I cannot say thank you enough to each of you for what you have done for us over the last eleven weeks and four days (but who’s counting). To say that it has been a struggle would be an understatement. But we have all grown a lot since January 3, 2017. In a single instant, I learned two of the most important lessons of my life.
I cannot control anything, and I cannot fix everything.
I have also learned enough to write a book about what to do – and what not to do – for grieving families. Wow! The what-not-to-say book is something we have already begun to smile about – if not laugh out loud. (Note: Do not call a widow who lost the great love of her life less than a month before, and tell her that she is going to be okay because she’s “still marketable.”)
On the other hand, our extended family, friends and community have raised the bar so high in Being There. And, equally important, in Giving Us Space. Amazing meals. Bailey’s Irish Cream. Chocolate Covered Almonds. Advil PM. Dog Walks. Bringing Toilet Paper. Tequila. And Trash Bags. Pantry Organization. Spice Cabinet Alphabetization. Folding Clothes. Going to the Laundry. Haircuts. Crystals. Moving Mark’s Clothes. And Moving Them Again. And Taking Them Away. Holding My Hand. (And kicking my ass a couple of times when I was just being pathetic).
And after the memorial, you were still here. A phone call away. (though I have been avoiding the phone so please forgive me if I have not returned calls promptly). A knock on the door when I thought I wanted to be alone and I needed you most.
And so here we are. It’s been eleven weeks and three days since I lost the great love of my life. I cannot say enough about how amazing the past thirteen years have been. Mark took my breath away. I kicked my foot up when he kissed me. And we laughed.
And since January 3, I have been heartbroken and lost.
Our lives have changed. All five of our children are closer than they have ever been, and I feel closer to each of them than ever before. Maybe in part because of those two lessons it took me this long to learn.
I never wanted to let them see me weak – and not in control – and not able to fix things.
Today, the meltdowns are rare. Not completely gone. I do stand in front of the gift bag (yes, a red paper gift bag with white fiberboard box that fits perfectly inside and holds Mark’s ashes) and say, “What the hell am I supposed to do now!” pretty regularly. And my heart skips a beat when I see something I want to share with him right now and remember.
He’s not here.
As much as I have struggled with what happened, I have been stumbling over what’s next. I considered writing a blog, but quickly realized that I didn’t want to read some pathetic tome about getting through loss. There are plenty of people doing that. Geez – I would even avoid my own blog about that. I thought about writing a lot of those thoughts I have been meaning to put down in my Moleskine journal.
Just for me. And I will probably do that sometime.
Meanwhile, life is going on. For the past year, I have been coordinating and producing a video project that will be shown in police departments across the nation about resiliency and recovery, and how the actions of the first responders immediately after a traumatic event (specifically active shooter events) in a community or a neighborhood or a family can start the recovery at the scene. We are talking to survivors, and heroes and community leaders – folks with boots in the ground who helped in the recovery. Lessons learned. Things that worked. Things that didn’t.
Little did I know that I would face my own boots-on-the-ground experience on January 3 of this year.
It was a fairly normal day. Mark was suffering from what we thought was a terrible allergy/sinus infection. We had been in the ER a few days earlier where he was given allergy meds and antibiotics. He was scheduled for foot surgery in December in San Antonio – complications from diabetes that had limited his mobility to the point where he was unable to drive and only walk with a walker. The surgery had been postponed due to the upper respiratory issues and was on the books for January 19.
I was leaving on Jan 5 for the Delbert McClinton cruise, to pre-promote the book, and rest and relax and listen to great music. Mark loved the cruise, but could not go this year because of his mobility issues. DeLynn was planning to come in and stay with him while I was gone, and the other kids were going to pitch in and help with the usual routine.
Mark woke up as I was getting ready for work, and asked me if I was “hearing all of that noise.” I heard nothing. He said he heard voices like someone had been injured on the lot next door to our house, and was screaming for help. There was nothing.
I said that maybe he was half dreaming and he agreed. He got up and started his morning routine. I said, “I love you,” and he said, “You’re gorgeous,” and I laughed, and gave him a kiss, and went to my office.
I had to run an errand and stopped by the house at about 10:30. He was sitting in his chair, watching CNN. He was planning to have a salad for lunch. Routine conversation. I said, “I love you, have a good day.” He said, “Love you too. See you later.”
Mark and I wrote emails, text msgs, and notes to each other all the time. I generally went to bed before he did, and it was not uncommon to wake up the next morning and find a late night love-letter email waiting for me to start my day.
I got an email from him at about 1:30 that afternoon. “Just watched Paul Ryan get sworn in. Ugh. Think I’ll go take a nap. Love you.” I was busy and didn’t get another email from him.
In journalism lingo, here comes the part we call “burying the lede.” It means beginning the story with details of minor importance while postponing the most newsworthy or essential facts.
I left the office a little before 5, got home and he was not in his usual spot on the sofa. I went into the bedroom and he was not on the bed. Barkley was laying across the doorway to the bathroom. I stepped across him, and Mark was slumped in a chair. I thought he had hit his head or vomited. There was something all over the floor and blood everywhere. I grabbed him to my chest to try to fix him, and said, “Oh no. Oh, Mark.” And screamed for Patrick, who was in his room, with headphones on – working at his telecommuting job.
I rant to the living room and dumped my purse and found my phone. Patrick ran with me back into the bathroom. He was reaching for Mark to move him to the floor when I saw the gun – on the floor of the closet next to the chair– where it had fallen after he pulled the trigger.
The firearm was a family heirloom – a Colt .45 that his highly-decorated Marine Corps father had purchased in 1943, and carried with him through WWII, the Chosin Reservoir in Korea, and leading the 11th Marines, 1st Marine Division through Viet Nam. Mark had showed it to me, and told me stories about it, but I had never seen Mark shoot it. In fact, he never shot a gun in the thirteen years we were together.
Patrick and I were both on the phone with the 911 operator when I saw the gun. She told us to go outside and we did – clinging, holding one another, down on our knees on the sidewalk, sobbing. The fire department, EMS and police came. They asked me who I wanted to call. Who do you call? I asked for my colleague who just retired from the local SWAT team. He would be able to deal with the process. John Curnutt arrived quickly.
Our neighbor, Brian Burleson, drove by the house and saw the commotion, and went directly around the corner to the Porterfields’, our best friends. He told Winton, “A lot of emergency vehicles are at Diana’s and Mark’s. Joanne Prado (the Justice of the Peace) just drove up.”
Winton was at our house within minutes. Kim arrived soon after. We were all journalists. The JP arriving with emergency vehicles can only mean one thing.
We started making calls. Our family has blended famously, and it is hard to say stepchildren – or mine and his – but I called “my” kids, Jenni, Sterling, and HalleyAnna got to the house quickly. Patrick made the hardest call. He called his sister, DeLynn. I told him to call his mom, Becky, and ask her to come over too. DeLynn drove up from Katy, and was here in record time.
That evening and the days to follow blurred together. I knew that there was little I could control anymore, but one thing was important enough to push through the fog. I did not want everyone to know that Mark had died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
I did not want him to be defined by that final moment.
(As an aside, the final toxicology reports from the autopsy revealed severe kidney failure, possibly contributing to hearing voices and gaining a substantial amount weight in the last two weeks)
When the Austin American Statesman reporter called to ask me about a news obit, they asked how he died. I said “From complications from diabetes.” I will stand by that. The diabetes was at the root of all of his illnesses.
Mark did not leave a note. In fact, he had a pretty normal day up until he decided to end his life.
He had paid the electric bill online, and written the mortgage check earlier on that ordinary day. No. He didn’t leave any indication as to why he did this. If he made the decision that he was not getting better and did not want to spend more time in hospitals, filling up with prescription meds and being basically locked up at home, I am going to accept it. I don’t really have a choice.
The kids have been unbelievable. At least one of them is within arm’s reach (or at least their phone number is) any time I feel like I might stumble or fall. They are pulling together and surviving their own challenges while keeping an eye on me.
So, we got through the first couple of weeks. We got through the memorial service. We got through getting the cremains (in the red paper gift bag). We got through sorting through Mark’s clothes, and giving them all good homes. And I got through Valentine’s Day. Our anniversary is right around the corner. And Barkley is constantly by my side. Faithful.
And here I am today. Eleven weeks and four days from the moment Mark was pronounced dead.
My life is now divided by an indelible demarcation – BEFORE and AFTER January 3, 2017.
Last Tuesday, while working on the video project, I found myself in a debate with someone about the use of the word victim vs. survivor, with regard to community tragedies and school shootings. I considered the mortally wounded “victims,” and those who lived through it “survivors.” The other person said he thought everyone involved was a victim.
I said, “Victims give in. Survivors go on.”
And then I went home and wondered which word describes me.
The next day, DeLynn sent me a text about an “Out of the Darkness” walk at the University of Houston. Hosted by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, it is an event that is dedicated to providing support to those affected by suicide.
She wanted to create a team to raise money for the AFSP, to bring the stigma of suicide “out of the darkness,” and to memorialize her dad, but first needed to be sure I was okay with it. I said, “Of course. I am glad you are doing that.” She asked if I was sure – because, she said that if she does this, she wants to tell the story.
The stigma is real.
Today, I don’t know who among our family and friends knows and who doesn’t know that Mark’s “complication from diabetes” was, in actuality, a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. I have come to believe that most everyone knows, and, thankfully, you are too polite to ask for the (literally) gory details. I have tried to give you all of the details in this email, and answer the questions you may have.
I have no more answers to any questions, and I really have a difficult time talking about it. When people wisely nod and say, “Oh yes, everyone’s grief is different,” it is often followed by examples of what worked for them. And I have pretended that whatever they said would help.
But it’s getting better.
I have learned a lot in the last few weeks. It was only last Friday when we finished dealing with the insurance claim for remodeling the bathroom, and we paid the contractor. And I have put great effort into imitating the person I used to be. Which leads to people saying, “Wow, you are doing great.” Or “It’s good to see you back in the swing of things.” And I try to smile and say, “Thanks.” And “Fine.” And “Yeah.”
I am glad that DeLynn’s idea of the walk was the catalyst to make me realize that I am coming out of the darkness, too. I am cautious. I am sad. I miss Mark terribly. And most of all, I do not want him to be remembered for the last thing he did in his life. I hope you will remember what an amazing, wonderful, romantic, funny, smart and loving man he was. And how happy we were together.
I listening to my wonderful psychoanalyst, and taking her advice. I have learned that post traumatic stress is real, and am dealing with this the only way I can. I can’t talk on the phone.
I cannot have a conversation about this – because there is nothing more to say. Now you know all that I do. I am going “off the grid” for a little while. I desperately need to take some quiet time for myself. And both my psychoanalyst and internist have told me that I need to start focusing on myself. And try to heal my broken heart. I am the only one who can do that. I guess I understand it will take time and I have to take some baby steps to get there.
Then I will turn the page or start a new chapter in my life. It may be a whole new book. Thank you for being there.
Listening to Theme from M*A*S*H* by Michael Altman and Johnny Mansel