Thank you for all your notes and calls, my friends.
Each time I receive an email or Facebook wall posting, my iPhone dings and I check. I cannot write back right now, but each message is an infusion of love and support. You are keeping me going.
New grief is an odd thing, I'm learning. Sometimes I have an hour or so where its vise grip relents and I feel almost normal. It's the middle of the night, and I feel able to fill you all in on a few more details of what happened so tragically last week, when my husband Bill suddenly -- and completely unexpectedly -- died.
Bill, as many of you know, had been advising the President of Madagascar on Leadership and Communication. His plan was to spend 8 months a year there for the next two years, while concurrently teaching at UC Berkeley. He spent two and a half months there last Spring, and left for a six-month stint in mid-October. He rented a house on the outskirts of Antananarivo, and began working round the clock doing work he loved, training people on all levels, from the grassroots up to the highest levels of government. He traveled extensively around the island. He fell in love with Madagascar, the place and the people. He made strong bonds with the ex-pat community as well as with the Malagasy he worked with. He earned the love and respect of his staff. He worked hard. He missed us terribly. He believed he was doing the most important work of his life.
Annie and I joined him December 19 for what was planned to be a two week holiday. We spent three days in Andasibe National Park. At Vakona Lodge, lemurs danced on our heads. In the forest, we saw two families of "Babakutu," Indri lemurs, the largest lemurs in the world. We created poker chips from torn up bits of paper and had wild family games. Back in Antananarivo, we got to know his driver, Rakoto, and his assistant, Rotsy. We went to a party at his friend Lisa Gaylord's house. We braved three-hour traffic jams in twisting streets and celebrated Christmas with the decorated Sisal tree his armed guards gave him. Annie was sick on Christmas -- traveler's belly and gastritis -- I had a bit of it too, but we decided to press on.
On December 26 we flew to Maraontsetra, a town high up on the east coast of the island. We were met by Chris Golden, a UC Berkeley grad student doing his fieldwork in the forests there. Chris walked us through the dirt road town lined with one-room commerce and people calling out to him. He fed us in his home, and took us to a local party. The lights in the town went out and we walked back to our hotel in the dark, the unfamiliar constellations of the Southern Hemisphere lighting our way.
The next morning we were met at the mouth of the river by our guide from Masoala Forest Lodge. An hour trip in a Zodiac under clear skies through the bay to a remote spot far along the peninsula.
Here, in Masoala, we found the place Bill and I been looking for our entire traveling lives together. A rain forest that came down to the sea. Warm water teeming with colorful fish. On this peninsula, 1% of the entire planet's biodiversity. We snorkled, we took a dugout canoe up a river. We ate communally in the eco-lodge. We hiked in the night and saw the rare Fantail Gecko and, peering from the woods, the rare Fossa Fossana.
The next day we hiked deep into the rain forest. It was hot and oppressive -- Annie and I wilted but Bill was grinning. Elated. In his element. Our guide went in search of lemurs while we sat and rested. While he was gone, the lemurs came to us! A family of White-Faced Brown lemurs, one with a baby on her back, eating fruit in the tree above us. And scolding them and fighting for his territory, a Red Ruft lemur, living nowhere else on the planet, on the critically endangered list.
On our way back to the lodge, we were completely drenched in warm delicious rain. That afternoon, Bill and Annie went sea kayaking into the sunset. As they arrived back on the beach, I was waiting on the rocks. Behind them, a vivid rainbow shafted down into the rainforest.
You can't make this stuff up.
That night at around 9 p.m. Bill suddenly felt ill. My illness came back too, and we traded off the bathroom with increasing urgency -- it was a hard night, both of us sick -- one bathroom. At around 4 a.m., I got better, and finally got an hour or so of sleep. At 5, he was much worse, groaning and frightened, and I realized his abdomen was swelling up like a ball. At 6:30 a.m. I touched his swollen belly and instantly realized something was terribly wrong. This was no simple gastritis like Annie had had the week before. I ran to get help.
The lodge rallied, and by 7:00 a.m. they had packed and secured everything in the Zodiac and we were on the water, evacuating back to Maraontsetra. Five of us -- including the lodge manager Sean and Grading, a guest -- held Bill down as the boat slammed across the bay -- the driver trying to minimize the impact. The water was choppy and it was raining hard. We covered Bill as much as we could with our raincoats. Bill was in pain but conscious. Annie was right by his face, holding him, and he knew she was there. I looked at Annie and saw the woman in her --no fear, just compassion, strength, love, worry. I held Bill's legs, squatted on the bottom of the boat, and tried to keep from flying overboard. The ride took an hour.
At the dock, we were met by Chris Golden who took us in a taxi first to a doctor's house where they put Bill on a straw mat on the dirty porch to take his vitals and get a prescription -- that's how they do it there. Then they put us all in the back of a slow-driving flat bed truck and we traveled a few minutes down dirt roads to the "hospital," barely a clinic. We arrived at 8:15. By this time, Bill was pretty unaware. He knew we were there, though, holding him, talking to him.
At the hospital they found a stretcher and brought him into a room lined with rusted steel bed frames. Somebody found an old foam mattress, somebody else found a dirty table cloth to place on it, we got him on the bed. A nurse started trying to start an IV and a tech tried to place an enema to relieve some of the pressure in his abdomen. The nurse got the IV drip in but the tech was unsuccessful. I realized Bill was turning blue and was unresponsive, no breathing, no heartbeat -- Grading and I began CPR, the nurse found a mask from the 1940s and began trying to pump air into his lungs, somebody administered a shot of adrenaline directly to his heart, but he was gone. We'd been at the hospital maybe 20 minutes. We continued to try to resuscitate him. After a while, the doctor arrived with a stethoscope and shook his head gently.
Less than 12 hours after he first felt sick, Bill was dead.
It was impossible.
They dressed him in his traveling clothes -- blue jeans and a blue silk shirt that matched his eyes. Annie and I hugged him and kissed him goodbye, and I took his wedding ring off his finger and put it on my own. Then they wrapped him in a traditional white shroud.
What had happened? What had he died of?
They didn't do an autopsy. I refused it. I had no faith in their medical system by this point. I couldn't let them cut into his body.
But based on his symptoms, after consulting with a number of doctors, from what I understand it was one of two things (and maybe both). It likely was Toxic Mega-colon. Bill was on a lot of opiate pain killers for his neck pain, plus he'd had a similar (much less severe) episode in early November -- these are both indications. An infection in the colon could have built up to cause sudden and massive toxemia -- the symptoms match.
Or he might have had an aneurism or stricture somewhere in his digestive system due to the violence of the illness. Or the toxemia from the colon infection (Toxic Mega-Colon) could have caused an aneurism. Or the reverse. It's clear though, that even had he arrived at a state-of-the-art medical ER instead of a rural clinic with few resources, he likely would not have made it.
The next 36 hours were a stunned blur. A presidential plane was sent to bring us back to Antananarivo, a flurry of inquests and paperwork, answering the same questions again and again. Most of which we were shielded from by the beautiful ex-pat community of Bill's friends who took Annie and I in, ran all our errands for us, and nurtured us through our terrible shock. Lisa Gaylord and her family took us in. The US Embassy came to the house so I wouldn't have to leave. Winifred Atkinson and Rotsy helped us pack up Bill's house. Peter Hofs made sure Bill's body would be able to come home with us. The people of Madagascar Bill worked with are devastated, and determined to continue the work Bill began. The Presidency held a memorial service for Bill at the house, and then, escorted by Joelisoa Ratsirarson, the President's Chief of Staff and Bill's close friend, we flew home with Bill's body, a 45-hour journey.
We were met in Paris by the French Ambassador and his staff, and again in San Francisco by the US Ambassador who flew in to greet us. At every airport Annie and I were treated with full diplomatic protocol, handed softly across the world by respectful and grieving hands. Once home, Armed Homeland Security guards expedited our passage through customs. It was grim way to experience celebrity.
This is only a small inkling of the effect Bill had on the world.
Never mind his effect on us, his family and friends.
Thank you to the beautiful people of Madagascar. Thank you to Haas and the ELP. Thank you to the people of our community who have sent food and flowers and cards and washed the floor and done our laundry and wept with us. Annie and I and the rest of the family are trying to make sense of this, hanging on tightly.
One last thing. We were together 22 years, and I knew Bill well, perhaps the best of anybody. And I can tell you this:
Though his end was sudden and abrupt and far, far, too soon, it was absolutely the way he wanted to go. We'd talked about it many times. No lingering. A final day hiking in the rainforest in the most remote place on the planet. Lemurs dancing in the trees above. Snorkling in clear warm waters. Doused by clear warm rain. Kayaking in the sea at sunset, a vivid rainbow shafting down into the forest hillside. Sleeping in a tent bungalow surrounded by the sounds of nature. Being with his family. A quick illness, and then out -- never having to grow old, to diminish, to stop adventuring, to be confined, to be disappointed.
To leave a legacy.
And to have a big, international, dramatic fuss about it all.