It’s not often things catch me by surprise or take me unawares. The death of my wife did. So did the IRS taking an insane amount of time to get me a refund check.
Today I got something that just threw me for a loop.
It’s been a hard, difficult day, I have to admit. During my lunch hour I spoke with the monument company to finalize Andrea’s gravestone. Nothing has hit me as hard or affected me as much as that has. I don’t honestly know why, other than the fact that – and I’ve said this before – this just closes the door. For good. This confirms, for the world and for me that she’s gone, for good, and I would go to the cemetery and there it is written in literal stone that she’s passed and left us behind. I don’t like being emotionally out of control. I don’t really drink because of that. I get that I’m a bit more “heart on my sleeve” than many men, but that doesn’t mean I like being that way.
The other thing to bear in mind is that this blog isn’t a full picture of me as a person or my life. This is a snapshot, a small little glimpse at moments in our lives. It’s like a verbal picture, capturing the whole moment in a thousand words. I was the typical guy, liking my Husker games and looking for the KC Chiefs on the television. I just didn’t have the patience or the wearwithall to deal with losing all the time, either, so it’s not a major part of my weekends. Especially not now, with four children to care for. I hate being out of control and when Andrea left she took my self control with her so now the silliest of emotional things affect me and I leave the room so people don’t see me that way. Particularly the kids.
So today really hit me hard when I had to deal with this gravestone and look at the fact that I was giving her this monument to who she was. How do you sum up a person? I posted what I want to put and it’s appropriate because it’s for me, and her sister, and her parents. This is who she was – my sweet angel.
But in the midst of this I have to deal with real life as well. With the refund check here, finally, I catch up on bills. I paid the phone bill; I paid the car payment; I paid the kids’ tuition. I get that many will tell me that I should go to the public school and not deal with this . . . but the reality is that I cannot do that. We all faced so many changes: life, love, job, home and Abbi – the strongest of the four right now – school. I couldn’t do that to the little ones, particularly Hannah and Sam. As it stands now, all three of those little ones look to me for stability, even if I’m feeling less than stable.
So when I was finishing up the now very late registration packet for the kids, I sent a note to the school’s bookkeeper that I had sent a check for the back tuition. I was working on the registration deposit.
Then came the email: “an anonymous donor has paid $500 toward your registration.” The school says the family wants us to know how special we are.
Now, you may think $500 is no big deal in today’s economy, but it is. It’s a staggering amount of money for us. We’ve had weeks where we ate what we had in the house, be it breakfast for supper or Mac & Cheese . . . so to have another $500, so I can go pick up the kids in Nebraska without killing my parents’ budget; so I can buy uniforms for the kids who have now grown out of them…it’s huge.
Two years ago I would have flushed with embarrassment getting this kind of help. Today, I flush with humility that others would think enough of myself or the kids to help us this way. We are abundantly loved and cared for and it’s apparent that’s not just from our own family and close circle of friends.
It’s hard to know that you need the help of others, it really is. But to receive it, when in the past I’d given help without really realizing the effect it would have on others I am amazed. I am surprised and insanely thankful. In a day where I was filled with emotion and at my lowest I’d been since last year . . . someone pulled me out of that abyss, just when I needed it.
I got home last night with a nagging dread hanging over my head. I knew there was nothing for a snack for the kids’ lunches, not made anyway. I had planned on making brownies, I’d even taken out all the stuff to make them this morning when I was on the way out the door just so I’d remind myself that “yes, dumb a**, you need to get off your sick lazy butt and make these!” I hadn’t forgotten, though, I was dreading it.
I was so run down, tired and lazy that I actually told my daughter to look up food on Chilis.com and order me a burger and I’d pick up food on the way home. I was not happy, I was tired, I was being very lazy, insanely non-nutritious and I really didn’t give a crap. I just didn’t have the energy. I knew the kitchen was a mess. I knew the kids weren’t cooperating and knew I was sick, and I just didn’t have the energy to deal with all that and cook dinner.
So I picked up the dinner, waiting in the lobby of the restaurant with a free drink (since it took longer than they said. Very nice of them, I thought) and read emails and checked messages.
As a very simple little gesture, I ordered some strawberries from the company “Sherries Berries” here in Sacramento (yeah, I know, they’re corporate now, but I still imagine they’re local) and had them shipped to Andrea’s best friend from college for Valentine’s Day. For me, they weren’t a major deal. I didn’t want flowers, they die, cost an insane amount of money for a brief period of happiness, and I never understood the “code” of flower giving. Red is love, was it white was friendship, or was that yellow? Sterling silver, they can make flowers that color? My theory . . . you can never go wrong with chocolate, so that’s where I went.
While I picked up the food I saw that the berries had arrived and made my friend’s day. There really is nothing like knowing you’ve touched someone, even in the smallest way. I haven’t really had that in nearly 11 months. There’s just a little fuzzy feeling that grows in your belly. It’s not anything romantic, not a crush or an infatuation, it’s the feeling of knowing you’ve done something . . . a simple thing, a simple gesture that says “you did so much for us, we have to do at least a little something in return for you.”
Which gets me home. I showed up with the food, the kids all thrilled that they got individual meals rather than having to deal with that crappy homemade stuff that Dad forces us to eat every day. The quesadilla, fajitas, chicken strips, burger combination seemed to fit with their minds pretty well. We didn’t even eat at the dinner table, had our little styrofoam containers in front of us on our laps and ate while watching the TV. We were the equivalent of the pre-time machine McFly family in Back to the Future. All we needed was Ralph and Alice on the TV and it would have been perfect.
Dinner ended, we’d all appropriately gorged ourselves on portions too big and greased our gullets and I felt somehow worse than when I got home. I steeled my resolve, got up from the couch, threw out the crappy styrofoam container and headed into the kitchen to begin making the brownies I’d singled out as the treat for their lunches. I looked first for the little metal pan I use for them . . . only to find that it was filled with brownies! I mean, sure, half the pan was eaten, but there was still a half pan of brownies there, ready, and waiting for lunches tomorrow!
I must have looked puzzled because my middle, Hannah, asked “what’s wrong Dad?”
“I was going to make brownies, but . . . ”
“Oh, yeah, Abbi figured you weren’t up to it so she made them.”
“Really? I am going to kiss her!”
And I did. I went over to Abbi’s room, which is actually removed from the rest of us, she’s downstairs in her own world. I knocked on her door and she said “come in!”
I walked up to her and immediately kissed her on the forehead and gave her a great big hug!
“What was that for?”
“For making brownies!”
“Oh . . . I figured you needed some help.”
“Well, you get another kiss!”
So I did. My day was made by chocolate. Who would have known?
Abbi didn’t think twice about having made a simple pan filled with brownies, but she had no idea how much serenity they’d given me.
It’s the simple things. The littlest helps that pushed me to move on to the next day, and they have no idea it’s even coming.
There are a number of really strange things that have happened since our new story began.
Obviously, there’s the strange events of the hospital. When Andrea passed away, the doctors were fantastic, all supportive, worried that I hadn’t told the kids yet.
But After they took me into a room, I thought to give me privacy but now I wonder if it was so I’d stop being so loud and calling attention to the fact that someone died in their hospital, they showered me with platitudes, brought in a chaplain, asked me if I was OK, even gave me a glass of funky tasting water since I’d gotten a little dehydrated.
But the thing that bothered me the most was that about 20 minutes to a half hour later they just started inundating me with information. They wanted me to decide on a mortuary – then and there, no holds barred, immediate decision – and get them started in dealing with Andrea’s body. I know this will sound crazy, but it seemed like a bunch of little kids worried that they might get “cooties”. Oh my God, there’s a body in there! I hadn’t even had a chance to say goodbye.
Then they gave me a full list of everything I’d have to do. I have to be honest with you, they beat the mortuary drum loudest, and I picked one. The one closest to my house. I got insanely lucky that the people I chose were great people, worked with my church, and were sincerely wanting to help me.
But 20 minutes after Andrea’s death, I’m getting pelted with things I have to do. I haven’t even had time to fathom she’s gone. I didn’t know HOW I was going to go home and break my kids’ hearts. I didn’t know what to do.
I asked to say good-bye. I went in the room. I heard some nurse complaining that I hadn’t put on the scrubs, rubber gloves, all the crap I wore for days because she had some sort of infection on her leg they never figured out. I ignored her. They were in a gigantic hurry to get me moving so they could process her body, but she still had the IV hooked up, the syringes and wrappers still being picked up, and she had the tube in her mouth. I couldn’t kiss her goodbye.
I don’t remember what I said. I put my forehead on hers, said a prayer to myself, and told her goodbye. I didn’t want to stay, it was just so hard, but I didn’t want to go, either. This was the very last time I’d ever see her. I made my peace, took a deep breath, and steeled myself for the trip home and what I had to do.
Then the chaplain grabs my hand . . . clamped around my wrist, and just says “pray with me” . . . and starts chanting the “Our Father”. I’m sorry, I’d said my words. I had prayed to God, talked to Andrea, begged him to make sure she was finally safe and happy. I told the chaplain I’d said my prayers and stalked out of the room. I wasn’t going to let these people drag me through any more emotional sludge. I had enough pain to deal with now.
I got home and intentionally waited until right before their closing to call the mortuary. If they wanted her out that badly, they’d have to do it on MY timeline.
The next few weeks, though, showed some of the most amazing pieces of humanity I’d ever experienced. My parents were the first. You have to understand, my father absolutely despises California. He hates the scenery, the people, the attitude, everything about it. Just coming here is hard for him, I can tell, but he doesn’t stay away.
The night Andrea ended up on a respirator the hospital called me at two in the morning. I’d actually just gotten into bed, and Hannah and Noah were sleeping in there already. They told me the nurses laid Andrea, a patient who can hardly breathe and fighting pneumonia, the weight of her body pushing on her lungs making it harder to breathe , on her back to clean her up. Instead she went into respiratory arrest. They said she was on sedation and respirator but they couldn’t calm her down and could I come there . . . it was really bad.
I called my Dad and Mom on the way. It was raining, pitch black, and I’d had to leave Abbi to watch the kids. I was a mess. I didn’t know what to do and I was freaking out. I knew what respiratory arrest meant and they didn’t know how long Andrea had been without oxygen to her brain. I told Dad, near hyperventilation what had happened. Dad is usually my voice of reason, my calm in the storm. They had left Nebraska, were on their way to visit my older brother in Texas and had stopped in Norman, Oklahoma to spend the night. I knew I was in trouble when Dad just said “Oh, God.” That was it. Dad is never without an answer, but this night, he just said we’d have to hope she comes out of it and that the doctors are helping her fight. “Oh, God,” he said again. I told him I just needed him to calm me down, which he did.
“We’re on our way, son. We’ll be there in a couple days.”
While I was on the phone, they’d gotten dressed, packed up, and just jumped in the car, at 4am their time, and turned the car West. They got to our house just a couple hours after Andrea died.
At the funeral, it was hard. At the cemetery was harder. People wanted to crowd into the tent with us and I kept them back so the kids and I could be there. I got through the prayers. Andrea’s sister got us all flowers – roses, her favorite – that we could put on the casket. Everyone left, and something inside me just collapsed. I lost it, hysterical, to the point I started to fall. And there . . . was my dad. He grabbed me, held me in his arms tighter than he had in years. He told me he knew, it was OK. I could take as long as I needed. When I was able to stand up again, apologizing, he chuckled, picking up his handkerchief, saying “dammit, I thought I was going to make it through this. Showed me, huh?”
He knew just when and how much to lighten me up. He put his arm around me and helped me so I could walk back to the car.
They stayed until the weekend after they kids got out of school, literally months living with us and taking care of us until we could start walking again by ourselves.
Andrea’s best friend, a person I went to High School with, showed up and helped with the kids the day Andrea died as well. If she’d done nothing more than be the godmother to Hannah that she was, we’d have been blessed. Instead, she helped us get organized, and was yet another pillar holding up our foundations. I know it wasn’t easy for her. We were selfish, wallowing in our grief, and only now realize how insanely difficult in different ways this had to be for her, Andrea’s sister, all of them, it was.
That was the finite, emotional and physical help. We go so much help to pay for things from others. I didn’t have to cook for weeks after the funeral. We paid for the rest of tuition and expenses and bills with help from friends I haven’t seen in years. For every crazy, awful person that just wants to make themselves feel better by throwing cliche’d statements at me there was the friend who just wanted to take us out for pizza.
Then there were the crazy things – an anonymous donation to our bank account of a thousand dollars. A thousand bucks! Who does that?! I don’t know, but if I’m ever in a position to do it, I will. I was completely blown away by the support we got from our church community and those who loved and cared for us. It was phenomenal. I got two insanely expensive boxed sets – the 40th anniversary of Layla . . . the Deluxe Edition of Traffic’s “John Barleycorn Must Die”. To this day, these insanely expensive sets, filled with 180g vinyl, dolby surround mixes, bound books and artwork, sit anonymously given, no name attached. Sure, Clapton’s a given for me, but Traffic? Only someone who knows me will knows I have the respect I have for Winwood. I have no idea where these came from and I kinda like it that way. It is help selflessly given, and make no mistake, to listen to Layla, or hear the last phrases of “Thorn Tree in the Garden” (even if it is about Bobby Whitlock’s dog) are amazing things. Both albums gave me cathartic, new ways to look at this story of lost love. The Majnun, the madman, dying himself lying on the grave of his love because they’ll never be together. That’s profound.
I know I’m not the subject of a Persian love story. But I do have love around me. When I’m having an awful day and randomly this friend sends a text saying “love you, my friend,” I am pulled back up to ground level.
The old song says “I’m tore down . . . almost level with the ground.” That’s the thing I have to remember. I’m almost level with the ground.