EDITOR’S NOTE: Lou and Charlie Thesz were as close as two people could be. Lou, regarded by many as the greatest wrestler of all time, passed away April 28, 2002, three weeks after undergoing a triple bypass and aortic valve replacement surgery. In her own words, Charlie Thesz describes the painful process of losing Lou, and life without him.
By Charlie Thesz
April 25, 2004
It was the most bizarre feeling when Lou died – I mean when he actually stopped breathing. This was not supposed to happen. He was Lou Thesz, he was invincible, immortal, and he was only 86. He had promised to live to be 100. Like all of my life with Lou, this was no exception.
I had been by the bed all night long as if I was helping with his struggle to breathe. I did not find it uncomfortable to sit in a chair with my head on a pillow nestled at his waist, so my hand was on his arm. I was there when we awoke during the night. He helped me with my struggle by stroking my head as I told him I loved him, but my feeling of helplessness did not really constitute help for him with his struggle.I knew we were happier when I was there, and I had wondered how much more he could take. Each breath took such energy, and I asked God to take him now if he was not to survive. As I prayed, I could feel the tears soak my pillow, but there was no sobbing. It is strange how unselfish that prayer always is. It is torturous to see someone you love suffer, but each breath is hope. Hope that some medicine, some insidious breathing apparatus will make the difference.
That morning Lou opened his eyes, stared straight ahead at the window and then around the room, and took a labored breath for the last time. We did not know it was the last time, because he stopped breathing periodically and a simple nudge or word would make his huge frame take in air again. This time he would not resume, and as I nudged and prodded, the nurse suctioned until the room was frantically filled with technicians and machines. The dreaded and hated machines. The machines I had promised he would never depend on for life. It was all surreal and life has been so since.
Someone else filled my soul and soles. She comforted an angelic tech who was looking so forward to her first shift on her first day on the floor, and now stood sobbing the tears I could not find. Lou’s night nurse, long since off duty, was calling Lou’s “doctor of the day” to alert him. My voice said into the phone, “It is time to let him go.”
My hand took the phone, my voice reiterated to the doctor, he agreed, and the nurse passed the order on to the tech. The nurse was about three feet to my body’s right and the tech about four feet to my body’s left when the tech said, “I have a rhythm.” My eyes saw the respirator tube down Lou’s throat, and my eyes looked the tech straight in her eyes and my voice said, “Let him go!” And that was it. Everyone was in tears by then, even my body was producing them. I was surprised I still had the capability.
But where was my movie moment of death? He had not spoken the last words I could repeat to myself in the years I had left. His life had been so dramatic, our life together so intense. How could he have just died? How could I have been so calm?
Years earlier, when Lou was asked to speak at a memorial service for one of his dearest friends, I wanted to go, too. He didn’t take me with him then, either. I had been hurt then; now I was destroyed. I knew he had to go, but he should have found a way for me to go with him. I had promised him I would not be mad if he didn’t want to fight anymore, so I had to honor that promise. I was only mad because I was again left behind.
I had known he was so very tired, and the therapists and doctors and nurses were so concerned; well, the nurses and some of the therapists, anyway. The doctors just mostly told me his age, 86, as if it were a medical diagnosis. I had watched for days while he struggled for breath through the weight of pneumonia. I just stayed focused on him. I was there, and I loved him, and he knew it.
My daddy had died when I was 33 years old, my mother when I was 47. Now I was 55 and alone. I am a very self-sufficient person, so the aloneness was not overwhelming. It was the identity crisis that overwhelmed me. I was part of a unit, in double harness, always thinking in “we.”
The last few years with Lou had not been our dream life. In fact, we had fought like cats and dogs – Lou the loyal dog and me the cat. Of course, now we understood his forgetfulness, the belligerence and the fatigue, as well as my impatience. A very dear friend once described our relationship as “intense.” The good news was the constancy of the intensity. We neither fought nor loved without it.
Losing him was the height as well as the culmination of that intensity.
No one enters this life exempt from loss and pain, but Lou and I had a great run. He was incredibly healthy for most of our 29 years together. I would be fine, there was no option. And I am fine! I have always considered life to be a jigsaw puzzle, and when I didn’t fit into other pieces, it never bothered me. When I did fit, I tried to add as much as I could to the overall picture.
I try to absorb all of this as an experience in life and make the most of what I have. I remind myself every day I am not the first or the last to feel this kind of pain. With all that said … it still hurts terribly.
The most helpful exercise is talking about Lou. Somehow I keep him alive if I am talking about him, but life goes on, and it is time to embrace what is happening today. The good news is: Lou Thesz will always be “happening” to those of us who knew him as a wrestler and/or a person.