Only Darkness

“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”
― Mary Oliver

I was a widow.  Prior to this moment I was mostly untouched by death; the very old grandmother of a childhood friend and my own grandfather that I had barely known.  One day we were talking about more babies, going to school, buying a house, and our next vacation – two weeks later I was picking out a coffin and planning funeral music. It was the most surreal experience of my life. Please people…. Pick out your own coffin!! Make your own funeral arrangements!! Do NOT let your loved ones have to do it…

How does one coffin shop?? A funeral director ushers you into a room full of them and explains the benefits of one from another. This one is particle board covered in velvet – it’s the least expensive. This one is Brazilian Cherry and lined with satin. This one has 7 layers of steel with a lead core to survive a nuclear explosion. This one has a time capsule for DNA so the body will never have to be exhumed. Are you f***ing kidding me? I want my husband back!

I left my body. I was aware of sounds and people. I was aware of where I was but I became someone else. It was as if I was back in high school, on stage, playing a part. Rocky wasn’t the velvet type… maybe Cherry… it was warm looking. I wanted him to be warm.  I saw something with a flannel interior and chose that one.

Do you have a favorite reading? Do you want someone to sing? What kind of music? When? Where? How? Who? Holy shit… shut up people. Leave me alone! My soul was screaming but my voice was deciding. He loved Journey and Little River Band – play those songs. Yes, On Eagles Wings – that’s nice… Sure, she can sing it. I floated above it all remembering our wedding night when some fool packed the car air vents with flour so that we were blasted as soon as the car was started and looked like two old people checking into the hotel. It was apparently, not… a vision of our future. I was remembering our first kiss… it was some kiss! I was remembering the sight of him holding our son for the first time… such love. So many dreams, not enough memories.

My sister-in-laws took me shopping for something to wear. I wasn’t so concerned about being stylish or fashionably chic, nor did I care about how well my purchase would fit. My primary concern was finding something that I ‘felt’ beautiful in, not for me – for Rocky. I wanted to be beautiful. I was searching for something that felt calm and comfortable yet highlighted my best features, perhaps the color of my hair. It couldn’t say happy but I was adamant that it did not shout sad. It could not be black, navy, or brown. It shouldn’t be too short or too long; the fabric not too thick or too thin. I was not sure if it should be one piece or two, and I was undecided about the sleeve. We were in hunting mode, searching for just the right thing. Eventually, I settled on a light peach linen suit and an ivory blouse with satin buttons and a round collar. It was feminine, soft, and quite respectful. It worked with my strawberry blonde hair and most importantly, it didn’t scream funeral.

I dressed up and showed up at the funeral home on the night of the private viewing. It was for family only. I did not go into the room where he was on display. I was unwilling to see my husband as a dead man (ultimately a mistake). I was told that the funeral director did a fantastic job with makeup, etc…

That’s nice ~ with a southern slur**

I was still detached. Existing on another plane where I was safe and not alone and loved.  In reality, I was surrounded by so. many. people. Rocky’s large family had all flown in. My dad and step-mom drove in along with a few other relatives. His co-workers, mom’s friends and neighbors whom we had started to know. I don’t know where Francis was… I seem to remember making a decision to keep him away from the ceremonial affairs because I didn’t want him to be negatively impacted by all the emotions, but I can’t remember who had him. I logically know many of these people loved – and still love – me. It’s just that, well – they weren’t HIM.

I got through it. We all did. Indeed – there were lots of funny stories and laughter that goes with them. There were tears – lots.

I couldn’t go back to the house where we had been a family; it was too much for my spirit. His brothers went through things so that I didn’t have to. Someone moved our stuff into storage. I kept a pair of 501 Jeans (because his butt…well, it was so HOT in them!) and I kept his Navy whites. I don’t really remember making all of those decisions and I’m sure some of them were made on my behalf, out of compassion and concern. I’m not sure any were made out of understanding; even my own. How does one understand the death of a 23 year old whose whole life was yet to be lived – or the wishes of his widow – or the lonely cries from his child? How?

I know I was not the only one struggling with these impossible questions but I was so deeply immersed in my personal loss that I was unable to really consider the experience from the perspective of his parents or siblings. It took me years if not decades to be willing to look in that direction. At some point, everyone left. Everyone went back to their own lives and I was left to face each sunrise and each sunset in a way that was unfamiliar to me; unwanted.

A friend took me to her parent’s beach house for a week. We took the kids too.  Then a week later, I went back to work because there was nothing else to do. I didn’t know how to be a widow. I was so very pissed at the world. This was NOT supposed to be my life. I thought God and I had agreed that me – as a single parent – was off the table. Rocky and I had mapped out our lives…. there was going to be three children, a house, and a career by 30. It was planned. It was imagined. If that wasn’t going to happen – what was? What was in store for me?  For our son? What did the universe want from us?

Each morning when I opened my mind – there was only darkness.

**That’s nice ~ with a southern slur** – My mother told a story about a proper southern woman who believed it completely unladylike and immoral to curse. And so, from time to time you could hear her say “That’s nice” with a gentle smile and a slight nod of her head. When asked if she ‘really’ thought it was nice?? she replied “Why no darlin’ – that’s how us Southern women say “FUCK YOU”.

Photo credit: Infomastern via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

No Coming Back

This is a continuation of the the post A Yellow Kite

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 where-with-all to think that 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 that 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 steel 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 that he’d been taken to surgery; that after electrocution, time was of the essence. He had been microwaved. They explained that 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 where the worst. They were going to have to cut away the badly burned parts if they were going to have any hope at 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.

Eventually we were told that amputations had been completed on his left hand and most of his right arm. Over 80% of his body had been badly burned. He had a 90% chance of dying. Due to the massive amounts of fluid they needed to give him, we would notice swelling – extreme swelling. When I finally got to see him, sometime in the middle of the night, his head was the size of a basketball and his eyes were completely encased. He was bandaged from head to toe practically. He was on a ventilator but could hear me they said. I was simply numb. I was completely cried out. All I could do was sit there and go inside my head to that place where it was just us, where we were looking into one another’s eyes with passion and intensity and we knew that we would always be.

….

Rocky’s parents and siblings began to arrive as quickly as flights could get them there from the Mid and North West. Together we were a force that pretty much took over the Burn Unit waiting room. Everyone took shifts except me. I stayed. They tried to get me to go home but I can be pretty stubborn and I wasn’t leaving my man. Mom brought me clothes and the nurses allowed me to shower in the unit when no one was paying attention. People brought food, coffee, books, magazines, and sat with me. We laughed a lot and we cried a lot. Some people prayed. I wasn’t exactly ‘praying’. I was demanding. I was telling God what to do and when to make it happen. I was mad at God. Time continued to tick by. By Wednesday (the accident was on Sunday) it seemed that he was stable. I knew that our friends were keeping Francis and that he was safe and happy. I just really needed a night’s rest in a bed so I agreed to go home for the night – I went to moms. At 2 a.m., someone woke me because the hospital was on the line. Rocky was in respiratory distress. They had been doing blood gases every 15 minutes and they were not stable. I’d better come back. I knew it. I knew that I wasn’t supposed to leave. I knew he would know if I wasn’t there. I was pissed at everyone who tried to tell me otherwise. I didn’t care that they were trying to take care of me. I needed to take care of him and I did that by being there. To hell if I would leave again.

On Friday the swelling had gone down enough that he could open his eyes. We taped a photograph on the ceiling over his bed so that it was the first thing he saw – his wife and son. As soon as I knew he was alert they allowed me in to see him. He had the most beautiful blue eyes… they were open and looking at me.

They were not hopeful eyes. They were sad eyes. They cried soft tears that slid down each cheek and my heart slowly broke into a gazillion pieces. He was trying to talk but was still intubated. I attempted to guess his most pressing concern and started to play 20 questions but he was quickly frustrated because I would NOT go where he was going. I begged him to settle down and heal; to be strong for us; not to leave us. I begged him.

We were interrupted by nurses taking him in for debriding (removing dead tissue), which had to happen every couple of days. He was given anesthesia but I was told it was excruciatingly painful. As usual, we collected in the waiting room and allowed time to pass. It was an intensive care unit and we had become used to Code Blue announcements but your heart always skipped a beat or two when they were announced over the PA system. This time, a Unit nurse walked into the doorway of the waiting room and looked at me with silent, big, sad eyes. I lost it. I began screaming No!! No!! God No!! with my hands over my ears and my eyes closed. I put my head in my mother’s lap and refused to sit up.

Someone peeled my hands away long enough to tell me he was still alive. They had resuscitated him. He was still alive. Oh. My. God. It felt as though everything that was solid under my feet had been turned to mush. I had been hysterical, Rocky had died and then come back, it felt as though my life was completely upside down. Nothing felt real.

More hours and days passed. Doctors decided to skip the next scheduled debriding in an effort to give Rock’s body more strength. He had not regained consciousness since he coded in the OR. Actually, the neurologist suggested that he probably had sustained brain damage during the cardiac arrest and may not come back. I was in denial. It was now Monday – the 9th day. It was absolutely necessary to debride again so he was taken back into the OR. I just couldn’t stay there I couldn’t wait there again and wonder if every code called would be his. I left the floor and found myself in the chapel in another part of the hospital entirely.

I sat there in fear. I needed to beg God to save Rocky but I didn’t deserve anything from God and I knew it. I cried. “Please God, I need you, please.” I was crying harder and much louder than was appropriate for a chapel but I was alone; or so I thought. A Chaplain came and slowly sat down beside me and put a hand on my shoulder. I leaned into him until we were engaged in a full on embrace.  He was holding me and I felt as though I could have absorbed as much – if not everything – he had to give. I settled down and caught my breath. We began to talk. I shared the events of that past week and the current circumstances. I was – there – the most vulnerable I had ever – ever been. I was broken and humble and stripped of defenses. I told him about an abortion I had at the age of 19. It was my deepest, darkest, most shameful secret and I just couldn’t hold back – I had nothing left to protect myself with.

The Chaplain was compassionate and loving. He was accepting and consoling. I felt stronger when I left and headed toward the Burn Unit. As soon as I walked into the new part of the hospital I could hear my name being paged over the PA system.  I knew it. I had taken a life from God and now God had taken a life from me. I ran.

Rocky had coded again – he had let go – and there was no coming back.  My first thought…

“Who’s going to love me now?”

Notes:

I will discuss abortion in more detail in another post – THIS post is not about Pro Rights or Women’s rights – it is about my shame and my loss. Please be respectful of that if you wish to comment.

There is no rational element that I can point to today for the thoughts I had then. I am simply sharing the experience of where I was and I will ultimately share how I got to a new place.

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A Yellow Kite

I could spend an entire post or two just sharing shenanigans about the U-Haul and a cross country trip with a 9 month old. Francis and I almost died; Rock would have been oblivious for hours. We packed and unpacked the truck three times and drove across country – San Diego to Va. Beach with a few stops along the way for sightseeing and visiting family. We were so happy to be together and free of the US Navy’s demands that we celebrated all the small things there were to experience. We knew that real life awaited us but we also knew that for those few weeks, we had everything we would ever need because we were three.

Within a couple of weeks of arriving in Virginia we had jobs and a place to live. It was a time of true creativity. We only owned one car and we were both employed. As luck would have it, the little house we rented was just down the road from Rocky’s boss so he was able to carpool each morning. I dropped Francis off at daycare around noon and then Rocky picked him up and went to my mom’s house until I could get there in the early evenings. It was a routine that worked for us well. Rocky and Francis got some good time together, my family bonded with them both, and we were settling in to family life. Our little house in the country was just across the North Carolina, literally a stone’s throw from the Virginia Beach border. It was country though. Miles of cornfields and swamps surrounded us.  It was a dirt road and it was quiet.

Our little house had been hand built by its owner. It had a wall of windows that overlooked a field across the street. In the center of this house was a wood stove, the only source of heat. There were three bedrooms; one for us, one for the baby, and another for the waterbed that we sometimes chose to sleep in. We had a washer but no drier. The clothes rack was set by the woodstove in the winter and on nice days, it went outside. It was a simple life.

One day we drove home together and Rocky seemed nervous. He wouldn’t admit to there being ‘anything wrong’ so I was silent for most of the drive. We got home and entered into our evening routine of dinner, bath, and bedtime but he was outside for most of that time – doing something at the rear of the property where there was a shed type work shop (void of most everything that would be necessary to properly use the word ‘workshop’). After dinner he asked me to bring the baby out back – he had something to show us. I cleaned smashed peas off the cute baby cheeks of our rolly polly baby boy and heaved him up to my hip as I walked out the back door and across the lawn to where Rocky stood with a sly half smile attempting to burst from his face.

Behind him was a five foot fence that enclosed a rather large space, the remnants of a ‘dog run’ from the previous owner. I saw something move inside the fence and stepped backward quickly. “We have a pet” he said, and the smile finally emerged, full and furious, across his face. I looked behind him and saw a PIG, a small, pink, and naked, pig was in that dog run – running in circles and loving life.

We (or rather I) named that pig Christmas in hopes that it would become our Christmas ham. I was unimpressed. We were pretty much broke and Rocky explained that we would need to buy feed for him at the expense of approximately $20 per month – money we didn’t have in the budget.  But… it was really an investment in meat he would argue.  We would raise him, butcher him, and eat him for much less overall than the cost of the same meat we could purchase at the grocery store.  That was what he explained to me each time I attempted to rediscover the rationalization he provided. I finally figured out that he hadn’t taken into consideration the $200 chest freezer we would have to buy to accommodate all that protein.

Can I just say that neither one of us knew anything at all about animal husbandry. This poor pig. As it turns out, that dog run was just too dag gone big.  Pigs need to get FAT and it they have too much running space – well…. They don’t get fat. We eventually figured it out and closed that baby in until the pig – Christmas – was sitting most of the day – confined to approximately 12 square feet. (I hope that isn’t considered cruelty.) Christmas day passed……

It was February before that Pig was ready to be slaughtered and it was a chore to find a way to transport him to the bacon factory. Rocky was on it…. And got it done! By March 1st we were picking out freezers and anxiously awaiting the message telling us we could pick up 200 lbs of organic, prime, homegrown pork. We were excited actually. We had followed through with something big. That pig had been a chore. It had gotten out of the pen on more than one occasion, routed through the yard like it was Easter candy, and taken a share of our budget that would never be recovered. I was ready to celebrate its bounty. We invited friends over for the weekend.

Our friends had three children, two older and a baby the same age as our Francis. It was supposed to be a great weekend weather wise so I bought a kite for their kids to fly in the field across the street from our little house. Since it was March, the corn hadn’t yet been planted and it was just a great place to play (at least that is how I envisioned it). The kids were 8, 6, and 2 if I remember correctly and used to playing outside so a kite was just the ticket on Sunday, March 10th, 1985. It was yellow. We were contemplating going into Norfolk – to the zoo. In the meantime, keeping the kids busy was a priority. We gave them the kite and told them to go across the street. I vaguely heard Jack Sr. issue a warning but paid no mind as I set out to cook up the first of that prime bacon we were sharing with our friends. A big hearty breakfast was in order. Annette and I moved in unison as two mothers preparing a meal often do – synchronizing our kitchen movements in perfect harmony as we prepared a morning meal for eight.

That was the BEST bacon I’ve ever had. I unapologetically had no remorse about Christmas the pig but instead savored the organic goodness; we all did. Rock and I cleaned up while the Mills family took all the kids outside to enjoy the day and the kite. 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 six other people was an unlocked door so I was compelled to reject this advance and asked for a postponement of his proposed rapture. (I may have said “go away you crazy man” but my ‘postponement of proposed rapture’ sounds so much nicer and way more romantic).

It wasn’t but a few minutes later (I thankfully made the right decision) that we heard 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 discussing how we would spend the rest of the day – the zoo or the waterfront? For some reason, Jack and Rocky were hyper-concerned about leaving that kite where it was. They were convinced that 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 in an effort 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 rope – tie it around the brick – so that 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 restless and it felt as though the men were inviting trouble. They agreed they would stop after getting the rope down – that they would give up on the kite. Just pulling on the rope wasn’t working and 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 actually make it up and over (i.e. unwrapping from) the line- was better. What no one knew is that the ‘rope’ they were using was actually 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 backwards.

NO! NO No no no no….

Prince Charming

In the years after high school I sowed some oats and experimented with life.  I explored love, travel, and a few illicit substances before it was all said and done.  I received a couple of hard knocks as men took advantage of my kindness and naiveté. I worked hard but spent a lot of money while I discovered slot machines and cocaine. I was enrolled in college but never took it seriously enough to make decisions about my life or grades that counted. I changed majors three times over five years and never finished.

I had graduated from high school in California and stayed there after my parents relocated back east. I was finished with moving around. For the first time in a decade I had established friendships and felt a sense of belonging. I was self supportive and made the decision to rescue my sister after she finished high school (her story to tell).  I rented a two-bedroom apartment and brought her out to live with me. My work with the railroad kept me on-the-go to the extent that I was gone more than half the time each month. Frankly I don’t remember much about that time except that we fought about dishes and who would be doing them. I experienced a reality of being stone broke. It took everything I earned to take care of us both.

I turned 21 and felt old. In an effort 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 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 tall, blonde, and broad shouldered. Even from the rear, there was no doubt in my mind that 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 that would never, ever, be interested in a gal like me.

His kind of attractive looked past girls like me. Even though I had an average figure and corrected my ‘bucked-teeth’ issue with orthodontics and dental surgery – my body image and self value 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 (in reality it was probably dozens – 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 that had first caught my breath – asked to lie down at midnight. He explained that he had an oral surgery procedure the next morning and was unable to eat or drink anything after midnight; 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 that I wanted to kiss him again over and over and over. I was certain I didn’t deserve him. I hoped he wanted me. It was a beginning.

Truth be told, I was immediately in love. I was in love with the idea that a man who ‘looked like him’ would be *at all* interested in me. I lived in fear that he would wake up and notice the fat buck toothed girl I really was. When, just a couple of weeks (like, literally – two) after meeting, he casually discussed getting married someday – I said yes! Let’s do it. He moved into my apartment, turned 20 and picked out an engagement ring that I helped to pay for.

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 that 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 very young.  We were both so broken in our individual ways but we didn’t know it. There was such a void in our awareness. In an effort to fulfill the Cinderella story, we got married and began a life together. We vowed to cherish and to adore without understanding the meaning or value of that commitment.

rocky1

It was SO MUCH work… which, feels like an understatement really. Neither of us was emotionally ready for the commitment of marriage and yet, we were drawn to one another in a way that felt constantly passionate and romantic. There were ‘eye’ moments…. The kind you see in movies where everything stands still and nothing exists except you both – there – in the moment. There were evenings of dreaming and hoping and planning the rest of our lives. There were fights about money, lots of adventure, and card game weekends with friends. We got a cat, went fishing, ate guacamole, and discovered strawberry shortcake in a way that only happens when one is pregnant.

rocky3Our son was born just weeks before Rocky was scheduled to leave for a six month tour of duty to Okinawa, Japan. He showed up after 9 hours of labor weighing in at 10 lbs 9 oz; not bad brewing for a first time mom. There are so many funny stories to tell about that day but leave it to say that neither of us had ever experienced a more joyful moment.  Parenting became us. We pulled maturity out of our asses and bucked up to the occasion of accepting the role of mom and dad. This was the moment, the single most important moment of our lives up to now. It was the moment that we understood commitment and honor and hope in a way that had never shown up before. It was the moment we unconsciously decided to get our shit together. We looked at each other and knew that our ‘forever’ had just been dedicated. Or so we thought.