My Dad had just passed away the previous year. My Mom was alone and scared. She was on dialysis and had been for about five years going to treatments three times a week. Her diabetes was getting out of control. She wanted to go into a nursing home. I had no problem with it. If that’s what Mom wanted, I would take care of it. However, Sylvia was not going to allow that to happen. With all that was going on in Sylvia’s life, she convinced my mother to come live with us. I couldn’t believe it but then again, my Mom loved Sylvia like the daughter she never had.
A few years earlier, while she was going through her own hell with her first bout of cancer, Sylvia had traveled back and forth to Sebring caring for her elderly parents and still working her job while her brother and sisters did nothing to help care for their parents. There wasn’t anything Sylvia wouldn’t do for anyone in need. She was a living angel of mercy.
My Mother passed away after six months of signing a waiver not to have dialysis done any longer. She was exhausted and told me she’d only done dialysis so she could see my Dad through his transition. She simply wanted to be with him. Her doctors had given her only five days to live when she signed that waiver. However, five months later she was happily cooking, making us her awesome lasagna for dinner.
Finally, into her sixth month of no dialysis her kidneys completely failed and she collapsed. As with my Dad, Hospice was with her through her final days. I can’t say enough for Hospice. With what little there was left of her life when she departed, by her request, it was given to Hospice in her and my Dad’s name. They were together again as they had been for 66 years of marriage.
* * *
Sylvia’s health was in decline when my Mom came to live with us. The cancer had spread and was continuing to spread. Each test showed new cancer in other parts of her body. The stress of my Mom’s passing had taken a toll on her, also.
In June, Sylvia wanted to see where I had lived out West. The doctors cleared her to travel so we went to Idaho and Washington State.
It was while we were in Washington her pain was getting extremely severe and we almost had to hospitalize her there. After getting her stabilized we cut the trip short and returned to Florida.
She seemed to be doing better when we got back to Florida. The severe pain waned and she was feeling better. It was decided she was well enough so I could leave for three days to take a short trip to North Carolina. However, when I got off the plane in Charlotte I was being paged to go to a courtesy phone for an emergency call.
My heart sank as I took the call and then called my neighbor, Lorie for some information. Lorie told me they took Sylvia in an ambulance and she didn’t know to where or what hospital she was taken.
I then called Largo Medical Center which would be the closest to where we lived. The receptionist advised me she was in ER and she was able to talk, so I was transferred.
She picked the phone up immediately.
“Hey, sweetheart, how are you?” I asked. “What happened?”
“Oh, Ron, darling…I’m okay. I just had one of those pain attacks in my side. They talked to Moffitt Cancer Center for records and recommendations. They’ve given me a shot and they are going to be sending me home. My daughter is here and she’ll stay with me.”
“I’m going to get a flight back. I should be home by nine tonight,” I said, concerned and beside myself.
“No,” she said. “You stay right there. There’s nothing you can do here. I’m going to be fine. I have no pain right now and probably won’t as long as I have some of these pain killers. You plan on coming back in two days. I’ll be fine, Ronnie. Please don’t worry. I love you.”
* * *
I got home on the second day. I tried calling from the airport but there was no answer at home or on Sylvia’s cell phone. What greeted me when I got home wasn’t Sylvia, but a note on the dining room table. It read, “Took my mother to Moffitt Cancer Center.” That was it.
This is where a further riff in this rather tense family occurred. Over the months as Sylvia’s condition had deteriorated so did my relationship with two of her three daughters. My once ‘saintly’ standing with their mother was gone and small family cookouts had become verbal sparring sessions, usually about the house and the money I had spent to remodel and landscape. It drove Sylvia crazy and to the point where she didn’t want her daughter coming over.
I hurried to get to the hospital. When I got up to Sylvia’s room there was chaos. It wasn’t one daughter there. It was all three and they glared at me as I walked into the room.
Sylvia’s eyes opened and she saw me and tried to extend her arms to embrace. I got down close to her.
She whispered, “I love you, Ronnie. I love you, Baby. I don’t think I’ll be coming home this time. You have to be strong. The girls are driving me crazy. Please talk to them.”
“I’ll handle it,” I said and I kissed her.
Without speaking to any of them I went out to the nurse’s station and had the floor supervisor summoned. She wasn’t extremely pleasant in her approach. I read body language very well.
“What can I do for you,” she asked coolly.
I extended my hand and said, “I’m Ron Karcz. I’m Sylvia’s husband and healthcare surrogate.”
She shook my hand very lightly and asked, “I need to see some papers. Do you have a signed and notarized surrogate document and a living will?”
“Yes, I do,” I answered, “and so do you. They’ve been on file here since Sylvia began treatment here at Moffitt. But here…you can look at my originals, which aren’t leaving my sight by the way.”
She perused the documents, handed them back to me, and asked, “They seem to be in order. Now…what can I do for you?”
“Well, the first thing is, lose the attitude. Don’t mistake my courtesy for weakness, ma’am. If you’re looking to get into a battle of wits or semantics with me, you’re ill equipped to beat me. Do we understand one another?” I said as I coldly glared back at her.
The nurse shuffled a little bit uncomfortably and responded, “I understand, sir.”
“First thing I want you to do is call a couple of security people and have everyone removed from Sylvia’s room for one hour. If I ask them for some time alone with Sylvia, all hell is going to break loose. Give them lunch tickets or whatever it is you do, but get them out of there. Next I want all of her doctors here, immediately. Also, get your Hospice representative up here. I’m transferring Sylvia out of here, today. When the room is cleared I’ll be in talking with my wife, alone.”
“But sir, we were just getting ready to take her for more tests. We need to do more tests on her.”
“There will be no more tests,” I snapped back. “Just do as I ask, please. If there are any questions, read her living will…completely.”
I went to wait in the staff break room while Sylvia’s room was cleared. Ten minutes later a different nurse came in and said, “I’m so sorry for everything Mr. Karcz. Your wife is waiting for you.”
“Thank you,” I responded and headed for Sylvia’s room.
Sylvia was sitting up but breathing heavily, her eyes closed.
“I’m here, Syl,” I said as I held her hand and kissed her gently.
Her eyes opened slowly and she said, “I’m so sorry for all this. The girls were driving me crazy. They’re arguing and bickering amongst themselves. They were raising hell with everyone on the floor because they couldn’t get any information and they didn’t have the surrogate papers.
“My daughters are going to try and cause you trouble, Ronnie. I knew this would happen. It’s a good thing we did our wills together. I overheard them talking about money and the house and the car and who gets what. Is everything in order, Ronnie? They can’t take anything from you, can they?”
“It’s all in order, honey. There won’t be any trouble. Please don’t worry about anything,” I answered, trying to reassure her. “Your doctors are on the way up here. Have they spoken to you?”
“Not much. They just keep ordering and doing tests. I know I don’t have much time left. I feel like I’m cheating you. You don’t deserve any of this,” she said as she started to weep.
I bent over, held her gently and said, “My God, Syl. You haven’t cheated me from anything. You’ve given me everything and more than I ever could’ve imagined in my screwed up life. You put the music back in my life. There’s no way words can ever say what a difference you’ve made in my life. I love you so much.”
She held me tighter and we wept together.
“Why do I need more tests?” she asked disgustedly.
“You don’t. You’ve got insurance and this is a research and teaching hospital. They know they’ll get paid right down to the last Band Aid. If it was me laying there…a sixty year old diabetic with no insurance they’d have me stuffed in a janitor’s closet somewhere. But enough of that stuff.
“Are you comfortable? Are you having any pain?” I asked.
“I’m okay. Just a little pain,” she replied softly, still holding my hand tightly.
“I want you to know something right now,” she started. “I wouldn’t trade the last few years with you for anything in this world. You’re my Mr. Wonderful. Until you came along I knew nothing but misery. You brought me into the light, Ronnie. You made me fight and not give up.
“I don’t want you to give up on living either. I don’t want you to be alone. Don’t abandon our friends when this is over and go to some mountaintop to listen to the wind, as you like to say. Remember, one of my best friends loves you as much as I do. Neither of you has to be alone.”
“I hate it when you talk like this, Sylvia,” I responded. “You wouldn’t do that if I was in this position.”
Sylvia looked at me and smiled.
“I’d have a date for your funeral, Ronnie. How do you like those apples? I wouldn’t want to be alone and withering up and I don’t want that for you, either. So, snap out of it, big boy,” she said with the smile still on her face.
Even in the face of death Sylvia’s sense of humor was completely intact.
There was a knock on the door and the same nurse who had come to get me in the break room was there.
“Mr. Karcz, the doctors are in the staff room. I’ll show you the way.”
Everyone said their courteous hellos as I sat down.
“I had a lot of questions earlier but frankly, I’m at a loss now,” I said.
“Why are we here then?” the rather heavy set woman doctor asked abruptly.
“Look, I’ve dealt with enough dying and death to know when someone is ‘imminent’ and…Sylvia is imminent. I want her last hours or days to be in peace.
“Which one of you is the Hospice representative?” I asked.
A lady held her hand up. “I’m June Castle. How can I help you Mr. Karcz?”
I reached in my pocket and slid a card to her.
“I want Sylvia transferred immediately to Hospice at Pasadena Hospital. Those are the names of the people to contact. They’re waiting for your call. I want her in an ambulance in an hour and on her way to St. Petersburg. Also, ship the IV unit with her so she has plenty of Dilaudid for the drive. I want her comfortable.”
“We can’t ship the unit in the ambulance. Those units cost about a thousand dollars. How do you know it’s Dilaudid we’re giving her?” the middle-aged male doctor asked.
“‘The Angel Drug’…Hydromorphone? I’m pretty familiar with it. I have friends in the business. Besides…I read the bag. Believe it or not, I can read,” I responded with biting sarcasm.
“I’m sorry to be speaking like this, but I’m extremely upset with you people right now. My wife is lying in there, on her death bed, and you want to run more tests. What the hell for? Is there no ethics here? I find this treatment appalling, reprehensible, and unconscionable.
“You people knew a month ago what was wrong with her and you skirted all around it by saying the pain in her abdomen was her gall bladder when you knew the cancer had metastasized into her liver. It was only when her insurance company denied payment for the gall bladder surgery and termed it ‘elective surgery’ that you decided she could travel. She was dying when you released her to travel and I’m extremely pissed off about that.
“You’re looking at the bottom line for more money and that’s the only reason you want more tests so let’s not try to bullshit a bullshitter here.
“I want my wife to be comfortable in her final hours and I want her to make this transition in peace. You have a dilemma and I will not allow Sylvia to suffer any longer. Our attorneys can discuss it down the road but right now, she gets moved out of here.
“You, sir,” I said, pointing at the male doctor, “Here’s my Visa card. Run two thousand dollars on it as a deposit for the IV delivery apparatus. I’ll see the unit is returned tomorrow.”
“No need for that, sir,” he responded nervously. “I’ll see the unit is shipped and full.”
“Thank you. By the way, one of you please tell her daughters what’s happening and why. Tell them also, their mother will be at Hospice at Palms of Pasadena Hospital. They can meet her there.”
I returned to Sylvia’s room where she was sleeping peacefully. I sat down and held her hand and broke down in tears. My sobbing awakened her.
“Why are you crying?” she asked.
“I’m just tired, Syl. I’m very tired,” I answered.
“Get some rest,” she said. “I’m going to go back to sleep. I love you.”
“I love you, too,” I said, then kissed her hands.
She was asleep when I looked up.
* * *
It took two hours to get the transfer and ambulance to take her to Hospice in St. Petersburg. I watched as they prepped her for the ride over and then left Moffitt Cancer Center for the Hospice facility in St. Petersburg. For forty miles I fumed over the treatment she had been given.
I beat the ambulance to the Hospice facility and was talking with the staff when I heard blood curdling screams. As I spun around I saw the medics pushing the gurney with Sylvia on it. She was in agonizing pain and trying to get off the gurney.
“Where’s the IV unit she had? It was supposed to be sent with her filled with the pain killer,” I asked.
“They didn’t send anything with her,” the medic said.
The nurse asked, “Do you know what she was given at Moffitt, Mr. Karcz?”
“Yes. They had her on Dilaudid,” I responded.
“Do you know the dosage?” she asked.
“No, I don’t. It was a lot though because they assured me they were going to give her enough for the trip so she would rest peacefully.”
The nurse started barking orders and within two minutes she administered a dose that almost instantly calmed Sylvia down and she went to sleep.
A few hours later I returned to the Hospice to find her daughters having a pizza party in Sylvia’s room. Sylvia was sitting up and her eyes were blinking rapidly. She was visibly shaken as I walked to her bedside and kissed her.
She grabbed my hand tightly, pulling me down towards her and whispered, “Please make them leave, Ronnie. Please make them leave. I can’t stand all this chatter. This is exactly what I didn’t want to happen.”
Before I could say anything the nurse came in and said, “I need everyone to leave except you, Ron. You may stay.”
Sylvia pulled me closer and whispered, “I love you. Be kind to yourself, my love.”
“I love you, Sylvia,” I responded.
Sylvia collapsed into a deep sleep again.
Two days later, on July 7th, Sylvia passed away at the age of 60. Her suffering was over. Beside her bed was a shallow bowl with five fresh gardenia blooms I had picked from our garden, one for each of our years together. They were floating, emitting their beautiful fragrance. It was the same scent I remembered from when we first met. As she lay there she finally looked at peace and I kissed her forehead.
In a short period of eighteen months I had lost my Father; my Mother; and my beloved Sylvia. I felt lost and empty…more than any time in my life.
* * *
Sylvia and I both had chosen cremation as our final wish. She wanted part of her ashes scattered over the Gulf of Mexico. The remainder would be placed in an urn in the backyard by our pond and waterfall inside a garden sculpture of a little boy and girl with a dog sitting on a bench, as her final resting place.
The service for her funeral was attended by over two hundred people. She was loved by everyone who came in touch with her. After everyone had spoken their final words, I got up to say mine.
I looked out at everyone and said, “I have a poem that Sylvia used to read. She found it amongst some of my things when we first got together. It was one of her favorites. I’d like to share it with you. It’s by a poet named, Allan C. Inman and is titled, “I Am Music”.
“I AM MUSIC, most ancient of the arts. I am more than ancient; I am eternal. Even before life commenced upon this earth, I was here…in the winds and the waves. When the first trees and flowers and grasses appeared, I was among them. And when Man came, I at once became the most delicate, most subtle, and most powerful medium for the expression of Man’s emotions. When men were little better than beasts, I influenced them for their good. In all ages I have inspired men with hope, kindled their love, given a voice to their joys, cheered them on to valorous deeds, and soothed them in times of despair. I have played a great part in the drama of Life, whose end and purpose is the complete perfection of man’s nature. Through my influence human nature has been uplifted, sweetened and refined. With the aid of men, I have become a Fine Art. From Tubalcain to Thomas Edison a long line of the brightest minds have devoted themselves to the perfection of instruments through which men may utilize my powers and enjoy my charms. I have myriads of voices and instruments. I am in the hearts of all men and on their tongues, in all lands and among all peoples; the ignorant and unlettered know me, not less than the rich and learned. For I speak to all men, in a language that all understand. Even the deaf hear me, if they but listen to the voices of their own souls. I am the food of love. I have taught men gentleness and peace; and I have led them onward to heroic deeds. I comfort the lonely, and I harmonize the discord of crowds. I am a necessary luxury to all men. I AM MUSIC.”
“You were my Music, Sylvia. You did and gave me all these things and much more. I don’t know what I did to deserve you but I do know this; you, my dearest, are the sweetest thing I’ve ever known.”
* * *
One week after Sylvia’s funeral I went to pick up her ashes and was told they had been claimed by her youngest daughter. They released the ashes to her because her name was on the form as one of the people allowed to claim them.
The funeral director apologized profusely for his staff not calling me.
I said, “That’s okay. If a coffee can full of ashes is what they want then, so be it. They didn’t abide by her wishes in life. Why should it be any different now? I had her heart in life and I have her heart forever. For that I’m eternally grateful and thankful.”
The following week a memorial was planned by all her karaoke friends at the Bamboo Beer Garden. The place was packed. I started the program off by singing a few of her favorite songs I used to do. After that a parade of people got up to pay their final respects in song.
The last person to sing was Annie, a vibrant lady who did her own karaoke show in Clearwater, FL at a place called “New York, New York”.
“I’ve known Sylvia a long time. She told me one time that this song reminded her so much of you, Ronnie. Thank you for being with my friend through her ordeal,” she said as she started into a beautiful rendition of the Etta James song, “At Last”.
When Annie was finished I asked each guest to follow me outside to the patio where I had a couple of hundred balloons ready to be handed out.
“There are no goodbyes,” I said. “So, until we meet again, Sylvia, know I love you more than life itself.”
I released a small group of balloons and then everyone released theirs. A gentle easterly breeze carried the balloons slowly up and out over the Gulf of Mexico into a setting sun.
A couple of days later I was delivered two great videos of that wonderful celebration of Sylvia’s life.
Over the next couple of weeks I was going through the remnants of what her angry daughters had taken from the house. Sylvia used to write a lot of poetry in journals she kept but they were gone, also.
The loneliness I felt was almost unbearable and the tears were never ending. I was lost in an abyss of grief and deep depression.
I knelt down next to her side of the bed and wept uncontrollably for about a half hour. As I was getting up I noticed a small book, barely visible, protruding from under the mattress. I gently slid it out. It was simply titled, “My Garden Journal”. I flipped through the pages from back to front. There was no date but I assume it was the last thing she had written. The journal was empty except for the first two pages and with her loving hand she had penned these words.
“The day I died – Jesus rode
Up and held me in his hand.
He said, “We’re going for a ride
And won’t be back again.
“Don’t worry about Ronnie
I’ll come and get him too.
There’s still some things left
He’s got to do.
“I know you’ll want it perfect
When he comes riding through
Because he’s done so many
Loving things for you.
“He’s held you and comforted you
When the lights were going dim.
He gave you hope and loved you.
And Heaven knows you sure loved him.
“It took me a long time to find him for you.
You’re not so easy to please.
Then there were those other things
That just got in the way and never seemed to cease.
“But now you’ve found one another.
You’ll never be apart.
I’ve joined you both with just
One loving heart.”
In loving memory of
Sylvia D. Carr
The Sweetest Thing I’ve Ever Known
You taught me what true dignity, grace, and humility was really all about.