As many of you know, my husband, Steve Holzner, passed away on September 4 after a long and excruciating illness. He was a diabetic and had many, many complications of that terrible disease. He’d almost entirely lost his eyesight. He had his right leg amputated. He developed chronic kidney disease. He had terrible neuropathic pain. We traveled to a top-rated hospital in Pittsburgh from our home in central New York in an attempt to save his leg. For various reasons, he opted for the amputation, mostly to avoid the horrible process of losing his leg little by little as further surgeries became necessary in the future. As we were starting to plan his discharge, he suffered a sudden cardiac arrest that left him in a coma for 11 days and sent him to the ICU for what would become a stay of more than three months.
I wrote here before about how Steve woke up from the coma just as the neurologist was telling us he never would. It was one of the happiest moments of my life. I thought he’d be able to make a significant recovery, if not a full one. For weeks, he was alert and responsive. He couldn’t talk because he had a tracheostomy and was on a ventilator. But he nodded or shook his head, made appropriate facial expressions (such as smiles and grimaces) when someone talked to him. He mouthed words, tried to write (although he’d lost a lot of fine motor control and the writing was illegible), traced letters in the air with his finger. Once he asked the night nurse where I was by writing “WIFE” in the air. I treasure those weeks. I was able to tell him, over and over, how much I love him. Although I often had trouble reading his lips, I always knew when he was mouthing, “I love you.”
But the recovery didn’t hold. Multiple problems and complications developed, and over the course of more weeks I watched him slip away from me.
For 132 days in a row, I walked into that hospital. I did not miss being beside him a single day. For the last two weeks, I moved into his room in the ICU so he wouldn’t be alone. I was with him as he died. I held his hand and stroked his hair and told him I was there. I watched him take his last breath. I watched his final heartbeat pulse in his neck.
While Steve was ill, I played him his favorite music, even when there was no indication he could hear it. I hope he got some pleasure from that. I haven’t been able to listen to those pieces since, but I have turned to music to help give expression to my grief. I’m an opera lover, and one aria that I turn to again and again is “Che farò senza Euridice” from Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice. As I’m sure you recall from the myth, Orpheus travels to the underworld to bring back his beloved wife, Eurydice, to the world of the living. He is allowed to escort her from the realm of the dead on the condition that he neither looks at nor speaks to her until they’ve returned to the mortal world. Eurydice, not understanding his silence, pleads with him to look at her. He does, and she dies for the second time. This aria comes after that second death.
Here are the lyrics with English translation, courtesy of the Aria Database:
Che farò senza Euridice What will I do without Euridice Dove andrò senza il mio ben. Where will I go without my wonderul one. Euridice, o Dio, risponde Euridice, oh God, answer Io son pure il tuo fedele. I am entirely your loyal one. Euridice! Ah, non m´avvanza Euridice! Ah, it doesn´t give me più socorso, più speranza any help, any hope ne dal mondo, ne dal ciel. neither this world, neither heaven. Translation by Gabriel Huaroc (firstname.lastname@example.org)
(The singer is a woman–the wonderful Dame Janet Baker–but she’s playing the male character of Orfeo.)
I hope you’ll listen. It’s a beautiful aria. The repetition of “Che faró” and “Dove andró”–”What will I do?” and “Where will I go?”–perfectly captures how I feel. There’s bewilderment at the loss of someone who was so central to Orfeo’s world and whom he tried so hard to save. And there’s no sense of purpose or how to move forward. That’s very much how I feel right now, and although the aria makes me cry, it’s wonderful to have such gorgeous music give shape to my feelings.