I’m Sorry I Didn’t Respond to Your Email, My Husband Coughed to Death Two Years Ago

Rachel Ward
Personal Growth
Published in
9 min readAug 18, 2015


Hi! Today seems like a good day to answer some frequently asked questions.

Q: Are you marking any significant anniversaries today?

A: Yes, yes I am! Today is the second anniversary of Steve’s death.

Q: Who is Steve?

A: Steve was my husband uh DOI.

Q: Urm, now I feel bad for not knowing that.

A: It’s fine. At the two year point I find myself having to make more and more choices about whether or not I immediately blurt out HEYDIDYOUKNOWI’MAWIDOWTHAT’SMYFUNFACT!!!!!!! People in my life are less likely to have been around then and more likely to need to be briefed on this backstory. This is extremely annoying because after two years, I still don’t have a better way to relate this information than all caps-no spaces shouting.

But beneath that, it’s actually a super awesome thing, because it means that my world has gotten so much bigger in these two years. I’ve met a lot of people, and done a lot of things that I maybe only mildly imagined doing before.

Q: Dude, that sort of makes it sound like you’re glad Steve died.

A: I’m not, and that’s kind of a dick thing to say.


A: Ha ha, SIKE! I’m just fucking with you. I’m not glad Steve died, not even a little. He has missed SO MUCH COOL SHIT. He missed the opening with Cuba, which he would have been really stoked about. He’s missing an equality revolution in spaces around gender and sexual identity, race, police power, capital, and class. He’s missing whatever they’re doing with Hine over at Eastern Market. He’s missing our cat Claudia’s turbulent adolescence. He’s missing BERNIE SANDERS ELIZABETH WARRREN AND LAWRENCE LESSIG ‘NUFF SAID.

Also, I’m missing him. Obviously. A lot. BUT: I have a cousin who’s also a widow, and she told my sister that she’s not sure if she’d bring her husband back. Which sounds TOTALLY CRAZY to other people, BUT: When you experience a loss like this, you get to see a really wild new amount of life. Suddenly the range of the type of sad you can feel, to the type of happy you can feel, is busted open. The spectrum from happy to sad isn’t a foot wide anymore — it’s as far as your arms can stretch and then to the edges of the room and then up the block and over into the next neighborhood.

So I am not happy that Steve died. But I am happy a lot of the time, which I didn’t really anticipate on this day two years ago.

Q: What happened on this day two years ago?

A: Good question! While many people know that I am a widow, probably not a ton know what went down. Pretty much no one knows exactly what went down, because I don’t even know what happened.

What I do know is that for a couple of weeks, Steve had what we thought was a summer cold. Some coughing, some sneezing. Then he started a new job, and felt like that stress was compounding the illness — but it didn’t occur to either of us that this was a thing that was more than just something passing. He certainly didn’t think it was worth taking a sick day during his first week of work.

That Friday he came home from work REALLY REALLY sick. He’d barely been able to drive. I made him get up off the couch and go to an urgent care. The doctor there prescribed him an antibiotic and said “it’s either the flu or it’s not, so this will either work or it won’t.” We went to CVS and got the scrip filled right as they were closing. I had to pull a cry face to get them to fill it, and when I got back to the car I was pretty proud of myself for badgering them into doing it — I told Steve that “bitches get shit done.” Tina Fey went on to steal this line from me. (Right? I’m pretty sure that’s how this went down, but my memory isn’t great.)

Steve didn’t sleep very well that night. Around 5 a.m. he couldn’t sleep, so we woke up and watched some 30 Rock together. (The degree to which Tina Fey figures into this story is only being revealed to me now, two years later.) I went back to sleep. Around 9 a.m. I made my way up to Eastern Market to get groceries, and when I got back, Steve came down the stairs, carrying a bunch of his sick dude things — probably some Kleenexes, his thermometer, a seltzer can. I joked about him doing a Rachael Ray carry. Then he started coughing.

I don’t remember the sequence of events very well. He was sitting on the couch at one point and I encouraged him to cough it up, whatever it was. At one point he went into the kitchen and looked out the glass door to the patio, and said “Oh fuck.”

He started coughing up blood. I went to get him a bowl to cough into, and then said “that’s it, I’m calling 911.” And then he collapsed onto his knees, and fell on the ground.

The 911 operator wasn’t super helpful. I kept asking if I should do CPR and she kept asking if he was responsive, if he was breathing. I was surprised by how hard it was to tell. At one point I pulled on his ear to see if he would respond. I turned him on his side and tried to clear his airway. I cajoled the 911 operator, but weirdly, in the moment, I was really focused on being polite. Like, using a ton of please and thank you, as if that would make the fire truck get up Florida Avenue faster. Finally, after a couple of minutes, I heard the sirens and the operator said to me “well, let me just make sure that’s for you.” Because, Welcome to Washington, D.C., District Slogan: Those Sirens Might Not Be For You.

The EMTs cut off his shirt and intubated him, but they didn’t shock him. They used a machine to tell them whether or not to do it, and the machine said “don’t.” I don’t know if it was “don’t bother” or “you don’t need to.” I don’t know if they knew this wasn’t going to end well or not. They asked me how old he was, which I assume was to gauge whether to keep working or not.

Once we were in the ambulance, I asked where we were going and one of the EMTs just sort of nodded “no” to me, and indicated I should hold on. It felt like we sat there for a long time, trying to figure out what was happening. I struggled to call my parents with my cellphone — which was, ironically a recurring nightmare for me. That something was happening to Steve and I’d have to dial 911 and I wouldn’t be able to unlock my phone or dial the right number. Eventually I got my dad, who was in North Carolina, and he sent my sister over, who luckily was already down in the city helping a friend move.

Then I had to call Steve’s parents, which was horrible. Steve’s mom was excited to hear from me, since on their end, it was just a normal Saturday morning. And I had to say, no, turn down, your son’s in the back of an ambulance and the EMT just gave me a “no” nod.

Eventually we took off for Howard University Hospital, which was the closest ER. They took me into a tiny little room that wasn’t square, so all of the furniture was crammed in at weird angles. A chaplain came in and said some very anatomically specific prayers, which even as they were cutting Steve open and trying to resuscitate his heart directly, I thought was funny. My sister Sarah showed up, and they called a Catholic chaplain so he could give Steve last rites. I don’t know how the last rites went, but in terms of dealing with the non-dying, that guy was fucking terrible. I wish I could remember his name so I could pan him on Yelp.

Doctors would come in pretty frequently to update me, but only one or two of those times were they hopeful. Apparently his heart caught a couple of times, but it never stayed working. When the doctor came in to tell me that they’d declared a time of death, I made him tell it to Steve’s parents on the phone.

Sarah and I saw him at least twice, once while they were still working on him, and once after they’d cleaned him up. As they led me out of the ER, I told the nurse that I was conflicted about whether or not I should take a photo of his body. She told me I’d see him again, at the funeral, and that I should just focus on sleeping and eating. And then I said “I can’t believe it, he was such a good husband.”

And she said, “Yeah, but he did a shitty thing today.”

And that was the first time I laughed after Steve died.

Ultimately what seems to have happened is that an infection developed in his heart. This is probably related to the surgery he’d had around Christmas, to repair an aneurysm in a valve in his heart. I don’t have better clarity than this, and to some extent, the facts I did dig up, I’ve forgotten. It’s impossible to overstate what a hit your memory takes when you lose someone. It’s also impossible to overstate what a bureaucratic clusterfuck it is. GUYS, I CAN’T STRESS THIS ENOUGH: IF YOU SHARE A PHONE PLAN WITH SOMEONE, MAKE SURE EVERYONE’S AN AUTHORIZED USER.

Q: Um damn, I’m like, a little overwhelmed now.

A: Yeah, me too. I’ve been that way for two years. So if you sent me an email and I didn’t respond to it, that’s what happened. I couldn’t respond to your query about a story pitch because my husband coughed to death.

Q: So how are you doing in general?

A: I mean, like I keep saying, it’s fine. I realized today that I’d never much thought about what would happen after two years. After one year, I thought I might try to date (and in fact I tried earlier than that, and it was COMICALLY BAD). In year two I thought I might be in a good enough head space to make a career transition (also: fail).

But now, with no more map — with truly no expectation that getting this far was a real possibility, I feel like I’m starting to be strong enough to do the work to make those sorts of things happen. I have the beginnings of a plan and a little bit of vision about how to pursue the kind of creative community I want to be part of, and the resources to do that, even if it doesn’t make any money. Even though it’s frightening, I feel like I’m getting closer to being able to hand someone my soppy bruised tomato of a heart. If they cup their hands and treat it with gentle little kitten paws, I think I might be ok.

One thing is for sure — I used to fucking HATE IT when people asked me, with that welling sincerity in their eyes, “but how ARE you?” I probably don’t actually hate it any less, but it happens less now.

Q: What have you learned over the past two years?


Q: It sort of seems like you’re stalling, tbh.

A: Busted. I think about that question a lot. I would love to unequivocally be like “I am so much more empathetic now, and I have grand insights into the universe!”

But that’s not really the case. I haven’t really had a magnificent realization about the necessity of doing what you love, or cutting the bullshit. For those of you who don’t know me, bullshit is my number one stock-in-trade. If I have had anything like a satori, I haven’t acted on it.

Probably the biggest finding of the past two years for me is that being comfortable being uncomfortable is a very effective way to be a human.

I am constantly trying to teach myself to watch my feelings as they pass through me, rather than chasing them away with Manhattans or Ambien or Netflix. I often fail at this. I am trying harder to engage with people as they are — not being afraid of strangers, asking better questions, really listening to the answers, not being afraid to go to a second location, being less judgmental.

Basically, I’m trying to have an open heart. I’ve learned that it’s really hard to do, but I think it’s probably the Step 1 of any attempt to really be alive, following something like this.

Q: I’ve noticed that throughout this FAQ you’ve used two spaces after a period.

A: Yeah, I’m not a fucking ANIMAL.

All my love,