(Piece originally written in 2004; updated in 2006 & 2014. Since I am new to this whole “blogging” thing, I wanted to give my new readers some more background as to who I am, where I have been, and where I am going. It’s been a journey. As it continues, I hope you enjoy taking it with me, here.)
There have been many times over the last 2 years that I have thought about what Greg, my husband, was thinking as he went downstairs to the garage, carrying our hope chest, knowing that in a short while he would be dead. I have thought about what must have been racing through his head as he took the duct tape and sealed the vent on the common wall of our town home, obviously concerned that he might poison our neighbors as the carbon monoxide filled the garage. I’ve considered the thoughts that he had as he took the garden hose and taped it to the exhaust pipe, ran it in through the back passenger window, and then sealed all of the windows of his beloved BMW.
I have wondered if he was angry. Maybe he was sad. Maybe he was so emotionally spent that the whole thing took on that sick humor that sometimes infects many tragedies. That everything is so fucked up that you can’t help but laugh. I hope and pray that he just felt peace – a peace that comes with knowing that you are about to end an incomprehensible burden of physical and emotional pain.
I try to find my own peace when I remember what he had with him when he died. After he died, and he was no longer in the garage, I had to go through the car. It was a task I insisted on doing alone. I did it as my two girlfriends were upstairs and packing up my life with Greg. It took me almost 3 days. I sat in the car and sobbed. I sat on the concrete where they found his body and sobbed. I cried and yelled and wailed until I couldn’t even remember what it was like to not cry and yell and wail. I still have days like that.
As Greg made the decision to end his life, he decided to focus on the things that meant the most to him. How lucky I am that those things included me. Inside the car were the contents of our hope chest: pictures he loved most – of our wedding, my first fly-fishing lesson, our nieces. Then there were all the things that we collected over more than 8 years together – movie stubs, old plane tickets from places we had gone, match boxes from restaurants or hotels, a dress of mine that he loved (and I didn’t wear often enough), my perfume. I like to think that the last thought he had before he slipped away is the same one that I focus on – the moment he stood on the banks of the Roaring Fork River in Aspen, where we had spent so much time together, with a gorgeous ring and tears in his eyes and the most romantic and perfect proposal I could ask for. It was perhaps our most perfect memory, before the madness and pain and unpredictable behavior made life unbearable.
Greg’s suicide really took on the flavor of his life. It was a dichotomy of simplicity in execution and complexity of effect. It was both tidy and a mess all at the same time. It was gentle and destructive simultaneously. Just like Greg. What he left behind provided the time line of how he planned his death. Letters he had written were neatly lined up on the dining room table. The dishwasher had been loaded. The laundry was piled in the hamper. Money was placed in envelopes. Instructions left for the police, the detectives, the friends that might find him. A sealed box in the middle, a simple note on his personalized stationery taped on top, gave an almost complete picture of what he prioritized: “For my wife. Please make sure that Kate gets this box. Thank you. Greg.” Inside the box were two letters, cash, some pictures and all his chips from AA. A little more than three cumulative years of sobriety in a little wood box. Letters, their contents too precious to share verbatim in full, which stated that the best gift I could give to him was to move on, be strong and find happiness. How hard I have tried and how difficult that has been.
We had a fight the night before he took his life. I had told him that he really needed to look into himself and figure out how we were going to put our life back together. Our home was in Colorado, and I was with my parents in California for an undetermined length of stay. I had been really ill, and Greg couldn’t take care of me because he couldn’t take care of himself. He was slipping away, pushing me away, and I hit my limit. A car accident had left him in constant physical pain. Four back and neck surgeries over three years did nothing to help the situation; in fact, they made it worse. Tack that on to unresolved family issues, a personal history of alcoholism, and possible (probable)bipolar disorder, and the slip into madness was perhaps inevitable. He, so therefore, we, were having business, financial and legal problems. “I love you, Greg. I want this to work. But I need a husband that I can depend on. I need you to make an effort to get better – to help make this better. I need you to make a choice.” And the choice he made will always affect me. It will be the voice inside my head for the rest of my life.
The simplicity of his suicide is found in the way that he died. He had several bases covered. Helium, to most people’s surprise, can be fatal if inhaled in large quantities. Usually you pass out before you die. Sometimes you pass out and all you are left with is brain damage. But add a running car and carbon monoxide to the mix and death is guaranteed.
The complexity of his death is seen in how much work it has taken to get my own life back on track. Death is hard. Suicide is perhaps the most difficult of deaths. The word alone will clear a room. People that I expected to be supportive disappeared. Strangers embraced me. Almost everyone had a pious platitude or opinion to offer, none that were of any help. If Greg’s death has done anything for me, it has taught me to stand up for myself. Cut the crap out of my life. Not that I have ever tolerated a lot of crap, but I tolerate less now. I am more vocal. I tell you what I think – good, bad, or indifferent. That alone has cost me friendships. I have been accused of changing. Well, yes. My life was ripped out from under me. Be worried if I didn’t change.
I desperately miss Greg, my best friend and sounding board. I miss having him as a partner- that one person that I am supposed to come home to every night for the rest of my life. I miss having his hand to hold when I walk down the street. I miss having that perfect someone to share a code word with – the code word that signals it’s time to leave the boring dinner party and go home and order pizza (and we did that, on more than one occasion). I hate that I have entered the dating world again, a most confusing and emotional place. I still find that I want to call Greg and ask his advice. I hate that I very much want to find love again but am scared to death of finding it and having it ripped away from me all over again.
Yet, each day I find that I do what Greg asked me to do. In his exact words, from his last letter, “[I] put one foot in front of the other and smile as big as [I] can. Because life goes on. It’s as simple as that.”
Afterword: Since writing this piece in 2004, I have been blessed with finding my new “partner in life.” We met in 2005 and after a year together he asked me to be his wife, and we were married in September, 2007. We welcomed beautiful twin sons into our life in 2011. He is truly a gift, in that he accepts me for who I am and what I have been through. He knows that Greg is an indelible part of my life, and he doesn’t ask me to shut that out. I love him with all that I have, and I look forward to our life together. It’s bittersweet, in that I would never have met him if Greg had not died by suicide. People get nervous when I say how lucky I am—how can a woman whose husband died by suicide be lucky? I’m lucky in that I have been able to love two amazing men in my life. And they have loved me back -totally, utterly and completely. Love and respect and honesty and acceptance—well, those are the things that make us whole.
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As I read your story of your encounter with Robin William’s at the airport and of your husband’s suicide, I looked up at the mantle, at my exhusband’s ashes from his recent suicide. He hung himself, too. He was a HUGE fan of Robin and wanted to be a stand up comedian. Mental illness sucks. It sucks the life out of people we love. It still hurts so much. There is so much that I don’t understand. So much guilt that I wasn’t there for him like a should have been for me. He always fought for the underdog, always took care of those in need. And he loved me beyond words. I hope now that he has also found the peace that eluded him here on earth and he and Robin are entertaining everyone in Heaven together. What a duo that would be. Rest in peace John and Robin.
Claire I am so sorry that it has taken so long to respond to this comment. I am so sorry that you lost John and hope you are finding support as you navigate his loss. Sending you much love and peace.