Listen here to Picking up the Pieces Or on your favorite podcast app! Or read it below!
Picking Up the Pieces
“Ugh! I can’t believe I forgot my sunglasses!” Tessa Davis said to herself as she waited in the school parking lot to pick up her oldest daughter. It was a rare sunny January day in Alaska. She squinted to see the clock on her dashboard as she pushed her light brown hair back behind her shoulder. If Blanche didn’t hurry up they’d be late to pick up the other kids. Afternoons were always hectic for her with four kids in four different schools. Sirens blared from an ambulance and fire trucks as they flew by. She squinted as she put her hand to her forehead shielding her blue eyes from the sun as she watched them disappear from sight. “They aren’t heading towards my house. That’s good,” she thought. There had been a couple of bear sightings in their neighborhood recently.
“What took you so long?” she asked as Blanche swung open the silver Expedition’s passenger door.
“Sorry, I was just asked to play a solo in the band concert next month” Blanche explained as they headed off to the middle school to get her sister. “I have to learn another song just for the concert.” She buckled her seatbelt and asked, “Do you think we’ll have time this week to get some black pants? We’re all supposed to be wearing black pants with white shirts.” Her blue eyes hopeful.
“That should be fine. Let’s find a day that just the two of us can go and we can leave the other kids with Dad,” Tessa told her daughter. It wasn’t every day they had a chance to go shopping just the two of them. Truth be told, she didn’t want to take all four kids shopping anyways.
When Tessa put the car in park out front of the middle school her friend Rachel was walking by to pick up her kids. “Rachel!” she called out.
Rachel waved and walked over to Tessa’s car for a minute to chat.
“Is Harper going to the Girl Scout trip next weekend?” Tessa asked with her left hand on her forehead again. She used her thumb to adjust her wedding ring. This time she parked at a better angle and the sun wasn’t as harsh on her eyes. Rachel was about to answer when Tessa’s phone rang. Not recognizing the number, she was hesitant to answer but decided it might be important. “Hello?” she said into the phone sounding more like a question than a statement. “Sorry,” she mouthed to Rachel.
“Hello, Tessa Davis?” The voice on the other end of the line was calm and steady. She didn’t recognize it at first, but he went on to say, “This is Captain Butler.”
“Oh, hi Captain. How are you?” She was confused as to why her husband’s boss would be calling her, but she tried to act normal. Rachel raised an eyebrow when she heard Tessa was on the phone with their husbands’ boss.
“I need you to come to the base, preferably without the kids. The sooner the better, time is critical.”
“Oh, uh, Rachel can I leave Blanche and Haley with you? There’s an emergency.” Rachel nodded of course. “I’m on my way,” Tessa said and without thinking hung up. Blanche confused and concerned grabbed her coat and bag and stood next to Rachel.
“Blanche, I’ll call you when I know what is going on. Thank you so much, Rachel!” Tessa said as she drove away.
It took 15 minutes to drive across town. The whole time she kept thinking about what could possibly be going on, but her mind kept going to the worst thoughts. Her heart was pounding in her ears. She kept praying it was nothing but a big misunderstanding. How could it be anything but that? She pulled up to the gate at the base and saw all the emergency vehicles. Her heart sank. She flashed her ID at the guy manning the gate and sped in. She parked next to an ambulance and got out. She didn’t realize until she started walking that she was shaking, and her legs were wobbly. Captain Butler met her at back of the ambulance as they were loading her husband up. He nodded at her with a sympathetic face and helped her into the ambulance. The doors shut behind her and she heard someone tap on the doors to start driving.
The moment Tessa saw James she crumbled.
It was worse than she imagined. She made her way to the head of the gurney to see his face. “James!” she started pleading to him. “James, you can’t leave me!” She squeezed his limp hand. Her voice was shaky as she continued, “You can’t leave the kids. Stay with me. Please!” But she knew the worst in her heart.
The EMT in the back with them did chest compressions the whole way to the hospital. Tessa kept talking to James as the tears poured down her face. Halfway to the hospital, she wanted to tell the EMT to stop. She knew even if they did revive him, he had been gone too long. He would have no quality of life. But she couldn’t find the words and she didn’t want to say out loud that she had given up. So, she held his hand and continued to talk to him. Taking in every inch of his face she could see through her tear-clouded eyes. Seeing her strong husband like this seemed so wrong. Bad things didn’t happen to healthy, young, husbands and fathers. They went to work and came home at night.
That’s how it’s supposed to be.
She wanted to be anywhere but here. She wanted him there with her. She wanted to jump out of the ambulance and run from everything.
When they got to the hospital the doctor called it. They left Tessa alone with James to say her goodbyes. The room was quiet compared to the hustle going on in the rest of the ER. She could hear the squeaking of sneakers in the hallway and voices of hospital staff trying to save some other patient. The fluorescent lights flickered above her. She didn’t know how she could still be crying but she was.
She got on the bed with him and just lay there tucked between his body and left arm.
She didn’t care about his blood staining her clothes. She just wanted to be close to him. Her high school sweetheart was dead at the age of 35. The only man she’d ever been with. Alaska was their dream billet. Their family loved the fishing and hunting that the Last Frontier had to offer. They were going do another tour somewhere in Alaska and then retire there. This dream had turned into a nightmare. She didn’t want to ever get up. The thought of walking out of those automatic glass hospital doors without James wasn’t something she could wrap her head around. She felt like she had died too.
When Rachel showed up with her kids, she found herself again wishing she had her sunglasses.
She didn’t want to look anyone in the eyes. She didn’t want to see their looks of pity for her or her kids, now widowed and fatherless. She didn’t want anyone to see her swollen face and blood shot eyes. She had no idea how they were going to pick up the pieces of their lives, but it had to be done.
On the one-year anniversary of the boat accident Tessa stood outside barefoot in the grass of their new home in Florida. The sun was bright and warm. She took her sunglasses off the top of her head and put them on. She asked her kids, “is everyone ready?” They had all lined up facing the canal their yard backed up to. “Three, two, one!” She said as they each opened a box with butterflies in it. Most flew away. Some lingered in the yard. But one fluttered around each of her kids. Dancing in the air getting their attention. It landed right on the anchor with James’ name in it tattooed on Tessa’s forearm. She was thankful she had her sunglasses so her kids couldn’t see the tears that were pooling up in her eyes. The butterfly stayed with her a little while and all her kids gathered around to see. Then, suddenly it flew away, brushing Tessa’s cheek on the way by.
She sat on the grass and watched as her son fished in the canal.
Her daughters were screeching and giggling while doing cartwheels in the patch of grass cooled by the shade of their home. She took a deep breath just to remind herself she was still alive.
This new life she was building was a far cry from the life James and Tessa Davis always had dreamed of. It had been the hardest year of her life. By the grace of God, she had managed to slowly pick up the pieces. She’d be starting school come fall with her kids. Marrying right out of high school James had joined the military and soon after they started a family. She had never followed her own dreams more than being a wife and mother. James had always encouraged her to do so but the time never felt right. She couldn’t bear the thought of being with anyone other than James and she missed him deeply. But knowing she was pursuing her dream of being a nurse felt like moving on, and that was enough for now. If nothing else this last year had taught her life is never what you expect it to be and always what you make of it.
You just have to take it one piece at a time.
Find more of Melissa’s work here
Check out our new tool for helping parents navigate “the talk.” You can find it here!