Karen and Patrick
by Karen Churchwell
Everyone keeps telling me I need to tell my story. I don't know why. It is a story of sadness and loss. BUT then I realize it is also a story of redemption, both for the one who left and those left behind. Maybe my story can spur someone else on when their storm of life comes. Or perhaps, it can help someone whose storm has already come to get up and try living again.
I never imagined the power of words until the day just one sentence changed my life forevermore. The words came from the mouth of my pastor, whom I thought so much of and surely trusted, but the words didn't make sense and I had trouble hearing them. "There's been a wreck." Nothing in life had ever prepared me for that moment in time. I'd had trials before and had even lost my own father one beautiful Saturday morning unexpectedly, many years before. But nothing could have prepared me for hearing those words and having to draw my next breath alone in this world.
Alone. How could that be? How was it possible that the very person who was so intertwined with my own body could have slipped away from this world without me knowing it? Patrick and I were just one person living in two separate bodies. We'd been like that for years and planned to be like that forever. So, how then was it possible? I put up a wall of defense against my pastor and the others in the room, insisting that if they'd just take me to him, I could make it alright. I knew he would never die if I was there. I don't think I even cried. Going home was so confusing. We passed cars and trucks and the sky was so blue, still I was struggling with those words that had started it all, "There's been a wreck." And how is everyone still going about their daily business if Patrick is dead? The world shouldn't still be turning. When we drove into the long driveway, there were cars everywhere and people standing all over the yard. Why were all those people here? I just wanted to find my Patrick and get back to our life. A thick fog had surrounded me, and I was very calm. I went into our home and straight to our bathroom. There on his sink was the proof of his life at home that morning: bits of his morning shave still on the edges. I started picking them up like a scavenger. I grabbed his toothbrush and stuck it into my mouth. I ran to the little hamper of dirty clothes. I found one work shirt that smelled like sweet sweat, and the dress shirt he'd worn to church just two days before that still carried the faint smell of his cologne. I grabbed them and stuffed them into my closet like a thief. The craziness had begun, and I was only one hour into the nightmare. And I still had a job to do. I had to tell our children. All eight of them.
They were foreign words I had never intended to use and had never rehearsed. How do you tell your kids their protector, friend, comedian, playmate, cook, spiritual leader and father is never coming home again? I thought if I repeated the words out loud myself it would be accepting or agreeing with what I'd been told, and I was not ready to do that. I wanted to protect them from all that I had been told. With a couple of them, I started telling there'd been a mistake and how some men thought something was wrong with Daddy, but that we just weren't sure. My pastor intervened and said those ugly words again. I didn't like him saying those words. We went to one school and gathered a couple more of them up and drove home in silence. Before the late afternoon, all of them would be told. Our plans for life had been changed, and from the 2 year-olds to the 22 year-old, they were each trying to figure out what we do now. Now that Daddy is gone.
I thought that was the worst day of my life, but it wasn't. The next day I woke up to a world completely without Patrick. Just the day before, we'd been laughing in the kitchen and talking about taking a trip together, just he and I. Plus, we were walking on air from the recent addition to our family when Tucker was adopted exactly one week before. We had been living on the mountaintop for sure. We had no idea how close to the edge of the mountaintop we had been placed. And plans - we had plans. There was still so much to do. We still had three babies in diapers. We had plans to one day have them all in underwear. We cooked chicken that morning at 6:30 before leaving for work that would have been supper that night. We had planned to have our evening meal together with our kids like usual. We had plans to never miss a summer at the beach. We had plans to live hand-in-hand for a long time and die the very same day. Patrick had just gotten so excited about the gray showing in the sides of his hair because he thought people would stop thinking he dyed his hair black. We had plans to grow old and gray together. But those were our plans, not God's. God's will for our life was different, very different. That day would be the first day of the new empty world for me. There was a lot of commotion at the house with people in and out bringing food and things. I still wasn't convinced that Patrick was really dead, but I knew that he had not come home the night before and so was having to accept it in pieces. I finally got the approval to go to the funeral home to talk to them and see him in the late afternoon. I went there thinking that all the things people had said would be proven to be wrong; and they'd tell me they were sorry, they were mistaken, and he'd come home with me. Instead, I was told that I would not be able to see him at all. Today, I understand those words, but on that day, I didn't. I told them I absolutely had to see him. Period. So, they went into the room with him and came back out and allowed me to go in. There on the table covered in layers of blue sheets was my Patrick. The only thing showing were his precious hands, still wearing his rings but with tiny cuts and a little dirt. I grabbed those hands and squeezed as hard as I could. I didn't say anything out loud, but I thought I felt him move against my squeeze. I thought I had put life back into his hands. After holding onto them for a long time, I kissed those hands and gave up my hope that they were wrong. It was Patrick, and I was sure he was not alive anymore. I left the funeral home a widow. How could this be? Had God fallen asleep and made His first-ever mistake? Didn't He know we were about His business, doing what we thought was His will? And what about the five orphans we had one-by-one added to our family over the past few years? Didn't that matter to Him? Didn't God keep score with those things? Why would He want the orphans to be fatherless again? And the biggest question of all was: Did He really think I could finish this race without my Patrick? I thought those thoughts continually that first week and for many days after. Actually, almost two years later I confess those thoughts still rear their ugly head sometimes. Our funeral came on Friday, and it was a good testimony of Patrick's life and his legacy he'd left behind. I attended and even spoke, but actual memory of it, I don't have. Completely blank. I have watched the video of it at least 100 times since, and the words of Bro. James Hays still comfort me today. At first, I watched it daily to confirm the new life I was in. As proof that it was my reality. I spent the night at the grave, begging God to raise him up like Lazarus, almost challenging Him to. One night, right in the middle of my begging, I heard footsteps behind me, and joy rose up through my body like nothing I'd ever felt. I just knew that when I turned around, Patrick would be standing there. I truly believed God would give him to me, but it was a deer. So I got mad at God. I felt like He was mocking me while I was putting every ounce of my faith in his ability to raise my dead husband. Grief robs a person of every sane thought they have. Nothing that had ever made sense made sense anymore. I had no way of knowing then, just how bad grief could be or how much worse I could feel. All I knew was that my fairy-tale life had ended, and I was angry.
A week passed, and we'd had beautiful weather. Now completely immersed in the merciful shock that is given at a time like this, I set about to do things that I thought needed to be done. I had seen people mark wreck spots with wreaths before, so I picked one out someone had sent and decided to go and place it at the wreck site. I had not been to the wreck site yet, but I knew approximately where it was. My daughter, Jade, and now son-in-law, Matt, and my youngest daughter, Rumor, and I all got into the car to make the drive, thinking this would bring peace somehow. We drove down the highway until we thought we might have gone too far, and suddenly I saw the brand new telephone pole and realized we were there. I pulled the car over on the side of the road and got out. I thought about how Patrick loved the sky when it was that blue. Fall was his favorite kind of weather. I went around back to retrieve the wreath while the others unloaded. The people living there noticed us and came out to us. I asked the elderly lady if I could put the wreath out and used the words I had already learned to hate, "My husband was killed" here. She said I could, and I started for the pole to put it there. The woman looked at me, and with the same expression you would use telling someone what you are planning for dinner today said, "Honey, why are you putting it there? Here's where he bled out," while pointing to a big, black, shiny patch of grass. All the blood drained from my face, and I thought I would pass out. There, where she was pointing, it looked like there had been a grass fire but the grass had survived and was just very black and shiny. I asked her if she was sure that was him, and she assured me it was. I made the quick decision to stick the wreath on the pole anyway and knew I needed to get Jade back to the car. Going around the front of the car, I saw an 18 wheeler coming around the slight turn in the road at full speed, and I had an instant impulse to jump out in front of him. It was a happy feeling that just engulfed me, but I knew I would have to do it quickly or I would miss the chance. I glanced back over my left shoulder, saw Jade so overcome by what we had just seen, and, thankfully, realized I couldn't do it with her there. Then I got mad at myself for having brought anyone with me. The truck with my chance for escape passed. I climbed into the car, and we drove home in silence.
All day, the thoughts of that blood laying on that grass haunted me. I felt like I had abandoned him there by leaving it. When it was time to round all the kids up, I knew I had to do something. I put my five youngest kids in the car, four in car seats and Cameron in the front seat with me, and at about dusk, I started the drive back. When we got there, I told Cameron she had to stay in the car and make sure the babies did the same. I did not explain where we were or what I was doing.
I parked back a little ways so that they couldn't see. Armed with the plastic shopping bag I'd brought, I ran to the spot and fell down. I realized at that moment that it smelled, and got sick. I pulled every blade of grass from the spot and put it into my bag. I wasn't going to leave him there another night alone. I loaded those remains in the back of my car beside my baby stroller and started the drive back home. I stopped at a big gas station to try to get the smell off my hands. That smell is stubborn and didn't want to leave me. That night, after all the babies were safe and sound in bed, I went outside and burned the bag. That was the worst day of my life. Firm in the clutches of grief, I started driving. I'd drive all day until time for the kids to come home, and then after they went to bed, I'd drive all night. No where in particular, just anywhere that wasn't home. That was my method of doing things until my pastor and others urged me to seek counseling. I thought I was making some headway in my thinking since I had realized that what I was, was completely and utterly disappointed with life. No dream I had ever had would now come true.
I made an appointment to see the professionals. The day before the appointment, I was worried I wouldn't be able to find it and thought, "I need to see if Patrick can take off work and take me." Thoughts like that ambushed me daily and knocked me back down again. When I did finally make it to the appointment and while I was waiting to be called back, I had [what I thought was] a light bulb moment. "Patrick is here! That's why everyone is insisting that I come here. He's here, and they are going to give him to me when I get back there!" You can only imagine the excitement I felt when my name was called, kind of like the joy that rose up at the cemetery. I almost ran down the hallway to the doctor's office. When he opened the door for me to come in, I drew in my breath with anticipation of seeing my beloved. He was not there. I got angry again. The doctor started shouting scriptures at me. I got even more mad. If there is one thing I know, it is scriptures. What I did not know was how I was supposed to live without my husband. After I shouted a few things at him, he sat back and opened my folder as if for the first time. His jaw dropped and he said, "This is a train wreck. You have every age group [of children] to have to grieve with and you will have to grieve for yourself, too." He got out his prescription pad and started writing. I had meds to take in the morning, meds to take at 4 in the afternoon, and some more to take at bedtime.
The kids were all still reeling. Elijah said he was angry that his daddy was in heaven, and Rumor had night terrors - screaming through the night. Cameron and Callahan were each very quiet and seemed to just be taking it all in, not knowing what to do. Halle cried for her daddy, especially when it was time to do her hair. That was "their" time together, as he had mastered her African American hair like a pro, and he was so precious with her. Each one of the eight grieved in their own ways. I felt completely unable to be of any assistance to them in their grieving, because I was drowning in my own. I refused to survive him. That was never in my thoughts - surviving Patrick. I didn't want to. I wanted to join him and be happy again.
Even under the meds, returning home from anywhere, I always had the same reaction. No matter how many times it happened, turning into the driveway and seeing the tailgate of his truck facing me, my heart jumped into my throat, and I thought, "He's beat me home!"
Whenever our family was out, Elijah would see a truck - any type that was tan in color - and he'd scream, "There's my daddy! There he is!" That made me so sad that he thought his daddy was just driving around and choosing to not come home.
I made a return appointment at the Psychiatrist's office to speak with a lady. She sat there and cried while I told her my story. No words have been invented that can accurately describe the ugliness of the feelings of grief and loss, so I just chose to talk about Patrick and his life. She was so precious and kind-hearted. But everything she would say, I would sit there and snarl inside thinking, "That's all good and fine until you have to put that into your life and make it work. You are going home to your husband, and I never will again." One of her last comments really stuck with me. She said, "If you could just hit a fast forward button two years, you would see that you will survive. Everything will be okay."
There I was just wanting to make it to bedtime today without killing myself; two years I couldn't even comprehend. Maybe this kind of therapy wasn't good for me. One widow I knew called me to offer advice. She said I should look at his picture every day and say, "You are dead." I tried, but it didn't help. Besides, I thought the woman couldn't have loved her husband like I did mine. After all, she had since remarried. So, there I was, a member of a society of people I never wanted to be a member of. The cost of admission was too high. Widowed. I hated the word and even more the meaning of the word. In those days, I had one thought that was constantly on my mind. Death. I knew it was a sure, instant cure for what was hurting me, and it would do two things: end my hurt on earth, and allow me to be rejoined with Patrick in heaven. Oh, what a wonderful thought! I had turned away from God, so I didn't even have Him to reach out to. Those meds probably saved my life.
Everything that has happened in our lives since the day of the wreck, every single increment of time, is measured by that morning. Did it happen before "that" day or since "that" day? Time went on, and our family settled into a "new normal." But the funny house was not funny anymore. All the laughter had died with Patrick. So did all his good cooking. Nothing was fun anymore and nothing tasted good. We all just co-existed together, trying to fake being a family that was whole. We were not. One man wrote a beautiful story about Patrick and in it he described us as "remnants and leftovers." So true. I realized one day on a driving trip that I would never do his laundry again, and was overcome with grief. Hysterical at the very thought that his cargo shorts would never need to be cleaned again. When someone dies, everything about them dies and you miss it all. I had lots of people who told me good things and true things, but most of them had never been where I was. I had one person, called my "safe friend," that I could tell anything to, and she would do the same. She was wonderful and had been with her best friend through the death of a husband and used a lot of that experience to encourage me forward. I had been watching a widow at church going through her own ordeal that had started just 10 months before mine, and had marveled at how well she seemed to be doing. I was secretly taking notes, I guess. I had one friend who lost his wife the same week I lost Patrick, but together we were just the blind leading the blind. Neither one an expert on the subject, so we just got together and cried a lot. I had watched my mother and mother-in-law lose their husbands, but they were both suffering so from losing Patrick still, that I couldn't lean on them either. I found myself deeper and deeper in the pit. We had holidays to face. The first was Thanksgiving. It was painful, and I stayed in bed all day. Jordan tried to make something in the kitchen, and when she pulled down the can of shortening, she became inconsolable. There along the top rim were his fingerprints dug down into the shortening, surely from his last pan of rolls he'd prepared for us.
Thanksgiving felt like it gobbled us all up, and the thought of facing Christmas was scary. People were calling every day wanting to buy us things and do Christmas for the kids, and I refused them all. Celebrate? Who wants "things?" We all wanted the same thing - our old life back the way it used to be. Our Santa was not coming home for the occasion and we all knew it. If I didn't think we could face the day, I guess I thought we could try to out run it.
We planned to make a getaway to Branson for a few days. The black cloud that hung over us followed us all the way and positioned itself directly over the condo and our lives. It was the most miserable feeling. Being in a strange place on our favorite holiday without him. I felt stupid for thinking the geography would make any difference.On the way back home, the day after Christmas, I fantasized in my head that Patrick would be standing at the stove, stirring something, and the house would be full of wonderful smells. When we opened the front door, he would take two steps backward and look to the front door with that beautiful smile welcoming us back in. By the time the three and a half hour drive was over, I had myself so excited and convinced, that walking back into the dark house that had no particular smell of any kind and no joy, just like I had left it, knocked me right back down in the pit again.
Jordan had given me a book that I started reading, called A Grief Observed, by C.S. Lewis. It was an account of him watching his wife die from cancer though, so I didn't relate directly to his process. My process had been instant, without warning, and my wrestling with God had all come after the fact. I was able to be thankful that Patrick had never suffered and had to re-think my argument with God for not letting me know His plan beforehand. Maybe it was better not to have known with the end results being the same.
Reading the book, I did think about a man we had known who probably could relate to it. He had been an umpire at the softball fields when our big girls were younger, and his sweet wife had battled cancer. She'd lost. Reading the book, I thought about him and wondered what his formula was for surviving. We never stopped attending church faithfully, but my personal prayer life had suffered irreparable damage. I was mad at God and confused that I had served Him over the years and felt so close to Him. Then He turned his face from me. Not only had I lost my husband, I thought I had lost my Savior, too. I had lost both of my best friends. Before "that" day, a friend of mine had once called me a spoiled-rotten-prayer-brat because everything I prayed for came to pass. Spoiled no more.
I eventually went back to work and tried to fit in, but the me I used to be was gone. The death had robbed me of my joy. I hated meeting new people at work because I always felt like I should come with a disclaimer, "I wish I could have met you when I was really myself." Now I felt like someone else living someone else's dumb life. Not me, and surely not on the mountaintop I was used to. A foreigner in my own skin. Still confused and fumbling with what to do with life, months passed.
All the bottles of shampoo and soap Patrick had been a part of had been used up and thrown away. In my state of mind, that was a huge deal. To throw away something he'd touched. I knew that meant moving forward. I hated things coming in that he hadn't touched. I despised the new shampoo bottles because they didn't know him. I craved Patrick even more and got up in a different daze every morning, remembering that it was just another day without him. The first Monday of May, I made an appointment at the doctor. I knew I was clinically going crazy, with all my thoughts swirling around my head. She assured me that I wasn't crazy, but that what was happening was that I was only beginning to relate to this reality, without any more shock value. She explained that for several months the reality is kept at bay by a layer of that merciful shock, and once it is gone, you feel like you are going backwards. At seven months, the bumper guards had left me. I was still on the medicine, so apparently its effects were not as good anymore either.
No matter how much I wanted time to rewind, time was marching on. One daughter got married. One landed her first "real" teaching job and moved away. Our son got his license to drive. All the babies got potty-trained. That all sounds like progress, but we were really just treading water and going nowhere. Later that summer, we went back to the ball field for Cameron to play ball. There, I saw the man I had seen the year before. The funny umpire, the one who lost his wife. Just one year before, I had seen him and had literally turned my back when he smiled at me and the babies. I couldn't look at him without thinking about him losing his wife to cancer. It was mine and Patrick's first time to see him since she'd died three years before, and it was difficult to see him out there without her beside him like normal. Patrick and I had both talked about seeing him that night and the sadness we felt for him. Fast forward one year, there I was standing in his shoes in the same ball field seeing people turn away instead of looking at me.
One ball season later, and everything had changed. I had an urge to approach him just to apologize for my behavior a year before and say something to the effect of, "Now I know how that feels," but I could never muster the courage to do it. I think I was watching him like I was watching the other widow at church with the same intrigue of, "How do you look so happy, when I know how bad your insides feel?" I never did approach the funny umpire.
Journaling was a kind of therapy I did. It was more successful for me than actual therapy, and I was faithful in doing it. Each night, instead of the old driving routine, I would sit down with my laptop and just journal my feelings. The ranting and raving transferring from my mind to paper gave some relief. I would write letters to people that would never be sent, and just thoughts. Sometimes I wrote Patrick letters, too.
One night, after being at the ball field, I wrote to the umpire. I don't know why. I said then that it was like it is with someone who has a disease. You search out people suffering the same to see what works for them.
I was still searching for a cure for what was killing me. At the end of the night, with all my thoughts transferred, I hit the save button with no intentions of ever printing it. A month passed and my oldest daughter took wedding photographs for a couple. When she came home she said, "Oh, Mom. Do you remember the funny umpire dude, the one who lost his wife? He was the preacher."
My first thought was, "He loves God? I wonder how he can do that when I am struggling so hard to." That night when I wrote in my journal, I decided to pose that question to the funny umpire. The only difference was this time, I did hit print. I even went back and printed the previous entry that had been done a month before. I looked up the address for Mike Churchwell.
The funny umpire dude gained a name. The next morning, I broke out in hives when I went to the post office and handed it to the postmaster. I even had visions of me wrestling it back out of his grip before leaving. I felt like I was going insane. Now I was writing letters to strangers. I thought that surely I could see a padded room in my near future. Instead, that letter made its way to his house.
He'd been widowed for a few years. Unsuspecting, he went to his mailbox and was startled to find a letter challenging him on his love for God. He decided to call me, but I was so insane, I wouldn't take the call. Isn't that crazy? I asked for help and then wouldn't take it.
Thankfully, he decided to call back again the next night, and I did take the call. That first phone call lasted five hours, mostly me arguing with every level-headed and spirit-filled answer he gave to my problems. I wanted to hear someone say it was okay for me to hate God. He didn't. Instead, he explained in the sweetest tone of voice how much God loved me and my family and how He never ever makes a mistake.
He reminded me that it was no penalty for Patrick, being a child of God, to leave this earth for heaven. He told me that Patrick wasn't crying in heaven over me, either. I really argued with that one! Oh, I didn't agree with all that he said, but I didn't forget it either. After the call ended, I didn't think I'd ever talk to him again, but I started taking inventory of everything the kind man had said. It was a voice with experience to back it up, and I could hear what he said. He used his own experiences in explaining things to me, and that helped me to know that he had lost like I had.
The next morning, I began processing his words again and chose not to take the first pill. Cold Turkey. At four that afternoon, time for dose two, I chose not to take that one either. Still I was processing his words. Part of the relief his words gave me were the idea that Patrick isn't missing anything. I could at least let go of the anger I had on his behalf for all that he is missing. He's in heaven, and he is not missing anything this world has to offer. What a wonderful thought! I called a truce with God. Not willing to completely forgive Him, but at least willing to try.
That day and the days to follow were done with no magic pills. They were hard days, but they were doable. At least they were mine and not under the spell of the medicine. That made me feel like I was making progress, too. A week passed, and the funny umpire dude called again, this time to check and see if anything he'd said had helped. I told him it had and thanked him. Unknowingly, a friendship had begun. We went along for several weeks that way. Speaking once a week by phone about any progress with my mourning. We shared stories of our lost loved ones and somehow that comforted us both. We cried together.
Friendship turned to love, and we were married this past March. Even Patrick's mother was there to share our day. She had received the letter a few months before when I had written to explain that, "Hell had frozen over."
At the wedding, we had little "thank you's" sitting around that spoke about our relationship coming from ashes, which is so true. What began as two people, just remnants and leftovers, turned into a beautiful love story with two becoming whole again.
Oh, I am not the person who was married to Patrick. So much has changed in me. The way I think, the way I act, all of it was forever changed by those words. "There's been a wreck." Now, I feel an urgency for people to take their lives and their relationships seriously. I know how quickly it can all change, forever.
Another huge lesson in all this is that I take nothing for granted. Every "goodbye" is memorized in my mind, with a snapshot of the person's face. What if I never see them again? Sudden loss changes you and makes you realize the words in the Bible are true when Paul wrote, "Life is a vapor." I want to live my life fully while I can.
Our new life together is happy. But I still feel like I am constantly glancing back over my shoulder on what used to be. Not a day goes by that I don't wish I could talk to Patrick about something. I just want to see his face again. I know that on this side of heaven I will never understand God's path for my life. My small mind is not capable, but when I start thinking about the why's of it all, I just have to trust God. I am thankful for more than 25 years of life with Patrick. We lived our convictions, and I would change nothing about our life. We built a family together. We had plans to raise them together, but that wasn't God's plan.
Instead, it was His divine will for the mountaintops to have their place and the valleys to have theirs. The surprises I got the morning of the wreck were no surprise to God. He knows the end from the beginning and this is what He thought was best for us. And one thing I know for sure, all the times I thought He had left me, He never did. God was with me all along. I was never out of his loving and capable hands. I am also so thankful for the man God sent who reminded me of that and showed me how to love God again.
If you have read this story from beginning to end, I hope that you have gained one thing. Life is precious. The old adage, "Today is all you have," is terribly wrong. The very breath in your lungs right now, is all you have. You may hope to have more, but your plans may be changed. I hope that you are inspired to love those you love a little deeper, on purpose, and intentionally. And know that when you get to the end of life, all the things that we get caught up in, all the busy things of this life, don't even matter. All that matters at the end is what you've done for God and how you've loved those He has blessed you with.
Read Legacy by Jordan Simmons
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