Survive

  1. To remain alive or in existence: live on.

2. To continue to live after

3. To continue to function or prosper despite. WITHSTAND

I know where I was eleven years ago today. After it happened everyone told me I wouldn’t remember the first year, that it would be a fog. But I wanted to remember so I began writing. I wanted to remember how my friends and family carried me; how my son’s school became my community; how God showed up. I wanted to place a benchmark so that someday, eleven years later, I would look back and with unbelief and in awe commemorate what I survived.

The following is an excerpt from my journal regarding the events that could have destroyed me.

But God…

I walked back downstairs into the basement and turned the corner entering the family room. My eyes were immediately drawn to the heavy velvet curtain conspicuously drawn back. Even more unusual was the unlocked dead bolt on the door leading to the outside. It was as if denial had suddenly grown weary of my company and said good bye in the only way it knows how. Rather than a congenial wave, it balled its hand into a mighty fist to punch me mercilessly in the gut rendering me breathless. To this day I still do not know why, but I ran straight outside. Something in me just knew. With no socks or shoes, without a coat, I ran into the cold, heartless February air leaving the door behind me wide open. I ran as I have never run before. I did not know where I was going, only that I was going to find him. My determined feet carried me to the barren spot down the hill in the woods behind our home. There he was, my husband and father of my children, dead.

The manifestation of the shock, horror, and absolute desperation made its way from the depth of my being and escaped as a sound I did not know my voice could make. There is beneath our interior, a level of excruciating that I never knew existed. The scream coming from my mouth was so foreign it seemed as if it was coming from above and around me, as if the very trees were crying out. It could not have possibly been coming from within me.

I looked at my husband.  His eyes stared blankly at the cloud filled, chidden sky.  His color had already changed to a hue I had never seen before, a color unrecognizable as human. His legs were tucked underneath him as if he had fallen backward.

“What happened?!” I screamed and kept screaming as if someone was going to answer. “Oh, God, what happened?” My mind raced as I imagined he somehow fell and accidentally broke his neck.  It had to be a freak accident.  But what was he doing in the woods?  Then I saw it.  I saw the small hole through his favorite blue sweatshirt.  I tiny whole into his chest.

It was not like the movies.  There was no blood pouring out or even a puddle beneath him.  The gore was in his eyes and in the color of his skin.  I could hardly tell where the bullet had penetrated. Although no more than ten minutes had passed from the time I left him to get dressed to the moment I found him in the woods, I knew revival would be impossible.  I knew he was gone too far and there would be no heroic efforts to return him to me. He was a physician. He knew human anatomy. In a split second my mind processed that Gary would not have left survival to chance.  He would have made certain there would be no resuscitation.

I fumbled to get my phone out of my pocket.  Sliding to unlock the screen was nearly impossible because my hands were shaking violently.  Finally, I focused my eyes and concentrated with my whole being to dial three numbers in the correct order.  9.  1.  1.  

“911, what is your emergency?” the male voice began.

Doubled over I cried, “My husband shot himself.  He isn’t breathing. Please send an ambulance,”

My voice escalated as if urgency could somehow awaken a sliver of hope that perhaps he could be resurrected.  Acceptance comes slowly.

“I need you to calm down so I can understand you,” the voice on the other end urged.

Asking someone to calm down when their world was imploding seemed impossible to me.  But I knew I needed to communicate so I tried again.

“Please. Please.  My husband. My husband is dead.  Hurry. Send someone. Please,” I collapsed next to his lifeless body.  “Is the ambulance coming?”

“It is.  Where are you now?” he asked calmly.

“Beside my husband. In the woods behind the house,” I began hyperventilating.

“Ma’am, I need you to go to the driveway so the authorities will see you when they pull up.”

With all my might, I slowly stood up.  Looking down at Gary one last time I trudged up the hill and stumbled to the drive way.

“Oh God, what will I tell my children?” I asked half hoping the stranger on the other end could tell me.

“I am here, ma’am.  Let me know when the authorities arrive,” the dispatcher whispered. I could hear the sorrow in his voice.  My first encounter with the compassion that would be shown to me in multitude by strangers and friends began with the first person to whom I spoke and would not end for years to come.

Moments later the first police officer arrived and the 911 dispatcher hung up.  A very tall man  with broad shoulders and dark hair walked calmly up to me. 

“My husband. He is in the woods over there,” I could barely speak.

“Please stay here and wait for the ambulance. I have to check the scene,” he said with a serious tone as he walked with long and hurried steps to the back yard.

I was there all alone in the worst and most unimaginable moment of my entire life.  I collapsed on to the cold, hard drive way next to the trash bin.  I did not know until that moment that there was a pain too deep for tears.   I grabbed the cross around my neck like it was a life preserver and my only chance at not perishing with my husband. 

I began shouting at God. I was accusing Him.

“God, I have been obedient. I have done everything you have asked of me. I pray. I read the Bible.  I lead Bible study.  I brought in the foster children. I’ve done every hard thing You’ve asked.  How could you do this?” 

“I did not do this,” I heard Him say as if He lay on the concrete next to me. I knew He was telling me the truth. This wasn’t part of His plan or His purpose. This wasn’t His fault. My outward screaming ceased momentarily. My inner turmoil was only just beginning.

My heart and mind ever so slowly began traversing into a surreal place.  As if in slow motion, I saw my parents tan van turn the corner and proceed cautiously to the bottom of the drive way.  They had come from Northern Virginia a couple of days before for a visit.  Just three hours earlier that morning my mother had made us a wonderful breakfast and we all sat at the table devouring it. They had gone to run an errand and came home to a crime scene.

I saw my mother running full blast toward me as I cried, “Gary shot himself. He is dead. I can’t believe he left me…”

 My mother fell to ground screaming “No, Gary, it wasn’t worth it” and collapsed lamenting.  My father’s face turned to rage as he simply yelled, “NO!” with a military authority and punched the air as if he could command it to be somehow not be true.

I sat down on the grass by the driveway. 

“I can’t believe he left me,” I repeated. “I can’t believe he left me.” It is a disbelief I imagine to carry until my last breathe.

I felt as if my soul was beginning to disconnect from my body. I touched her back and just stared at the world around me. I saw houses and tress.  I saw the grey, overcast February sky as if God Himself chastised the sun and sent it away.  I looked at my feet realizing I had left the house in such urgency I had no shoes. The wind was blowing, it was cold, my mother was screaming but it must all be happening to someone else.  This was not, this could not be happening to me.

My father knelt down and lifted me up. He and one of the responding officers walked me to the rocking chair outside the house. It was explained to us we could not go into the house until the detectives gave an all clear. In Virginia, suicides are treated as homicides until proven otherwise.

When I looked at my father’s eyes I felt a little clarity and the full force of my grief was held at bay. As soon as my eyes diverted from my father everything became chaotic and uncertain. The world was literally spinning. Gravity was failing. I was disconnecting from my own realm. I was at the cusp of oblivion. There was an intense, real fear knowing that if I let go and floated into that unknown place I might not know how to get back. There was a knowledge that I could somehow control it. For a moment, though, I wondered if it would be more inviting than the reality I now faced.

It felt like the suction tool a dentist uses. When it is placed in your mouth it doesn’t show it’s full power until you close your lips. In that split second your lips touch, this tiny tool becomes a force. The patient has the absolute power though to choose to hold on or let go. Only now it would not be mere saliva extracted but my very soul. Even in my altered mind I knew I had to try to stay. I was scared. I did not want to go there yet did not want to be in reality equally as strongly. What was transpiring was much too much for me to handle. I was shutting down. The reality that my world was being ripped apart was both figurative and literal as I sat there looking at my father’s loving, pleading eyes.

The sirens blared as the ambulance came in slow motion up my long, steep driveway. One of the responding officers came out with a blanket and tenderly wrapped it around me. He and my father carefully walked me into the ambulance. I looked again desperately at my dad. The disconnecting feeling was beginning once again and growing stronger. The fight for my soul was not yet over.

“Stay here, the boys need you to stay here,” my father begged.

Reminding me that my boys needed me changed everything. It was the exact switch that needed to be flipped. Indeed, from the moment of conception I loved them more than my own self. I never took greater care of myself as when they were in my womb. I would eat right and drink plenty of water. I quit smoking. I could not or would not do any of those things for just me, but when my body became a vessel for them I did anything to ensure they would safely arrive into the world. I needed to do anything to ensure they would stay safe our now demolished world.

I fought back with all my might against the lure of being in the other world where, I believed, I could be numb but where my children would not be able to find me. They did not even yet know they had lost a parent, I was determined they would not lose both.

I lay on a stretcher wrapped in a blanket. I do not know how long I had been outside barefoot and no coat. I was shaking from cold and fear and death and uncertainty. I was shaking to the very soul of me.

My father climbed in the ambulance. He wrapped his arms around me and kept begging me to stay with him. After a few moments a police officer came to ask him to assist in getting in the house. My beloved black Labrador was standing guard and would not let any strangers enter.

I could physically feel and spiritually sense the presence of all that was to come: as if grief, anger, despair, anxiety, loneliness, and regret, all at levels I had never encountered, were floating above but had not yet pounced. They were swirling, circling, waiting to attack viciously. Indeed, they were eager to devour me. I felt strangely peaceful that they would wait. Instead, I looked at the young woman who was part of the response team.

“Do you read the Bible?” I asked.

“Yes, I am a woman of faith,” she answered.

I whispered with my eyes closed, “How is God possibly going to bring good out of this?  My husband is dead. The father of my children is dead.”

When I finished my question I looked up at her as if saying “my husband is dead” was safer if said with my eyes closed. Tears began to roll down her eyes. “It is all right to be angry with God and tell Him you are angry,” she responded.

“I am not angry with Him,” I said, “I cannot face this without Him.”

My spirit made a decision when my mind could not. My brain and heart had suffered an injury of cataclysmic proportion, yet my spirit knew that I would not survive except by clinging to my Father’s robe. I had to be like the woman with the bleeding disorder in the crowd. I was not pushing through people but I would push through anger, fear, doubt, loneliness, excruciating pain, to reach the hem of my Savior. I would stop at nothing to touch Him. I knew my faith would heal me.

I survived. I withstood. I fought. I rested. I never gave up.

That is where I was eleven years ago. Today I am on the backroads going to Harrisonburg with my now husband, Steve. We are fetching supplies for our non-profit food truck. Over the last 18 months we have provided over 70,000 free meals. All the proceeds from our truck goes to helping our community.

God did work it all for good. I see it every time I feel Steve’s hand take mine. I know it each time I look at his face and hear him call me “Queen.” He tended to that which was unhealed from vicious wounds he did not inflict. He tends to them still. And love has won.

It was hell to get to the passenger seat beside him but worth the fight. Some days it felt like swimming through mud but in that near impossible journey my spiritual and emotional muscles were made strong and the floating feeling of my life now was made all the sweeter.

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