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What do I do now?

Irritation at my husband’s tardy return from TGI Friday’s on Good Friday morphed into anxiety as realization struck…he ALWAYS calls. The doorbell jolted me. I glanced at my obnoxiously large digital clock: 4:30 am. Dressed in a nightshirt, I passed our infant’s and teenager’s rooms to answer the door.

Bleary-eyed, I peered through the peephole. “Who is it?”

“Does someone here know Tony Smith?”

“Who are you?”

“Ma’am. I work for Ventura County. Does someone here know Tony Smith?”

“Yes. He lives here.”

“Ma’am. I’m sorry to disturb you, but I’d like to speak with you.”

Heart in stomach, trembling, and suddenly cold, I mumbled. “Just a minute.”

“No problem. Take your time ma’am.”

Instantly awake, I bounded up the stairs and burst into my son’s room. “Wake up. Wake up. I need you to come downstairs NOW.”

“Mom…” he groaned, as irritated as I’d be if abruptly awakened.

“I’m serious. Come downstairs NOW. There’s a White man outside with a clipboard asking me if I know Tony. Some ill sh*t’s about to jump off.”

Reluctantly, with a blue fleece blanket in hand, he followed me downstairs. He sat on the sofa, cocooning himself.

As I opened the door, the clean-shaven face combined with the clipboard and government-issued jacket signaled to me that the visitor was legit. “Come in.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

Still standing, I directed him to the bone-colored couch with six perpetually disorganized pillows.“Have a seat.” My son and I watched him warily.

“How do you know Tony Smith?”

“I’m his wife.” His expression changed as he looked up at me.

“Please sit down ma’am.”

“I’m fine,” My crossed arms simultaneously hugged and braced myself for his next words.

“There was a single-vehicle accident on the 118. Your husband was killed.”

“What?” Half questioning half laughing.

“There was a single-vehicle accident and your husband was killed.”

Now painfully aware of my highly inappropriate yet uncontrollable laughing, I again asked “What do you mean?”

“There was a single-vehicle accident. Your husband was killed.”

“Tony is dead?” I asked, still laughing.

As I glanced down to my right, my beautiful and strong son was silent and stoic sitting there on the couch - not moving an inch. The only indicator of his awareness was his trembling… Obviously he was processing the unexpected death of his stepfather quicker than I.

“Yes Ma’am,” he said looking up at my curiosity, empathy, and concern.

“He’s dead? What happened?”

“We aren’t sure ma’am. He veered off of the road and hit the center cement divider. The car flipped and…”

“He was ejected because he wasn’t wearing his seat belt,” I unintentionally finished his sentence aloud.

“Yes, Ma’am. We’re not sure what happened.”

Again, on autopilot, I said, “He fell asleep.”

“We found Del Taco strewn about the car, perhaps he was eating?”

“No. He would not eat in the car. He would bring it home. He fell asleep.”

“There were no skid marks.”

“Was anyone else hurt?” “No Ma’am. It was a single-vehicle accident.”

“What do I do now?”

“His body is at the Ventura County Coroner’s office. After the autopsy is done, we will call you and you can arrange to have the body picked up. The car was towed by Swink’s towing. Here’s their card.”

Silently, I took the card…looking at it as if he’d handed me a dirty diaper. My mind started to wander. Where is my car? When do I call? Finals at Pepperdine are in two weeks and my students’ group presentations are next week. What about the contract I just signed with Butler University? What am I going to tell his mother? His Daughter’s mother?”

“…my card if you need anything.” He handed me another dirty diaper. I composed myself enough to shake his hand. “I don’t envy you your job, sir.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” he said as he walked back through the door he’d entered.”

As I closed the door with my butt and reached behind me with my left hand to flip the deadbolt, my son and I locked eyes. Wired pretty similarly, we didn’t really say anything. We just walked silently back upstairs to our bedrooms.

As I glanced at the baby girl of Tony and I sleeping so peacefully, I realized the trajectory of her whole life had just shifted... Before entering his room, my son stopped and glanced over his right shoulder, “I’m sorry Mom.”

I hugged him and said, “Thank you.”

“I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”

“You’ve gotta call his sister.” His baby sister.

His bedroom door clicked shut.

“She’ll be the first family on either side that I call, but I’m about to lose my ability to think. I need to call Velvet.” Velvet would be up since she was on Eastern time. I called her as I booted up my laptop and opened Microsoft Excel™.

After I made an empty numbered list, always a morning person, she cheerily chirped, “Hey girl…” I abruptly said, “Tonys’ dead, I’m in Excel, and I need you to help me figure out whom to call and what to do. Help me make a list before my mind shuts down…”

As I look back on that night 16 years ago, here is what I can tell you.

1. Know thyself…and accept her. After losing my mother 7 years earlier prior, though I show little emotion in crises, my mind quickly goes into shock.

2. Rely on others. Before my mind shut down, I called Velvet and we strategized. I let another colleague. handle my classes. I accepted my department rallying around me.

3. Give yourself an invitation to grieve. If you are like me, you were taught to “be strong.” That is malarkey. Strength is handling the crisis, through the pain and tears. I had a “crying chair” that I would sit in daily for an hour while I was home alone. I gave myself permission to wail. As time passed, I sat in the chair less and less.

4. Realize others do not feel your pain…even loved ones. Unless they have walked this path and unless they are you, they do not understand. Don’t expect them to.

5. Make no money or relationship decisions. God forbid you to do both before you right-side yourself…you may end up heartbroken and broke. Trust me on this.

6. There are no rules…and if they are, you make them—and you can change them at will. There is no playbook for going through grief. Yes. There are highly documented stages of grief, anger, acceptance, etc., however, they are not linear or mutually exclusive.

7. Opinions are like…well, you know. Everyone will have an opinion about what you should do with your spouse’s belongings, your living space, your life, your children, and your money. The operative word is “your.” Always remember that.

8. Grief is the price for loving. We all want to live lives full of pain; but, that is not realistic. I try to remind myself that I was so blessed to have loved.

9. Let’s get (a) physical. Without your physical health, you can do nothing. Get yourself checked out and start a sustainable health routine.

10. It’s okay to be happy again. Many people have opinions on how we should mourn and when we should “move on.” Joy and happiness are gifts that you are allowed to enjoy again.

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