“It’s taken years for me to understand that dying doesn’t end the story; it transforms it.”
–Gail Caldwell (Let’s Take the Long Way Home)
My son once drew a picture of the day his father died. On the left side of the landscape page was a gorgeous fall day, blue sky, green grass, bright sun, flowers and a frog. He then drew a line down the center of the page and scribbled black over the right half the page. This is, in fact, exactly what that day feels like.
One of our boys had a soccer game, but Sam didn’t come with us. He hadn’t been sleeping well, he had excruciating back pain and chronic job stress. He said he was going to stay home to take a nap, so I took both our kids with me. When I kissed my husband goodbye he had tears in his eyes. It was so strange – at that moment I thought it was evidence of just how tired he was. I can count on one hand the times I had seen him cry over the course of 17 years: when he left an uncle’s house, after visiting him for the what would be the last time (his uncle was dying of AIDS); during our first dance at our wedding; on the births of each of our two sons; and on the day he died.
I called Sam from the car on my way to the soccer field. He was my GPS and personal Thomas Guide. I was heading toward Pasadena and wanted to avoid Rose Bowl traffic, but he didn’t know what time the Bruin game was or even whether it was a home game. I should have known then that things were not right in his world. I signed off, as always, “Bye Sweetie. I love you.” I didn’t know it would be our last goodbye. He did.
I will fast forward through the events during the day – soccer, lunch, a hike, a rattlesnake and a frog. The boys and I returned home expecting to see Sam’s car parked in front of the house, as usual. There was a police car instead. Lights flashing, silently.
It’s funny how the mind tries to make sense of things that don’t make sense. Two chairs decorated my front porch; Sam and I would sit there after the boys were settled for the night to enjoy a cup of tea or dessert. It was a welcoming spot. If the policemen belonging to that marked car were waiting for me, certainly they would be sitting right in those chairs. Wouldn’t they? As I drew close enough to see the front porch – and the empty chairs – I had the conscious thought, “Oh thank God, it’s one of the neighbors.” Which is not very charitable, but it was what I thought. I exhaled.
I pulled up into the driveway, and then I saw them: two policeman and a priest standing in front of the gate. I just kept staring at that white clerical collar. It wasn’t one of the neighbors. This was completely wrong. Sam was Jewish.
The female officer said she would watch the boys while her partner talked to me (How did she know I had sons?). The male officer and the priest brought me into the house, and asked me to sit down. (Why was the house already unlocked?) For a brief moment, I resisted, hoping that if I kept standing maybe they would stop talking. I did not want to hear what the clerical collar had to say. Again, please sit down. I sat. The blue uniform told me that my husband had jumped to his death – right about the time that we were at the soccer game – from a parking structure adjacent to his office building. My legs went numb. They told me this was the worst part of their job. I told them it wasn’t much fun from my side either.
Sam had left a note, and they handed me a copy. I could hardly comprehend what I was reading. It said essentially “I love you. Tell the boys I love them. I’m sorry.” I kept shaking my head and saying “No.” They thought it was a really nice note; they often see much worse. I told them it wasn’t quite so much the love note I wanted. I didn’t mean to shoot the messenger, but the message sucked.
They told me that that they would let my boys know that their father had died, but that I would have to tell them how. They recommended that I tell them the truth.
They called a close friend and my parents. They left me with their business cards, a telephone number for the county coroner’s office and an identification number for the police report. And then they left.
In retrospect, I can see that they planted seeds of hope that day. It would take years for some of these seeds to blossom, but there would be many choices to make that would determine the course of our healing path. As I look back, I see that healing is a choice. Those police officers and that priest tried to set my feet at the beginning of a healing path, even as they were delivering the news that ended my life as I knew it.
I’ve been meaning to write this thank you note for a long time. When I was growing up my mother applied a 3-day rule to our written expressions of gratitude. Based on that standard, I’m about 2,370 days overdue. But maybe it’s never too late …
To the Pasadena police officers and Episcopal priest who informed me of my husband’s death:
Each one of you told me this was the worst part of your job and expressed your deep sorrow and regret at the pain of it. Thank you for doing your job anyway.
You knew the news you had to deliver would change my life and my sons’ lives forever. You had already – with my husband’s housekey and under the direction of protocol – inspected my home to confirm that he hadn’t taken our lives before taking his own. It didn’t occur to me until years later how relieved you must have been to see me pull into the driveway safely with both boys and the dog. You must have known that I would not be even remotely relieved to see the three of you waiting for me.
You knew my legs would give way under the weight of your news, and you sat me down and told me anyway. You looked me in the eye and told me the hard truth.
You advised me to tell my own children the truth about how their father died. I did. It is one of the hardest things I have ever done. You said, “You do not want them finding out from somebody else.” On a day where I could make sense of very little, that recommendation made sense to me. You were right. When rumors were flying, my sons had confidence that their mother would be honest with them. Even if the truth was ugly, even though our legs buckled under its weight, my sons could count on me for an honest answer to their most difficult questions.
You showed me that day how to ask for help, calling family and friends before heading back out to your next assignment. You did not leave me alone.
I apologize because I cannot find your cards or remember your names. I would not recognize you at the grocery store. I would have liked to thank you directly. Instead, I extend my gratitude to all the professionals – clergy, policemen and women, doctors, therapists, social workers – on whom this difficult job falls.
I want you to know that I can now talk to a priest without shaking and bursting into tears, and I can drive past your police station without the sinking pit in my stomach and numbness in my hands. I want you to know that our broken hearts – while scarred forever – are beating strong. I want you to know I’m grateful for your part, as hard as it was for both of us, in setting my little family on a healing path.
You did the worst part of your job well. Thank you.
Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. Even if you only recognize it in retrospect.