The Trip to
Hell and Back
The next day dawned, and I woke up as a widow. I learned later that the way to say “I am a widow” in Spanish is “Soy una viuda.” I couldn’t believe it then, and I still can’t believe it now: I am a widow. What the hell happened? How could my life go so horribly wrong? I’m only 47 years old and I had a whole wonderful life planned with my beloved husband… you’re not supposed to become a widow until you’re old! This just isn’t fair. But then again, life ain’t fair. I have to give myself a pep-talk every once in a while: “Eve, you still have a whole life ahead of you, and plenty of work to do for God, so just keep putting one foot in front of the other and move forward!”
So, back to the story. By the time I showered, dressed and got downstairs, my kitchen was full of my dearest and closest friends: Carmen, Sonia, Joanne, Luisa, Debby, and Wanda. I don’t remember finishing packing, but before long, Sonia and Luisa were driving Liz and me to the airport. It was the exact same flight that I put Steve on two days earlier. It was “déjà vu, all over again.” It really creeped me out when we walked past the seats where Steve and I had sat talking the morning that seemed so long ago, now…
Since the tickets were purchased just the night before the flight, we got crappy seats way in the back of the plane. Lizzie and I were squashed into the middle and window seats. And of course, we got the seat-mate from Hell. He was an Indian doctor who would not shut up! He sat next to Liz and talked to her the entire 4 hours we were on that plane. If I could have reached over and strangled the idiot, I would have. Liz told him that my husband had just died and why we were going to San Jose, but instead of being polite and quiet, he blathered on and on and on. Don’t you hate it when you get seated next to people like that?!
I just turned my face and rested my head against the window. I cried the entire time, thinking about how I would never hear Steven play the piano ever again, we would never get a chance to dance the Salsa that we had been taking lessons for, and I would never get to give my sweet husband a passionate kiss ever again. The tears just kept leaking out. When the pain became too much to bear, my brain went on autopilot and filled my mind with the music and the chorus from a praise song that we often do at church: “Mighty to Save,” by Hillsong Australia.
This chorus and the music that goes with it became my mantra for this trip. Whenever the horror of the moment became too much for me to bear, my brain would tune out everything except this refrain, and play it over and over for as long as necessary.
I highly recommend this method of emotional pain blocking using your favorite music (especially if it is praising God!) over Ambien or similar drugs that zone you out. I mean, if your spouse dies, you’re already in a heap of trouble and misery. You’re going to have to make a lot of important decisions very quickly. Being zoned out on anti-anxiety pills is really, really not going to help the situation! I am proud to say that I never once took any kind of drug during this entire ordeal except for Chardonnay (give me a break, people!) and a sleeping pill the first night we were in San Jose.
We arrived in San Jose at about 4:00 in the afternoon and our checked bags made it (you’ll discover later in this narrative that doesn’t always happen on USelessAirways). Marcos was waiting for us when we exited Customs. He seemed quite agitated, as well as sad. “We have to hurry now to the hotel and you need to fill out these documents while we drive. They must be given to the US Embassy before they close for business at 4:45.” Apparently, many people had been busy little bees while Liz and I spent the day travelling. Between phone calls and information transmitted between our Pastors and friends in Charlotte, the US Embassy in San Jose, Marcos and Laura (my best friend in CR), they had gotten a lot done. Normally, it takes a couple of days to get the paperwork prepared to release a US citizen’s body from the morgue and make arrangements to get the body to a funeral home. The Embassy was also already in process of preparing a “Preliminary Report of Death of an American Citizen Abroad” document and getting permission for me to take the remains back with me to the US. With everybody working together, they had all of this ready for me when I arrived in San Jose. Good job, mi amigos!
I filled out the forms for the Embassy that identified my instructions to release the body to my choice of funeral homes for cremation and my intention to hand-carry the remains back to the US with me. Also, there was another document in which I gave the Embassy the specific information needed to prepare the “Preliminary Report of Death.” Both documents needed to be witnessed, and sure enough, my hand-dandy paralegal friend Liz is also a Notary. When we got to Apartotel El Sesteo where Steve had been staying, I had the documents ready. But it was getting late and Marcos was worried that we wouldn’t make it to the Embassy in time. So, he called the woman who had been assigned to help us, Astrid Villalta, and she said that she would accept the documents by fax. The hotel manager was quite kind and let us use his fax machine.
I have to say, that the Embassy and the staff that assisted me through this difficult and scary experience was absolutely fantastic! They were organized, super-helpful, kind, caring and respectful. They ran interference for me when anything got sticky or difficult. It seemed that their #1 job and priority for those few days was to help me as much as possible. They did! Kudos to Astrid and everyone at the Embassy. As much as I dislike our ineffective federal government, their waste and stupid bureaucracy, that day I was proud and thankful to be a tax-paying American citizen. You heard it here first, folks, I will never again bitch about paying taxes, because when the rubber hit the road, my US government Embassy was there for me! (Well, I probably will still bitch about paying taxes, but you get the point, right?!)
While we were at El Sesteo, they gave me Steve’s most important personal effects: his wallet, his passport, his wedding ring and the gold chain that he always wore with the small gold medallion of Jesus Christ on it. I sat there in the tiny lobby, holding the ring and the necklace in my hands. I thought: “This is all I have left of my beloved husband. This is what is left at the end of your life – a few important trinkets and the memories.” As the tears ran down my cheeks, I put the wedding ring (which matches mine) on the chain and fastened it around my neck. It is my physical memory of Steven.
Well, I wasn’t given much time to mourn, because Marcos was hustling us out of the hotel and back into the car to go to the funeral home. Jardines Del Recuerdos (Gardens of Memories) was located not far away and we arrived before they closed for the day. Marcos interpreted for me and I explained that I had signed the release to have Steve’s body released from the morgue and that I wanted him to be cremated. I asked if there would be any time for me to see his body. They told me that if we went to the cemetery/holding facility the next day at exactly 1:30, there would be a brief period of time for a viewing. I knew there was a return flight to Charlotte every afternoon at 3:00 and I asked if it would be possible for the body to be cremated on Wednesday and given to me in time for the Thursday flight home (today was Tuesday). The guy said he doubted that, but would know more by tomorrow afternoon. I spotted a pretty metal urn on the table behind the Director’s desk and asked if I could have a choice of an urn for Steve’s ashes. The Director told me via Marcos’ interpreting that he didn’t think there would be time and it would most likely be a plastic box for me to carry home the ashes. Not very dignified, but OK.
Back into Marcos’ car and he asks me if we have any hotel reservations. My blank look = No, I never even thought about it! So, I said: “No, do you have any recommendations?”
“Well, there is the Irazu Hotel nearby. It’s supposed to be clean and good, and caters to business clients.”
I replied: “OK, let’s go!”
I was absolutely horrified when I saw the Best Western sign out front. OK, so sometimes I am a bit of a snob – sue me! My concerns were soon put to rest, however.
When we got out of the car, I saw that there was a large, open-air, covered patio out front with a large bar that was currently quite busy with what looked like mostly businessmen and women. Liz and I marched up to the Reception Desk beyond the patio. I asked the nice Tica at the counter: “I need one double room and one single room for at least two nights, possibly longer. What are your rates?”
She told me: “Well, the single room is $110 per night and the double room is $120 per night. However, we are offering a mid-week special that if you stay for a second night, it’s free!” I quickly calculated $55 and $60 a night; not bad at all! She continued: “Also, at our hotel, we really appreciate our business customers, so all local and international calls are free.” What could be more perfect? I knew that I needed to make about a million phone calls here in Costa Rica and back home to tell people the news and make arrangements for everything. Sounding pretty good so far! Then she said: “Breakfast is free. And there is happy hour from 5:00 to 7:00 where all drinks are 2 for 1.”
“You just said the magic words, honey! Sign me up!” I said, slapping my credit card down on the desk.
As it turned out, the hotel was really nice. Like most Costa Rican hotels, they had taken advantage of the wonderful climate and beautiful surroundings. The hotel was shaped like a large “U” with a lovely large garden full of flowers and palm trees surrounding a nice swimming pool. Our room was clean and comfortable with large sliding glass doors that opened onto a small patio overlooking the garden and pool.
Lizzie and I wasted no time. We dropped our bags, took a minute to wash hands, brush hair and apply fresh lipstick and then we sped over to the patio bar. For heaven’s sake, it was already 6:15 and there was only 45 minutes left of 2 for 1 Happy Hour drinks! Priorities, my friends, you got to have priorities in life. That day, that moment, vast quantities of Chardonnay were the priority. We later had dinner with Marcos across the street at a reasonably nice restaurant and went to bed. The afore-mentioned sleeping pill was administered and I went to sleep.
The next day was a whirlwind of activity. After enjoying our free breakfast at the attached Denney’s restaurant (I LUV breakfast at Denney’s!), Marcos took me back over to El Sesteo to claim Steven’s luggage. Liz took the opportunity to go around the corner to a grocery store and score some wine for later. We brought the bags back and I took a couple hours going through everything very carefully and re-packing it all. Apparently, when the cops came to investigate the scene while the EMS people were removing Steve’s body, they did a quick search through all his belongings to see if there was any evidence of foul-play. There was none, but they did make quite a mess by pulling everything out of the bags and just stuffing it back in haphazardly. I had helped Steven pack, so I knew exactly what was supposed to be in the bags and his wallet. It was all there, including the recent receipt from the restaurant where he had enjoyed his last meal on this Earth. I hope it was a nice one.
At 1:00 we all piled back into Marcos’ car and headed for the cemetery grounds of the Jardines del Recuerdo. We arrived and parked at the small building on-site. Liz and I went inside, while Marcos sat on the garden wall outside. He said he just couldn’t go see Steve.
An attendant ushered us into a small room, and there before us lay a long cardboard box with a lid on it on top of a table with wheels. It didn’t smell very good in there. Liz and I just stood there for a minute contemplating the situation. I don’t know what I was expecting, but a cardboard box wasn’t it. I set my purse on a chair and asked Liz to help me take the lid off the box.
I knew that they had done an autopsy of Steven’s body because it is required for all foreigners that die in Costa Rica. So, I was rather apprehensive about what we would see inside the box. However, they had draped a clean white sheet around his head and over his body so that all we could see was his face. Thank you to whoever did that - nice job.
Steven looked exactly like he did while sleeping, very relaxed and peaceful. I still felt that I needed closure, to convince myself that he was really dead. I raised my hand and laid the back of it against his cheek. It was cool and smooth. I noticed a couple of small flies around his nose and angrily shooed them away. Liz said: “It’s OK, Evie. It’s just nature. It’s natural.” I realized she was right and accepted it. We were both crying, but quiet tears of intense sadness. My dear husband and her dear friend lay dead before us. Nothing could ever, ever change that now.
I took a couple of photographs for posterity. Someone had suggested this, so that the photos of Steve could provide closure for Natalie to know that he was dead. I swear, he looked just like he was sleeping.
Then I said: “Lizzie, I’d like to say a prayer over Steve now.” She nodded, and I said these words:
We stood in silence for a moment. Steven was gone. There was nothing more to do but put the lid back on the box and leave his body to be cremated.
We joined Marcos outside and had a very tearful group hug. We returned to the Irazu Hotel. Liz and Marcos said they wanted to get some fresh air by the pool. I told them I’d join them in a little bit, but needed some quiet time for myself and to make some more phone calls.
Liz put on some shorts and a tank top and said to me: “OK, hon, I’m going to go hang out by the pool for a while and give you a little time to decompose.” She clapped her hand over her mouth in horror. “ Oh-my-God! I meant decompress! DECOMPRESS!!!” We both started laughing hysterically. That was SO FUNNY! That’s one of the reasons Liz and I like each other so much – we can have a huge belly laugh at the silliest things and find humor in off-color jokes. What a classic Blooper!!! Decompose! I am laughing about it even now…
Well, that good laugh kind of took the edge off of the morose mood we were in. Liz tripped off to the pool with a gi-normous bottle of red tucked under one arm and white under the other. I wrote down the prayer that I said over Steven’s body because I take notes about everything important that happens in my life, and I suspected that sometime in the future I would want to have those words to share with others. God is so cool how he prepares us way in advance for things that will happen in our future! Glad I wrote down the words of the prayer so that I could share them with you today.
I made a few calls and then headed out to the pool myself. Lizzie and Marcos were ensconced in deck chairs with wine in hand, shooting the breeze and telling funny stories about Steve. I joined in, grabbed a glass and we three proceeded to have a fine afternoon in the Costa Rican sun, by the pretty pool and gardens with each other. Marcos and Liz really bonded as friends that day, and I imagine they will remain friends forever. What can I say but: “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” to my two dear friends for going through Hell with me, helping me, loving me, and being with me in a great time of need. We had a ball hanging out together that afternoon.