‘Who’s going to love me now?’ Tears slid down his face, and I knew he wouldn’t want to live with the scars.’: Young widow shares grief journey after losing husband in tragic accident

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Disclaimer: This story contains graphic details of loss of life that may be triggering to some.

“When I was finally able to clear my head and open my eyes, there was a black, blank slate wall as far and as wide as I could see…metaphorically speaking. Everything I had ever imagined for myself and our toddler son was gone. My slice of paradise had disappeared, and for a bit of time, I thought I had imagined it; but there was proof, hard evidence I had, in fact, found the man of my dreams three years prior.

I turned twenty-one and felt old. To bring some light and fun into my life, my sister arranged a blind date for me. She was dating a Navy guy from a local hospital base who had three roommates. Apparently, she invited them over to our apartment with the agreement that I could choose one for a date. I was getting ready for the evening when I heard a commotion in the kitchen, and as I entered the main living area, I was aware of three young men.

One of them—the only one I really noticed—had his back to me but oh….what a view. He wore white flared pants and a camel-colored short sleeve shirt. He was the tallest, blonde and broad-shouldered. Even from the rear, there was no doubt in my mind I was interested and immediately attracted. It was a visceral physical attraction. When he turned around and smiled, I could barely breathe. This blonde god was the kind of man who would never, ever, be interested in a gal like me.

A young man in a blue collared shirt
Courtesy of Olan Mills

That kind of attractive had never bothered with girls like me. Even though I had corrected my ‘buck-teeth’ issue with orthodontics and dental surgery—my body image was still strongly tethered to the original version of me. I felt an immediate sense of disappointment as I recalled the thousands of rejections that had previously taken place (it was probably dozens, but it felt like thousands). The other two guys were great, but I put them all in the same category—too attractive to be interested in me. I felt disappointed but attempted to have fun as I knew Al was excited about ‘hooking me up’.

The tall one—the one who had first caught my breath —asked to lie down at midnight. He explained he had an oral surgery procedure the next morning and was unable to eat or drink anything after midnight, so he might as well sleep. I directed him to my room and carried on. An hour or more went by…I was curious. I walked back to my room, opened the door, and looked in on this human hunk who was lying in my bed. He looked up.

‘You know—it’s not just any man who gets to sleep in my bed.’ I felt brave. He invited me in. I sat on the edge of my bed and talked with him until it was obvious that everyone else had quieted down and was ending the night. He kissed me, or maybe I kissed him, or we just simply moved into one another in some romantic and wanton way. I believe I heard trumpets or something coming from the heavens. I knew I wanted to kiss him again over and over and over. I knew I didn’t deserve him. I hoped he wanted me. It was a beginning.

A husband and wife dancing
Courtesy of Leslyn Kantner

Truth be told, I was immediately in love, or at least I was in love with the idea that a man who ‘looked like him’ would be interested in me. I gradually fell in love with the family attributes he embodied, the way he allowed me to feel special and beautiful, the insecurities he trusted me with. It was the first time I understood I was not the only one who felt unlovable. He felt that way too—even though he was physically beautiful. An ah-ha moment…Beautiful people could feel unworthy!

He was Francis Marion Rockefeller (Rocky to me), and he was my prince charming. He was the vision of everything I had ever hoped for, and it was rough. We were so young. He was fourteen months younger than me and was still nineteen. We were both broken in our individual ways, but we didn’t know it. There was a void in our awareness. To fulfill the Cinderella story, we got married and began a life together that included a gestationally-late ten-pound baby just over a year later.

A young mother holds her baby with her husband
Courtesy of Leslyn Kantner

Anyone who’s been there knows that young love is riddled with challenges as maturity begins to settle into each person differently. It can become a dance, a tug of war, and a wrestling match simultaneously in our emotions and attitudes. Our life together was no different, only that most days, just by stopping for a moment to catch the persistent glimmer in one another’s eye, we could ward off serious damage to our efforts. That spark remained unwavering. It was the glue with which we repaired any battle wounds each night as we built a life and future together in our minds.

One of those battles was over a pig I eventually named ‘Christmas’ that Rocky brought home to raise. We were barely scraping by, and this pig was going to cost us money. The rationale that it would—eventually—save us money by having a freezer full of fresh pork, went unyielded by me. By March, we were enjoying bacon with friends who came for the weekend with their children. It was Saturday morning, and we were making plans for the day as we finished a big breakfast. The kids were getting restless, so we sent them and their parents outdoors with a kite I had just picked up to settle their boredom while Rocky and I got the kitchen cleaned up.

It was quiet in the house and my frisky man who found sexy in everything we did together was more about finding five minutes of privacy than he was about cleaning up—I quickly understood his sudden eagerness to wash dishes. The only thing between us and our company was an unlocked door, so I was compelled to reject this advance and asked for a postponement of his proposed rapture.

It wasn’t but a few minutes later (I thankfully made the right decision) that we heard a commotion outside and went out to discover that someone had let go of the kite and it was now flying—fully engaged with the wind—from the high-tension power line that crossed through the adjacent field. Oh well…. it was only a $5 kite.

We began finalizing our plans about how we would spend the rest of the day—the zoo or the waterfront? For some reason, the men were hyper-concerned about leaving that kite where it was. They were convinced if the wind died down, the kite could become a hazard if it was still attached to the power line and started to devise a plan to dislodge it. The plan was to throw bricks up to jar the stick that was holding the kite string off the wires. They grabbed a couple of bricks and threw—over and over and over.

There were a couple of close calls but ultimately, they were exhausting themselves chasing the brick after each throw. It apparently seemed like a good idea to get a rope and tie it around the brick, so after throwing it, they could simply pull it back. There was no arguing with either of them. They were explicit in their goal. Throw after throw, and then, the brick did exactly what that kite stick had done—wrapped right around the power line and was dangling…taunting those young, stubborn, invincible men.

We women were getting frustrated and impatient. The kids were still restless, and it felt as though the men were inviting trouble. They agreed they would stop after getting the rope down: they would give up on the kite. Just pulling on the rope wasn’t working, so they used their limited knowledge of physics to consider that by tying a brick around the dangling end of the rope and throwing it up, the potential for it to make it up and over (i.e. unwrapping from) the line, was better. What no one knew is the ‘rope’ they were using was the old style of clothesline…rubber-coated copper wire. As Rocky attempted to wrap the ‘rope’ around the brick, the exposed end made contact and there was suddenly a route for the 44,000 volts of electricity to ground. There was a flash of light—screams—and I looked up in time to see my blonde god falling backward.

In those first minutes, the blur people speak of became my reality. Life was happening all at once and had completely stopped simultaneously. I could hear the Life Flight helicopter approaching as I saw Rocky attempt to stand and Jack yelling at him to calm down. Someone had enough wherewithal to think he was probably in shock, and they were attempting to wrap him in blankets. They wouldn’t let me get close.

Where did all those people come from? We lived in the country, out in the middle of nowhere, but the dirt road was lined with trucks and cars and people. The only real sound came from inside my head, where screams overlapped with ‘How? What? Shit! Oh my God!’— his name on repeat between the sobs. Where was my baby? Someone had taken the children someplace and part of me didn’t care. I couldn’t think. I wanted my mother. I remember she was on the phone trying to tell me to get in the car and she would meet me at the hospital. I have no idea how I got there. I have no memory of the hour-long drive. I’m pretty sure someone else drove.

As soon as I gave my name in the ER, I was ushered into a private room where my mom and stepdad were waiting. They were with a doctor, and I was convinced he was telling them Rocky was dead. I buried my face in my mom’s chest as she wrapped her arms around me. I intentionally cried loud enough not to hear. I wanted to fold into the floor, to go back to that morning, to say yes and steal five minutes of sexy time, to go even further and walk past the kite instead of buying it. I wanted to go back to anywhere but there.

‘He’s alive,’ they were all saying. ‘It’s bad, but he’s alive.’ After minutes of deep breathing, I could hear again. The doctors were trying to tell me he’d been taken to surgery; after electrocution, time was of the essence. He had been microwaved. They explained the electricity entered through his hands (which were thrust up to his chest) and then exited through his feet and buttocks as he fell to the ground. The entrance wounds were the worst. They were going to have to cut away the badly burned parts if they were going to have any hope of preventing infection. I gave my permission.

My parents had seen him as he came in off the chopper and told me he was conscious. One of the medics had even shared that while in flight—he had discussed his low blood pressure as being impossible since he was awake and alert (Rocky had been a Corpsman medic in the Navy and was headed to nursing school that Fall). We all waited.

Ten days in the burn trauma unit was all his body could survive. I was with him the one time he opened his eyes right after the doctors said they’d had to amputate several fingers from one hand and most of his other arm. There were tears sliding down his face, and I knew he would not want to live with those scars; maturity had not settled deeply enough upon his spirit. He surrendered to the injuries within hours of that news and left the damaged body during a debriding session in the operating room. When the nurses came into the waiting room to get me, I knew the moment I looked up. He was gone. My first thought was ‘Who’s going to love me now?’

Young husband and wife together
Courtesy of Leslyn Kantner

The funeral was apropos for a 23-year-old. We played his favorite song by Little River Band and ‘our’ song, ‘Faithfully’ by Journey. Someone had also suggested ‘On Eagle’s Wings,’ and I agreed although I had never heard it. If you know, you know…I lost my breath through the tears for years afterward each time I had to endure that composition.

Eventually, I would discover I had emotional trauma as a result of that funeral experience, but while it was all happening, I bucked up and demonstrated I was the young woman people had learned to expect. I demonstrated a stoic, mature, and acceptable variation of grief. I took a week off of work and went to a beach house with a girlfriend and all of our children. Then I took a deep breath and went back into my life with a solitary focus on raising our son.

That was all I could do because each time I tried to see anything else, there was nothing. Everything I had imagined incorporated Rocky’s existence. I was angry at the people who told me, ‘You’re young, you’ll fall in love again,’ and the people who tried to ‘set me up.’ People can be disrespectful of young widows, failing to empathize that their pain is as deep as those who had been married for decades. The insecurities, the uncertainty, and the fear became all-consuming after everyone went home and I was alone with my thoughts.

On a particularly difficult night as I lay in bed, deeply feeling my loss and experiencing intense sorrow, I contemplated taking my own life. I didn’t want to be in a world without him. I wanted to be with him—no matter how that had to happen. I thought about how I could die without feeling pain. I thought about it for a long time.

Of course, my first thought was of our son. Who would take care of him? My mom and stepdad lived close, and my twin (half) sisters were only seven and they would take excellent care of him—they would love him. He would never remember us…would he be okay? I wondered if he would hate me. I wondered if Rocky would be happy to see me or mad I had left him? And then I remembered. I remembered the Catholic upbringing that taught me about suicide; they say it is the only sin committed one cannot ask forgiveness for… without forgiveness, I would go to hell. That’s what I thought about. If I was in hell, and Rocky was in heaven, then the entire objective of dying to be with him didn’t make sense. It wouldn’t serve any purpose. I endured the pain.

Young widow and her toddler son
Courtesy of Leslyn Kantner

One evening, I went to pick Francis up from the sitter; he was about twenty months old. She explained she was sitting on the couch folding clothes while Francis played with his truck on the floor. He started chatting, then suddenly got up, ran to the corner of the room, and held his arms up chanting, ‘Da da da da da…’ then went back to the center of his room, picked up the truck he had been playing with, and took it over to the corner, lifting it high as if to show it off. The babysitter was freaked out.

On another occasion, a few months later after I had moved into a new place, I heard Francis in his room playing and talking away…my housemate and I stood in the doorway as we watched and listened to him talk to his dad about his toys.

Still later, I was sitting in bed one evening reading. It was quiet in the house, and I felt settled for a change. Suddenly I felt something— he was there, in the house. The sense of him was so strong. I knew in my heart he was just outside my door. ‘Stop,’ I whispered. ‘Please, please don’t come in here.’ I knew if by being ‘here,’ he could be ‘there,’ I would never be able to leave the ‘here’ space. I’d never be able to live in the world—to have a life.

My heart was beating so fast and hard I could hear it and tears were building in my eyes. ‘I have to let you go, and I can’t do it if I know you are here with me.’

I was so very sad.

‘Go see Francis—he needs you. I will never teach him you aren’t there. Be with him, but let me be, babe.’ I sank into my pillows, eyes tightly closed, and refused him.

That night, I let go and made a conscious decision to keep moving forward.

Woman with audio equipment
Courtesy of Leslyn Kantner

I began to date again almost two years later and struggled with feeling as if I was being unfaithful. I silently made a promise never to love anyone as much as I had loved Rocky, a naïve pledge that got renegotiated several times over the following decades. I dreamt that in the afterlife I was reunited only to find myself explaining how I let myself love another and remarry. I occasionally felt myself being torn between loves. I did marry again and have three more children. I wish I could say it was a long and lasting sequel to my love story with Rocky, but it turned out to be a different type of traumatic drama worthy of another story.

Today, I see the love I felt, the traumas I experienced, and the pain of loss to have been extreme opportunities from which to learn and grow. I learned how to make meaning of tragedy, of heartache, and of recovery. I became a student of philosophy, psychology, and spirituality, learning from as many disciplines as possible on the journey of understanding how each of those things changed me and what they had to offer. Today, I teach others about resilience and overcoming and that all love comes with the risk of loss. I would do it again and again to experience the love I was gifted on my 21st birthday.

At the age of 47, I allowed myself to take yet another risk when I found love again. He was an angel sent from the universe and demonstrated every day that life is to be lived and people are to be loved. He shared his love, lessons, and light in my life for ten years until cancer caused his evaporation from my world. I’d like to think he and Rocky are fishing together and feeling proud of the woman I’ve become.”

Woman and her husband in a car
Courtesy of Leslyn Kantner
Widow wearing glasses with lipstick
Courtesy of Leslyn Kantner

This story was submitted to Love What Mattersby Leslyn Kantner of Delaware. You can follow her journey on InstagramFacebook, and Tiktok. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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