A Reality Check

//A Reality Check

A Reality Check

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” Albert Einstein

Perhaps it’s reality’s persistence that makes it so difficult to accept that reality will vanish (or be forever altered) by our own death, or the death of a loved one? I mean, here I am: breathing, heart beating, thoughts zipping, stomach softly grumbling as noon approaches, fingers flying over a cool keyboard as freezing rain continues to fall outside.

My late husband Hugh had a similar reality going for him when he sat down for dinner in a steakhouse with roof truss plant colleagues 14 years ago: breathing, heart beating, thoughts zipping, stomach softly grumbling from the scent of sizzling steak, fingers caressing a cool pint.

And then? He died. Suddenly and unexpectedly. And it doesn’t seem to matter how many times I explain what I know to others, people want a reason. Hell. I’d like a reason! I tell the story: Hugh joked around, laughed, clutched his business partner’s arm. His business partner thought Hugh was still joking, tried to slough him off. Hugh gurgled, collapsed. After a paramedic who happened to be in the restaurant wasn’t able to revive him? Hugh’s business partner realized Hugh probably died in his arms.

“Oh, it was his heart then,” people conclude. But the autopsy report described his heart as “unremarkable”. It described all body parts – brain, liver, kidneys, etc – as “unremarkable”. It’s not an insult. Despite being a remarkable person, Hugh’s body was quite unremarkable (“healthiest dead man we’ve seen” the coroner actually – and weirdly – told me), offering no explanation as to cause of death. Says google: “medically, there’s no such thing as normal, just unremarkable”.

Sudden unexplained death. Similar to SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) or crib death I suppose, but he was 46. I see online there is a foundation for something called SADS (sudden arrhythmia deaths syndrome) and while Hugh’s heart did go into an arrhythmia, this was never suggested to me as the cause of death. This is perhaps because there was no family history of such a death, he wasn’t engaged in physical activity at the time of death and he wasn’t prone to fainting or seizures.

You can relax though, cause this is a rare way to go. Less than three percent of their cases result in this finding, the coroner’s office assured me. Phew. Since I can’t know the cause of Hugh’s death, I try hard to find the meaning in his life.

Hugh was the kind of guy who lived life to the fullest. It’s quite possible he worried (I’ve learned since his death that he sometimes bragged to the kids about how great it was to experience anxiety attacks – a possible clue to his sudden passing?), but he never showed it. His motto: “It’s going to be a great day today.” If he embarrassed himself? (Something he did often and much to the kids’ dismay.) He said, “Oopsi.” His goal in business? To create a fun work environment, to bring out the best in each employee and to find a win-win with employees and customers. Oh, and to make some coin. Yeah, okay, he was pretty consumeristic. Good for the economy, maybe not so much for the environment. He had a lot of stuff when he died, but he wasn’t a collector. He’d throw you the keys, say, “Drive like crazy, take all kinds of risks.”

As for dying fast? No warning? A good reminder for each of us to not deny the inevitable. One should always have one’s affairs in order, yes? You never know . . .

Last month, in Sydney, Cape Breton, one of my few remaining relatives out there, an uncle, passed away. He’d been ill for a bit, and while his estate appears significant in value, it seems there wasn’t significant thought put in to the direction of it. The family members are left behind scratching their heads, scrambling, wondering.

I’m sure everyone has a date – I’m sure some have a few – after which reality crashed, then became forever altered. Before that date? Love. Security. Maybe a glowing feeling of life being good and going on and on in this pleasant way. I’m sure for my uncle’s significant other that date was October 25, 2018. For me? November 29, 2004.

My three kids and I talk about Hugh’s death now from this safer vantage point and sometimes something crosses over our faces as we remember and it’s like looking at ghosts. Because we know. Had Hugh stayed? We’d be different people, experiencing a much different reality. We like who we are, like our current reality, feel his death made us more empathetic, compassionate people. Yet in a heartbeat, we’d go back to the evening of November 29, 2004, Sawmill Restaurant, Edmonton, Alberta. Hugh jokes and just keeps joking and his heart continues to beat, normally, unremarkably.

Now? I’m off to make an appointment with my lawyer, ensure my affairs are in order.

Website photo: Hugh circa 18.




  1. Leslie Blumas November 29, 2018 at 2:26 pm - Reply

    Nice post. Quite the hair on hugh
    Thinking of you and yours this week. ❤️Les

    • Rita Hartley November 29, 2018 at 2:36 pm - Reply

      Thx Les! Was quite the hair! When he started losing it he said, “There’s no justice in this world!” R

  2. Cathy November 29, 2018 at 5:24 pm - Reply

    This made me cry a little. I remember the next day well. I went into work with the $10 Pierre had lost to Hugh in a football bet. Everyone assumed someone else had told me about Hugh’s passing. Then I head over to your house and YOU had to console ME. It definitely should have been me consoling you. This world certainly did lose a gem. Love you Rita

    • Rita Hartley November 29, 2018 at 5:47 pm - Reply

      I’m so sorry about how that went down at work for you that day. A gem … yes. He is greatly missed. R

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