Not A Traditional Recovery Story

Written by my daughter, Caitlin

This is not a traditional recovery story because my dad did not recover- he died on his motorcycle that day. This is the recovery story of how my father saved three lives when he passed away and how my pregnant mom became a single mother to a six-year-old boy and a three-year old girl and how she raised all three children on her own to be successful adults. Even though my dad was not able to walk away from his accident, my mom was able to recover from that tragedy that blew our lives apart and help hundreds of women along the way.

October 22, 2004 – my dad was on his motorcycle reporting to the fire station for work. However, there was traffic on his usual route, so he decided to take the back roads – a route he had never taken before that day. He had the right of way and was driving at 45 miles per hour, but there were trees blocking the view. A box truck was stopped at a stop sign and did not see him coming around the corner, so he thought it was safe to make the turn. My father would have died on impact if it was not for his helmet. He slid underneath the truck, hit his head on the exhaust pipe, and proceeded to come out the other side. He was taken by ambulance to the nearest hospital where he passed a few hours later. All of this occurred while my family was sleeping. Later that morning, my mother was driving me to preschool and one of my dad’s coworkers called her to tell her that my father was in the hospital, and he was not doing well. Despite the efforts of the nurses and doctors, my father had too much blood in his brain which ultimately led to his death. Fortunately, his heart still worked perfectly so after he passed away, his heart valves were donated to an older man, a middle-aged woman, and a young boy – their lives were saved that day and they all fully recovered from their transplants.

After my father passed away and my younger brother was born, my mom started to write a blog called, “Widow Plus Three” where she documented our journey through the life of being raised by a widowed parent. Through her blog, she was able to carry on my father’s memory as if he did recover, by writing about us and how she sees him in each of us. Her blog reached tens of thousands of men and women worldwide and she helped show them God’s grace, unconditional love, and that it is okay to question His plan. My father has been gone for almost 18 years and she continues to post about our lives because the recovery journey is never fully complete.

Over the next five years, my mom would create the only Georgia chapter of Modern Widows Club. Modern Widows Club is a monthly meeting where widows could gather to be around other women on the same heartbreak and recovery journey, so they know they are not alone. Through the club, my mom found her passion for helping others through grief and loss. In 2013, she became a licensed professional counselor and specialized in grief and trauma. She saw clients two days a week and worked in the school system the other days. In the schools, she was a school counselor and worked for an organization known as Sources of Strength where she would train students and teachers how to recognize suicidal triggers, thoughts, and how to reach out for help. Over the years, she has helped administrators, students, teachers, and families recover from deaths and suicides across two different school districts. 

My mom is now remarried, and they have been together for over ten years. In 2018, my stepfather adopted my younger brother and I making him our legal dad on our birth certificates. Through the adoption, we have three new siblings, a brother-in-law, a niece, a nephew, and a whole new side of family that treats us as their own. My older brother is now 24 years old and drives a UPS truck full-time. I am 21 years old, and I am a full-time student at the University of Georgia, and my younger brother is 17 years old and is taking dual enrollment classes at Kennesaw State University in the fall. My brothers and I did not get the chance to grow up with a father and experience the happiness on Fathers’ Day, but my mom’s heart healed, and we now have a man to call “Dad” who is our entire world.

My birth-dad may not have recovered from his motorcycle accident, but his tragedy directly saved three lives and allowed my mom to save a hundred more lives through her recovery journey. Recovering from a motorcycle accident is not always about the person directly involved because not only one person is affected by the incident. When that man pulled out in front of my dad – our lives were shattered and sent in a completely different direction. I would not wish this journey on anyone, but through our strong faith, my family has been able to recover and feel the love we missed out on for all those years.

Twice Blessed in This Short Life

heartsI’ve heard many widows talk about their “Chapter Two.” For those of you who are lucky enough not to know what that expression means, it’s the love that follows our late husband. For some reason, though, that expression has never appealed to me. For me, by saying that my current love is my “Chapter Two” feels as though I am saying that he is the #2 in my life and always will be. Although some widows may feel that way, I do not.

Let me explain.

When I was married to Steve, my beloved first husband, I loved him with my whole heart. He was everything to me. We spent 19 years together before he died at the age of 35 in a motorcycle accident. Everyone who knew us would say we had a love like no other, a special blessing from God. We were teenagers who fell in love when I was 14 years old and he was 16 years old. It was highly unusual for a relationship to start at such a young age and last while I went away to college, but somehow it did. We had our times of difficulties and even breaking up a few times, but we always found our way back together.

In 2004, when Steve rode his motorcycle to work that October morning, I had no idea how my heart would be ripped out of my body in just a few hours. God was about to put my life on a path that I could not foresee but first, I was going to suffer the greatest loss of my life and so would my children.

When Steve died, I was broken. I clung to my faith in God and His plan for my life although I am the first to admit I didn’t have a lot of trust in it. I remarried too soon and divorced shortly thereafter. I kept praying and going to church. I didn’t know any young widows who were raising children so I tried to do the best I could with my children. God made sure all of our needs were met. When I needed help, we had it. Friends, neighbors, co-workers, teammates, everyone near us pitched in to help me get my children where they needed to be on time. I started to trust God’s plan for my life too.

A little over 5 years ago, I met an incredible man. He challenged me, loved me, inspired me, and encouraged me. Before I even realized it, we had been dating for quite some time. I realized that meeting this man was all part of God’s plan for me. I was healing from my loss and my heart now belonged to someone else. My whole heart. My whole being.

Does this mean that I no longer love Steve? NO

Does this mean that I no longer miss Steve? NO

What this means is that my love for Steve has CHANGED. I love him as the father of my children, the man of my first 20 years, the man who I will always cherish for those sweet memories. I miss him in those ways too.

caitlin-homecoming-2016This year, on the Steve’s angelversary, our daughter went to her homecoming dance with her first real boyfriend. They are almost the same ages that he and I were when we began dating. I was so happy for her but also so sad that he didn’t get to be here to experience the joy with me. Grief. Again. 12 years later. This was the grief of a mother. It had nothing to do with my love for the man in my life now.

I am about to marry the man I love and he is NOT my Chapter Two because he is my NUMBER ONE! When I say my marriage vows to him, I will say them with my whole heart. I will always be Steve’s widow but I am about to become someone else’s wife. This is the duality of widowhood. Those of us on this journey “get it.” I’m so lucky to be TWICE BLESSED in this short life of mine. mary-and-jb-christmas

 

I Choose Love

heartsMy heart beats faster.

I look at him and I don’t think I could love him anymore than I do today.

His touch makes me feel protected, safe, secure.

His words are soothing when I need them to be, realistic when I need them to be too.

He makes me want to be a better woman because he challenges me to think more, do more and to achieve more.

He loves my children.

He loves me.

How is it possible that I’ve found this kind of love AGAIN in my life? It’s like a dream and I’m afraid of waking up.

When Steve died, I couldn’t sleep. It wasn’t the sleeping that was painful, it was the waking up. Steve was in my dreams with me. When I woke up, I was living in the nightmare of my new life without him. Now, I’ve opened my heart and my life to a love like that all over again only this time I know what I’m risking in a way that I didn’t know when I lost Steve.

I’m risking the gut wrenching pain that caused me to vomit. I’m risking the Earth shattering fear of a new life without the other half of me. I’m risking years of grief, sadness and anxiety. I know this because I’ve been there. It’s the price I paid for loving Steve with my whole heart.

Why would I risk it again?

He’s worth it.

I’m worth it.

Our love is worth it.

There are no guarantees in this life so I choose happiness.

I choose love.

I choose him.

I love you taken from Pinkelephanttv.com

The Meaning of Roses

Close-up View of a Pink RoseAs I sit here on this snowy Eve of Valentine’s Day, I wanted to share with you my first Valentine’s Day with Steve. I was 14 years old and he was 16 years old. His parents let him cook me a candlelit dinner at their house & they went out for the evening (isn’t that crazy?! I would never leave my teenage son alone with his girlfriend! LOL). In any case, I remember EXACTLY what he made for me: spaghetti! He cooked me a spaghetti dinner and lit candles & everything. I knew then that I was in LOVE. My first love. Only God could know that was going to be the first of many Valentine’s Days we would have together. 19 to be exact. Not enough if you ask me.

One of the things I loved the most about Steve was how romantic he was. That Valentine’s Day was only the beginning. There were roses of every color, for every occasion for 19 years. They weren’t ordinary roses, though. For example, for our 5 year wedding anniversary, I received a bouquet of FIVE long stemmed roses with a card that said, “One rose for every year you’ve given me.”

Another time, he went to Michigan to visit his mother in Michigan for Mother’s Day while I was pregnant with our oldest child (we lived in Georgia). He had roses delivered to me for Mother’s Day with a card that said, “I can’t wait to meet you. Love, Cameron (the name of our baby).” It was a family joke that out of the three boys in his family, I got the romantic one!

For many Valentine’s Days after he died, I longed for the romance and flowers. I felt lonely and unloved. I had to learn how to love myself and my life. The life God gave me, not the life I had with Steve, because that one was gone. A big part of my healing was accepting that I couldn’t remake (even with a remarriage) the life I had with Steve.  Once I accepted my life as a widow with children, I could move on and start living again.

The older I’ve gotten and the more I’ve healed from losing , the less I care about days like Valentine’s Day at all. Everyday things like drinking a hot cup of coffee in front of the fire on an icy morning bring me so much pleasure and contentment. I know how short life really is and how quickly it can all change. I kissed him good bye for work and then he was gone. I will not spend another day, not even Valentine’s Day, missing what’s right in front of me. JOY. LIFE. LOVE. I know it can be gone in a second.62973

No Longer Broken

Fourth of JulyWhen Steve died, I was lost. Not only did my heart ache every minute of the day, but my spirit was shattered. I felt like a stranger in my own home. I wandered around my house as if in a trance, wondering where Steve was and why he wasn’t coming home to me. My own body felt foreign as a baby grew inside of it while every muscle longed for Steve to hold me. I lost confidence in my ability to parent those little beings in my house because I was so exhausted from grief. I didn’t believe that anyone would want to spend time with me since all I could do was cry. Every inch of me had changed in an instant. For the first time in my life, I was insecure, shy and hesitant to move about in the world. I was broken.

When I met my second husband, I thought I was healed. I accepted Steve’s death so that I could move on with someone new but I was still grieving the loss it had left in my life. Anniversaries and birthdays sent me into an emotional tailspin as the waves of grief continued to swallow me up year after year. I longed to be the mother I was before he died. I missed my best friend. I missed our family, even though I had tried to create a new one.

As time worked it’s magic and God continued to heal me, I was able to accept the family that God had given me: my three children. I no longer had to be married to feel like my family was whole. I was able to let go of an unhappy marriage and move forward with confidence knowing that I could meet my children’s needs, all on my own. I was slowly becoming the capable, secure and outspoken woman that I was before Steve died.

It has been two years since my divorce and I have continued to grow in my spiritual and emotional journey. I have finally found a peace in my life that has not existed since Steve died. My family is complete with me and my children. We have made this house our home and we’re filling it with memories of our own. I am in love with a wonderful man and perhaps my family will include a husband and stepchildren someday but, for now, it’s just the four of us and that is enough. By the grace of God, I am no longer broken.

Teenager In Love

Me and Steve at Cedar PointA friend of mine recently posted some old pictures of me and Steve on Facebook. There was a picture of the two of us and some group pictures that were taken at an amusement park back in 1987. We were in high school. I was in 10th grade and Steve was a Senior. It’s funny how I remember that trip to the amusement park as if it happened yesterday!

Seeing those pictures made me smile because we had some really great times! Steve and I were together for 19 years and married for ten years. We truly grew up together and seeing old pictures of us makes me realize just how young we were when we fell in love with each other. I know how unique it is to meet your future husband in the ninth grade but I also know that God had a plan for us. I believe that our destiny was to create a family and we needed to do that before Steve was taken from this Earth. We fell in love at a young age because it wasn’t meant for Steve to ever grow old. He will forever be 35 years old.

When I look at pictures of us, I don’t feel that familiar ache in my heart anymore. It’s as if I’m looking at photos of someone else. It sort of feels like that life wasn’t real. So much has changed since Steve’s been gone and I’m a different woman now too. My world was shattered when he died. I had a baby. I got married and divorced. I sold our house and bought a new one. I changed jobs. My children are no longer babies and I’ve raised them alone. I am more independent than I ever knew I could be when Steve was here.

After eight years, I am not longing for the life I shared with Steve anymore. I will always miss the father of my children, my high school sweetheart, my first husband. But it’s hard to miss a life that is so far gone from the world I live in now. Looking at pictures of us makes me smile because I get to show them to my children. Those pictures are their proof that they were created within a loving marriage. Those photos show the brown eyes shared by my daughter and youngest son, the dark brown hair of my oldest son and it shows the happiness of both of their parents at a time when life was good.

It was nice to be reminded of a youthful trip to an amusement park when I was just a teenager in love. The best part of seeing those pictures, though, was realizing how far I’ve come during these eight years. I know that I’m healing because memories bring smiles now instead of tears. It’s been a long journey and I believe I deserve some happiness now. I know that’s what Steve would want for me and I believe he’s smiling down from Heaven with me.

God Already Knew

I was at Bible Study last week and we had a good discussion about whether God shows Himself to us in present day. We know from the Bible that God showed Himself to others before Jesus was born and then, of course, Jesus appeared to his disciples after he rose from the dead. As we talked about our experiences with God, I realized that, yes, God has showed Himself to me, He has tried to lead me and (sometimes) I have chosen to follow Him.

When Steve was killed, I didn’t realize how God had prepared me for it. Steve and I had been married for 10 years and we had only attended church sporadically throughout that time. We were the kind of Christians who went to church on Christmas and Easter each year but that was about it. I had always considered myself a Christian and I enjoyed going to a Baptist church with my friends as I grew up in Michigan. Steve was raised Catholic and we were married in the Catholic church as well.

About two years before Steve died, I started to feel a “tug” inside of me. I was longing for church but didn’t feel entirely comfortable in the Catholic church near our home. Steve and I agreed that a Catholic church was not the right fit for us and we began visiting some others. It took a while (we still weren’t going regularly) but in October of 2003, we walked into Loving Shepherd Lutheran Church and our lives were changed forever.

I can’t explain how it felt except to say that Loving Shepherd felt like “home” to us! We began going to church every Sunday. Both of us started studying the Bible. Our children were attending Sunday School. In December of 2003, I was baptized with Cameron and Caitlin. We volunteered at church and made good friends there.

I didn’t realize it but I can now confidently say that God was speaking to me. He led me to the support that I would need to survive Steve’s death. He led Steve to where he could grow in his faith. He was showing me how to be a Christian parent because my children were also going to need their faith in the years to come. It was just one year after we walked into Loving Shepherd that Steve died. Who knew? God did.

Since that time, I have leaned on my faith, even in the darkest of days and God has not let me down. He has sent people into my path to help me when I’ve needed it, He has made sure that our material needs have been met, He has given me the courage to make difficult choices in my life.

I haven’t always listened to God, though. Sometimes, I’ve thought that my way was better than His way. Looking back on my second marriage, it’s easy for me to see how it happened. I didn’t want to be a single mom. I was happily married one day, widowed and pregnant the next. I was exhausted, grieving and I missed sharing my life with Steve. I thought I was a better mom when I was married. I decided to take things into my own hands, instead of having faith in God’s plan for my life! I thought that I could still have the family I was “meant to have” if I got married again.

It was only after being absolutely miserable, seeing two different marriage counselors and my children telling me that they were unhappy that I finally let go of that marriage and admitted that maybe God knew more than I did! I was finally ready to accept that God had a plan for my life and for reasons I may never understand, I was supposed to be raising my children alone. In fact, I am a better mother now than I ever was in that second marriage.

With the realization that God knows best came an incredible freedom. I am happier today than I have been since that fateful day over eight years ago. I am in love with a wonderful man, I love being a mom and I am letting God lead my life. I have started working towards a professional goal and I’ve been attending a new church. I am surrounded by friends and my faith gets stronger with each day. Thank you, Lord, for showing yourself to me. I am blessed.

This Time of Year

 Cooler mornings. Leaves changing. Pumpkin patches in front of the churches. Fall has arrived. I used to love this time of year. In many ways, I still do. But mostly I find myself more emotional, breaking down into tears without warning. I know why this happens, I just wonder when it will stop catching me off guard.

It’s been eight years since my life changed. I went from being a wife to being a widow. Widow is a word that I had never given much thought to before that fateful day in October of 2004. Widows were old women with gray hair, or so I thought until I became one.

In those first days after Steve died, I vaguely remember someone bringing over pumpkins and carving them with my children. There were small pumpkins placed at the accident site along with the flowers that were left there. The makeshift cross bearing Steve’s name, the firefighter’s jacket. All of the ways that our friends and family tried to make sense of what happened to him. A memorial born out of intense grief. I didn’t venture out to that intersection until several days after the accident. It was after most of our friends and family had left to return home to their lives that I went there to see the broken glass still in the roadway. The broken glass very much like my life….how would I pick up the pieces with my two small children, a baby on the way, and suddenly without my life partner?

Halloween came and my children went trick or treating with my cousin. I tried to hand out candy until a neighbor stopped by and offered me her “words of wisdom.” She said, “Don’t worry, you’ll remarry again. It’s like getting divorced, you can never imagine getting married again and then you do.” I was widowed. It was NOT like a divorce. I had no choice in the life I was thrust into by Steve’s death. I closed my door and turned out my light. I couldn’t give out anymore candy and pretend to be happy. I was only NINE DAYS into my journey of widowhood.

So the fall changed into winter and one year passed into another. In these eight years, I’ve learned that widows aren’t just old women with gray hair. They’re young women like me, trying to raise our children without their fathers. Women like me who are “only” parents, not “single” parents. Women like me who make mistakes and sometimes try to numb their pain. But eight years has also taught me that I can be happy on my own, that I can be there for my children and still take care of myself, that it’s okay to fall in love again. I have come to a place in my life where I can look into my future without fear. I can see happiness ahead and I like what I see.

Why, then, does this time of year continue to wreak havoc on my emotions? Perhaps it’s the reminder of where I was eight years ago and how far I’ve come since then that makes me feel like crying? The realization that I can see my future without Steve that makes me sad….knowing that I’ve begun to heal from the wounds caused by October 22nd, 2004. I don’t feel broken anymore and it’s good to be whole again.

Life Goes On

There’s one thing that I’ve learned on this journey of widowhood: life doesn’t stop for grief. As much as I wished I could curl up and just grieve, the world still existed. My children needed to be fed. I had to go to work. In fact, my experience has been that the world expects grief to last a year. During that first year, people are more patient with grieving souls. They understand your grief, they accept it and you are encouraged to grieve.

After the first year, however, you are expected to “be over” it. It’s no longer acceptable to break down in tears for no apparent reason, to be exhausted because your grief is the worst at night, to have a hard time concentrating. What I found, though, was that the second year without Steve was actually harder than the first year. During my first year, I was pregnant and just trying to make it from day to day. My life centered around my children and the new baby I was carrying. Our first holidays without Steve are a blur. I went through the motions, for my children’s sake, with the goal of just making it through those days. The first Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, Valentine’s Day, the kids’ birthdays, the birth of our baby, our wedding anniversary, Father’s Day. If I could just make it through the first year, I thought I would be okay.

I was wrong. The second year without Steve turned out to be the hardest of all. I had to find a new “normal” for me and the kids. I had a new baby to care for, all by myself. There was no denying that Steve was gone and he would not be coming back. I had to accept this life that God had given me. I started dating again. The world expected me to be healed but I was far from over the grief of losing him. It has taken several years for me to feel as if I am healed. I made terrible mistakes during my grief. I married the wrong man because I thought that being married would make me a better mother. I dated to avoid loneliness. I drank too much to self-medicate the pain. My journey of grief did not end after one year.

Steve’s birthday was last week. It has been almost eight years since he died. When I reminded my son about his dad’s birthday, he said to me, “That’s gonna be a hard day for you, Mom.” My children have grown accustomed to my grief and they know that certain days of the year are harder for me than others. I am happy to say, though, that my grief has subsided into thankfulness for the memories, love and children that Steve blessed me with during his lifetime. I cried for a few minutes on his birthday but then I showered and got ready for work. Life goes on.

Remembering 9/11/01

Being the wife of a firefighter was never so scary as it was THAT day. Steve was working his usual shift at his station in suburban Atlanta. I had never given much thought to his training in hazardous materials before THAT day. I had no reason to worry that he was sometimes called to the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta. It was all routine until our world changed on 9/11/01. I cried. I begged him to come home. What if the terrorists were going to attack the CDC? Steve would be one of the first who responded to a crisis there. I was scared that he would die that day. But he wouldn’t leave his station. He wouldn’t come home. He was a firefighter and their duty was to stay at work, no matter what was happening in our crazy world.

As I watched the news coverage, over and over, I cried for all of the people who died, but especially for the firefighters and police officers. I knew Steve would do the same, he would run into those buildings trying to save lives. In fact, he went into MANY burning buildings to save lives. Police and firefighters put their lives on the line each and every day, but 9/11 was the first time that our whole nation saw their sacrifice.

As the days passed, firefighters and police officers were recognized for their heroic deeds at the World Trade Center. People were bringing food to their local fire stations, saying thank you for serving their communities. I remember thinking that our civil servants had been taken for granted for so long, it was nice that they were finally being recognized. But it came with a great loss. 343 firefighters and paramedics lost their lives THAT day. 60 Police Officers died. 1,609 people were widowed and 3,051 children lost a parent THAT day. In one day, our nation was changed forever.

As the widow of a firefighter and the girlfriend of a police officer, I am always acutely aware of the danger in those professions. I am also proud that I have been loved by such brave and heroic men. Men who would sacrifice their own life to save another. This is what they do, every day.

My prayer for today is that our country never has to experience a day of such sadness and grief. We should thank our civil servants for their dedication to keeping our country safe, each and every day. We should remember the spirit of our country in the aftermath of 9/11 – when we bonded together as a nation to help each other through the tragedy. I pray that God will be with those who lost loved ones on 9/11/01 and that He heals their broken hearts. Most of all, I pray for the safety of those who serve our country today: firefighters, paramedics, police officers and our military personnel. Lord, keep them all safe.

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