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Blog Essay: Unknowing

This is an expansion of my previous essay formerly entitled "Lost". "Unknowing" was selected for the 2024 Whatcom Writes Anthology, Legacy.

I lost my first husband when I was 25. Not lost like I turned around in a crowded mall and couldn’t find him. Not lost due to his attraction to a younger, thinner, blonder woman who had used feminine wiles to persuade him to leave me. Lost as in he took a .22 caliber gun and shot himself in the head. It was unexpected. Intentionally unexpected. He hid his plans from me as I later learned many successful suicides do. He denied my pleas to explain his unusual behavior, lied to me about his whereabouts. I thought maybe he was having an affair, and I wasn’t too far off. Steve was planning to leave me, just not in the way I had imagined.

Our last night together, we fought. I accused him of lying to me again. I knew he hadn’t been out with a friend that day as he had told me (his suicide note later revealed that he had been scouting out places to die). I mustered the strength to ask him to leave…professed that I wouldn’t live with someone I couldn’t trust. Steve pleaded with me to let him stay the night and something in his demeanor made me decide to acquiesce. As we watched television, and he laid his head in my lap, tears welled in his eyes. I hoped he would tell me the truth. He hoped I would stop asking.

The next morning the sun rose, and our situation didn’t seem as hopeless as it had in the dark and still of the previous night. I drove him to his car which had, ironically, died the day before. We jump started it. I took it as a metaphor, a sign that we could jump start our marriage. Revive it from its seeming demise. I told him to come home, and we could try to work things out. He kissed me with the kind of kiss I rarely received in our 8 years and two children together. I drove away hopeful. He drove away knowing that was goodbye. I never saw him again.

Three long, heartbreaking days and a missing person’s report later, a call finally came. A police officer was on the way to my house. I sat on the slopping hill of my front lawn in the dark and quiet of the predawn hours, waiting for the news I knew was going to change my life. I tried to breathe. I hugged myself tightly in an attempt to hold all the pieces of me together. I remember closing my eyes and a warm breeze from nowhere washing over me. A gust of knowing.

Even so, I sat stunned as the officer and the chaplain he had brought with him, told me that my husband’s body had been found in the back of his car in a Seattle park. They answered my numerous questions as best they could, but there aren’t answers to such questions. Certainly not ones that satisfy the deepest WHY I’d ever wanted answered. Still in a fog, I picked up the two water glasses I had offered them earlier, calmly excusing myself, and walked out the front door into the night. As I stood outside and screamed, I threw the glasses against the garage door of our house, watching the glass shatter. Feeling my life shatter. And then I carefully, quickly picked up the pieces so no one else would get hurt.

I just as quickly tried to pick up the pieces of my life, and with the same care and effort, hid the depths of my pain from others so it wouldn’t hurt them more. But what was left of our little family suffered the collateral damage of that .22 bullet for decades. The hardest conversation of my life. Sitting my 7-year-old son down and watching a part of him break as I told him his father was dead. The combination of sadness, horror, and pain that crossed his formerly peaceful face is still emblazoned in my mind. Nearly 25 years later, a piece of him is still broken.

Well-meaning sympathizers espoused that I should be grateful that at least our youngest, my daughter barely two, would not suffer from missing her father. She “was too young” after all. Psychiatry later proved this theory wrong. The two-year-old daddy’s girl who had recently grown enough hair to finally have a small ponytail, donned it at her father’s funeral and asked incessantly when he was coming home. I would listen to her in her bed at night talking to him. I jealously wondered if in her innocence she actually could. She still looks for, and finds, signs of him that cross the path of her life. The missing of what never was can be much harder than just missing.

After the funeral, I returned to school. I had started an intensive 11-month Masters in Teaching program just six weeks earlier and I knew as a single parent, I was going to need to finish the program if I was to stand a chance of supporting my children. I threw myself into the work, going to school 8 hours a day, and being the best version of a broken mom I could be in the evening. I would put the kids to bed, and study until 2am only to wake up at 5:30 the next morning and do it all over again. I did what I always do. I avoided the pain through efficiency, achievement, and never being still for long. Holding still meant time to think. I did not want time to think about the what ifs, to mourn my lover, to acknowledge the depth of my children’s loss. I became embedded in the cherished belief that I was strong and doubled down on resiliency.

It was sometime after the sudden death of my second husband, when I was told for the countless time, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle” that I suddenly had the urge to punch someone in the face. I wanted to scream, “HOW FUCKING STRONG DO I HAVE TO BE before God leaves me the hell alone?” Strength can be a gift in turbulent times. It can be an armor for a sensitive person in a world in which our sensitivity is at least misunderstood and at most mocked. It can be an effective survival mechanism. But like many survival mechanisms, it remains long after the surviving is over, and then it can become a barrier. I still struggle with the questions; how strong do I have to be? How strong do I want to be? And What is this strength costing me?

It goes without saying that the act of parenting leaves scars. Sometimes intentional. Often without malice or even consciousness. The visible and invisible wounds of raising children. I can enumerate many deep and shallow marks of parenthood that I have placed on my children, and I am confident that they could list more. There are the scars that heal, the scars that can be forgiven, and the scars that stay, festering beneath a delicate scab. Too often the scars left by an absent parent are overlooked, under acknowledged, and written off. After all, how much damage can someone who wasn’t present inflict?

The scars of absence live dormant like a virus in the body. Not often seen but always present. Circulating through the blood stream with every heartbeat. It permeates every cell, physically and mentally altering you from the moment before to all the time after; a low vibration that exists in the body sporadically raising emotional welts. The fear when falling in love. The pushing away of those who profess love to make sure they won’t leave…. or prove to yourself that they will.

I have seen these outbreaks play out again and again in my life and for both of my children in the years since that warm, dark night on my front lawn. The relationships with people more damaged than we were.  The self-medicating to avoid the welts. The drinking. The marijuana smoking. The health kicks and the binges. The agoraphobia. The prescription medications to prevent the same dismal spiral we saw play out in front of us. A stint in a psyche ward. The surprise that it was only required of one of us.

There are definite impacts of parenthood. Both on the child and on the parent.  It is hard to know until the ripples cease to form which of those are fleeting and which are lasting. But the ripples left by suicide never seem to stop hitting the shore. Without reason, without apology, often without consciousness, they gently lap against the shore of life until their din simply becomes a part of our landscape, and we are left to ride out the waves while we try to keep our head above water.


©2023 Jennifer Deshaies




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