the world had come, and everyone but ourselves had fled. I walked on ahead by the length of an office to explore what might be wrong turns, to save Sara from having to backtrack. A few times I lost sight of her and waited for her to catch up. Then I went on ahead again. One time when I lost sight of her, I heard a cry from her, and ran back. She was tottering, and I reached her as she was falling. I held her, half on the floor, in my arms and asked her what was the matter. She did not respond, and after a moment made a sound as if she were clearing her throat, and then nothing.
I shouted for help, but we had gone too far from the lobby where people were, and no one could hear me. At last I reluctantly left Sara on the floor and ran back to the lobby where a few hospital employees were manning stations on this Sunday evening, asked for help for a woman who had fainted, and ran back to where Sara lay. After a while someone came, and a little while later an emergency medical team. My relief that I was no longer alone and helpless was offset by immense anxiety. They checked her heart, and tried to get it started again with electric shock, while I stood there beginning to take in what was happening. At last they told me gently that Sara was gone.
I numbly answered their few questions about her medical condition. The most painful question was, where did I want her body sent. This was the body that I had loved for more than forty years, the body that had born and fed our children, the body that had carried Sara to work, that had sat in the big chair while she dictated reports on her psychological examination cases in that drawl that showed that while in mid-sentence she was feeling for the end of the sentence, the body that contained her dimple. I found some kind of an answer because I knew the name of one Jewish funeral chapel in the Washngton area. One of the men insisted on driving me home; one of the others would drive his car behind us. And so, leaving Sara in their hands, I left. The man who drove my car made sure I could get into the door of my house, and left.
What to do in that empty house? I called my daughter in Connecticut, and Sara's cousin Luba in our neighborhood, who came over shortly with some food. And then I went to bed, alone.
It was a night of "if only". If only I had parked in the outdoor parking lot like most of our friends. If only I had left Sara in the lobby, with comfortable chairs and people, while I went to find where I had parked the car. If only I had stayed with her as we wandered through those foreboding empty offices and not left her to feel, even for one instant, that she was alone in that eery place. If only I had known how to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and had the sense to do it immediately. If only I could hear her breathing quietly in the bed beside me.