This is an essay I wrote, and revised several times between November 2004 and 2008. Today, on the 11th anniversary of Kelly’s death, I feel prompted to share it for the first time, publically. I have come to peace with being a widow (most days) and my life is for the most part, happy. There was a time when I would not have been able to write that. It gladdens my heart that I can do so now.
November 9, 2004
The car stopped in front of my house, and as I stepped out, complete clarity of my surroundings pierced through my grief-induced stupor. An early morning mist, settling like a shroud, softened the angles of the buildings along the street. Gray skies held the promise of rain. A school bus rumbled by carrying children to school. Snatches of joggers’ conversations drifted across the breeze. The throb of an engine thrummed through the morning air —and I stood there, on the doorstep, bewildered, thinking, the world around me didn’t stop. It surprised me. My world had frozen, but all around me, life continued in its normal rhythm.
Max touched my arm, a gentle nudge bringing me back to the current moment. The morning’s events hit me again, full force. My husband’s still form, my panic, the ambulance’s flashing lights, the paramedics’ jumbled voices coming from far away, the antiseptic smell of the hospital, my daughter’s keening wails, and the doctor’s words repeating in my mind like a scratched record, “I’m sorry. There was nothing more we could do.” Could do. Could do. Could do.
It was an early Tuesday morning, and in the space of a moment, I was a widow. I was forty-three years old, a mother of six, a grandmother of two, a sister, a daughter, a friend, and now a widow. The title felt foreign to my lips, my mind rejected it, and my heart screamed, no!
The weeks and months following Kelly’s death and funeral were one long blur interspersed with moments of clarity; Kelly’s things all around me were a constant reminder of my loss. The painful realization came that I needed to do something with them. Every time I picked something up, the tears would begin to fall. I decided I needed to put some of them away in an attempt to regain some sense of normalcy. Thus began the week-long bittersweet experience of sorting through our life together: books, papers, clothes, photos, and miscellany; his things and mine.
Some things, magazines and old job applications were easy to throw out. Other things, like his clothes, I couldn’t bear to simply box up. I put them instead on a separate rack, where I could clutch them in my arms and breathe in the lingering scent of Kelly. Pulling his red and black flannel plaid shirt from the pile of clothes, I hugged it to myself. It was the kind shirt he wore on those crisp fall mornings when there was a definite bite in the air. There was a smear of paint on one of the sleeves.
I was the one who accidently swiped him with a paintbrush one day. Kelly was very particular about his paintbrushes and the quality of paint he used. He could paint an entire room, without getting paint on himself. I was just the opposite, always ending up with smears of paint on my elbows, and usually a smudge or two on my face. I put the flannel shirt on, savoring its softness and warmth, thinking of it as a hug from him.
Kelly was big on hugs; we used to have family sandwich hugs. Kelly and I would be the bread, and the kids would be the fillings. First, when it was just Melanie, she was the jam. When Brittanie came along, there was peanut butter. After Jason, Katie, Jaimie, and Cameron joined us; the sandwiches had to be subs. Often family hugs, following prayers, led to “nee, nees” a ritual of rubbing noses and saying, “nee, nee, nee,” which evolved into rock-a-byes. These weren’t your ordinary rock-a-byes, but Kelly’s own version, that went like this: He would pick up the kids, or kneel and gather two or three of them (usually the youngest ones) in his arms then sway with them singing, “Rock-a-bye baby in the treetops, when the wind blows the cradle will, rock, rock, rock, and rolllllll,” (at this point he would rock them wildly back and forth) then he’d slow down and continue singing, “When the bough breaks the cradle will fall, down will come baby, cradle and all, SPLAT!” –at which point the kids would fall, giggling, to the floor. I loved to watch him with them. When Kelly tucked the girls in at bedtime, he gave them “Princess Kisses,” his version of goodnight kisses, on the forehead. When they begged him for a bedtime story, he usually made one up on the spot, starring them. If he wasn’t in the mood to make up a story, he told them this one that his father used to tell him. “Once upon a time, when the birds made rhyme and the monkeys chewed tobacco, little pigs ran around with knives and forks in their thighs saying, who’s going to eat me? The End.” Not quite your normal bedtime fare.
Bedtime. I dreaded bedtime. After Kelly died my empty king-size bed mocked me. Staying up until the wee hours of the morning was my way of coping. Eventually I succumbed to exhaustion, and turning off the lights, I would force myself to slip between the sheets and pull the goose-down comforter up. For months, silent tears threaded their way down my cheeks in a nightly ritual as I stared up at the glow-in-the dark stars shining my last Valentine’s Day message to Kelly. Blinking back the tears, I could faintly see the “I ❤U” on the ceiling. In an attempt to make going to sleep easier, I started listening to a love song Kelly wrote and recorded, especially for me. His voice soothed me, caressed me, and loved me; listening to his voice, I would finally sleep.
Music was a huge part of Kelly’s life. For years he sang in choirs, performed in musical theater, and of course played his guitars. Contemplating his instruments gathered around me
–Four guitars, a bass guitar, a banjo, a keyboard, an electronic drum-machine, and various recording equipment–I thought of the many times I had complained about tripping over guitars and amps left lying around the bedroom. Now I missed the tripping and hearing him play, the tip of his tongue peeking out the corner of his mouth when he concentrated on a particularly difficult lead. I knew he would want the instruments to be used, so I gave one to each of the children.
His original guitar, the one he worked and saved for all one summer, I gave to Melanie, our oldest daughter. It seemed fitting that she being his first born should have his first guitar, and to Brittanie, our second daughter, his second acoustic guitar. To Jason, I gave his twelve string guitar, the one Kelly played as he sang to me the night he asked me to marry him. Kelly taught Jason his first guitar chords, and when he was good enough, let him jam with his band, Knight Rain, a few times. He once told me Jason had learned in just a couple of years what had taken him twice as long to learn. Kelly taught himself to play by listening to the radio and figuring out the chords, and practicing until he could play along.
I gave Katie his electric guitar, the one he never would have purchased for himself. One year for Christmas, it was my gift to him. He had wanted one for a long time, but could never justify the expense. He always went without to make sure the kids’ needs were met. That was such a happy moment for me when he opened the gift box containing a toy guitar, and taped to it, a gift certificate. When we went Boothe Brothers music store, he took his time trying out guitars, playing bits and pieces of tunes I had heard him play for years, giving due consideration to each model before he chose the one that would be his. He truly enjoyed his new guitar. When he was stressed out and needed to relax, he would disappear to release the frustrations of the day in guitar riffs and chords.
A couple of years later, I convinced him it was okay to spend the money and buy an electric bass guitar. It became his new passion. The other guitars took a back seat while he began to master the bass. Jaimie shared his interest and ‘borrowed’ the bass from time to time, so I gave her Kelly’s bass guitar. For Cameron, our youngest son, Kelly’s banjo; Kelly never played it much, but every once in awhile would get it out and entertain us with, Old Susannah and other banjo songs. I remember Cameron as a small boy hopping and dancing while Kelly picked complicated patterns on the banjo. I traded hours and hours of babysitting for the banjo and a stereo system one year.
Kelly loved to play his guitars for himself and for others. I’ll never forget how he beamed; playing with his band at Melanie’s wedding reception, while she danced with her new husband. And I’ll never forget that the last song he played specifically for me was “This Old Guitar,” a John Denver song, at a church social. He walked among the tables, taking requests. When he got to the table I was at, he just started playing and singing that song for me. It took me back to the evening he asked me to marry him, “this old guitar brought me my lovely lady, taught me how to laugh and how to cry.” Now, that song always makes me think of him.
I made shadow boxes for each of the kids and put a guitar pick in all of them, and a firecracker, from the package Kelly was saving for a big celebration. I think those firecrackers had been there for five years. He was a great saver. I once bought him Tetris Worlds, a computer game, and it sat in its packaging for six months before he decided to use it. He put candy in the headboard – for when he had an urge for something. Invariably, it went missing, and wasn’t there when he was hungry for something sweet. Either the kids or I had gotten to it first. When I raided the headboard, I always replaced it with fresh candy, the kids, however, didn’t. He would get irate and say, “When you’ve got kids, that’s all you’ve got.” His clutter in the headboard was hard for me to go through, so many little things that said, “Kelly”: The set of pens, engraved with his name that were my gift to him when he graduated from BYU; bow ties that matched the cumberbunds that were part of the tuxes he wore when he sang with Sounds Choir; a harmonica, which he pulled out every now and then to entertain the kids with; an old, green, glass-cutter from work, he was always so precise when he was working with glass; a tape measure, a set of nail clippers, random pens and pencils; a book about writing grants, one about writing lyrics, and the script for Dead Poets Society.
His scriptures were in the headboard too. As I opened them, a paper fell out. It was covered in tiny writing, as though it was the last piece of paper in the world, and he was trying to record everything the speaker said. In the piles around me there were many such random papers filled with his notes reflecting his deep understanding of gospel principles. The margins were filled with his insights. Next to his family, the gospel was the most important thing in his life.
The notes reminded me of his formula, borrowed from his father, for giving a talk. It was first, tell them what you’re going to tell them, second, tell them, and third, tell them what you told them — and it worked. Kelly, given the opportunity to speak, could get into the meat of a subject, make you think about it, and then explain what he’d shared.
Our kids knew better than to read a talk. Even when they were very small, he insisted that they memorize what they were going to say – no reading. He did help them learn it all. One week, Melanie was to say the scripture for Primary, and Kelly found a simple scripture for her to memorize, “The glory of God is intelligence.” She however, kept saying, “The glory of God is in television.” After a dozen attempts to get her to change it, he gave up and helped her learn a different scripture. Oh, the memories. I sighed, put aside his scriptures, and returned to the piles around me.
Picking up his journal and flipping through the pages, I found myself pausing to read. I smiled as I read his description of our meeting at Ricks College, and how he fell in love. He wrote about our first date. He asked me out when we were standing with a group of students who had just finished roller skating. I agreed to go out with him on the condition that I was back by eight, because I already had a date with a fellow, who happened to be standing there too, and he didn’t protest, so I thought he was okay with the arrangement. Kelly and I went to a fireside[ii]; the speaker was Paul H. Dunn. As promised, Kelly walked me back to my apartment in plenty of time so I could change before going out again. I found out years later, that as Kelly was leaving, he passed by my second date, Zhon, and cheerfully called out to him, “Your turn.” His account of our dating was followed by his view of our engagement, courtship, and marriage. Kelly didn’t write a lot in that journal, only fifty pages in twenty-five years, but I treasure what is there. I moved from the journal to our letters. The letters, spanning twenty-three years, were in a beautiful mahogany box Kelly gave to me for Christmas one year to replace the cardboard shoebox I had been using. Seeing his familiar scrawl splashed across the pages made my heart ache. Here were mundane ramblings about the children, work, school, gardens, and ball games. Others were his reflections and frustrations, about life in general, and me in particular. The majority of the letters were tender expressions of love and gratitude for me being a part of his life. When I came across the last note he ever wrote to me, I could barely see through the tears dripping onto the page to read it:
This is just a quick note to say how much I love you. You have been the love of my life almost since I have known you. I remember walking around the campus at Ricks College looking at every girl who had dark brown hair, hoping it was you. I would feel so excited just when you walked into the room. It is like heaven to look into your gorgeous grey/blue eyes and even better to be kissing you while soaking in the pleasure of those deep warm eyes.
I know that sometimes I get mad at you . . . But I can’t stay mad at you for long. You are still my “cute stuff” and I suppose you always will be. . . I still love you with all my heart. My life would be so empty without you. . . We can overcome anything, and I have faith that we deserve some of the Lord’s finest blessings in the end.
All my Love, Kelly
Through my tears, I carefully put the letters and cards back into their box, and surveyed the last bits and pieces of his life lying in piles around me, waiting for the decision of whether they would be saved, given away, or thrown out. In a way, I felt like I was facing those same choices. I wondered which parts of my life would remain the same, what things would change, and what things I would get rid of completely. I knew I would never be the same.
Idly sifting through a random stack of papers, I came across the program for Dead Poets Society. Kelly, Jason, and Jaimie’s names were listed in the cast. Looking at it, I thought of the day the play opened, November 8, 2004. It was a Monday. It began as a typical day, with Kelly pressing a kiss on my still-sleepy forehead, to wake me up. I had smiled, thinking of falling asleep in his arms the night before, my head nestling against his shoulder in its customary place. Through the layers of sleepiness, I vaguely caught something about picking him up from work, so he would be on time for the show. I nodded, mumbled a sleepy reply, and rolling over, and promised myself fifteen more minutes of blissful sleep.
Twenty minutes later, as I came fully awake, the morning routine set in; kids off to school, me off to work. I was substituting that day at the high school, science and chemistry, a two-day assignment, one I knew would be easy. I called Kelly on my lunch break to say “Hello, I love you,” and to confirm the evening’s schedule. He was too busy to talk long, and I had to get back to class. At the end of the day, I stacked the papers and folders, leaving everything ready for my return the next day. Going out to the van, I sighed. We were down to one working vehicle, so I was playing taxi. I made it in good time to the junior high and middle school and shuttled the kids home. Then in heavy late afternoon traffic, I headed off to pick Kelly up from work.
When we got home, he was in a rush, grabbing a quick bite to eat before Jason, Jaimie, and he headed to the theatre. I would follow later with Katie and Cameron to watch the show. It was opening night of Dead Poets Society. Kelly and Jason were playing opposite each other; father and son, playing father and son. Jaimie was playing one of the school girls. This was Jason’s big lead, playing Neil, a charismatic academic, who also loved to act– against his father’s wishes. The cast worked hard to get it right. Kelly was a dedicated actor, always focused and prepared, his parts memorized. He was the “old man” among a group of youthful actors and they looked up to him.
When it was time for me to leave for the theatre, I couldn’t find Cameron anywhere. He left after school, and I knew he was hanging out with his friend, but I didn’t know where they were. He hadn’t seen his dad since early that morning, and I thought about tracking him down, but I didn’t want to be late, so I left without him, figuring I could take him to the play Tuesday night.
Arriving at the theatre, I talked to Kelly for a couple of minutes before the show started. He was wearing his black wool suit, my favorite tie, and his leather, Sunday shoes, shined and polished. I loved how he looked when he was all dressed up. The stage make-up looked a little incongruous, but he was unconscious of it even being there. He was focused on getting into character, and didn’t want to be distracted by my chatter. That was his way, to focus on the matter at hand, and then move on, one thing at a time. I wished him luck and found my seat.
Brittanie was sitting there in the audience. I was surprised to see her, because I knew she had to be at work at midnight. She had come see her dad opening night, instead of waiting for the end of the run like she usually did. I slipped into a seat next to her. The house lights came down, and we were transported to a different time and place. The scenes between Kelly and Jason were electric as they portrayed an overbearing father and his teenage son, who was trapped between his own desires, and wanting to please his parents. I was caught up in the emotion. It was so intense and real I almost forgot it was only acting. It sounded strangely familiar, an echo of heated discussions between Jason and Kelly at home. The tension in the play built up, and was only released when Neil (Jason) commits suicide, and his father finds him. It was a powerful play, about life changing events.
I was quiet on the ride home, still under the spell of the play. By the time we got there, it was late. Katie went to bed immediately. Kelly peeked in on Cameron who was already asleep, made some tacos, his favorite food, and shared them with Jaimie, then settled down to watch a rebroadcast of a BYU football game.
Still feeling unsettled by the emotions the play had stirred up in me, I sat on the floor next to the couch where Kelly lay sprawled, needing to touch him, and reassure myself that he had just been acting. I wanted to talk to him about the intense feelings that came up for me during the show. I was having a hard time separating Kelly, as the father on stage, from Kelly, as a father at home when he was upset with something the kids had done. It quickly became apparent however, that he just wanted to relax and watch the ball game and not have a serious discussion.
Still, I stayed for a little while longer, resting my head against his shoulder, just wanting to be close to him, satisfying myself that it was my sweetheart laying there, not some distant, militant, father figure. Eventually, feeling rather tired out by the long day, I kissed his forehead, said, “Goodnight,” and went to bed, alone.
In the early morning, I started awake and instinctively reached for Kelly, but he wasn’t there. Glancing at the clock, I noted that it said 4:02. I thought to myself, he fell asleep watching that football game, I’d better go get him to come to bed.
Groggily, I dragged myself upstairs. Switching off the blaring TV, I turned, and touching Kelly’s shoulder, I gently shook him, telling him to come to bed. He didn’t respond. I shook his shoulder again, harder, still no response. Then as I touched his hand, I realized something was wrong. His hands were cold, too cold; and his face was slack. Coming fully awake, I gave way to panic, calling his name repeatedly louder, shaking him, willing him to wake. He wouldn’t wake up, but my shouting woke Cameron.
I yelled at him to call 911. Following the dispatcher’s directions, I moved Kelly from the couch to the floor and began CPR, alternating between chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth. Shortly after I started, Jason appeared and took over the chest compressions. By now, all of the children were awake, watching. I continued doing mouth-to-mouth, the taste of the now cold hamburger and onions of his tacos rising with the air, gagging me with each chest compression. Even when the paramedics came, I continued the mouth to mouth, my warm lips against his cold ones. I quit only when they put an oxygen mask on his face. Stumbling into the kitchen, I shakily called my former bishop and close family friend, Max. He came immediately. Going back into the front room, I watched the paramedics. They suctioned out Kelly’s nose, leaving a slimy trail of mucus smeared all over his face. It was so unlike Kelly, I just had to wipe it off. I used my shirt. There were people all over the room, all over him, and the paramedic’s machine kept intoning in a mechanical, computer generated voice, “it is not advisable to administer electric shock at this time.” I just wanted to hold him. I wanted the force of my will, my need for him to bring him back, but my frantic attempts came too late.
I felt apart from everything; the children’s faces, the ambulance lights flashing through the window, the phone call to Melanie, telling her they were taking her dad to the hospital. Then they were loading him on a gurney, feeding him into yawning ambulance doors, and taking him away. As the doors shut, I already knew, I knew in my heart that he wouldn’t be coming home to me ever again. The ride to the hospital, with Max driving, seemed to take forever. As I walked in the doors, one of the emergency room attendants came to meet me, to tell me what I already knew: Kelly was dead. A part of me died too, that misty November morning.
For a long time I wondered if I would ever feel alive again; the days and months blurred together in a haze of numbness and pain. I learned to say hypertrophiccardiomyopathy, the official name for the cause of Kelly’s death; in laymen’s terms, it is heart failure, caused by mitral valve disease. I filled out forms, stood in lines, mothered, and went through the motions of life. Slowly, months passed and the blanketing fog of grief and loss lifted – time moved on, and I survived it. Another November arrived with its chancy weather and overcast mornings. I looked back, noting my progress. Over the course of that first year I moved from being a silent bystander, to once again become a part of the landscape of the world continuing in its rhythm of life.
And now it is 2015, and the 11th anniversary of Kelly’s death. I think of him every day, and my heart is his forever. The children are all grown now, my hair has streaks of gray, our family has grown, children married, grandchildren growing up, and me, I am still here, living my life, even through the misty November days.