My name is Kara. I am a 36-year-old mother, wife, service member, nurse/mentor/educator, daughter, sister, aunt, cousin, niece, granddaughter, and sometimes… when I am not isolating myself; friend.
I grew up in a “normal” middle class home with an older sister (by 12 months and 15 days), and a sister four years my junior. I had two married parents who unintentionally filled traditional male/female roles. My father worked (doggedly) to provide for the four of us. My mother worked equally (if not harder) as a homemaker (and the 500 jobs that entails) cooking three meals a day and maintaining a beautifully functioning and aesthetically pleasing home (complete with all the seasonal decorations that make childhood so nostalgic).
My parents never fought. I know that sounds cliché, but they truly did not fight in front of us. Perhaps it was out of respect for one another, consideration as parents, or maybe they just didn’t care enough to fight. Regardless of the reason, if my parents fought… we never saw it. I can remember only one fight with my dad taking my sisters and me out of the house after an argument and my mother screaming, “You better not drive crazy with my kids in the car!” That was it. That was the only fight I remember being privy to in all of my childhood between two imperfect adults.
This would make for a particularly challenging foundation of what a “normal” relationship meant to me in my adult years.
What is NORMAL anyway?
I suppose in general my parents were pretty even-keel and did not lean toward being overbearing nor submissive. They got angry and yelled, they loved and comforted, they threw their hands up and ignored, and they looked like they were on the verge of nervous breakdowns from time to time, but overall they were incredibly balanced. Although I doubt it was ever well-thought out (since they were so young when they began their family) they managed to instill strong values in us and were more apt to let us weave our own webs and dig our own graves then attempt to direct the paths we chose in life.
Perhaps it was this balance that created a sense of drive in me to figure out what my purpose in life was from a very early age. I never felt obligated to follow any path, but rather, choose my own (although I was sternly warned to choose wisely on many occasions when my choices bordered on self-destructive). My parents believed in giving a foundation; they raised me catholic and ensured I made all of my sacraments, and then told me I was free to choose whatever religion (or none) I wanted without judgement. They taught me about right and wrong and then gave me the rope I would willfully choose to hang myself with several times in my youth (they always cut me down before I asphyxiated).
When I tried to push my parents away during my angst-filled teenage years (in search of autonomy) they uprooted our entire family and moved us from Connecticut to Florida to provide me with a fresh start and what they believed would be a healthier environment overall. When I pushed them further, they pushed back with everything they had and all the love they could muster for the defiant (yet compassionate) teenager that stood before them. They were willing to go to any length to prove to me that my safety and well-being was paramount to their own lives.
This foundation would also serve as a difficult comparison to the sacrifices and morally right choices a parent should make on behalf of their children once I had my own daughter.
Anyone can have a child and call themselves a “parent”. A real parent is someone who puts that child above their own selfish needs and wants. – Unknown
By the time I neared legal age to be on my own, I realized the freedom I had longed for “to live my life independent of anyone else” became terrifying. It was also during this point in my life that I first experienced what would become two decades of battling my greatest nemesis: Mr. Anxiety. My parents would joyfully chime in that it was also around this time that they would discover their seventeen year old daughter curled up in a ball fast asleep on the floor beside their bed on more mornings than they thought psychologically “ok”.
Having been given the freedom of self-determination in my life, I was highly motivated to ensure I would make the right choices as an adult. This was in part because I wanted to make my parents proud, but mainly because I wanted desperately to prove them wrong. I truly believed (and they will not willingly admit) that they expected very little in life from their precocious, opinionated, rebellious middle child.
I once overheard my father joke that I would be pregnant by sixteen. Despite now saying the same stupid sort of comments in front of my own daughter (who is a saint compared to me), it penetrated somewhere deep in my core at an early age (Oh, what a hypocrite I am). I justified a lot of my poor choices in adolescence on the rationale that, “they already think I am doing it, so I might as well!”
Armed with the burning desire to not waste time proving how stable and independent I was, I began feeling restless at home as my high school graduation neared. Mr. Anxiety was always there to chime in at every possible opportunity to warn me I was being too ambitious since he was very reluctant to leave the nest at such a young age… (WHAT A CHICKENSHIT HE WAS!). Feeling anxious about my future, and anxious that I would feel anxious forever if I did not act swiftly, I did the most reasonable thing I could think of. I joined the military just short of my high school graduation and set off on a path that terrified the snot out of me (and my poor parents).
A year into my military career and living overseas far from any reality I had known (and before cell phones were readily available) I fell madly and incredibly in love with another service member named Jeffrey. Jeff was from Michigan and was the “guy I had been dreaming about” since I was young; I even told him this the first night I met him after cornering him in a bathroom and informing him that he was the love of my life and we would be married someday.
I always had a way with subtleties
I did marry Jeff, but only after our daughter “B” was nine months old.
Jeff and I were two peas in a crazy pod with undiagnosed mental illnesses that may have helped us become better equipped to handle becoming parents so young (myself with anxiety and him… I believe I have settled on bipolar disorder). I got out of the military after four years and began pursuing a career as a nurse while Jeff stayed in to support his wife and daughter. Eventually, after a stint in a military psych ward for actively threatening suicide (with a plan), Jeff got out of the military as well.
Jeff and I had a tumultuous marriage and had a lot of push-pull behaviors whereby we were either passionately fighting one another, or curled up crying in each other’s arms professing our undying love and devotion. We really were a mess, and despite this being evident to those around us, it was also without question that we profoundly loved one another. Looking back, I think the biggest problem Jeff and I had (apart from the obvious) was that we were both incredibly empathetic individuals and lived in a world filled with guilt and self-criticism.
As our daughter grew older, and our own issues more pronounced, Jeff and I struggled to keep it together. Jeff had a suicidal ideation that he carried with him like a “get out of jail free card” and used the threat of it every time life got too challenging to effectively cope. He spent nine months of every year incredibly happy, laughing, making grand plans for our future, and generally loving life; to be followed by three months down in the dumps ready to bail on us (always during the season of Fall).
That roller coaster did tons of good things for my underlying anxiety and inevitably, his refusal to get psychiatric treatment (and love of guns) led me to separating from him. I believed in the depths of my soul that one day Jeff would kill himself, and sometimes I feared in the moment of insanity he would take our daughter and myself with him… so we weren’t left behind suffering. Jeff was never violent to anyone but himself, but the gravity of his love for me was without question from the first day we met, and there was always a nagging fear that out of love, not violence or cruelty, he would do something awful that could not be undone. Eventually, after talking him out of the bedroom where he sat behind locked doors with a loaded gun for the fifth and final time… his refusal to accept professional help, and an intermittent fear that caused me panic attacks (even in the middle of the manic times); I did what I thought I was supposed to. I, (naturally) believed if I was a good parent like mine had been, that the right choice was to abandon the man I loved so our daughter could grow up in a stable home (retrospectively ironic).
Over the course of three years Jeff and I split up and got back together several times. We dated others here and there, but always maintained a friendship so close that it would not allow for any other relationship to really develop. In fact, I had dated a very nice guy for a while (whom I am now utterly convinced was an Aspie) and I would sneak out of MY OWN house at night when he was sleeping to see my husband (who lived down the street). Jeff and I would sit on his balcony (coincidentally just above and offset to my older sister’s apartment) and talk…and laugh…and cry until the sun came up! I remember laughing together once when I said, “I am basically cheating (emotionally) on my boyfriend with my husband, what does that say about me!?!”
At some point I got the grand idea to go back in the military and walk away from nursing for a while, but I remained in Florida. Jeff bounced between Florida and his home state of Michigan depending on what crazy idea he had for his future at the time. When he returned to Michigan he would live with his childhood friend John. I had heard about John since Jeff and I were teenagers, but had curiously only met him once when I was pregnant with our daughter and we were home on leave (vacation), and I did not recall talking to him during that visit. I could hardly picture his face when Jeff first began hanging out with John again, although I did see pictures of them out together every once in awhile. I could also frequently overhear John groaning in annoyance (in the background) when Jeff would profess his love for me and desire to come back home (for the millionth time).
I was absolutely convinced that John was gay. He was a stunningly attractive guy and Jeff never had stories of him with women (while Jeff over-shared his stories of female conquests in Michigan every time he was there). I honestly never thought much of John other than the fact that Jeff seemed to adore him, and every once in awhile Jeff would send me money that he said John had given him to help me buy groceries or other things for our daughter. All I really knew of John was that when Jeff was not with me, I felt a security knowing he was with John. This man I did not know seemed to fill my void in taking care of Jeff and I felt like he would not kill himself as long as he was with John.
Jeff and I had a final go at making our relationship work in December 2009 and he moved back to Florida to live with B and me. The moment he pulled into my apartment parking lot I began to have debilitating panic attacks (that had been absent as long as he was) and I begged him to agree to getting on medication and going to a psychiatrist. Jeff expressed his love for me and subsequently (and politely) declined this option for the last time. I inevitably told him I did not want to try any longer because I did not like how I felt when we were together and did not think I could be a good mother in that state of mind. Jeff was surprisingly empathetic to my sad conclusion for our unimagined future and shortly after New Year’s Day 2010, he prepared to move back to Michigan (to John) for the final time. We watched a movie the night before he left, P.S. I Love You and at the end of the movie Jeff made me promise him that if anything ever happened to him (i.e., death) that I would promise him I would get to know John. He told me I would really love John and would not let me off the hook to laugh off his request. Despite saying, “Oh yeah Jeff, if you kick it… I am totally going to hook up with your gay best friend!” He didn’t find this as comical as I did and looked at me seriously until I submitted and finally said… “Ok, I promise.” Lord knows I was completely unaware of the promise I was making at that time!
Fast forward to only a few months later when Jeff moved back down to Florida out of nowhere with a young girlfriend (early 20’s) in tow (with whom he said he “couldn’t shake” when he told her he was moving down). He failed to mention this to me until he was on my street coming to visit our daughter, although I suspected something was off since it was the first time he did not call to talk to me throughout his long road trip. From that day on, we did not speak as friends (as we had since the day we met) and there was obvious tension from his new girlfriend in regard to the (now ex) wife he had and the daughter they shared. Jeff stopped communicating and began acting very bizarre and closed off. I imagined the worst in regard to his mental health and stability and began panicking about our daughter being with him for visitations. It did not help that he made sure to tell me that his new girlfriend was “just a little druggie” he hooked up with prior to ever bringing her down. That recall (which he later denied) became the foundation for terror when I thought of our nine year old daughter in her care.
Things were tense between us, and by October 2010, our daughter began to hate going to his apartment because of the “fighting” between Jeff and his girlfriend. B was now ten and I made sure to tell her that she did not have to do anything that made her uncomfortable, to include spending the night at their apartment. This prompted a phone call to me one night to come and pick her up because “dad and ….. are fighting again.”
That was the nail in the coffin (figuratively?) for Jeff. The guilt he carried throughout his life, overwhelming empathy for others, unresolved grief from the childhood loss of his brother, failed marriage, and lack of direction or success at 31 years of age all came together in a cataclysmic recipe for disaster. All of the weights he carried on his shoulders combined with the thought that he was now an official failure as a father led him to a place where his “get out of jail free card” was all-too handy.
All it was going to take was the wrong mood striking, no one there to talk him down, and the lethal means to make it all go away on the ready…
I sensed the fragile state he was in and with it being the Fall season, reached out and wrote a letter to him absolving him of any guilt or part in failing our marriage and reassured him how loved he was. I put this on his truck while he was at work one day toward Halloween along with a small photo album of some of his favorite photos that I refused to give up over the years. What I received in response was a phone call from him with his girlfriend on the other end telling me I was a meddling bitch who needed to stay out of his life because he was in love and I was not going to ruin this for him. I sobbed while he said this to me on the phone, even though I knew he did not mean it, and even though I knew why he was making the call. All the while he was crushing my heart and I wept, I was never mad at him for it and understood why he was doing it. I could actually hear in his voice (I knew him all too well) that he was beating himself up as he said those words to me. I couldn’t blame him in the end… the moron left the letter in his truck for her to discover by accident (I later found out). It was just devastating to hear him talk to me in a way he never had before and listen to me cry and tell him I loved him and I was worried about him with no emotional or empathetic response to me.
After that awful phone call Jeff called me outside of his girlfriend’s presence about a week or so later and explained what transpired. He begged for my forgiveness in the most emasculated somber voice, by which I wontedly gave him. He told me he didn’t want to lose his daughter and would do whatever it took to repair what he had damaged, and for the first time in eight months, he began to sound like himself again. I had just begun a program in the military to go to college and finish my Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing, a goal I had set for myself when Jeff and I were still married and living together. Jeff was also enrolled in college in the hopes of getting into nursing school as well. We talked about how his military college fund and my military salary combined could have us financially living the life we always imagined whereby we were both full time students without the stress of having to work. We always made plans for our future as though we were happily married even after separating (and legally divorcing), so this familiar topic made me feel comforted that he was coming back from his low place for the year and would be able to make positive changes in the near future (like therapy).
Jeff took B out roller skating on November 19, 2010 after he and I talked about how he could repair their relationship and how spending time with his daughter in the absence of his girlfriend was a good first step. When he dropped our daughter off that night we talked outside of my apartment for the first time (really the first time we were alone without his girlfriend standing there and him behaving cold toward me and avoiding eye contact as though I would read his thoughts and know how unhappy he was). We joked about his dad coming to visit me (his family still stayed with me when visiting their granddaughter) and we talked about how neither of us were really invested in the relationships we were currently in. I was casually dating a wonderful man who lived about 4 hours away that I had known since I was a teenager; he drank a bit too much so I never committed to anything serious with him… although that was probably more of an excuse because I subconsciously believed Jeff and I would get back together eventually. Jeff looked like a fragile and thin shell of himself that night and as he was walking to his truck, he randomly blurted out that he was ending his relationship soon but wasn’t exactly sure how to “get rid of her.” Then he said “Goodnight Bella” and that was the last thing he ever said to me.
I walked inside my apartment and had a momentary thought that perhaps this unfortunate series of events for him would serve as the catalyst for him finally agreeing to professional help and medication. I never thought I was an innocent angel in any of our issues, and I certainly needed my own counseling, but the difference was that I was always willing to go for us, he was not. There was a part of me that night that was planning for Jeff to come home once again. As much as we agreed it was forever “over” between us the last time we tried, I never imagined a future without him and assumed we would end up together. I later discovered that just about everyone in our lives had assumed the same for our future because of the love we shared for one another, as unhealthy as it was.
On November 25, 2010 (Thanksgiving) Jeff put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger… effectively altering the course of B, John, and my future from that day forward…
I am certain it altered the course for the girlfriend he did it in front of as well, but after varying accounts of what occurred that day and some pretty immature and horrific behavior from her in the months that followed… that I believe (as she put it) was because she “wasn’t getting the attention she deserved as a grieving girlfriend and I was getting all of it” I did not and do not really care to guess any longer about what direction her derailed train went off in after that awful day.
Ok… you got me….
As much as I want to sound hard, my stupid empathy does honestly wish her the best. I have comfortably come to terms with the fact that she was just a kid and did not realize the gravity of her boyfriend’s instability at the time. It could have easily been me years prior, the underlying reason I left our marriage so many times and she found herself in a relationship with a very broken man.
The night I learned of Jeff’s death (by his girlfriend who called me to see if police had caught me before she did) my instant thoughts were as follows:
- I have to call my little sister so she can get B out of the house before she sees me fall apart
- I have to call his sister (who remained my close friend through the years) so she could call her mother and father
- Who the F**K is going to tell John????
John… whom I had only briefly met over a decade before… was the only person I felt knew Jeff the way I did and was as close to him through his struggles as I was.
John… who was (in my mind) Jeff’s other half in lieu of me… who kept him safe when I could not.
John… who was Jeff’s best friend that he cherished so dearly.
John… who I did not really know.
I asked Jeff’s sister through tears on the phone if she would please call John because I couldn’t. When I go back to that night in my mind, it feels strange to recall exactly how my insides began twisting when I thought of John and how deeply I was bleeding empathy for him and what he would go through when he heard Jeff was dead. I can’t be certain, but I believe after Jeff’s sister confirmed that she had spoken to John that I sent him a text that night apologizing for his pain, although it could have been days later. John doesn’t talk about it.
Jeff’s body was flown to Michigan for a funeral/viewing that lasted a disturbingly long amount of time, spanning the better part of two full days (who does that?!?) whereby Jeff’s painted face was put on display in a “rented” box (as I was insistent on him being cremated).
Whereby our daughter stayed downstairs (in a musty Michigan-style basement reminiscent of the 70’s complete with veneer paneling) ignoring reality and playing the SIMS with her cousins and refusing to come up. At ten years old she had the foresight to know it could never benefit her from seeing her father’s lifeless corpse in the center of a large room like some disturbing exhibition to finally lend credence to the fate only her “crazy dramatic” mother and his equally “unstable” sister knowingly predicted would come to fruition (that no one ever validated for us).
Whereby his girlfriend played the part of a grieving Italian mistress throwing herself on his casket and creating a scene so dramatic that many people (family and friends) came up to me and asked me who the “quack in black” was. My younger sister came with me to Michigan because I needed her to smack the crap out of me if I lost it in front of my daughter. She was the baby of us sisters and fit the role beautifully as this petite little scrappy and spunky kid-turned woman. I thank God she came because even in her own grief, she ended up shielding me from the “quack in black” and the flurry of bizarre texts I got during the two day wake. My little sister and I began audibly laughing at one point as we sat in the front row in view of Jeff’s body watching his girlfriend put on a show…she truly looked like she was one swift motion away from crawling into the coffin with him. I remember my little sister saying that we should sneak up behind it and close the lid on her head (or maybe it was me who said that?) It always makes me crack up when I think back to such a devastating time and the laughter she and I shared in the midst of it!
One person noticeably absent from Jeff’s funeral was the friend he cared for the most.
I did not see John those two days at the funeral home, but I vaguely recall his mother introducing herself and hugging me. It was not until the second day and the final “goodbyes” that everyone went to a huge catered luncheon in some hall that I remember seeing John. He may have been at the table with me during the meal for all I remember, but in all honesty, I wasn’t quite sure who all of Jeff’s friends even were and I was hoping I would not see him because I thought my heart might explode if I had to look him in the eyes.
OH THE IRONY!!!
My only knowledge of seeing John that day was when he came outside (where I was furiously chain smoking in the overcast bitter cold) whereby he walked in front of me with a ball cap covering his eyes and mustered up some word similar to “hi.” I remember asking, “Are you John?” He must have confirmed his identity because I threw my arms around him and began sobbing and we hugged for a great deal of time. I would love to confirm with John whether or not any further words were spoken between us after that, but he won’t talk about it. I honestly do not think we said anything to one another after we hugged, I just remember him wiping his eye (that was barely visible) and then seeing his back as he walked away.
I am going to skip over the meat of John and my story to place myself where I stand today
John and I have been married for almost a year and together for five years, we live on a little island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean where I work as a nurse in the military. “Our” daughter B is now fifteen and he and I struggle each and every day to get through the hellish insanity of an Aspie/NT marriage. We have made little progress by way of communication in all of these years, and every month I book him a flight back to Michigan and cancel it in time to get his air miles back when I realize I am not ready to give up quite yet.