Sometimes your heart breaks into 1,000 pieces.
It happened to me 30 minutes after work while I was on my way to meet a friend for coffee. She was running late – had lost her keys in a pile of doggie blankets, and I’d just missed my turn. There were Christmas presents wrapped in colorful snowflake paper in my trunk that were ready to for the post office after our Starbucks date. I was surrounded by the most normal of things. Tramway Road. The stoplight at Academy Road. Christmas presents. Coffee plans. And then my heart shattered.
I was in the process of finding a place to make a U-turn when my mom called and I knew immediately she was crying.
“Oh no, what’s wrong.”
“I have bad news.”
“What is it?”
“It’s really bad. Your dad passed away.”
I broke. Into 1,000 pieces I broke. I’m not sure I’ve ever cried like that. The tears came fast and hot and the sobs were loud. But I needed to go. I needed to call my friend, cancel my plans and call Travis to have him come home. So my mom and I briefly hung up, I made that U-turn, pulled the car over and sent a text message to my friend, then made a call to Travis. He was with two other people when he heard me crying. He had to put me on hold. When he came back, he said he’d leave and I called my mom so we could begin piecing together how and why this could have happened.
Unexpected deaths happen somewhere every moment of every day, and this was my moment – my family’s moment – and soon the news would strike the hearts of my dad’s friends, co-workers, church members, and thousands of others. There would be people who would read his story in the news before we did, and there would be others who would find out later that night and in the days following who would be just as heartbroken as we were. Some people, like my grandparents, my aunts and uncle, would break into 1,000 pieces, too.
When something like this happens to you, sometimes you remember the details and sometimes you don’t. I can remember that I was supposed to be doing those normal things that day. There was that coffee appointment and the Christmas presents. Instead, I went home, kneeled on the ground between the couch and the computer and cried like I’ve never cried. I prayed that God would help us, that He would watch over my dad and that somehow we would get through this. And then I was laying in bed under our soft, green comforter talking to my brother on the phone as Travis came home. I was crying again – or maybe I’d never stopped – and we were trying to figure out how my dad ended up in the hospital with a gunshot wound to his back.
We wouldn’t know all the details until the next day, and in those first few hours, information was scarce. We knew he’d been shot during a hunting day-trip in Cache County, Utah. We knew he’d been with a few friends he works with. We knew he died before he got to the hospital and that he arrived there alone without any ID. Hospital personnel either did not know a lot about the incident or weren’t allowed to say, so it wasn’t until my family contacted police that some of the missing pieces began to be filled in.
It was all an accident – one big, tragic accident that would change the lives of everyone involved forever. The group of four were pheasant hunting on a ranch when a bird flew up, they went to shoot, and one of them slipped in some mud, fell in some water and the man’s shotgun fired. It’s just one of those things that can’t be explained and there’s no one to blame.
Travis and I left for Utah as soon as we could and the following 10 days would be a blur of cemetery visits, funeral arrangements and hosting. Neighbors would arrive with meat trays and huge tins of shepherd’s pie, lasagna, rice and rolls. There would be dozens of cards left on our porch and in our mailbox, and flowers in the most beautiful colors and varieties would be delivered. In a week where we’d feel more hurt and loss than we’d ever felt, we’d also feel love in ways it’s impossible to feel unless your heart is already torn in two. There would be so many kind words, hundreds of prayers from near and far, and countless shoulders to cry on.
People offered to do anything. My uncle picked up my dad’s dog who was with him when he died, and my dad’s co-workers got his truck and brought us pictures from his office. There was a 13-year-old who vacuumed my mom’s carpet one day and I can’t count the number of people who told me they would come over anytime to help with anything around the house in the future.
A teacher my mom works with brought four boxes of notes and gifts from her first grade students and other kids who attend that school, and those words and pictures drawn on pink card stock and printer paper will be cherished for years to come. Then there were fuzzy comfort blankets and gorgeous framed pictures of Jesus and necklaces from my cousin whose dad died a year ago.
I will never be able to name all the things people did, or the gifts people gave, or the thoughts that were shared, but for those things, my family and I will be forever grateful.
About 10 years ago, I discovered the quote “When it’s dark enough, we see stars,” and I’ve loved it ever since. It made me realize then as it does again now that in the darkest moments, there is still hope. Sometimes we forget about that hope, and unfortunately, sometimes it has to be dark for us to see it. If you really want to see stars, it has to be nighttime and you have to get away from all the light pollution. It’s best when there are no distractions and you’re in a place like the mountains with the smell of pine trees, the desert with its soft, white sand, or near the ocean with the waves softly crashing into the shore. You’re lucky if you can look at a coal-colored sky without clouds or the moon and there’s just you, the stars and hope.
My dad knew a lot of people and it was estimated that around 500 may have been at his viewing, and 700 at his funeral. I keep thinking that if every one of those people only said one small prayer, or had one tiny thought of hope for my family and the three men who were with my dad during the tragedy, then so far, we’ve been looked out for more than is comprehendible. I know there were people thinking of us from afar, too, and my heart will never fully know how to handle or receive all of that.
At my dad’s funeral, I spoke about how stars break up the darkest nights so that we’re able to see details of light. For my family and I, the last couple have weeks have been darker. It’s like the sun has gone down on this great life and the stars glittering in the sky are what’s left – they’re these beautiful pieces of heaven filled with our memories.
And then I went on to share some of my favorite memories – the text messages that were exchanged as we prepared a surprise 60th birthday party for my mom, and the way his childlike heart was exposed at Disneyland when he wore Mickey Mouse sweatshirts, ate corn dogs and laughed while watching Billy Hill and the Hillbillies perform as if it were the first time. He was my family’s sports-loving, hunting and golfing enthusiast, and while he loved all those “manly” things, it wasn’t uncommon to see him cry in any movie about a dog, or get excited about choosing out a necklace for my mom, or watch Hallmark specials during the Christmas season. When I was in junior high or high school, he watched eight hours of “Anne of Green Gables” and “Anne of Avonlea” with me and surprisingly loved it.
There were his Hawaiian shirts, bright yellow crocks and a tie for about every occasion, including one with smiley faces all over it, and others with kayaks and golf scenes. There was his sneeze that could shake a whole room and scare children, and his chuckle that made others want to join in.
In spite of these good memories – my stars – what I feel now is that there’s something missing. He should have been there Christmas morning teasing us all about how spoiled we are. He should have been reaching into his stocking and pulling out the bananas, oranges and chocolates and pretending he didn’t know they’d be there. He should have been feeling every present before he opened it and guessing what it was (much to our disappointment, he was right about 80 percent of the time). And after the holiday ended, he should have been planning the movie he’d see the next day with a giant bowl of popcorn on his lap.
I know somehow things will be OK, although I almost hate saying that because I don’t know what that means. I also know I’m lucky my dad was in my life for 30 years, and even though I wish it could be more, I’m lucky to have three decades of memories when many children don’t. He was a great example to me of someone who loved and cared for his wife, children, grandchildren, friends, siblings, parents and strangers. He had faith in many things and I admire him for that.
Lastly, I know life can change on the most normal of days. Your heart can break into 1,000 pieces while driving on your most traveled roads on a common afternoon. Even though it’s almost impossible, nothing should be taken for granted. People should be treated gently, as you never know when their hearts might break, too. The last couple weeks, I’ve felt so connected with people who love me, my family and my dad. We’re all in this together. We are all each other’s hope. Those stars will keep shining. I just need to remember to keep looking up.