I’m thinking about getting organized and cleaning out my files. Maybe this is the year I’ll even be ahead of the income tax game. Not likely, but I am an optimist. There is, unfortunately, a significant risk of being sabotaged in this process, and not just by a blown budget or an approaching deadline. By a handwritten note, a photograph, even a receipt can derail me from my organizational goals. It doesn’t usually send me into a tailspin the way it used to, when I came across a love note from Sam, for example, or the old-fashioned bank books from the kiddie accounts he set up for the boys years ago. The only remaining value of those old accounts is the handwritten name of each child on the bank books themselves. The boys have so few things with their father’s handwriting, evidencing his presence, his touch and his care.
There is one note that stops me in my tracks even still. Sam’s last note – not the love note I would have wanted – but “nice” as suicide notes go. At least that’s what the police officer told me, and I’m sure he’s right. There are a lot of terribly vindictive, painful parting words out there. Dear Charlotte… In his very-nice-suicide-note, Sam told the boys and me for the last time that he loved us. I love you. Tell the boys I love them. He apologized for what he knew he was about to do, unable to anticipate just how much pain his death would cause. I’m so sorry. Sam expressed his confidence in me and my ability to raise our sons, and his loss of faith in himself. They need you …. It wasn’t a conversation; it was a commission. I didn’t get to say, “No I can’t!” Or “Don’t you dare!” I didn’t get to tell him, “Get back here! I’m not done talking!”
I had signed up for ‘till death do us part, but not yet.
People often ask me if I saw Sam’s suicide coming, and mostly the answer is no. He wasn’t diagnosed bipolar or depressed or medicated. In retrospect, of course, I cannot help but to see things differently. Sam suffered chronic back pain from the time he was 13 years old, and he had already had two back surgeries for herniated discs. He feared that a third surgery might be in his near future. He suffered from job stress, but everyone I know who has a job has job stress. It’s worse when you don’t have a job. I had just started back to work part-time, as a trusts and estates attorney, and our discussions of the future involved whether I would want to open my own office, whether we should consider moving to a place not subject to the steep Southern California weather tax, and whether we should have another baby. We weren’t contemplating the life of one of us after the death of the other of us. At least, I wasn’t.
The night before he died, I noticed our Wills out on the kitchen counter, and I mentioned I was glad he had brought them out because I had intended to update our estate planning documents, now that I was working again. He said “mm…hhmm.” Among other things, I wanted to make sure that both kids were included by name. I was a trusts and estates attorney, so the “Last Will and Testament” didn’t make me cringe in the slightest. Only later did I realize that he was reading them for a different purpose altogether. That butthead was making sure the I’s were dotted and T’s crossed so that he could go die with some small measure of peace, knowing the kids and I were covered. Maybe if I had been a civil rights lawyer, I would have known enough to be alarmed.
Meanwhile, across town, a couple I didn’t know were having a very straightforward conversation about her imminent death. She had stage four colon cancer. They were high school sweethearts and had been together for 25 years. She was 40 and he was 42. She told him that he should find love again. He said “Not a chance.” She told him not to be an idiot. He said he had every intention of sitting on the porch, playing guitar and drinking scotch until his own death. She continued. He was young, and she wanted him to live his life. She did ask that Tim find somebody who already had children, because she thought a woman who was a mother would make a better step-mother to her sons. With one caveat. She gave him three names of women she did not want him to date, all of them bitter and angry girls. This grouping of single ladies comprises what we now refer to as the “Do Not Date List.” One night, while Debbie was still alive, a woman arrived at the front door with a “dish” for Tim. The casserole lady is #4 on the Do Not Date List.
I admire the woman who writes the Do Not Date List for her husband on her own deathbed. She loved him with all of her heart, and when it was her time to go, she not only gave him permission to live his life but encouraged him to do so. I am in awe of that kind of love. She trusted Tim’s ability to love again long before he did. I am so grateful that she said it out loud.
I did not feel quite so appreciative of Sam’s trust in me. I resented him deeply for his particular leap of faith. I didn’t want to raise our sons by myself. Would he have stayed if he had less confidence in my capacity? I had no intention of being supermom, and resolved absolutely never to fall in love again. Ever. But I found myself in this untenable situation where, even though I wished Sam was wrong, I wanted to be the woman my husband believed in. I did not want to wear the widow chip on my shoulder forever. Little by little, I began to put the pieces of our broken lives back together again, inching our way toward wholeness, finding gratitude, joy and, yes, even love.
It is no small miracle that Tim likewise allowed himself to fall in love again. Then again, Debbie knew he would. It is a strange and wonderful blessing that Sam’s love and Debbie’s love brought Tim and me to where we are now, sitting together on our back porch, surrounded by kids, cats and dogs. Life and love in abundance. Tim sometimes even plays guitar, and we share the scotch.
Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And a splash of Balvenie Doublewood.