“If you had to pick one moment, one snapshot in your life where you truly felt content, fulfilled, could you do it? Would you know the date, the time, the scene right down to every detail? If someone had asked me this question prior to December 4, 2020, I don’t think I could really answer. I’d probably say my wedding or the day our daughter was born. But now, in this moment, there is no doubt in my mind the day I felt most content, my life felt complete, was December 3, 2020.
It was a Thursday night around 6:30 p.m. My husband, Joe, had just gotten home from work 2 hours earlier than usual. Our daughter, Vienna, was 5 months old and for those first few months, I spent most of our afternoons counting down the hours until Joe came home. His presence was steady and calming and my postpartum anxiety craved that. Joe walked in the tiny kitchen door that night as usual, smiling, greeting our dog and his eyes lit up as they always did when he saw the baby. ‘Come play!’ I said as he got his big 6-foot body down on the living room rug crisscrossed and scooped up the baby. ‘I opened her new toy,’ I told him, ‘she loves it.’
As he began to play he noticed a part of the toy, a little purple phone was missing. I went down to the basement to look in the box and sure enough, the little phone was there. As I walked back up the stairs, my heart swelled and for the first time in the last few months, my anxiety truly disappeared. Here I was, with my family, in our quaint little home, baby toys scattered, laundry piled, cozy, safe, and sound. All was right with my world and in that moment, I wouldn’t have changed a thing. I turned the corner and there they were, my people, my hearts outside my body and that was my snapshot, my view. In that moment, my life felt complete.
We continued that night with bath time and our bedtime routine. He kissed the baby goodnight and I put her in the crib, blissfully unaware the next morning, our lives would be shattered, broken, changed forever.
The sun was bright on the blacktop playground, but the swings were still while the students learned from home. An unseasonably warm day for a Friday in early December, my windows were open and the fresh air filled the classroom. My first week back from maternity leave, our daughter, safe and snug with her aunt and cousin for the day, my husband on his first day of a new job, I sat at my desk. I was living the life my 9-year-old self had dreamt up in my old pink bedroom 20 years ago. If content could be captured in a picture, it would have been this.
And then, with two words, my world shattered. My husband was dead.
I met Joe when I was 18 years old. I walked into his family’s small pizza place and got my first job. Joe walked in on a Friday night and, as cliche as it sounds, the rest was history. We were together almost every day for the next 11 years after that. At 18 years old, I had met my husband, the one I would choose to spend the rest of my life with (though I didn’t know that immediately, we weren’t that cliche).
In our 11 years together, We have been through the typical: college and graduation, new jobs and more bills, petty arguments, and the occasional blowout. We experienced it, got through it, together.
We have been through heartbreak, unpreventable loss. Both our grandmothers within months of each other, and the miscarriage of our first little baby bean. We experienced it, got through it, together. We have been through the not so common, heart issues, dropping oxygen levels, low blood sugar, and open heart surgery all before the ages of 25 and 33. We experienced it, got through it, together.
Joe was born with a heart issue, a leaky valve. He had his first open-heart surgery at 6 days old. 33 years later and two months before our wedding, he had his second open heart surgery and valve replacement. The doctors were highly satisfied with the outcome. They said it went so well they would use it to teach the residents. Joe recovered quickly, felt good, strong. And 2 months later, we said I do and danced the night away with our family and friends.
Back to that sunny Friday, our last Friday. At 9:36 a.m., my phone rang. The calls came in quick succession. A voicemail followed the third one and I listened. It was the ER Doctor from Yale New Haven Hospital. They had my husband. The pit began to form in my stomach. ‘But he’s okay,’ I told myself. ‘He goes to his appointments, he’s active, healthy, takes care of himself.’ As my fingers trembled, I called back and as the phone rang, it was almost impossible to hear over the frantic beating of my heart, the relentless thumping in my ears.
Looking back, the doctor’s words are jumbled and the only sound that comes back to me is my uneven breath against the quiet still of the playground. I listened but heard nothing at all as the doctor walked me through each step, each attempt they made: lethal rhythms, shocks, an hour of work on my husband’s lifeless body. And then they came. Those two words. ‘He passed.’
In that moment, my heart stopped right along with his. He was gone. My husband, my daughter’s father, my best friend, my Joe, was gone. The rest of the memories of that first hour come and go. Sometimes, they’re so clear, so vivid, I’m right back on the floor of my school’s office, a flurry of people, my beautiful, compassionate co-workers around me. Talking, making calls, holding my hand and I sat there, numb, sick, stunned. I look back now and realize, my heart hadn’t really even begun to break, not yet. In other moments, that hour is a blur, an alternate reality, a dream, a nightmare I once had.
The looks of horror and heartbreak as I walked out of the school and made my way to the hospital have been etched in the walls of my mind. I just kept thinking, they couldn’t be for me. This wasn’t real. This isn’t happening. The 10-minute drive to the hospital felt like hours, every minute a new feeling: shock, nausea, denial, numbness. That is the one I hated and continue to struggle with the most. Numb. I couldn’t understand how an hour ago, I learned my husband had died and my stupid heart, mind, and body were numb. It makes you doubt your love, your relationship, your ability to feel as a human being. Numbness was an immediate response to death and grief I never anticipated. I hate the numb.
As I walked down the ER corridor, I could think of nothing else but seeing Joe. I didn’t know what to expect, what he’d look like, how he’d feel under my touch but I didn’t care. I wanted to see him, to be with him. The nurse drew the curtain back, I walked to his bed and I crumbled. I collapsed from the weight of the reality I now faced, from the pain radiating from my heart and from the relief. Yes, you read that right. I felt relieved. At that moment, I could lay on his chest and hold his hand and it still felt like him. I was relieved he was there with me. In my mind, he was there for the last hours we’d have and he looked like himself. The curve of his thumb felt normal in my grasp. His big feet stuck out from the sheets the way they would at home on the couch from beneath the blanket. Yet again, another emotion I look back on and question. But the reality is, it was a part of how I felt.
I don’t remember for certain how long I spent in that room. I paced, I screamed, I cried. I begged my dad not to let this be true, pleaded I didn’t want to do this, I couldn’t. But eventually, I had to go, my daughter needed me. Okay, the truth is, I’m the one who needed her. I bent and kissed his head three times as we did every time we left each other. His skin was cold and that was my cue.
That was 3 months ago. And here I am. Living each day in the pits and peaks of grief. Yesterday, I spent a lot of the day staring out our living room window, a hauntingly familiar view. It was out this window I’d watch for Joe’s car to come down the street, admire the first snowfall. The window I’d stare out and picture Vienna playing on the tiny front lawn, chalk in the driveway. The window I’d deliriously look out during the 2 a.m. feedings and enjoy the quiet peace of the street lamp and sleepy houses. Yesterday, it rained. My staring didn’t extend much beyond the soaked glass. I watched each raindrop as it hit and unhurriedly rolled down, slowing at some points, blending with others but always hitting the bottom and washing away. Like each drop was a memory, a part of the view, and no matter how hard it tried, it couldn’t stay, couldn’t last forever. And so, per usual, it made me think.
Ya know, when you’re riding backward on the train and for a split second, the view out your window is clear and focused. The colors vibrant, sounds loud, often familiar. You don’t have to rely on your memory. It’s all there in front of you. But then, just as quickly as it came, it becomes a blur of colors and waves. The details are vague, distorted and your memory starts to become tested. And after only mere minutes, it’s no longer clear, it’s not even a blur. It’s simply gone. The scene that was so close, a moment ago at your fingertips, is now replaced with a haze of colors and sounds you’ve never experienced before.
This feels a lot like loss, like my current grief. Before, my train was stopped, the picture strong, the colors distinct, sounds unclouded. All of it was in my reach. I was in control. I may not have known my destination, but my home station was solid and all my passengers were seated next to me for the ride. Until one day, in an instant, my train jerked forward at 180 miles an hour and I can’t stop it, I can’t get off. I didn’t buy this ticket, this one way and now, a round trip ticket is never an option again. The train keeps moving forward while my eyes burn, my head spins and my heart aches as they desperately look for the view that was. The seats around me are filled with family and friends and for that, I’m forever thankful. But the seat right next to me, it’s empty. My person, my passenger is gone.
But each day, as my train moves, I move along with it. Some days, I focus on breathing and getting through the next hour, and other days, I smile, I laugh, finding the light, Joe’s light, in our daughter’s eyes. So many nights feel as though I can’t possibly get up for another day, but the sun rises and so do I, so will you. Mostly, because we have no other choice but to get up, do, keep going. But also, because we are worth it. I’m certainly no expert and am navigating this new life the best I can. I find solace in writing, in leaning on family and friends, in talking out loud to Joe, and, of course, in our daughter. I grapple with the concept of being strong.
For me, it feels as though I have no other choice. What others perceive as strong, I call surviving. But then, if I were talking to a friend, I would remind her that surviving is one of the strongest things we humans can do. Our hearts seem to learn to allow happiness and heartache, anger and love, grief and joy to co-exist. I don’t think we’ll feel that every day, or notice it’s happening, but I think with each sob and smile, we’re learning how to keep living.”
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