When I first wrote my book Heart Warriors, A Family Faces Congenital Heart Disease, its working titles was Informed Consent. I revised more than 60 drafts of the book before it was accepted for publication and a few more after that. The book that was published lost several chapters and paragraphs along the way and found new ones.
Today is the 27th of April, 2017. The original first chapter of my book took place reflecting on the 27th of April in 2002 and in 2003. Fifteen years ago tonight I heard a man’s life end with a gunshot. Fourteen years ago tonight I began my induction to give birth to an endangered new life that began the next day with a newborn’s cry. Our world is both tragic and beautiful, inspiring and humbling. So, here is that chapter that didn’t make the cut. Tomorrow my son turns fourteen, tonight another mother remembers what she lost fifteen years ago.
Saturday, April 27, 2002: I was on a mission. After ten months of disappointment, I was determined to get pregnant this year. By force of will, I would finish graduate school before the dream baby I arrived. I wasn’t pregnant yet, but with a schedule to keep I permitted no disruption.
Sequestered in my stuffy home office, the shades shut against the Western sun, I sweated through writing a lit review about computer anxiety in elderly users. Ignorant to the world outside, a sunny afternoon slipped by while I constructed a thesis.
Just after 5:00 pm, despite the double-paned window, Jim and I heard loud but inarticulate voices. Our red heeler Lucy put down her Kong chew toy to give a low warning bark at the people down on the street. I dismissed the noise – just neighbors barbecuing on a perfect spring evening. A pop sent Lucy into a feral huff. The fur on her back stood stock straight. Livid, Lucy paced the small room like a caged panther; I soothed her and smoothed her bristled shoulders and spine.
Jim declared, “That was a gunshot.”
I said, “No way – it was just a car backfiring.”
I would sooner suspect a champagne cork than gunfire in our tidy rows of town-homes. Despite my disbelief and attempts to ignore the wailing tapping on our window – the world was intruding, and our vinyl blinds came up to make sense of it. Within five minutes, the small drive that snaked through our complex was clogged with emergency response vehicles. Jim was right; gunshot.
The sinking sun glared resentfully as Colorado turned his back on her. Sparse clouds spilled iridescent shadows over the rescue trucks. Finally, the sun dissolved behind Long’s Peak and the moon floated up from Nebraska.
Our garage was blocked by ambulances and police cars. We hunkered down, hours on end, peeping and gawking like Gladys Kravitz, bewitched by the spectacle on our own street. Jim eventually opted out, but I was riveted to my own personal CSI episode, the stage set perfectly by our own security lighting and the sheriff’s crime scene spotlights glaring down from telescopic poles.
A plainclothes detective stood in the driveway and bagged the widow’s sneakers. A take-charge cop folded the grieving woman in his SUV. She sat sideways in the passenger seat, her knees bent while her lower legs trailed limply down the side of the car. Her feet, in bright white socks, contrasted against the open car door, dangling like fishing lures as if they weren’t part of her body.
Her face disappeared in her hands, her elbows dug into her thighs right above her knees. She assumed a shape that only raw grief can bend the body – limp and wretched, easily swayed. Her bones drank up their very marrow in tribute to death and bowed to the consuming earth. It’s like when I soaked a chicken bone in vinegar for my seventh grade science project and turned it to rubber, gravity now curving what once was straight.
Before she could tip over her own legs and bounce down the driveway, the sheriff’s deputy swiveled the rubber woman forty-five degrees to her left. Once she was entirely inside his SUV, he buckled her seat belt as if she were a child, and drove her away; I never saw her again.
The paramedics rolled her husband’s body into view. A former person, now a lump, zipped in a brackish bag that reflected our pedestrian globes like flashlights skimming a dirty swamp. No one searched for him – the truth rippled beneath the rolling plastic waves in the eerie light. The police and EMTs lifted their answers on a gurney of dead weight into the ambulance, parked parallel to the community dumpster where the turquoise Gallegos trash truck idled every Wednesday morning. They took the truth and left a mystery.
I didn’t know if she killed him. I didn’t know what happened while my shades were drawn against the angry sun, but my neighbor was clearly dead.
The scene finally closed past 2:00 am April 28. The police reclaimed their bright lights, the night reclaimed her darkness, and in the shadows of our suddenly insufficient street lamps, a lone fireman connected a hose to the hydrant, blocked by his own truck, and power-washed the neighbor’s patio, driveway, and the community sidewalk chasing a dark but colorless film into the gutters that lined our peaceful drive.
The fireman, in the only remaining emergency vehicle, pulled away with no flashing lights, no more drama. The quiet drive looked as it always did after an innocent rain, and I went to bed. I lost a day of work on my lit review, my neighbor lost his life.
April 28th was Sunday. When I woke up that morning, I found nothing on the Internet – not on the local paper’s web site, no mention on the city police report web page or county sheriff’s department site. I called the police station on Monday, and provided no information. I e-mailed the crime beat reporter at the local paper. She e-mailed back on Tuesday that it was a suicide, and The Coloradoan didn’t report suicides. They were private matters. My intrusion showed my stripes; I’m a curious kitty.
More than a year and a lifetime later, on the other side of my own impending trauma, I learned a handful of sordid details from a neighbor even than noisier than me. The girlfriend worked at Hooters, she cheated, and he killed himself in front of her in retaliation. She wasn’t a widow after all. She was, by the stripping our old assumptions and the absence of a license, diamond ring, or label, simply a witness to a horrible death; the second victim of his self-inflicted domestic violence.
None of us gossiping in the shadow of their story knew their names, though we lived yards apart. She was “Hooter’s Girl” and he was “Duck Truck” for the duck decal in his pickup’s rear cab window.
I saw so much and knew so little; now they were too far-gone to be known. It was a senseless death, a tragedy that lingered as Duck Truck’s parents came with an empty van and left with his belongings. The unit went up for sale, and another supposedly happy new couple moved into the crime scene.
All that riveting drama was merely macabre spectator sport. But the universe was watching me watch, cooking up a life lesson just for me. As I faded to sleep in the wee hours of April 28, 2002, a new crisis was unfolding inside my own body, scheduled by Fate herself to awaken me 365 days later with a cold splash of irony and a warm rush of life. But that night, after staring into the aftermath of a senseless death, I slept soundly; secure I was immune to more bad news. I never saw it coming.