‘John has hit his head. We’re on the way to pick you up,’ he said. ‘HIS HEAD?’ The room suddenly felt different, as if the air was being sucked out. Oh God no. ‘Maryanne, are you there?’

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What would you do if the death of your soul mate meant the birth of your dream?

‘I am so scared,’ I said to my husband, John, while walking our dog, ‘of waking up 20 years from now and still not having finished writing a book.’

John stopped, turned to me and said, ‘You’re probably right about that, Maryanne…just as long as you know that will have been your choice.’

Ouch.

Then he leaned back his head and laughed. ‘Geez,’ he said, ‘I can be a real jerk.’

Courtesy of Maryanne Pope

But in all fairness, we’d been together for 12 years by that point. That’s a long time to listen to someone talk about writing—yet doing very little in the way of actual writing. John’s dream had been to become a police officer. It had taken him eight years to get hired and I had watched him every step of the way as he worked towards his goal. Little did I know he’d also been teaching me the perseverance it took to achieve a dream.

Courtesy of Maryanne Pope

After walking the dog, we went home. John had a nap before starting his night shift at 9 p.m.—his first shift back after our vacation in Disneyland. I promised myself, yet again, that I would wake up early the next morning and do an hour of writing before going into my regular job at 7 a.m. In those days, I worked as a civilian for the same police service John did. I was a report processor in the Records Department and took incident reports from officers over the phone.

But when my alarm clock went off at 5:00 a.m. the next morning—September 29th, 2000—I reached over and pushed snooze. I don’t want to wake up. I don’t feel like writing. I don’t want to go back to my job either. Why do I have to type police reports for a living?

Ten minutes later, the alarm went off again. I pushed snooze again. I don’t want to get up. I can’t write today. I’m too tired.

Ten minutes later, the alarm went off; snooze was hit. I am SO anxious! I don’t like my job. I don’t want to go back there.

I finally dragged myself out of bed, got ready for work and drove downtown. It was eerily quiet in Records. My supervisor saw me in the hallway and asked me to go into her office. I figured I’d made a mistake on a report, before I left on vacation.

She shut the door, looked me in the eye and said, ‘John’s fallen.’

Perhaps a broken leg or arm. The thought flitted into my mind and out again.

‘You have to call his inspector right away,’ she said, handing me the phone number. ‘He’s waiting to hear from you.’

I was puzzled as to why an officer with the rank of inspector wanted to speak to me because inspectors don’t phone in incident reports. I sat down at my supervisor’s desk and was punching in the first few numbers when I finally made the connection between John’s inspector and John’s fall. This wasn’t about a report.

An older male answered the phone. ‘Is this Maryanne?,’ he asked.

‘Yeah.’

‘John’s been in an accident.’

‘Oh,’ I heard myself say.

‘Where are you right now?’ he asked.

‘At work.’

‘Is your supervisor with you?’

I swallowed. ‘Yes.’

‘OK…John has hit his head and we’re on the way to pick you up.’

‘HIS HEAD?’

The room suddenly felt different—as if the air was being sucked out.

‘Yes,’ replied the Inspector. ‘He’s at the hospital and we’re going to take you to him.’

Oh God no. 

‘Maryanne, are you there?’

‘Uh huh.’

‘I need to talk to your supervisor, OK?’

I handed the phone over. It felt as if my insides are caving in. I also had the oddest feeling that something had just begun.

My supervisor took my arm and led me to the back alley behind the police station, where we waited for John’s inspector to pick me up.

‘We had an awesome vacation,’ I said quietly.

Her eyes widened. ‘I’m really glad, Maryanne.’

Courtesy of Maryanne Pope

At the hospital, the ER doctor gave us an update: critical but stable. That’s one way to put it. The car is totaled but we’re salvaging what parts we can, would be another. Twenty minutes later, the social worker came to get me and the two of us walked down the corridor together. I asked him how John was doing.

The social worker stopped walking, so I did too. ‘He’s in pretty rough shape,’ he said.

We resumed walking. But then, for just a second, it was like I split in two. I was physically beside the social worker, yet I was also watching the two of us walk. When the social worker and I arrived at a set of doors, he took my arm. Like arriving at a party too late and entering the banquet room to find the busboys clearing the tables, no one has to tell you it’s over—you just figure it out. By the time I got to the strangely inactive emergency room, they’d obviously given up on trying to save John and were instead stabilizing his body.

Since it was the back of his head that struck the concrete, John looked much the same as when I saw him the night before. Except that now, he was unconscious, flat on his back, draped in a white sheet and had tubes sprouting out from his chest, neck and arms.

I raced to his side and grabbed his unresponsive hand. I kissed his cheek and the tears finally arrived, streaming down my face.

‘I love you,’ I whispered in his ear.

No response.

‘I love you.’

Nothing.

‘I love you, John.’

And then it happened again: I was holding John’s hand and yet I was also observing the two of us from a few feet away.

Then the social worker gently took my arm and walked what was left of me out of the emergency room. A few hours later John was declared brain-dead. He was kept on life support for another 17 hours, as they prepared his body for organ removal. He was able to donate his kidneys, pancreatic islets, and his heart saved the life of a 53-year-old man. As excruciating as the last day of John’s life was for me and all his loved ones, I am beyond grateful to have been able to spend the day with him as he passed between life and death.

Courtesy of Maryanne Pope

John had responded to a break and enter complaint at a warehouse and was searching the mezzanine level for an intruder, when he stepped through an unmarked false ceiling and fell nine feet into the lunchroom below. There had been no safety railing in place to warn him—or anyone else—of the danger.

He was 32. We both were.

Courtesy of Maryanne Pope

The call turned out to be a false alarm; there was no intruder in the building. My wake-up call, however, was devastatingly real. My heart and life were shattered but my soul had been awakened. John gave his life protecting a premise that did not need protecting. How was I supposed to accept that?

Thankfully, I didn’t have to do it alone. Two days after John died, I got a call from one of his police recruit classmates.

‘We’re creating a memorial pin,’ he said, ‘and selling it to police officers to raise money. When you’re ready, would you like to help us figure out what to do with it?’

I said yes. By the time of John’s funeral, his recruit classmates had raised more than $12,000. In the months to follow, we decided to tackle the issue that led to John’s death: an unsafe workplace. The John Petropoulos Memorial Fund became a charity that raises public awareness about why and how people need to ensure their workplaces are safe for everyone, including emergency responders.

Because John died in the line of duty, I was entitled to receive his pay check—for the rest of my life. For a writer, this was a dream come true. I just didn’t have my soulmate to share it with.

Courtesy of Maryanne Pope

Two weeks after John’s death, I woke up one morning and started writing what would become my book, A Widow’s Awakening—the book I was meant to write. I couldn’t change what happened to John, but I could choose how to move forward…and I looked to our shared past for guidance. It took me eight years, a dozen rewrites and an ocean of tears to get the manuscript—and me—where it needed to be for publication. But I did it. And the process of writing showed me the path out of grief.

John’s sudden and easily preventable death made me realize how precious life is—and how fast it can end. We may think we have all the time in the world to do what we are here to do…but we might not.

Losing him just about killed me…literally. There were days when I wished it would; death would have been preferable to the blinding pain of grief. But it didn’t. In fact, his death gave me a beautiful new life—just not the one I’d planned on.

Nearly two decades have now passed since John’s death. I have my own company and in addition to books, I also write playscripts, screenplays and blogs. The John Petropoulos Memorial Fund is going strong and I am still the Board Chair. The Fund has produced a powerful 10-minute safety video, as well as eight 30-second public service announcements that have aired on TV over 2 million times.

John’s life ended abruptly and unfairly on September 29th, 2000. But what he stood for as a police officer lives on in his memorial fund, his colleagues, family, friends and me. John cared deeply about making the world a better place. He gave his life doing a job he believed in.

Courtesy of Maryanne Pope

Today, I live where I want to live, do the work I believe in, and travel where I wish to go. I have a freedom I never thought imaginable. But not a day goes by that I don’t remember the tremendous cost at which this freedom came. John gave me everything he could in life and what he couldn’t, he gave me in death. As difficult as it was for our relationship to end with an argument, his tough love words turned out to be a tremendous gift.

John believed in my dream of becoming a writer. I wish it didn’t take his death for me to believe in myself. Unfortunately, it did. But perhaps that’s part of the reason I write…to encourage others. If there is something you need to do, don’t wait for a tragedy to wake you up to the importance of achieving your dreams.”

Courtesy of Maryanne Pope

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Maryanne Pope of Parksville, British Columbia, Canada. She is the author of A Widow’s Awakening. You can follow her on Instagram here. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

Read more powerful stories of losing loved ones on the job:

‘Two men in uniform showed up at her door. ‘They’re coming. The Marines are coming.’ I looked at my mom. ‘I have to go,’ I said, and hung up immediately.’

‘Mommy, what’s wrong?’ I held her face in my hands and brought her eyes to mine. ‘Baby, there was an accident. Daddy died this morning,’ I whispered to my 12-year-old daughter.’

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