Today is the 20th anniversary of my husband’s suicide.
It’s a powerful statement, and although it still carries emotional weight for me, I’m happy to say that the pain and anguish are not what they once were.
I am also a little distracted today, because a young woman named Anna Conkey, who did some work for me while she was still a college student, showed up on the news last night for taking her 10-month-old baby to a religious service at a school, holding a gun to its head, threatening worshippers with the weapon and also threatening to blow up the school with a bomb. She was a very sweet girl when I knew her, although she is former military, and her husband, I believe, is still active military, so she does know how to use a gun and likely explosives as well.
I think she has some mental health issues going on, because she posted a video and a number of posts on Facebook, expressing what sound like delusional religious thoughts with Biblical references—that she is a prophet, among them.
Now that she faces serious charges—six felonies and two misdemeanors—her life is forever changed. That said, I’m thankful that no one was hurt at the church service yesterday, including her two children. (She also had her five-year-old with her.) Both children were taken to the Polinsky Childrens Center, which I wrote about many times when I was a newspaper reporter.
This is a temporary-stay facility for children who are taken from their parents in situations of abuse, neglect and abandonment. I am concerned that this means Anna had no family nearby to take the kids and I hope her husband comes home from wherever he is to pick them up and get Anna the help she needs. Her gun was unloaded and she had no bomb, but Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme had no bullet in her gun’s chamber either when she pointed it at President Ford, and she went away to prison for many, many years.
Which brings me back to the issue at hand. I’m very familiar with people with mental health issues, after being married to one, and also writing a number of books about them. My husband, Richard Rose, was an alcoholic, who suffered from depression and also had borderline personality disorder, none of which I knew when I married him.
I still remember some days of our marriage as if they happened yesterday. Others are a little cloudy, because after remembering them so many times, I’m not sure how they originally occurred.
Memory is like that. It changes a little bit every time you remember a day, a scene, an image, a feeling, a thought, or a trauma, and goes back into your brain slightly altered by your current frame of mind. Although traumas are different. Sometimes you will remember every detail, others you may remember little of what happened because your body was flooded with so much adrenaline or fear that your memory could not form properly.
It took me 19 years to finish writing a memoir, SECRETS, LIES, AND SHOELACES, about my relationship with Rich, and my subsequent long recovery period. It was very difficult, but freeing, somehow, to get it out there after rewriting it so many times. It took many attempts before I could purge the anger from its pages. I had to work very hard to remember what good feelings and experiences brought us together.
For some reason, which I don’t understand or recall now, I never included a very important day that occurred some years after he died. I wrote a scene about it in my novel, NAKED ADDICTION, in which I changed all the details from what actually happened. But when it came time to write my memoir, I guess I got distracted by the more overwhelming emotions of his death and its lasting effects.
So, I’m going to write about it today, to the best of my ability to remember it, that is. I want to preface this story by saying that I wasn’t even sure whether the date of his death was the 21st or the 22nd and had to pull out the death certificate to make sure, so that tells you something.
I didn’t get a chance to visit the place where I scattered his cremated remains this past weekend, as I’d hoped, but I plan to go very soon, and maybe I’ll write about that too. My life is more geographically complicated these days, but I am there in spirit today, for sure. I say that almost metaphorically, because, as you will see (and as I mention on the first page of my memoir), I am quite sure that I met with his spirit the day that I’m about to describe, and perhaps others as well.
I rarely, if ever, have gone to this place by myself. I don’t want to reveal exactly where it is, because it’s private, and sacred, and I know he would have wanted it this way. But it is up in the mountains, in or near the Cleveland National Forest.
Before I chose this particular place, I searched around in the Thomas Guide for a good place, the best place, the right place, to scatter his ashes. In the old days before Google Maps and smart phones, we reporters used to consult this thick book of maps to find crime scenes or locations we needed to go to. We didn’t have GPS in our cars back then, so it was hard to find a place when it was somewhere between two map pages. Anyway, I looked through the book for a green area with a body of water nearby, somewhere peaceful, quiet, and serene.
Rich loved to go hunting in the forest, something I never really liked, but it was his life and that’s what he liked to do. I didn't want his guns in the house, because I don’t like how many people get shot by them, accidentally or on purpose. And yet he secretly brought them there and hid them in the house, against my express wishes. I liked them even less the day he threatened to shoot himself over the phone while I was in the newsroom, calling 911 and reporting him as a 5150, and even less again as the police carried his seven rifles out of the house in front of the neighbors. I was embarrassed by the spectacle of it, Rich also being led out of the house in handcuffs, placed in the back of a patrol car, and taken to the county psychiatric hospital. I was right in his case to be worried; I did not want to become the victim of a murder-suicide, and that fear is what saved my life in the end, I'm sure of it.
But I wanted to honor his love for the trees nonetheless. So I searched for place in the forest.
After I found what looked like a place to try, my friend Anna (this is a different friend Anna) and I drove out there. Knowing Rich didn’t like the hot sun, I searched for a spot in the shade on a hillside overlooking a field that collected water into a lake of sorts. It seemed like a pretty view to gaze upon on a lazy Saturday.
I also was looking for a place that I could find again, so I decided on an area next to a very big boulder. I climbed to the top of it, stood there and appreciated the view, then threw handfuls of the acidic, sharp shards of powder and bone up to catch the breeze. Watching them come down and land wherever they may.
I’ll leave it at that for that very emotional day. My job was done, and I felt that I had put Rich in a resting place where he’d be happy.
I used to visit that special spot pretty much every year, although over time, the years grew further apart. I always took a close friend, someone I cared about, or hoped to care about. And together, we braved all kinds of weather – rain driven sideways by heavy winds, when that field turned into a tundra, and the icy snow that sent my car off the side of the road.
It was amazing to me in the beginning what kinds of challenges the universe put up for me to get across the tundra as the rain and winds bent my umbrella back and inside out into insane proportions.
One year I arrived to find that someone had put up a barbed wire fence that I couldn’t find a way through, sending me into a panic that I could never visit my special place again. I finally found an area where I could lie on my back on the snowy, wet ground, and shimmy my way under it. Later that day I was annoyed to find an opening, where I could have simply walked through. The journey to the sacred spot always seemed like such an apt metaphor for how hard it was to get past this obstacle and trauma in my life.
Until one day, the sky was clear, there was no wind, and I sauntered across that field to get up to where I needed to go. It was so easy that day it was almost a joy.
I had come alone that day. It was sunny out as I walked up the hillside to the area where I spread his ashes, which came to me in a brown plastic box from San Quintin, Mexico, where he hung himself over the bathroom door of a motel room. I knew the spot well by then, not just because of the giant rock, but also because of the hollowed out tree stump nearby.
As I stood there, I talked to Rich. Or maybe I whispered.
“Are you OK?” I asked.
As soon as I asked this question, clouds that I hadn't even seen before immediately came together overhead to block out the sun. The stark, sudden contrast in the sky felt like a sign that someone, somewhere, was responding to me.
I am not a religious or necessarily spiritual person, so initially I shrugged it off. But I definitely took note of it.
“Do you have friends there?” I asked.
Again, seemingly out of nowhere, several birds started circling overhead, calling out to me or to each other, I’m not quite sure. This was a second sign to me, that someone, maybe even Rich, was answering my question through nature. I wondered if this was really a spiritual moment of significance, or something out of my own mind’s creation.
Okay, I thought. If this is really Rich talking to me, then show me a third sign, and I will believe it’s true.
There was no wind at that point, and everything around me, in every direction, was completely still and quiet. Then, straight ahead in front of me, a tree started swaying, waving its limbs back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. Nothing else around it was moving, just that one tree. As if it were talking to me.
I was a little freaked out, and I think I cried a little at the power of the moment.
But I knew then in my gut that he was okay. He was telling me so, I felt it. I’d read that people who had committed suicide were trapped in some kind of halfway place, between here and there, stuck, until they could free themselves or someone freed them. And yet, he seemed to have found me here, and let me know he was okay.
I didn’t tell many people about this experience, fearing that they would think I was crazy. But he had come to me in vivid dreams before, and I told him, finally, to leave me alone. He didn’t come back for a long time.
He came to others too, apparently. A strange woman I once considered a friend told me that he came to her and gave her a message, “Tell Caitlin that I don’t mind that she uses me as an example.” It was such an obscure message, but it seemed so fitting that it made sense to me, so I believed it.
Because I often have used Rich as an example, after learning so much from everything that happened between us. Just as I did at the start of this blog post.
I got lemons and I made lemonade out of the experience. As crazy and horrible as our marriage was, he loved me, probably more than anyone ever has or ever will.
So that is what I will remember today, all these years later, as I continue to think about my hope that my experiences can help other survivors of crazy marriages to men with guns, who threatened us with baseball bats, and forced us to call 911. Life with these partners, who are so sick with their own demons, can confuse us, leaving us unsure how to act or how to feel around them, how to free ourselves of them so we can move on and heal.
Today, after 20 years, I am as healed as I can be, considering. I’m probably still healing, but I’m doing pretty well. And I’m still trying to help others avoid the traumas that I did, with my writing, my stories and my books.
If you’d like to read the full memoir, which took me 19 years to get the courage to finish and publish, it’s available as an ebook on Amazon or as a paperback. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for a signed copy or buy it online at https://www.amazon.com/Secrets-Lies-Shoelaces-hardship-healing-ebook/dp/B07D7JC34K.
Thanks for reading the blog.