Dave Feschuk: Emily Cave is living breath by breath as she waits to say goodbye to husband Colby

Moment to moment. Breath to breath. That’s how Emily Cave said she is approaching life in the wake of her unspeakable loss. And maybe the hardest part beyond the tragedy, she said, is that she can’t hold a proper funeral for her husband.

“I’ll be honest,” she said. “That’s my biggest struggle right now.”

If there is ever a moment that cries out for human contact, for hugging and weeping and consoling, it’s the one she’s enduring now. A little more than a week removed from the death of her husband, Colby Cave, the Edmonton Oilers forward who succumbed to the effects of a rare brain tumour in a Toronto hospital at age 25, Emily Cave is still grieving, mostly alone, in the basement apartment of her parents’ home in Barrie.

She has spent time planning a memorial for her husband, projecting a turnout of thousands given his status as a favourite son of his native Saskatchewan, where he captained the Western Hockey League’s Swift Current Broncos en route to making the NHL as an undrafted underdog. But the coronavirus has put those plans on indefinite hold. Emily said she is “overwhelmed and humbled” by the outpouring of support that has been heaped upon her family. But when friends come by and she can only greet them from the porch while they console her from the cold distance of the front lawn, there’s something missing as she mourns.

“Not being able to have that funeral and have that closure — that is the most excruciating feeling other than Colby passing away,” she said.

It was a little more than a week ago that the Caves were riding out the coronavirus together in self-quarantine. They had recently arrived in Barrie from Bakersfield, Calif., where Colby had been playing for the Oilers’ American Hockey League farm team when the sports world was put on pause. The couple had taken up residence with Emily’s parents, only socializing with them over a glass of wine on the deck at a responsible social distance.

Former Edmonton Oilers and Boston Bruins forward Colby Cave and wife Emily Cave with their new dog Chester in this Sept. 2019 photo.

And Monday, April 6, was a normal enough day. Colby sweated through one of the home workouts he had been sent by the Oilers’ training staff. He made a healthy salad for supper. The couple settled in for another in a series of quiet evenings. And then something happened that almost never happened: Colby complained of a headache.

“Honestly, Colby was like the healthiest person in the world. Never got sick, never had a cold, which maybe should have been a red flag. But for him to have a headache, he just thought it was a bad migraine,” Emily said.

He took an Advil and a Tylenol and went to bed early. But Emily noticed that he was unusually restless and that, by around 11 p.m., “he was in a lot of pain.”

“I asked him, ‘Should we go to the hospital?’ And he was like, ‘No. I’m fine. I just need to sleep,’ ” she said.

Asked if her husband was reluctant to go to the emergency room on account of the coronavirus, Emily said she didn’t think fear of the pandemic was a factor. When Colby vomited that night, they both theorized he had perhaps been the victim of food poisoning; hardly an emergency.

But when Emily awoke around 6 a.m., the situation turned urgent.

“I was shaking him to wake up, and he wouldn’t wake up,” she said. “He was breathing. His heart was still going. But he couldn’t walk. He couldn’t talk.”

Shortly after he was rushed to Barrie’s Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre, he was airlifted to Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, where emergency brain surgery was performed. And though doctors said Colby had a “50-50” chance of survival, the damage done by the tumour — a colloid cyst that blocked vital fluid pathways in the brain and led to a fatal buildup of fluid — proved insurmountable. Doctors told Emily her husband’s case was “one out of millions. Just really, really rare.”

Former Edmonton Oilers and Boston Bruins forward Colby Cave and new wife Emily Cave on their wedding day on July 19, 2019, at Chateau des Charmes in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. Colby Cave died after having surgery to remove a colloid cyst on his brain that led to a brain bleed and his death on April 11, 2020, at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto.

It hurt, she said, that COVID-19 protocols made it impossible for her to be at Colby’s bedside, even if she was grateful to the critical-care staff at Sunnybrook for passing on her messages of love.

“Colb always did this thing before we went to bed or if we were driving in the car — he would squeeze my hand three times to tell me that he loved me. Every night,” she said. “And I told that to the nurse … And when I got there the morning he passed away, the nurse said I want you to know I was squeezing his hand three times so that he knew that you were with him.”

It was only last summer that Colby explained the couple’s origin story to guests at their Niagara-on-the-Lake wedding. As an 18-year-old junior player Colby, the story goes, saw Emily’s picture on a mutual friend’s Instagram feed and announced to teammates that he was going to marry her.

The problem was, Emily didn’t know Colby, and vice versa. Which didn’t stop Colby from sending an unsolicited series of admiring direct messages.

“For two years he persisted. And I wouldn’t give him the time of day. I wanted nothing to do with him,” Emily said. “But eventually, I caved. Pun intended.”

Their digital courtship slowly turned into a long-distance relationship, even if there were those close to Emily who were leery. When Colby, by then age 20, suggested she come visit him in Providence, R.I., where he was a professional rookie with the top farm team of the Boston Bruins, Emily had to think it over. She said yes, in part, because she had friends living in Providence in case her date with her red-headed admirer didn’t pan out.

“I thought it was a little weird,’” she said. “But as soon as I got there, I was with him for one minute and I knew the type of guy he was — respectful and caring.”

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Respectful and caring and a strong believer in first impressions.

“He said to me after that weekend, ‘I’m going to marry you,’ ” she said. “And when I came back from that weekend in Providence and I said the exact same thing to my parents, ‘I’m going to marry him.’ ”

They took their time, in the end. They dated for most of three years before Colby proposed in the summer of 2018, bending the knee on the dock of his family’s cabin in Saskatchewan as the sun set over the horizon. They clicked, she said, because they accentuated the best in each other.

“You would often find us slow-dancing in the kitchen while we were making dinner, or in line in Starbucks paying for peoples’ orders behind us. The person we both brought out in each other was really, really incredible,” she said.

Former Edmonton Oilers and Boston Bruins forward Colby Cave and new wife Emily Cave on their wedding day on July 19, 2019, at Chateau des Charmes in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. Colby Cave died after having surgery to remove a colloid cyst on his brain that led to a brain bleed and his death on April 11, 2020, at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto.

Emily studied at Ryerson University and George Brown College and was considering a career working for charities. But she put her own ambitions on hold to help her husband achieve his. Bouncing between the NHL and the minors, she said, was “not always glamorous.” Colby played 67 NHL games and 131 AHL ones over the most recent three seasons, and the airline connections from Bakersfield to Edmonton weren’t exactly enjoyable. But the adventure, she said, was worth the struggle.

“It could be stressful, but it was a very exciting time for us every time he got the call (from the NHL),” she said.

How he played, she said, didn’t affect how she saw him.

“To me, he could have been a janitor and I still would have married him for his character,” she said. “I didn’t care that he played hockey.”

Still, from the moment Colby was rushed to hospital last week, Emily said she has come to appreciate the relationships she and her husband owe to the game. Think of a player on the roster of the Bruins and Oilers of late, Emily said, and it’s safe to assume she has received a token of support or condolence with their name on it.

Veteran NHLer David Backes and his wife Kelly, who the Caves both looked up to as mentors when David and Colby were teammates in Boston, organized Zoom player conferences to give updates on Colby’s condition when he first fell ill.

Wendy Tippett, the wife of Oilers coach Dave Tippett, and Julie Cassidy, the wife of Boston’s Bruce Cassidy, were instrumental in fanning out information among players’ wives and girlfriends. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’ wife, Bre, had Emily laughing the other day via FaceTime as they reminisced about better times. Connor McDavid’s girlfriend, Lauren, also checked in. Packages of food and flowers have arrived from the families of Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron. The list of supporters, she said, is too long to detail.

“I’m so grateful to the NHL,” she said. “That’s how those two organizations are. Whether you’re staff or a player, you’re family … I will forever be grateful for Colby for bringing me into this hockey family.”

Edmonton Oilers' Colby Cave (12) died Saturday after suffering a brain bleed earlier this week.

There’ve been other small comforts, she said. There’s Chester, the couple’s eight-month-old Cavapoo puppy, whose coat has patches of red reminiscent of Colby’s hair. There’s the Colby Cave Memorial Fund, already set up by the Oilers and the Cave family, which will raise money for mental-health initiatives and to help underprivileged children get access to sports.

The other night in Barrie, Emily said, there was a drive-by tribute organized by family friends. She and her parents and siblings stood on the porch, most everyone decked out in a sweater from one of Colby’s teams, while a line of vehicles passed by, the passengers waving hockey sticks and flags. It was a smaller-scale version of the 15-kilometre motor brigade that greeted Colby’s family earlier this week in their hometown of North Battleford, Sask., as they made their return from Toronto.

Emily said she saw video of the Saskatchewan tribute, but that her memory of that day was “bittersweet.” As those cars lined that prairie highway, she was in an Ontario mortuary making decisions she thought she would never have to make. Less than a year after their idyllic wedding, she was planning Colby’s funeral — date to be announced.

“I can only imagine how many people will be there to support and show their love. And I know Colby will be really humbled by all of that,” she said. “I have to believe there’s a reason for this. And I have to believe that this (memorial fund) will help keep his memory alive and move his legacy move forward. I have to believe that every single day he’ll be with me. And I just have to take it breath by breath.”

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