At the end of a fairly routine and busy Saturday, Boiseans Cassie and Eric Nelson and their 3-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Scout, went out to dinner. There was nothing that foreshadowed this was the last conscious day of Cassie’s life, nor that each moment should have been more precious than the next.
Eric says: “I think that I could probably grieve and be angry and be tormented and be depressed for as long as I will allow it. … But I would like to think that I have at least some control over how I view this and (what I) want to take from it.
“And, rather than viewing this as losing someone far too early — which is what has occurred — (I hang on to the fact that) I did get 13, almost 14 years, with someone I really truly believe was far outside my league.”
In the time between ordering and being served, Cassie started to feel ill; so much so that she asked Eric to take her home. Not wanting to further interrupt a pleasant family evening, she sent her husband and daughter back to the restaurant to enjoy their meal. At 7:20, as they left the restaurant, Eric texted his wife. She did not reply.
When they got home, Eric went upstairs to the bedroom. Cassie was lying in the bed, white as a ghost. Eric called out to her; he shook her. He felt for a pulse; he had trouble finding one.
He called 911, instructed Scout to stay downstairs, and started chest compressions until firefighters relieved him. When paramedics arrived, it took three tries with the defibrillator to get Cassie’s heart started.
At the eulogy: “I am feeling a hundred different emotions but am clinging to love. Anger — for losing Cass so early — and envy — for losing a life I expected — are burdens that are simply too great to bear.”
Doctors think that Cassie suffered from a coronary artery dissection that led to cardiac arrest. Based on a timeline that Eric attempted to reconstruct, she had gone without oxygen for at least 20 minutes. In the subsequent days in the hospital, her body began to recover, but the brain is not as resilient; she had suffered debilitating brain damage.
“Those 12 days in the hospital with her were the most beautifully difficult days of my life. I wouldn’t want to repeat them, but I’m incomprehensibly grateful that I got them.”
Five days after Cassie slipped into a coma, at 2:30 p.m on an otherwise ordinary Thursday afternoon, they took her off life support. She lived for seven days and eight hours longer. She was 35 years old.
“Had I known up front that she was going to last a week, I would have thought that would have been excruciating. But I think the last gift that she gave me was she held out for another week.
“I was able to sit by her side, day after day, and really process our relationship, that sense of loss and grief, and really reflect on my life with her.
“And the life I was going to live without her.”
On June 30, at 10 o’clock in the evening, Eric sensed a change in Cassie’s breathing. He sat on the bed and held her hand and looked intently into her eyes. They were closed, but at the end, they opened ever so slightly.
“I looked really hard to see at the moment that she passed — is this going to open some kind of conduit into another world? Is this going to give me some kind of insight into where she’s gone?
“What happened was my mind flashed a million different directions. I looked at those eyes, knowing it would be the last time — but it reminded me of the first time I saw those eyes of hers. It made me think of the memories and the laughs and the tough times we went through. It made me appreciative of all those times those eyes looked at me with some recognition, because at the moment she passed, I didn’t see the recognition I had hoped for.”
In the days and weeks since then, there have been times when simply living has been too much to bear. However, he has his daughter — and he has love.
“Love is by far the emotion I’ve felt, the one emotion I’ve felt stronger than anything else.
“The difficulty is sometimes — I think it’s easy to confuse love with loneliness and hurt and regret and loss. But I really don’t think that love is any of those things. I think love is what keeps us going. Love helps us mask some of that pain and heartache. I think love gives us the strength to keep going.”
Both Eric and Cassie both grew up wholeheartedly Mormon but articulately and intentionally left the church a few years ago. Eric thought their divergence had created a chasm too great for some to cross, but he was deeply touched by the outpouring of love, profound and overwhelming, from family, friends — and perfect strangers — as he sat by Cassie’s bedside.
“I was absolutely blown away by how many people came and visited her and donated to her medical bills and provided food and meals and looked after Scout – and these people ran the gamut, from atheist to the devout Christian and devoutly religious. And it didn’t seem to matter. People loved me regardless. …
“I struggle with the concept and meaning of God; I struggle with the silence that I feel when I pray and, I guess, the lack of direction that I receive. And yet, sitting in this hospital room, I felt deep emotion and deep love. …”
Rather than closing his heart in grief, being with Cassie for those 12 days opened his heart in ways he couldn’t have imagined.
“I don’t want to live a life where I feel as if I have all the answers. I really do want to be open and accepting of other people … to live a more loving, accepting, tolerant, impactful life … because I’ve seen what a difference it’s made to me as Cassie was dying. That’s what got me through some of the toughest times, that people loved me unconditionally, even though they knew I may have different views of this world than they do.
“(The experience has) made me want to love people much deeper. … The important people in my life, I want to make sure they always know how much I love them. Because you don’t know how much time you’re going to have with them.”
Leaving behind the burdens of pain and anger and regret isn’t a place where you arrive and never leave. For Eric, exploring the process of grief and talking about Cassie has been helpful. Sharing Cassie with the world is, too.
Cassie was a photographer. She tested the limits of social media etiquette, says Eric, by posting tons of photos, daily, of their daughter Scout.
“But I think she couldn’t help herself — because she really felt that every moment with Scout was precious and worth capturing. That’s what I loved about her: is that she viewed life as precious …
“I hope that’s one thing people can (take away from) reading about Cassie. Life is precious. It’s worth capturing; it’s worth embracing.
“It’s also unpredictable and it’s deeply painful. That’s why we have to hold people that we love. We have to cry with people when they mourn; I think we have to laugh and smile when people rejoice. …
“But I think we really need to hold on to the preciousness of life. Doing so will enrich our lives — but it will also help us brace for the difficulties when they hit. Because ultimately all of us are going to suffer grief and loss, and if we don’t have the memories of love, and laughter and joy, that means all that we have is grief.
“I don’t know how you can make it through life only feeling emotions like that.”
In his eulogy, Eric quoted A.A. Milne, author of Winnie-the-Pooh: “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”
“We should all consider ourselves fortunate to know that our profound grief was born in our profound love for Cassandra. And knowing that we have loved until it hurts, we can look forward to the day when the hurt finally subsides.
“And all that will be left is love.”