A serial memoir by Jean Fogelberg


Safe Harbor

At the end of November, we drove to Boston for scans, labs, and an office visit with Dr. Kaufman. We walked around our Back Bay neighborhood, so romantic and Christmassy in a soft winter coat. On Newbury Street, we wandered into a long, narrow antique store we liked, and Dan spent some time admiring an ornate wall barometer in the back. 

    It was a beautiful thing, made of warm brown wood and inlaid with mother of pearl. Once he realized the mechanism was broken, he moved on, even though the woman behind the counter said they could have it repaired. I took my time in the back of the store until Dan was far enough away, then I discretely asked her how long it would take to repair. A week, two at the most, she said. I quickly made arrangements to pay later and have it repaired. 

    I was happy, and relieved, to have found a gift for Dan. It’s hard to surprise someone you go everywhere with. I couldn’t wait to see the look of surprise on his face when he opened it under the Christmas tree. We shopped for Christmas card sets, but nothing seemed quite right.

    A major winter storm had been working its way across the United States and Canada, and was expected to hit the Northeast on December 2nd and 3rd so, rather than linger, we drove back home on the 1st.

    On I-95, a pickup truck towing a utility trailer passed us, going much too fast. He hit an icy patch and jackknifed back and forth in front of us. As I tapped the brakes, he slid off the road, skidding safely to a stop in the wide grass divider. My heart was pounding like crazy; my fingers welded to the steering wheel. I glanced quickly at Dan, who was sleeping peacefully in the reclined seat. Blowing out the breath I’d been holding, I stretched my fingers and concentrated on getting us home.


    For two days we watched the snow fall from our warm haven. After the storm passed through, I went outside to take pictures. Our old apple tree always bore fruit late in the year, and still had quite a few apples on it. Two of them caught my eye, dangling from the same branch and overladen with snow. When Dan saw the photo, he said, “That should be our Christmas card.” I agreed, and ordered Strathmore blank cards and envelopes online at Dick Blick.

    The cards arrived the following week. Dan folded them and I pasted the apple photographs on the fronts. For the inside sentiment, Dan wanted to say, “Season’s Greetings, from our orchard to yours.” I printed the words on watercolor paper and drew red borders on the top and bottom. Dan glued the small rectangles inside and I drew little stitches over the red borders in gold pen. I usually asked Dan to sign cards for both of us, because I disliked my handwriting. But he was tired, so we decided to finish them later, after buying some Christmas stamps. 

    He tired easily now, and took long afternoon naps. While he was sleeping one day, our friend Betsy stopped by. She had picked up the repaired antique barometer for me while in Boston. I wrapped it in a blanket, then hid it behind some luggage in the attic.


On the night of December 11th, Dan fell near the door to the art studio, cutting his head on the sharp brass door hinge. I was asleep in bed, but the caregiver alarm in my brain went off. I started awake, not knowing what woke me, just sensing it needed investigating. I found Dan on the floor, semi-conscious, blood pooling on the light tan carpet from a cut high on his forehead. I ran to the guest bathroom for a hand towel and pressed it to the wound.

    I asked if he could stand, but he was too dizzy, so I held the towel tightly to his head as he crawled to the master bedroom. Using the bed frame for leverage, he got up and into the bed. I kept checking the wound, but it wouldn’t stop bleeding. I said we should go to the emergency room in Blue Hill, but he said no. I understood his hesitation, but assured him we’d just go, get stitches, and come right back home; no long hospital stay this time. He wouldn’t budge.

    Dan could be so stubborn, but he wasn’t thinking clearly. As his caregiver, I always had to walk that fine line between Assist and Insist; between “Can I help?” and “Let me help.”

    It was time to play the Erika card. I called her and put Dan on the phone. She reminded him that he was on blood thinners, and, depending on how deep the cut was, he could bleed to death if he didn’t go to the hospital. That convinced him. I started down the stairs first, Dan following, with his left hand on my shoulder and his right hand on the bannister. “Step,” I’d say, and we’d take each tread, simultaneously.

    When we got to the bottom we bundled up and he sat down as I ran for the car. I pulled right up to the brick walkway and made my way carefully over the inch of ice coating it. The snow on either side was deep, and icy as well, so we’d just have to make it work. Somehow, we made it to the car without falling, then drove to the hospital. 

    The cut wasn’t as deep as we’d feared, and once they stopped the bleeding they closed the wound with surgical tape. All that drama, and he didn’t even need stitches; he seemed a little disappointed. They kept us all afternoon, to monitor Dan’s condition in case he had a concussion. It was very uneventful, though; no ice otters on the TV or bands unloading vans in the parking lot. We joked about that now, just making our way through the kind of dark “happily ever after” that no one ever tells you about when you're a kid.

    Pauline was out of the country, so I called Bryan and asked if he would go to the house and lay something wet over the blood stains in the carpet so they wouldn’t dry. Our friend Lauren stopped by the hospital with sandwiches. Up until now, we had accepted very little help from our friends, other than house and cat sitting. But we had reached the point where you drop your reluctance and pride, and welcome the village with tired, open arms.

    I emailed Bryan when we got home:


December 12, 2007, at 09:03 PM


Bryan, I don't want to call in case you're sleeping, but I wanted you to know that we are home - it's 9:00 pm. thank you so much for cleaning the blood spots, I'm going over them with a brush and dish soap and they're coming up, all your prep work was great, saved the carpet. Thank you, thank you. Dan will have a massive headache for a few days, but it was more of a long dent/scrape than a cut, perhaps a concussion, but they didn't have to do stitches or staples. Luck, and a hard head, a good combination. And good friends, the best thing of all.




    He replied in the morning:


December 13, 2007 at 5:12 am

as you know...any time. glad it wasn't serious. dans a lucky man to have you as a partner.


    That afternoon, we got an email from Irving:


December 13

Hey you guys, just checking in. I sat around last night and played our first record together start to finish. What a masterpiece. anyway, I miss you Daniel. will call you to celebrate the holidays.



    Two more snow storms were setting us up for a white Christmas. Dan struggled to recover, longing to get out on his skis. His head seemed to be getting better, but the pain in his back and hips was excruciating. At night, the only relief came when I put my Pilates ball on the bed. I propped his calves on it and held them there, relieving the pressure on his lower back. Eventually, though, every position would stop working and we’d have to find a new one.


December 14, 2007

Hi Erika,


Bad evening/night. Endocet every 3 hours seemed to be keeping pain at bay, then at around 3:00pm the back and hips started hurting, gradually increasing in pain. We did Endocet and Flexaril at 10:00pm (along with the steroid and celebrex), then Morphine tablet at 11:45 - when it didn't do anything, another Endocet at 12:35 in desperation. I'm waiting to see if it helped. He said the headache was actually better a couple of hours ago, but the back is giving him fits. Feet look fine, cut on head is scabbed over, no oozing or bleeding.


I probably won't get much sleep tonight, and since he generally sleeps the most soundly between 7 and noon, I will be sleeping then too. So if you want to discuss any of this, call us after noon, and if you just have a number for me to call, email it to me and I'll call it when I get up. I hear the home nursing/hospice out of the hospital is good.


Thank you,


    We’d resisted contacting hospice, thinking they were who you called when someone was just about to die. We both believed Dan was going to heal and recover, as he had in the hospital. But Erika had explained that, besides helping with pain management, hospice provided supplies, as well as special equipment for lifting and moving. When she added that one of their goals is to give the caregiver some relief and help, Dan said we should call.

    Two people from hospice came to the house and talked to us and got our information. We arranged to rent a bed with inflating air chambers that alternated pressure points and reduced pain.



On December 15th, I woke before Dan and dressed. When he began to stir, I went to the bed and leaned over him, stroking his hair and saying, “Good morning, my darling.” His eyes remained closed, but he smiled. 


     There was blood in his teeth.

   A jolt of pain rocked me so hard, I literally heard the sound of something shattering from somewhere inside me. Dan was disoriented, so I helped him sit up and got a glass of water and a towel and helped him rinse his mouth out.

    I called Erika, and described everything that was happening. She said she would talk to Dr. Kaufman and they would call in prescriptions for Ativan and liquid Morphine. Then I called my friend Evelyn, who was visiting friends in California. From the beginning, she had said, “If you need me, just call, I’ll be there.” When she answered, I said, shakily, “I need you.” 

    “I’m on my way,” she said.


    Hospice was delivering the bed that day, and I couldn’t leave Dan, so our friend Jon offered to pick up the prescriptions at our regular pharmacy. When he got there, no prescription. Another phone call revealed that it had been called into a different pharmacy. Lauren was over that way, so she picked it up. The village at work.

    The bed arrived, and was carried upstairs. I called our local volunteer ambulance corps and requested a lift assist. As the responders held the corners and sides of the sheet under Dan, I knelt on the bed with the other side. On the count of three, we gently moved him to the hospice bed and I had them roll it across the room, near the fireplace. One of the responders was our neighbor, Eric. He and his wife, Missy, had a farm and gallery near us. He said if we needed anything else, to call; they were just down the road. Everyone was so kind, and it felt good to have some help, even though I knew Dan would have been uncomfortable with all these people seeing him in his pajamas.

    After they all left, I lit the fire. I set a boombox on the chest of drawers and put in one of Dan’s sailing compilations. He was in and out of the faraway place in his head, and hadn’t fully opened his eyes since waking. I hoped the music, together with the alternating air chambers, would make him think he was on Minstrel, moored in some safe cove for the night.


    I hadn’t had much sleep since our trip to the emergency room, and my body was trembling with fatigue. A hospice nurse would be coming over later from Bucksport, forty-five minutes away, so I could get some sleep then. For now, I had a drug schedule for Dan that involved giving him Ativan and morphine, at alternating intervals. I was torn between keeping him comfortable, and memories of our time in the hospital, when he said it was “too much.” 

    It was getting close to dark, and snowing heavily, when the hospice nurse called to say she couldn’t come. She was having car trouble, and with the forecast calling for a massive winter storm, she didn’t want to risk getting stranded. “That’s okay,” I told her, thinking we were in some kind of a holding pattern that would last a few more days, “Come when you can.” But as I hung up and looked at all the bottles on the counter I felt apprehensive.

    With the brunt of the storm due that night, I called Eric and asked if he could come and sit with Dan, just for a few hours, while I got some sleep. He arrived with a pot of stew from Missy, and sat by the hospice bed while I went into the guest bedroom to lay down.

    After laying down, I realized I was too tired to sleep. Feeling conflicted about giving Dan the drugs, I got up and called Erika. I explained my fear of the morphine. Trying to force the words around the fear in my throat, I said, “If you tell me there’s absolutely no chance...” I couldn’t get the rest out. She’d seen the recent scans and blood work; she knew the end was near. With sadness in her voice, because she had come to like and admire Dan so much, she said, “There’s nothing else we can do for him, Jean. I’m so sorry.” 


    So, there it was. After fighting for three and a half years to quash a wildfire cancer, we had finally reached the point of no return. I knew I wouldn't sleep now, and I didn’t want Dan waking, disoriented, and finding a stranger there, so I went back into the bedroom and thanked Eric for coming. As he walked out the door, I asked him to thank Missy for the stew. 

    A friend called, and asked if hospice had arrived. When I told them no, and why, they asked if I needed someone to come by tomorrow. I said no, Evelyn was on her way. “No one is getting through this storm,” they said, “all the airports are closing.”


    I got my reading glasses and sat by the hospice bed with Dan’s yellowed, paperback copy of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. Three years earlier, when we were moving from rental to rental, waiting for the Maine house to be completed, Dan had mentioned that he’d like to read this book once more before dying. Since he hadn’t done that yet, I thought I’d read it to him now.

    Six pages in, I bumped into the story where Siddhartha, preparing to meditate, recites the verse:


“Om is the bow, the arrow is the soul,

Brahman is the arrow’s goal

At which one aims unflinchingly.”


    In our early days together, when we were but children in our forties, we had a talk about sleep. It was morning, and we were lingering in bed at the ranch. Dan said that, for as long as he could remember, the last thought he had at night was of a bow and arrow. In his mind, he pulled the string back, and as he loosed the arrow into the sky, sleep came.

    He said that when he first read the “Om” passage in Siddhartha, in college, he wondered if he’d heard about it when he was younger, or if it was a natural metaphor for the mind to conjure up when letting go of consciousness. It was so beautiful, I was embarrassed to tell him about my childhood Nancy Drew-style meditation of being rolled up in a carpet in a kidnapper’s car, memorizing stops and turns to relay to the police later. 

    Siddhartha and Nancy Drew; midwest brick house and west coast retro. And yet, we both left school for a life in music, which ultimately led us to each other.


    On the following page in Siddhartha, it said he sat, thinking Om, “...his soul as the arrow directed at Brahman.” I got my laptop and looked up “Brahman.” Most sites seemed to agree it was “...the absolute truth, consciousness and bliss; the supreme existence and infinite spiritual core of the universe.”

    I felt sure this was the main part of the book Dan had wanted to revisit, so I read those two pages to him again and put the book down for the night.

    The storm was increasing outside, and he’d started doing that breathing thing he’d done in the hospital: long pauses and then big gasps. I rubbed his chest during the pauses, entreating him to breathe.

    Our bedroom had taken on a medicinal smell, but opening a window during a nor’easter wasn’t an option. Instead, I opened one of the tiny vials of scent that Dan wore in the wintertime and got a hand towel from the linen closet. 


On our first date, in Santa Fe, I had followed Dan down my apartment walkway to his truck. A sweet, musky scent lingered after him and I found it intoxicating. He’d purchased the natural oil scent, called “Smoke,” in a hippy shop years before. One year after our first date, he dropped it on the bathroom floor, spilling most of it. I was so sad! I looked for it online and checked local Santa Fe shops, in vain.

    Finally, I located a woman in Salem, Massachusetts who created custom scented oils. I sent her the tiny vial and for a few weeks she mailed me samples as we dialed in the ingredients together. Between her nose and mine, we got very close to the original, but I still liked the original better. Dan liked the new scent better, though. He said it was less sweet, and he’d worn it every winter since then.


I pressed the tiny vial of oil to the hand towel now, and tilted it once. Dan’s rhinitis made him sensitive to smells, so I only used a minuscule amount. I walked around the room, waving the towel in circles, releasing the familiar scent that always got my amorous attention when he wore it. After a pass around the room, I rolled up the towel and threw it in the bathroom, next to the shower.

    The wind was barreling across the Reach, hitting the house with forty-mile-an-hour gusts. Dan’s breathing became ragged. As I put a few drops of the pretty, blue, liquid morphine under his tongue, I felt like Aldous Huxley’s wife, who dosed her husband with LSD on his deathbed. Dan had told me that story long ago, and always liked the idea.

    Putting another of his compilation tapes into the boombox, I laid down and tried to sleep. No amount of shooting arrows or rolled-up carpets would work, though.

    At 5am, I got up and turned off the music on the boombox. The fire crackled and wind whistled high in the chimney as the storm raged outside. And yet, the house felt so quiet, like it was watching, and waiting. 


    I knew there would be no coming back from tonight. Dan was dying. Swallowing tears, I sat beside him and took a few deeps breaths. I held his hand and rested my head close to his. I said, “I love you so much.” 

    My voice sounded calm and strong, like it was coming from someone else. Another moment of grace, like the day we got the diagnosis.

    His raspy breathing continued, but I felt him listening. 

    I thanked him for finding me, and choosing me, and loving me, so, so well. I told him how proud he should be, of what he’d accomplished in his life, and all the pleasure he’d given people with his music. I talked about our years in Santa Fe, and our glorious days at the ranch, dancing on the pond dock, making love to Eric Clapton's album, Rush, and taking morning walks around the house with Buckaroo. 

    I said I loved this house we’d dreamed, and built, together, and asked if he remembered the night we motored in from Minstrel during a red tide, leaving a trail of bright green stars behind the dinghy. 

    Knowing how terrible he felt about leaving me with the burden of running and selling the ranch, I told him not to worry; I could handle it. Releasing him from the promise he made that first day, in Boston, I told him he could go; I would miss him, but I’d be okay. I said his father, and grandparents, Meem and Poppy, would be waiting on the other side. I called out Buckaroo’s name and told Dan the CoonCat would show him the way. I called Buckaroo again, and Dan stopped breathing. I rubbed his chest, waiting for the sudden gasp, but it didn’t come.

     He was gone.

    I looked up, to see if I could sense his soul looking down on the room as he was leaving, but no, there was nothing. Like an arrow, directed at Brahman, he was already shooting toward the infinite. 

    I kissed him goodbye, then I sat there, in shock. I’d read about people releasing their loved ones by saying they could go, but I thought it would take time. For some reason, I got it into my head that I’d be there for three days, reading Siddhartha; reminiscing; telling him he could go. I looked at the clock, it was just past 6am. I’d been talking for an hour, but there was still so much to say, so many beautiful stories to recount.

    I called Irving, and Erika. I didn’t want Margaret to be alone when she learned of her youngest son’s death, so I called Dan’s brother, Marc, and asked him to drive to Peoria and deliver the news. I called our closest friends. I don’t remember any of those calls, but I’m told I made them. 

    A smell began emanating from Dan’s body: chemicals and decay. Without his incredible will to hold it together, it was breaking down.

    I was running on auto-pilot, holding course, but I was afraid I might fall apart at any time. So, I called our friend, Jean, and asked if she could come and be with me for a while. Jean is the first person on the island that Dan told about me. He’d taken a laser printer copy of my headshot into her restaurant, the Pilgrim’s Inn, and showed it to her, saying, “Look what I found!” 

    Jean said she was on her way.


    Someone, hospice, I guess, had given me a list of what to do next. I called the mortuary, an hour away in Ellsworth. They said someone would be there as soon as possible - probably in about two hours. I heard some urgency in their voice. The storm was bringing a lot of snow with it, and before long the roads would be impassable. 

    Jean arrived, and helped me dress Dan on the hospice bed. His body seemed to be shriveling in on itself. After a while, it appeared I wasn’t going to fall apart. I wanted company; I wanted time alone with Dan. I sent Jean home to her husband and breakfast, thanking her.

    The mortuary transport drivers arrived. They both had black suits and white hair. One was short and the other was tall and thin. When they started to lift Dan’s body, to place it on the black body bag on the carpet, I put my hands out protectively and said, “Wait!” This was starting to look like a Monty Python sketch and I was afraid they might drop him. 

    They were in a hurry to stay ahead of the storm, but they patiently stood by while I called the ambulance corps again. While we waited for the lift assistance, the tall man stood by the door downstairs while the shorter one stood next to the hospice bed with me, chatting. I couldn’t process what he was saying; everything felt unreal and far away to me. I said I wanted to spend these last moments with my husband, and he said, “Of course,” and joined his colleague downstairs. When I looked down at Dan, the edges of his mouth had turned up slightly, in rigor.  


    The EMTs arrived, and someone ushered me from the room. I didn’t watch them zip up the bag, or carry Dan’s body down the stairs. When the last man left, he shut the front door behind him. I looked down on the driveway from the master bath window. They slid Dan’s body into the back of the mortuary van and closed the doors. Everything had happened so fast; now they were taking him away from me. That’s when I lost it.

    As they started down the drive, I put my hand against the glass and let out a strangled, “No!” That’s all I could think to say, as I watched the van turn down the road and disappear into the pines and snow. 

    I sank to the floor and cried, feeling like I’d failed. For the next month, every time I stepped out of the shower, a ghostly outline of my hand would form on the window, reminding me of how ineffectual my protests had been.


    Later that day, a taxi pulled into the drive and Evelyn got out. I felt terrible to have to tell her that she’d missed Dan. She hung out with me, talking when I wanted to talk, and resting in the silence when I needed quiet.

    Irving called, and asked if I wanted to write the obituary, or if I wanted him to take care of it. I automatically said I’d do it. I remember sitting at my desk and typing, but no memory of writing:

"Dan left us this morning at 6:00 a.m. He fought a brave battle with cancer and died peacefully at home in Maine with his wife Jean at his side. His strength, dignity and grace in the face of the daunting challenges of this disease were an inspiration to all who knew him."

    Taking a fresh towel from the linen closet that night, I started the shower and threw the soiled towel in the corner, on top of the hand towel with the dot of scent. The laundry would wait.


    Despite promising Dan that I would release him when the time came, I found myself feeling a bit abandoned. Yes, I told him, “You can go,” but I hadn’t meant that minute

    I waited for a sign, or a message, and stayed open to visions, flickering lights, cold spots, and dreams. I grew up in a house that had a ghost, and my mother’s father had visited her after his sudden death, sitting on her bed and saying goodbye. On the other hand, I’d read somewhere that if the loved one had struggled with a disease for a long period of time, it might take them a while to get a message through.


    A few nights after Dan died, Evelyn was downstairs, cleaning up after dinner, and I was in the tub. My friend, Suzie, called from her tub in California, and we had a long, tub-to-tub discussion about life, death, cultures, and beliefs. I started crying, and said I just wanted to know where Dan was now. She was telling me about her mother’s death, and the aftermath, when I smelled his winter scent. 

    I didn’t think about it at first, I was only surprised that I could smell the rolled-up hand towel buried beneath the big towel. The scent grew stronger; much stronger than it had been when I’d waved the towel around the room three nights earlier. I already had a headache, and it was making it worse, so I reached over the side of the tub and threw both towels across the room. Leaning back in the tub, I continued my discussion with Suzie until the scent became overpowering. Suddenly, I knew what was happening. “Suzie!” I interrupted, “I’m sorry, I have to go, he’s here!” 

    The instant I pressed the Off button on the handset, the scent vanished completely. I said, “Dan?” and waited to see what would happen next. Nothing happened. A thought occurred to me, and I got out of the tub and went into the bedroom. I looked at the clock on the mantle; it was just past 10pm. 

    Dan had called, right on time, to let me know he’d reached a safe harbor.


Next chapter coming June 19th

Posted June 5th, 2021 Copyright ©Jean Fogelberg 2021