When Carla, my first wife, took her own life it shattered my life and the lives of our kids even more than they’d already been shattered by the massacre at Columbine High School (CHS).
It shattered other’s lives, too, including her extended family, her friends, her acquaintances, the person who volunteered to take her to the hospital that day, and everyone who knew and loved her. In fact, as time went on, I found out it shattered an already grieving nation.
On the morning of October 22, 1999, things began as they pretty much had begun for us since moving into the house that had been remodeled to accommodate Anne Marie’s disability caused by being shot at CHS.
My son, Nathan, left for school. Carla’s ride to her “out-patient” psychiatric therapy at the hospital picked her up and they left. I took Anne Marie to Leawood Elementary School so she could receive the donations from a fundraiser the students there had done for her. A start to what I believed would be a typical and very nice day.
Anne Marie and I had just returned from Leawood and were starting to go about our normal routines at home when the phone rang. It was the hospital. They asked if I knew where Carla was. The doorbell rang. I went to answer, and there stood Sherry, our Victim’s Advocate, and two Jefferson County Sheriff’s Deputies behind her. I invited them in.
As they very uncomfortably greeted Anne Marie, I could tell something was wrong. All of a sudden Sherry just blurted it out, “Carla’s dead!”
I guess I could say the standard cliché types of questions went through my head right then.
That would be a lie. If anyone were to ask me right now what was going through my head, I’d say a gazillion garbled thoughts…none of which made a lick of sense at all. I still, to this day, can’t explain the thoughts or the emotions I was feeling.
My reaction, my feelings, my emotions, my need to scream were all stuffed down into my psyche in order to stay as strong as I possibly could for my kids.
A Jefferson County Sheriff’s Deputy was bringing Nathan home from school. They weren’t telling him what had happened. They were leaving that up to me when he got to the house. Oh, joy! Even with everything HE’d gone through, now this!? What else could possibly go wrong for him?
I felt myself begin to collapse, but I couldn’t. Anne Marie was right there. This was her Mom they were talking about! I needed to buck up. Her needs were greater than mine.
I went to her, bent down, and hugged her. I looked her straight in the eyes to make sure she would be okay. How could I be so stupid? How could anyone be okay right then, much less my own daughter whose Mother was now gone? The tears were there, but she tried very hard to hold them back.
When Nathan arrived, I sat him down on the fireplace hearth. He had this look on his face like WTF!?
I didn’t know how to break it to him other than to say it – your Mother is gone. His reaction was stony. Jaws clenched, no tears, staring straight ahead, not saying anything – at least anything I can specifically remember. Not looking at anyone.
I reached to hug both of them, and that’s when I started to feel the pain….gnawing, wrenching, incredibly sharp pain throughout my entire body. It was intense. It didn’t go away.
People began arriving. I can’t tell you who or how many. All I know is the house began to fill almost immediately.
Sherry, even though she was devastated (she’d come to know our family better than most during our recovery), did her best to fill me in on what had happened – that Carla had been dropped off by her ride at the hospital, that she’d gone in but hadn’t checked in to the Psych Ward. She waited until her ride left, and then she took a taxi to a pawn shop on South Broadway. The rest is pretty much public knowledge, so I won’t rehash it here.
I don’t remember exactly when I excused myself and went into the bedroom. It doesn’t really matter. I had to be alone for at least a moment. I sat down on the bed and burst into tears. I couldn’t stop the sobs. They kept coming in waves wracking my whole body. I lost track of time – time didn’t matter. Finally, the sobs let up a little. The excruciating pain did not.
I looked in the mirror and immediately blamed myself for Carla’s death. I’d overlooked the possibility that she wouldn’t check herself in. I hadn’t let her ride know to make sure Carla checked herself in. The hospital hadn’t called until it was too late to let me know she hadn’t checked herself in. I had no reason to suspect anything was wrong.
I felt sadness and sorrow for Carla’s ride. She couldn’t possibly know that Carla was supposed to check herself in. She couldn’t possibly know what Carla had in mind to do. I didn’t think to tell her to check Carla in either. It was my fault, no doubt about it.
Guilt can be a debilitating thing. Right then, I couldn’t allow myself to let feelings of guilt overwhelm me. I had to take care of the kids. I had to take care of a bunch of other things, too. It wouldn’t hit me until later that I was now a single father with two kids who’d been grievously scarred by what seemed to be a never ending string of catastrophes in their lives.
How was I going to do this? Was I up to the task?
I had to be.
I could not, and would not, let my grief take precedence over their needs.
I stuffed everything in the hope I could deal with it later.
Life became another steady regimen of things that needed to be done.
Grief counselors offered their services.
Funeral arrangements needed to be made.
An autopsy needed to be performed.
Say WHAT? That’s when I snapped! The idea of an autopsy for something so obvious pissed me off so badly I lost it!
An autopsy had to be performed in order to determine cause of death? You’re kidding, right? She’d shot herself in the head, for God’s sake! What need is there to do an autopsy? Standard procedure is what I was told. I couldn’t do anything about it. The anger within me was white-hot and overwhelming!
The Sheriff’s Department contacted me asking for a statement from the family. My Sisters took over that one. I remember being there for the discussion of what to say, but really wasn’t there, if you know what I mean.
Some in the media began calling Carla the “16th victim” of Columbine. Some folks and media called her a martyr. She was neither of those things. I was offended by all of this, but didn’t have the strength or the willpower to protest. I let it be.
The media said her suicide note was an apology. Again, I had no strength or willpower to say anything.
Was I angry? Of course I was. But, the fact is her suicide note was not an “apology”. That note was never made public. Nor will it ever be. To this day, I resent that someone in the media was simply making something up…something they had absolutely no knowledge of.
I’ve heard tell that people who commit suicide don’t really want to end their lives. Rather, they just want to end their pain. I knew Carla was in a lot of pain. But so were the rest of us. It took me a very, very long time to finally be able to accept that her pain was different from ours, that her pain wouldn’t “allow” her to participate in our family’s recovery. Her illness forced her to give up on herself, not on us. I do not say this in condemnation. I say it as a statement of fact.
I resented her for a very, very long time. She left me in a very untenable situation. I needed her to be strong. I needed her to be my partner. I needed her to be able to walk with me through this journey together. She simply was not capable of doing so in her mental state.
It wasn’t until much later that I finally realized her suicide wasn’t about me. It never was. Nor was it about our kids. It was about her. Her suicide was about HER pain, HER suffering, HER inability to cope with anything and everything. That pain, that suffering, that inability to cope literally forced her to give up. It wasn’t a choice. It simply “was”. That’s when a feeling of acceptance washed over me. It wasn’t forgiveness. It was more a feeling of understanding, of acceptance, of comprehending what she was going through right up until she took her own life.
What does all of this have to do with “Stairway to Heaven or Highway to Hell”? I’m not unequivocally certain there is a Heaven or a Hell, but it felt to me during that very tumultuous time as if I, personally, was on a Highway to Hell. If it hadn’t been for so many folks coming into our lives to try to help us recover and heal, I have no doubt whatsoever that the Highway to Hell would have been the road I took.
Those folks working tirelessly behind the scenes to help make sure my family was cared for became our metaphorical Stairway to Heaven.
I don’t really know if this makes any sense to anyone else. It’s the best I can do by way of explaining how I feel.
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