It has been two years since I last touched his face, two years since I held his hand, two years since I hugged him, told him I loved him, watched him walk out the front door, begged him to come home, and then sat in a hospital room trying to understand how this ended with him gone, how would I ever explain his fate to our children? How could I leave this cold hospital room with him? What was I supposed to do when I got home? I went over a million questions, a million different ways for almost a year and half before my brain exhausted every possibility that could change our fate and then, I gave up trying. That is the trauma that stems from sudden death, unintentionally and completely preventable death. What started as a cry for help ended with a choice taken away from us both.
Nine days ago it was impossible to even wrap my mind around these circumstances. In fact, it still is impossible as I often wait for him to come through the front door. My mind will still often wonder if he will walk in and say this was all part of some C.I.A scheme he was a part of and we have to leave the country and run away together and tell no one – and I wouldn’t think twice about it. I even fantasize about this. What country would we flee to? I can imagine myself packing up our kids as quickly as I could and letting him whisk us away, if it meant that our family could be whole again, that we could somehow piece together what normal life I thought we had. But the truth is, war tarnished him, and no matter how many times he told me how awful it was, how ashamed he was of this disease, how much hate he couldn’t alleviate from his heart, I continued to live in an ignorantly blissful life where I thought, “That could never be us”. It could never be us who would face tragedy, it would never be my son who would suffer from traumatic grief, life-altering depression, and his own battle with his purpose in this life; nope, not him. Not our daughter, not our spunky, spice of life who would one day ask every male she knew if they were here daddy. Who would try and make sense of this missing person in her life by saying, “My daddy is coming to pick me up, he’s at the store” – her excuse to her school-mates as she tries to fit in with their seemingly “normal” family with a mom and dad. Yet, here we are. I never envisioned myself as a single-mom. Not like this. Yet we have no choice but to make awkward conversations and this new life as unapologetically and tragic as it is, possible.
I often run into old friends around town who politely ask how I am doing, how the kids are? It’s comforting and it’s always welcome, but I can see the pain in their eyes, too. I can feel the awkward energy, I will embrace the eye-avoiding side hugs and the urge to resist saying his name until they can’t any longer and then apologize for making me sad or reminding me about this tragedy – as if I don’t think about it 24/7 already. What I try to let everyone know is that I am never not thinking about my dead husband or how he died, every second of every day it’s on my mind. Maybe not the forefront, because I have to work, I love to work and when I’m at work I’m fully focused; but he’s there, in the back of my mind. I sometimes glance at the small picture on my work desk of him, I look down at the dark blue gemstone on my wrist that’s a reminder to me of him (his birthstone). He’s there, his memory is everywhere and I will carry that with me for the rest of my life – so do not worry about reminding me of him, do not worry about making me sad because these are the two most important parts of my being, now. I enjoy hearing random old stories, especially at the most unexpected times; even in the cereal aisle at the supermarket. So, thank you for coming up to me and ‘reminding’ me of my husband, saying his name, sharing a story, and asking how his family is doing – that means he will stay alive in some way. It means that I am not carrying this burden alone, that even for a brief moment by mentioning his name and memory you are taking a little piece of this grief off my shoulders and carrying it for me.
I woke up one early morning after a nightmare, that I don’t even remember now, but I remember that I no longer had the instinct to look to him for comfort after I woke. I had to rely on myself to either get out of bed and get a drink of water or try and forget the awful feeling the nightmare left me with. I chose to roll over and try to forget. The sadness of not having him around for comfort lingered a little while and then I realized that maybe I was in a new ‘stage’ of grief. Nothing pulled me out of bed to look for him, I woke up and ‘knew’ he was no longer here – as if my brain had accepted it. A year ago, I would have woken up from a bad dream and reached over to his side of the bed, maybe even got up to go look around the house for him before my brain processed that he is dead. Not this night, this night I came to realize for the first time that my initial instinct wasn’t to find him, but to rely on my own strength to get through this. I know it might seem like a small feat (putting myself back to bed after a bad dream), but there have been others; such as: balancing my time between two kids and a full-time job, tending to two sick children at once, scheduling doctor’s appointments, making major decisions like: should I sell my car? opening a new line of credit, moving forward with our plans to build a new home, finding someone to change the light bulbs in our house, I could go on. But from little to big feats, discovering life without my partner of 10 years continues to be a struggle and but now I feel like I have a little more confidence that I can do this alone and by alone I mean, knowing when to call and ask a friend or family member for help. I’ve learned what the saying, “It takes a village” really means – I have needed to ask for help so many times but I stubbornly avoided doing so with the mind set that I could do it all, with our without my husband, all I needed was hope. But eventually, hope failed me, I couldn’t hope to make it in time to pick up my son after school when a work crisis happened. I couldn’t hope that dinner would make itself. I also couldn’t hope that I would get a break from the daily grind. I needed more, I needed help. I realized this one day when I saw that four lightbulbs had burnt out in my house and I couldn’t reach half of them and if I didn’t ask for help, soon we’d be living a much darker life (pun intended). So, I called my brother-in-law, it was that easy. Soon I got a little braver and my stubborn need for independence declined and I began to ask for more help. I needed someone to pick up my son from school a couple days a week so, my mother-in-law helped; I needed someone to watch my kids overnight while I was out of town for work every month so, my parents helped; I needed a night a out with adult friends – my sister and my nieces, they helped; I needed help figuring out my sons math homework – my brother helped. Asking for help started out as foreign to me, something I would never do, because I was determined to do it alone. It turns out that asking for help is what eases the pain of grief – too. Asking for help doesn’t mean I am helpless or that I’m not a good single mom, it means I’m human and it takes a village to raise a family! From a bad dream to light bulbs I have figured out that there are some things I am really good at doing alone and there are others that I need to find reinforcements for. The goal isn’t to be a superhero, because even superheroes have side-kicks, but grief has really knocked me down and humbled me – a lot these past two years. I have had to pick myself up from deep depressing waves of grief and keep going for our children, to make sure that their childhood is still a memorable one. To be able to hold them when grief overwhelms them and to know when I need to call in my side-kicks. I have also learned to appreciate the little and big moments in life that I often took for granted – when I was still blissfully ignorant. I have learned to appreciate the perfect New Mexico sunsets, the rare rainy days in the desert, the panting of an excited dog when I get home, the uncontrollable laughter of my children, the perfectly blended and lightly sweetened iced tea in the summer, and the perfect picture that hangs on the wall in my living room – of Josh rubbing his forehead on Sawyer, his service dog. With the depth of such a tragedy comes a new depth of love and appreciation for the first water droplet of a desert monsoon season to the hug of a child telling me “I love you, mom”.