Saturday, August 18, 2001 will go down as the absolute hardest day of my life.
As I bolted through the doors, I was on display. A room full of people, lined up in chairs, focused on the crazy woman bursting into the otherwise calm room. The security guard and I locked eyes. I could tell he was waiting for me. His voice was calm as he asked me for my name. My first name was enough. He knew who I was. He gestured around the corner. With a step and turn of my head, my fears confirmed.
There it was–a sign over the door. The tan sign stood apart from the stark white walls. It read, “Quiet Room”. Ironic since it screamed at me. I shuttered. Thinking to myself, “Please. No, no, no.” I took a deep breath and allowed my eyes to fall away from the sign as I glanced around the room. There, I saw our family, quietly weeping. They could barely stand to look me. Their stares glued to their hands. Crumpled, wet tissues wrapped around their fingers. Shuttering shoulders. It was more than I could handle. I grabbed the door frame for support as I laid my head on the door in defeat and whispered,
‘No. It can’t be. Please, tell me it isn’t true.”
I knew in my heart it was true. I could feel it. My mother-in-law lifted her head and nodded. Our families silent tears turned into sobs muffled behind their grimacing faces.
A thin woman with short dark brown hair and glasses hesitantly moved towards me. I didn’t know her and I wasn’t sure what her plan was. I am not sure it mattered. I was in shock. Ideas swirled through my head until it made me dizzy. She gently placed her hand on mine, and when I didn’t push her away, she moved it around my shoulders. With her grasp, she encouraged me to come inside that tiny room thick with grief.
“Sara, would you come in and sit with us?”
The guard slowly closed the door behind us.
What else was I going to do? I had no thoughts of my own; at least none that were clear. I followed her into the room. It was small. The walls lined with maroon chairs and average tables, typical of doctor offices and hospitals. Fake flowers and boxes of tissues decorated the sparsely lit room. She sat with me on one side. My mother at the end of the room and Randy’s parents across from us. She calmly took one of my hands in hers and handed me a box of tissues with her other.
“Sara,” she tenderly continued, ” I’m Kathy. I am a chaplain here at the hospital. You know that Randy has been in a terrible car wreck.”
I nodded. I wanted to tell her I knew he died. I wanted her to quit talking. I couldn’t stop her. I couldn’t speak. I wondered if maybe I was wrong and he was just badly hurt. I knew she would never tell me what I wanted to hear. I wanted to hear that he was going to have a tough recovery, but that he would be okay. I knew that wasn’t going to happen. She was going to tell me what I ready knew. Her message written on faces of loved ones. On the guard’s face. On the sign to the room. There was no mistaking the truth. I briefly glanced at her face as I waited for the devastating news.
“I’m sorry, Sara. He didn’t make it. They did everything they could, but it just wasn’t enough.”
A tear crawled down her cheek. I lowered my head. My lip was trembling. My tears silently fell one after the other, collecting on my shirt. No one in the room could contain their cries. The kind of noise that comes from pain so intense it rips you apart from the inside out.
I couldn’t look up. I just wanted to rip her hands from me and run. I wanted to hide.
“What happened? I squeaked. “Was it his fault?”
I needed to know if it was his fault. He was always so tired when he left because he wasn’t a morning person. I often worried about him falling asleep at the wheel.
“No, no.” Kathy assured me. “The other driver crossed into his lane. Alcohol may be involved, but we don’t know that for sure yet.”
I just shook my head. This stuff happens on the news, not to us. I still couldn’t lift my head. I just couldn’t. My own pain was enough. I couldn’t bear to look up and face his parents. Hearing my husband was dead was almost more than I could take. I couldn’t bear to stare into their grief. Kathy pulled her own tissue from the box.
“Can I see him?” I muttered.
“Whenever you are ready.”
“I’ll never be ready. This isn’t how it’s supposed to be.”
“I know,” she continued,”It just isn’t fair.”
“Can you call my Pastor? I think I want him here.”
“Of course.” She answered.
I just shook my head. Unfair didn’t do this justice. How was I going to tell my kids? What were we going to do? I wanted Randy to hold me. That’s what happened when I was lost, hurt, or unsure. He would hold me and tell me it would be fine. Who is going to do that? How was I going to make it through something this terrible thing without him? I knew it wasn’t going to get any easier to stand up from that chair.
Kathy walked me down a hallway and we turned into a chilly, bare room where he laid peacefully.
Covered with a thin white sheet, folded down at his shoulders. His dark hair looked black against his pale complexion and the bright white sheet. His lips tinged blue. He looked perfect except a tiny scratch on his chin. At the edge of the room, I almost collapsed. This was instantly real. I just kept shaking my head. The soft-spoken chaplain encouraged me to touch him and talk to him if I wanted. Everyone waited while I slowly made my way around the gurney until I reached his chest. I laid on his chest and sobbed. It’s as close as I would get to him ever holding me again.
“We’ll give you some time, Sara.”
My family and Kathy left me alone to say my goodbyes. I was so sad and so angry. How could he leave me like that? We have three children. We had a baby! Why didn’t he ever wear a seat belt?
I calmed myself. I knew it wasn’t his fault. He would never leave us on purpose. I talked to him a little. I told him that I loved him. I told him that I wasn’t sure how I was going to do this without him, but I would. I promised to never forget him and to always make sure the kids knew him. I promised to do the best I could. I told him how happy the past couple years had made me and that I would miss him more than he could ever imagine.
I knew I couldn’t stay there forever. I knew I had to leave him. How do you leave someone you love so much laying there, by himself, waiting to be put in a cold drawer in the morgue. Leaving him in that room was the hardest thing I ever did.
Kathy peeked in. “I know it’s hard. Is there anything I can do for you? Anything I can get you?”
“Yeah,” I quipped, “about another 50 years.”
“Oh, honey. I wish I could.”
With that, I kissed his forehead and ran my fingers through his soft hair one last time. I turned around and just left him there. To be honest, part of me still carries guilt about that. I know I didn’t have a choice, but it’s still one of the hardest things I have ever done.
Back in the room we discussed donations. Randy and I both had always said we would donate anything that we possibly could. We donated his corneas and skin for burn victims. I found peace in knowing that something truly good could come from something so awful.
The nurse brought in his broken watch and a bloody $20 bill. He was on his way to work for a day of overtime on his day off. He was even supposed to get a steak dinner, which is why he came back in the house that morning and grabbed that $20. They would reimburse him later for the dinner. He loved a good steak dinner. In all the commotion (we were staying with my parents until we could move into our new house. The accident happened on Saturday, we were scheduled to close on Monday. All of our stuff was all ready there, waiting) he left his wallet on our temporary dresser.
“Sara, ” I looked up to see the nurse speaking, “I just wanted to tell you that I had to call your doctor to notify him of Randy’s death. I have never had a doctor show such a genuine concern for your well-being and sadness for the family. Your doctor thinks a lot of you. He would like you to call him in the next few days or as soon as you feel like you can.”
I nodded. “Thank you. He is amazing and I appreciate his concern.”
Something caught my eye as I was lowering my head again. As, I looked back at the door, I saw a tall figure enter. It was our Pastor. The Pastor who had baptized us just a little over a year earlier. We hugged and we prayed. Well, I should say, he trembled through his fumbling words for a prayer as the rest of us sobbed.
“Anything we can do for you?” Kathy asked. “Anything you would like to ask his nurse? Would you like to know his injuries?”
“No. I don’t. He’s dead and knowing how that happened does not change that fact. It would just give me a mental picture I can’t handle right now.”
My dad appeared in the doorway. Just as terrified and saddened as everyone else. He had been sitting with the older kids, preparing for Brendan’s 5th birthday party planned for later that day when he received the call. Seeing him made me question where the kids were, what they knew, what about the party, and oh my gosh, how was I ever going to tell them this?
The chaplain and I discussed how to tell the kids. She told me that straight forward talk using the actual term ‘dead’ was best. It seemed harsh, but allowing them to feel like Daddy was coming home or waking up wasn’t fair. I had to be as honest as their age and understanding would allow. Kathy’s other piece of advice was to get them back in a regular routine as soon as possible.
Another set of worries flowed into my head. Not only were we expecting to live in another house that following week, but that house was over an hour away from our old house. It meant registering them in another school and buying supplies for the new school. I didn’t even know where I was going to live, or how to get all of our clothes and belongings, how was I going to get them back in a routine? If I moved back into our old house, I would have to register them and buy supplies all over again. School started on Monday here (Monday was also Brendan’s actual birthday). How could I get that all done? Who do I call to get the process started? What a mess! From top to bottom, nothing easy about it. I felt like almost every breath was another brick to the head.
After filling out and signing paper after paper, we had to leave. There was nothing else to do there. I consciously had to put one foot in front of the other to get to the car. I had been dropped off at the hospital because no one wanted me to drive, so I rode to Grandma’s house with my mom. Grandma had watched the baby, Emily. My aunt and uncle and picked up the kids from Dad so he could go to the hospital. They would be meeting us at Grandma’s to tell the kids. All of the family from the hospital, and the Pastor, followed us for moral support. Emily was only 7 months and had no idea what was going on. Kayla was seven and Brendan almost five.
On the way home, I called friends, family, and the funeral home. No one could believe the news. No one. Everyone wanted to be with us. Everyone had their own grief. They had sorrow for me and the kids. They grieved for themselves as friends. Beyond that, it made them face their own lives. We were proof that bad things do happen to good people. They wondered what would happen if this happened to them. It made it real-this really could happen to them. It was clear, no one knows what tomorrow holds.
We arrived at Grandma’s before the older kids. We gathered a brief plan on how to tell them. It was quiet. No one had much to say. You can only sob for so long and you can only say, “What a Shame.” or “What a great guy.” so many times. There is really not much to say after that. There was some speculation about the other driver and how the crash happened, but mostly, we all sat in our own silent internal chaos.
The kids came in and I wanted nothing more than to hug them and kiss them. They were bouncing as they walked through the door. Because they knew they were supposed to be helping Papa get ready for the party and that plans changed, they were expecting to hear the party had moved or that they were walking into a surprise. Ugh. Stab me through the heart. My heart hurt and my stomach dropped. Telling them was going to be bad enough. How can I possibly do it now? Several of us, including Pastor Bob, me and the kids went in the sun room off the main part of the house and closed the glass door to shut out the rest of the noise. The kids disposition changed. They knew this no longer felt like a surprise, but rather an incoming bomb. They were right.
I held Brendan on my lap and Kayla sat next to me with my arm around her.
“I have bad news.I just left the hospital. This morning Daddy was on the way to work and had a really bad accident.”
“Is he okay?” Kayla asked with tears in her eyes.
Their scared little faces seemed to hold hope for his recovery. After all, that’s what I had hoped for too. This was all so hard for me to understand. How do I expect a five and seven-year old to do what I can’t do? I couldn’t even fathom where to begin. I had no idea what tomorrow would hold.
Through tears and a shaky voice, I respond, “No, honey. I’m sorry, but your daddy died this morning.”
Kayla’s reaction was what I would expect, complete devastation. Brendan, fell asleep. I knew he was trying to block it out. He would later tell me that he wasn’t blocking it out. Instead, he was hoping he would fall asleep, wake up, and find out it was all a bad dream.
Kayla had two very important and logical concerns.
The first was, who will take care of us? How will we get money? Daddy was the only one who worked? Kayla is a worrier by nature. I knew I had to choose my words wisely. I knew, instantly, I would have to make her understand that we would be okay. That mommy would take care of us and she didn’t have to worry. She had to know I was okay or she would worry herself sick about how to make me okay.
Her other questions was would I ever date and marry again. There was a 2 year period, or close to it, that Randy and I really struggled with our marriage. It was so bad that we had decided (well, I did and he just had to go along with it even thought it wasn’t what he wanted) that he would move out. That scared him, more than I ever thought it would. He discovered that maybe he valued me, the kids, and the life we had more than he had realized . We started working on us, and our relationship, but not before I got a full-time job and put the kids in day care for a few hours a day. I was serious. If he didn’t want to be in a relationship that worked, I was prepared to live on my own.
He came to me and told me that he really wanted to work on us. That he hated the thought of losing me. The thought of it affected him more than he could have imagined. We spent days living on bare minimum sleep so we could talk. We talked and talked. We discovered a lot about ourselves as teens and about our relationship. We really looked at where we started and where we ended up. How much we had changed. When we actually realized that we were in love and not just together for the kids. It was an epiphany for both of us and the beginning of something amazing.
The last two years, or more, of our marriage, we were so unbelievably happy. Honestly, inside and outside, our marriage could not have been better. We really had figured it out. And, we finalized it with baptisms and one last baby, Emily.
Kayla never forgot that time in our lives. The fighting and daycare rocked her world. And she was angry about it. She was convinced the reason we were fighting was because I just wanted to date other men. That I just didn’t want her daddy anymore. So, when Randy died, her thought was, that I was going to move on to the next one. Adult problems, choices, and solutions that no seven-year old could comprehend. It took her years to forgive me and understand how difficult that period of discourse was for me and Randy.
That became the new hardest task I ever completed. We all talked, guessed, made up stuff that could have happened to cause that accident in between many visits from other family and friends. I think we were all trying to avoid being alone with our own thoughts, but eventually, we had to go home and face our thoughts.
Finally, the kids and I went back to my parents house, our temporary home. I knew the next day would hold more tasks that would test the rankings on the ‘hardest thing I ever did ‘ scale. Life didn’t ask. Nope. It tore through my world like a tornado twirls through a town; destroying everything in its path. So began the journey.
“There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love.” -Washington Irving