This week is the anniversary of the day my husband was killed. I’ve written about it before, but it’s no easier now to put into words the experience of a loss so wrenching that I struggle to express it. The last time I wrote about this was a couple of years ago. I hope you’ll understand if I quote from, borrow from, and paraphrase myself in writing this.
Death is one of the costs of life. The sadness experienced by those left behind is eased a bit when we lose people to old age or natural causes. True accidents, like falling off a roof, are devastating but again, accidents are an expected part of life. When we lose people because of tragic illness it’s certainly no easier a loss, even though the last being organic in some way. I’m not looking to create some hierarchy of tragedy and loss and suffering. It’s almost always horrible. But I have learned that sharing my experience can help other people who are dealing with sudden, dramatic loss, and by loss caused by the actions of another person.
As happens every year around this awful anniversary I experience excruciating moment-by-moment memories from a span of 3 days before that date until about a week after the anniversary date. The feeling is so vivid it’s like watching it all unfold on a giant movie screen in Technicolor clarity.
It was a very ordinary Wednesday, the last one in February. Ten days after our anniversary. My youngest two children were going from upstairs to downstairs and back again, getting ready for the school day. Our son was in second grade, having just turned eight a few weeks before. Our middle child was nine years old, in fourth grade, and I recall that she declared she wanted microwave pancakes with syrup for breakfast. They were both thanking their Dad again for the giant chocolate chip cookies he’d brought them home from someplace in Penn Station the night before. Our twelve-year-old daughter, in seventh grade, was still upstairs; she was not a morning person.
I had been up earliest that morning, as was my usual habit. I checked the weather report for the day and the news headlines. I also checked for any reported delays on the Long Island railroad. Chris’ commute to his office involved driving to the train station in the next town, taking the train into Penn Station in Manhattan, walking or taking the shuttle bus to the NY Waterway ferry depot, and then taking the ferry over to New Jersey where his office was located.
I have learned that in the wake of great trauma the mind can compartmentalize memories into intense flashes. One of my most vivid memories of that morning is when Chris turned around in our living room and his long navy-blue wool overcoat flared around his legs. I reminded him to take a scarf because it was so windy, and he pulled a length of dark red knit fabric out of his coat pocket to show me he had one ready. He quickly kissed me goodbye again. We exchanged “I love you” and “See you later.” Never in a million years did I ever imagine that the next time I would see him would be in a casket at a funeral home.
Our military personnel and first responders have noble jobs that routinely put them in harm’s way. There are the organic health risks everybody is subject to in life, and we never know if cancer, a heart attack, an aneurysm, a pandemic or some other health calamity is suddenly going to be upon us.
Chris was working in the financial district of Manhattan when the World Trade Center bombing happened in 1993, and when the World Trade Center towers were attacked and collapsed in 2001. Although the office for the position he held at the time he was killed was in Weehawken, New Jersey, we understood very clearly that terrorism was always a risk when he went to work.
My husband had told me ahead of time that he had to work late that Wednesday. Chris was a regulatory specialist for an international financial firm and was busy helping prepare the firm for an upcoming audit. Downstairs in his office building was a chain restaurant. A Houlihan’s I think. He dined there with a colleague, then went back up to his office for a bit longer. He called to let me know when he was leaving the office. Later, he texted from a train transfer point, Jamaica Station. It was after 8:30 PM. Our children had long since had dinner. He told me not to worry about him for dinner, that he would grab something on the way home, most likely from the pizzeria two blocks away from our house. Chris asked if I could make sure the kids stayed awake until he got home; coming home was the highlight of his day.
45 minutes later I expected him any moment to be walking in the door. But he didn’t. And the nervous feeling started inside me. I called his phone, no answer. I texted, no reply. 10 minutes more and I did it again. No reply.
In my mind I theorized that his phone battery had died – it did happen at times. Now my daughters were getting nervous. My son had fallen asleep in the first-floor master bedroom. My anxiety level kept rising. I kept assuring the girls that everything was OK. They were too young to recognize I was using forced bravado and was really panicking inside. I physically remember the feeling of that panic rising up my chest and into my throat.
Our house is a mother-daughter, and my father had the utility apartment on one side of the second floor. I telephoned him upstairs and asked if he would go out and drive the most likely path to the train station because Chris probably had gotten a flat tire. Or he somehow got stuck with the minivan. Maybe the car battery had died, and his phone battery had died so he couldn’t call me. It was possible.
Just 5 or 6 minutes after my father left the house, our doorbell rang. Knowing it would take me a long time to get there, my eldest daughter ran for it. I heard muffled voices and then she re-entered the room with two men on her heels. I recall thinking how tall they were. In retrospect, from my sitting position, they may have just seemed that way. Both were wearing long winter overcoats, one a charcoal grey, the other black. They introduced themselves quickly. Both were county detectives.
I suddenly could tell that I had started trembling. One said he regretted to tell me my husband had been in an accident. I could feel my heartbeat pounding in my ears as I struggled to stand up. I told them I was disabled, that they would have to drive me. I asked them which hospital Chris was taken to.
“He did not survive his injuries.”
Those were the carefully chosen words one of the detectives used to break my heart and destroy our world. I remember I couldn’t breathe. My knees buckled. I fell back into the chair. My older daughter started screaming and asking if her father was dead. My other daughter joined in crying. My head was spinning, and everything got blurry then darkened. The sound of our daughters’ distress started to get muffled. I clearly remember telling myself I couldn’t pass out because the kids needed me. Suddenly another man who I hadn’t even realized was there, was asking if he could give me oxygen; the detectives had brought with them somebody from EMS, or had that person meet them at my house. In the midst of everything, I distinctly remember thinking that it was thoughtful of them to do that.
Chris. No. Chris. Please, please, please. Chris. Please. No.
Those few words ran continuously through my head. Desperately. Frantically. I was trying to comfort my hysterical daughters while trying to make sense of what was going on. I gave the detectives a couple of numbers to call. They left more information and stayed until my father returned home and my closest friend showed up to help take charge of the situation and all of the calls that had to be made. It had to have been at least 20 minutes and I remember none of it, except struggling to breathe and not pass out.
I remember that I couldn’t stop shaking, and that I was so very cold.
The memories of that night and what followed are always with me, but on the anniversary of the crash, the memories proceed like a hideous and gruesome countdown clock. I frequently wonder if everybody goes through this same ugly phenomenon, and I have come to the conclusion that many people do, in one way or another.
The man who sped through a red light and crashed into my husband was DUI.
I am not a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, mental health professional, medical professional, or any type of expert at all on trauma and grief. So, please take this just for what it is – my personal experience shared in case it helps anybody else.