In those first 7 days after he died my world was a swirling storm of things to do tempered by the knowledge that a tsunami was coming. There wasn’t time to feel the feelings that show up in the aftermath of suicide. Still, they showed up, unpacked their bags and made themselves at home. I knew that if I so much as acknowledged their presence they would unleash the Tsunami brewing inside. I felt the tide of my emotions recede, revealing in their place the deceptively calm shores one sees as the storm gathers its strength. Everyone thought how well I was holding up. They didn’t know I had no choice. There were things to do, arrangements to be made, details to sort, and a husband to be buried. Inside though, I felt the waves of the Tsunami brewing.
At some point I started taking his backpack everywhere with me. Inside, the pockets were filled with things he used to keep close by: his zippo, his wallet, his keychain with the long military green velcro strap onto which he had attached his name patch which used to live on the front of his fatigues. A thin, compact but powerful flashlight that requires special batteries. It has a ridiculous amount of lumens. I think he got it while in Iraq. He taught me how to use the brightness of the light as a weapon to thwart would-be enemies. A key to his huge tool boxes that sit in the garage. A notebook for jotting down bits of information that were thrown at me nonstop for those first seven days. The keys to his truck which now sat at the towing lot. “You probably shouldn’t go get it” the officers told me. His pocket knife with the beautiful wooden handle inside the leather strap. His army ring now broken. His phone. His laptop. I felt that that somehow those things held answers. I needed to keep them safe. So in those early days that backpack went everywhere with me while I walked around in that fog. That hazy unreality after you find out your husband shot himself in the head but there is a funeral to plan, military honors to arrange, a dress green, Class A uniform to prepare, boots and buckles to polish, medals and ribbons and patches to measure. And that damn Class A dress shirt that was missing and no longer made because it was retired when they changed to Dress Blues a few years ago. What to do with the beret? Does it sit on his head, or lay in his hands? Will the wound in his head require the beret to be on his head during the viewing? What is the protocol for that? Does he take his dog tags with him in the casket? What socks are appropriate for a Dress Green uniform? Does it even matter? What about an undershirt? Does he need that? Who will tie the tie? How will I arrange all of this? And the whole time I couldn’t escape the calls from his family asking “Did he have life insurance?” “Who gets the benefits?” “Did he have a will?” “When can we come get his stuff?” Are you fucking kidding me? I have a funeral to plan. A casket to pick out. Checks to write. Decisions to make. I don’t have time to grieve or sink into this new reality. I have to tread right here in this spot, keeping my head above water so this man who served his country with bravery and courage and who carried the scars of war into his grave could be buried with the dignity and honor he deserved. I didn’t have time to think about life insurance or distribution of stuff. I didn’t have time to feel the feelings brewing inside the tsunami I knew was coming. There was a man, once alive, that now needed to be buried with honor and dignity. That was my only job in those moments.
Coroners aren’t concerned with niceties. Not that they are assholes. It’s just that they deal with death every day. The coroner who handled my husband’s case was in fact, considerate. She took extra time to review his VA records before issuing the final death certificate so that she could list a secondary cause of death, PTSD, under the primary cause of death, gunshot wound to the head. It’s just that they need to know where to send the body. The officers asked me that question while I still sat on that red bench on my porch overlooking the garden and the walkway where they stood. “Where should we send the body”. “What?”. “Do you have a funeral home in mind?”, they asked. My mind reached into its ancient network of data, searching for any scraps of intel on local funeral homes. Nothing. “I don’t know”, I told them. “There isn’t much time if you want to have an open casket”, they offered in reply. Again the scanning of the ancient files. Nothing. Who has intel about funeral homes tucked away in local files, readily accessible at times like this, I wondered. I sure didn’t. My neurons weren’t firing correctly. Turns out there is a funeral home less than a mile from where I sat. He had stopped his truck in the middle of the road once because they were playing TAPS for a funeral. He made everyone get out of the truck, turn toward the funeral, and place our hands over our hearts while he stood at attention. When the casket was lowered, he told us we could get back in the truck. He did not care that there was a line of cars behind us. He said everyone should get out and stand at attention whenever they hear TAPS at a funeral. He said that the person being buried served their country and earned that little token of respect. But while I sat on the bench on my front porch with police officers below me on the walkway, I couldn’t remember that same funeral home was within walking distance. I couldn’t remember any funeral homes anywhere. I felt my heartbeat quicken, my thoughts scramble for answers, and panic made a brief appearance. Then one of the officers said this: “it can wait until morning but the coroner will need to know as soon as possible”. The first in a series of impossible decisions was pushed off until tomorrow.
There was no escape from this reality I had been dropped into with finality. No intermission. No timeout. No redos or rehearsals. I was thrown, as if from a moving car, onto this road and told to stand up and find my way, battered body, mind a mess, fresh wounds open for the world to see. They couldn’t help me. Nobody could change the landscape I was given. So, I pulled myself up from the ruins of the road, took inventory of the wounds I saw but didn’t feel, and asked myself, “what’s next. What do I do next”. His mother. You must call his mother. My mind, in one last frantic attempt to find its way back to the safety of life before the doorbell rang, thrashed untamed inside my head. There’s no way out I told it. You have to make the call. And so I did.