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An unexpected moment in baggage claim sent the Colorado author on her most difficult journey

In the memoir, "Poco a Poco," Michele Morris describes the intensely difficult six months following her husband's brain aneurysm in the Madrid airport

Michele Morris is the award-winning author of two cookbooks (“Tasting Colorado” and “A Taste of Washington”) and a freelance food and travel writer whose work has appeared in The Denver Post, Colorado Homes & Lifestyles, Edible Front Range, and Nourish. 

Her memoir, “Poco a Poco,” was released in 2018 and has garnered several awards, including a Nautilus Book Award. Proceeds from the book support families impacted by brain aneurysms. 

The following is an excerpt from “Poco a Poco.”

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.


I recall nothing about the Madrid airport. I don’t remember getting off the plane, going through passport control, or walking through the airport. As we exited the crowded restrooms in the baggage claim area, Greg bumped me from behind. I assumed he was tired from the long flight, not watching where he was going. I thought nothing of it, until I heard a man yell, “He’s going down!” 

Jolted, I turned. Greg was struggling to stand, his legs rubbery. Two men helped me as I tried to get him to his feet. He could speak and understand us, but he seemed confused by what was happening with his legs. He kept fighting it, trying to get back up. “I’m okay,” he said. “I don’t know what’s wrong.” 

But he was unable to stand. The two strangers and I dragged him to a row of hard plastic chairs to the side of the baggage claim area. Greg and I searched for an explanation, discussing how little water he’d had during the flights. Greg was always convinced most ailments could be handled by drinking water. “I’m sure that’s it,” he said. “I must be dehydrated.” 

An English-speaking man approached and said he was a doctor. A Spanish man said his wife had called for the airport ambulance. The doctor asked Greg if his chest hurt. Greg said he wasn’t in pain, but he still couldn’t control his body. As the doctor assessed Greg’s condition, another man interrupted, “Do you think he’s having a heart attack? Should you give him a shot of adrenaline?” 

Author Michele Morris.

“Well if it’s a heart attack, that’ll kill him,” the doctor said. Only later did I realize how absurd the suggestion had been, as if the man had been recalling the scene from Pulp Fiction when John Travolta rams the syringe full of adrenaline into Uma Thurman’s heart to revive her from a heroin overdose. 

The EMTs arrived quickly because we were in the airport of what I learned later was the third largest city in Europe. Had this happened in any of the other places we had planned to be on our trip, Greg would have likely died in that moment. They laid him across the dirty plastic chairs while passengers from our flight exited the airport with their luggage, still staring. The EMTs ran an EKG to assess for a heart attack. Then they ran a second one. The feeds came back normal. Greg repeated that he had no pain in his chest, arms, or stomach, but he began sweating profusely, soaking through his clothing, his sweat pooling on the plastic chairs beneath him. He was squeezing his eyes shut, and he said his head hurt. I mopped the sweat from his face with the tissues someone had tossed at me, small flecks of white paper sticking to his wet forehead and the stubble on his chin. He began grimacing—I could see he was in pain.

The EMTs confirmed that he wasn’t having a heart attack and prepared to transport him to the hospital for further evaluation. When they sat him up, though, he began to have what I understood later was a massive seizure. His crimson face looked like it was going to explode, he clenched his jaw tightly, the veins in his neck bulged, he had stopped breathing, and in that moment, I suspected not only that something bad was happening, but, from his repeated comments about how much his head hurt, that something serious could be wrong with his brain. He looked like he was dying. 

“Do something!” I screamed at the EMTs, my own heart rate dangerously high. 

“Wait a second,” one of the EMTs said, sticking his arm out to hold me back. “He just sat up too quickly.” 

But as I watched Greg, still not breathing, I knew better—I knew he hadn’t passed out from sitting up. For those few moments, I thought I would lose him right then and there. 

I waited for what seemed like an hour but was probably fifteen seconds for Greg to gasp for air. When he finally took a single, labored breath, the EMTs swept him onto the gurney and strapped him in. I was told I couldn’t ride in the ambulance, and to follow in a taxi. I thought these were Spanish rules, but I now know it was because Greg was in such bad shape that there was a very good chance he was going to die in that ambulance. They needed to be free of me and my hysteria, so they could do their job of trying to save him.

Before the EMTs started running toward the ambulance, I kissed Greg and said, “Just breathe. I love you.” It would be the first of hundreds of times over the coming months that I would say “I love you” to his sleeping, inert body. 

“I don’t know what we’re doing anymore,” I said. “He keeps getting sick and never seems to make any forward progress. Each time he recovers from a setback, he’s less responsive—I feel like he’s losing cognitive function.” I was at the edge of the cliff, and I could feel I was about to jump, fall, or be pushed off. Greg wasn’t recovering, and the burden would fall to me to decide what to do next. The doctor had a clear mission—try to save lives. I had a very different job—try to do what I thought would be best for Greg—and the weight of that responsibility was unbearable.

“I understand what you’re saying,” the doctor said. “Let’s run a few tests tomorrow to give you a clearer picture so you know what you are dealing with.” He wasn’t arguing with me. He wasn’t telling me Greg was getting better. I knew by what he wasn’t saying exactly what he was saying: he didn’t think Greg could recover. By not countering my concerns, he was pushing me frighteningly closer to that cliff.

“Poco a Poco” by Michele Morris.

The nurse brought paperwork for me to sign. I stared at the form asking whether they should resuscitate Greg. I had signed this form seven times already. On every single form, I had checked the box to resuscitate—yes, please try everything you can to save my husband, my life partner, the father of my children, the love of my life. Now, for the first time in six months, I looked at my frail and sick husband and thought no, enough is enough.

I had long since released any guilt that I was the one keeping Greg alive. It was obvious to me and everyone else that he had been fighting for his life for six months. Now it looked like he no longer had the strength or will to keep going, and I would not make him. I shakily checked the box marked “no” and handed her the papers, then watched guiltily as she placed the card with a big bold letter N over Greg’s bed. Who was I to be making this decision? But if not me, then who would make sure that Greg’s wishes were followed?

I looked at Greg, once again struggling to breathe. I stroked his arm, my tears dripping onto his sheets. “I’m so sorry baby. Is it too much? Are you tired?” I so wanted him to tell me what to do. I wiped away my tears and kissed him goodbye for the night before going home and crying myself to sleep.

It was nearly four in the afternoon by the time the doctor finished rounds and came back to meet with me, this time accompanied by only a single resident. I pulled myself away from Greg and we sat down in the chairs in the corner of the room.

“I’d like to know what you’re thinking,” the doctor said.

“I’ve been watching Greg’s progress,” I said. “He keeps having setbacks. This is his sixth round of pneumonia, and every time he recovers, he’s less responsive. In February, when I asked him about our children, he could name them all. Now, when I show him a picture of them, he just stares at it blankly. It seems like there’s little chance he can recover to a meaningful life.” I was speaking too rapidly, but I had an uncontrollable need to get everything out now that I had made my decision.

He looked me directly in the eye. “You have incredible clarity about the situation,” he said. He was an older doctor who traveled between hospitals to teach, and I knew he must have had this same conversation many times before. How do doctors do this, I wondered?

“This is all I’ve done for six months, so yes, I have clarity,” I said. “He keeps bouncing around between hospitals, and in and out of ICU, but he’s not recovering.”

“I agree with you. While Greg might recover from this current round of infection, it’s unlikely he will ever recover fully. Odds are he’ll go back and forth between this hospital and another, and he’ll eventually die somewhere in between.”

As I listened to his prognosis, the finality hit me: Greg will not recover. He won’t ever come home. For his sake, for my sake, and for the sake of our family, I needed to let this end. I needed to let him go.

The doctor could see the burden of the decision I was about to make. “I know you’re struggling because you believe you’re making the decision to let Greg go,” he said. “But it’s not your decision at all. Look at him—he’s dying, and we need to let him be at peace.”

I slumped in the chair, the pain too much to bear. The doctor was right. In fact, the decision had never been mine, despite my earlier fears that I was keeping Greg alive against his will. It had been his decision—and strength and courage—that kept him fighting for six months so that he would have that extra time with me, the kids, and the rest of his family and friends. Now he was ready to go, having done what I could only guess he had needed to do before leaving us. For the first time in this six-month journey, I believed I was doing the right thing.

The doctor took my hand. “We’ll talk about the next steps, but first, I’d like to know about the two of you, about your family. How did you meet?”

It was too much. His kindness and empathy cracked wide open the hard shell I had surrounded myself with all day in order to accomplish the biggest task I had ever faced in my life. I began to cry, and I told him our story. “We met at college. Bucknell. I was eighteen. We have three kids. We’re having a grandbaby. He wouldn’t want to live like this. I know Greg.” I was speaking in short bursts, trying to sum up a forty-year life together in a few words between sobs, and I hoped he understood.

As I wept, the doctor, continued to hold my hand, continued to comfort me. He looked to the resident and asked him if he had anything to add. Yes, this is a teaching hospital, I remembered, and I pitied this young doctor who would be assigned to see this case through.

I watched the resident through my tears, as he said, “I only want to add, we can keep him alive, but we can’t give him a life.”

For six months I had wondered if I was keeping Greg alive only to have him hate me for doing so. This young resident had summed it up in one sentence: we can’t give him a life.

By four o’clock that afternoon, our family had gathered. The nurse came into Greg’s room and glanced towards me briefly. Her eyes softened as she saw my face. “Are you ready?” she asked us.

The day before, the doctor had said, “Michele, you’ve done all you can. Greg is ready.” He hadn’t asked me if I was ready. Would I ever be ready for this?

The nurse reached out to touch my shoulder, because she could see I was near collapse. I was heartbroken, crestfallen I couldn’t save Greg, that his long six-month journey from Madrid to today, despite heroic efforts by the medical teams and a heroic battle on his part, would end this way. I stared at the polished linoleum floor and nodded my head decisively yes. But I couldn’t look the nurse in the eye, knowing what would happen next. There was pain and torment on the kids’ faces, and I ached that I could not protect them from this loss and grief. I clenched my teeth; I had been clenching my teeth to prevent a meltdown ever since this nightmare had started.

I stared at Greg. Please let him be at peace.

Then, just as quickly: I’m not ready to lose him.

“What’s happening there?”

“I don’t know. It doesn’t seem like he’s ready to die.”

“It’s ten o’clock, Mom. You aren’t planning to spend the night there, are you? Are you going to stay until he dies?”

“Don’t you think I should?” I whispered, barely able to speak. How could I leave the man I had loved for my entire adulthood to die alone? This sense of obligation was something I didn’t understand—I hadn’t felt the need to be with my parents or Greg’s when they had passed. But this was different. This was my husband, the love of my life. I had been bedside for the last six months, so shouldn’t I see it through and stay until he died? Would it be selfish to let him die alone?

“It’s time to come home, Mom. You’re exhausted. You haven’t eaten all day. You’ve done everything you could for Dad.” Chris paused for a few seconds. “We need you here more than Dad needs you there. Just come home, okay?”

When the phone rang again. We all knew what it meant.

“Hello?”

“Hello. I’m calling from University Hospital,” the doctor said. “Is this Michele?”

“Yes.”

“How are you?” he asked. 

What a bizarre thing to ask. How am I? How am I supposed to be when you are about to tell me my husband has died? “I’m fine,” I lied.

“Greg has taken his last breath. He died peacefully a few moments ago,” the doctor said. “Be with your family. The hospital will call you tomorrow to discuss arrangements. I’m very sorry for your loss.”

I hung up the phone and let out a guttural wail as the kids threw their arms around me. The love of my life was gone.

— Buy “Poco a Poco” at BookBar

— Interview with author Michele Morris


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