The First Time My Husband Died

Erin Britt essays

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The first time I found out my husband had died, I wanted a bullhorn so I could lean out the second story window and shout, “Put the casserole down, back away and no one will get hurt!” There was a cacophony of caring—so much sometimes that I would take our kids, 4 and 1, into our bedroom, shut the door and the three of us would hold each other and cry. I hated being out in public because I was sure everyone could see the hole in me.

We were living in Reno on July 10, 1994. It was a Sunday, and Chris went diving in Lake Tahoe with our neighbor. I didn't like the idea. We talked about it the night before he was getting his gear ready. My brother had been our diving instructor, and he died 15 months before from Melanoma. I was still reeling from that loss and just wanted my family close. To this day, on the rare occasions when someone asks, I tell them Chris died from not listening to me. It's always fatal.

I called it the God's-in-his-heaven, all's-right-with-the-world feeling. I needed to crawl into bed at night, with my husband next to me, both kids asleep, the cat in, the dog at the foot of the bed, all doors locked and all was well.

Of course he didn't come home. I was outside with the kids painting the front of the house. The neighbor's wife came over. She said her husband had called from the emergency department in South Lake Tahoe. She told me Chris was dead. I didn't believe her. I would know if he was dead. I would feel it. We were too much a part of each other to imagine. But it was true.

Then the hard part started. The phone call to his parents, my parents. I will never forget the sound our 4-year-old made when I told him. He knew what it meant and that it was good because of his uncle's death. The sound was a keening, soul-cleaving, primeval pain. Most of us lose that ability to express our feelings so purely somewhere over the years, but I wonder if we also don't lose our ability to feel that purely as well? They searched for three days and were sure they'd never find his body. In some ways, after watching my 6'2″, 225-pound brother melt from cancer, it was a relief. Chris was where he needed to be.

God's-in-heaven, all's-right-with-the-world was replaced with flee—all is lost! I moved us back to Missoula, brought the kids to a place that was like Mayberry with dreadlocks. Years later, if they crossed a street on the yellow on their way home from school, I got a phone call before they hit the door. Rode their bike without a helmet? I knew about it. It was the only way I could work, get my Master's, get to Little League, orchestra, band, soccer and all of the other things I didn't want our kids to miss out on. How many days in a row could I feed them cheese pizza before social services got involved? Is having a pulse sufficient qualification for a babysitter? The years passed. They grew up beautiful, healthy and reasonably happy. End of that story.

The second time I found out my husband had died, it was August 2, 2011. I was going to a Lyle Lovett concert. My daughter was packing for her freshman year in college, and my son had moved into his own apartment three years before. My brother called from the San Francisco Bay Area and told me there was a story on TV that Chris's body had been found after 17 years. It had to be a mistake. Surely, the sheriff's department would have called me before releasing his name and information. But a body had been found by a diver at 250 feet, at the site where Chris had disappeared. They were sure it was him and were already performing an autopsy.

Lake Tahoe is 1,600 feet deep, and at 250 feet, only 38 degrees. He was almost completely preserved. The sheriff's department had a new sub, one of them got excited and called the press. The story ran across the world. It was interesting, this story. Titillating even. A body preserved after all these years. In the blink of an eye, 17 years collapsed and I was 32 again, calling my husband's family, telling our children, curling up with them again and crying.

I did not know a single person who could understand what we were feeling. Maybe the family of a Vietnam Was soldier whose body had been brought home decades later or someone lost in the woods, not found until spring thaw. As always at these times, kindness comes from unexpected places. A few brave souls showed up to just say, “Sorry—I am so sorry.” The detective took time away from his family to meet me in Sacramento and give me Chris's wedding ring. An old friend of his mailed the pocket watch of Chris's grandfather to my son. But true cruelty also hits you unexpectedly at these times—the ambitious coworker looking to move up, the passive-aggressive acquaintance whom you barely know. And these days, the strangers who weigh in on new sites. I heard his wife ran off with his dive partner. I guess they didn't care enough to search the lake 18 years ago. I heard he was involved with the mob. I heard he embezzled money and disappeared. The L.A. Times reported he had no family. Our son walking in the house two days later and fell apart at the things they were saying about his dad. I threw everyone in the car and headed for one of the last best hiding places in Montana—no TV, no internet, no cell coverage. We waited it out.

Over the years, I've taken a keen interest in the response to death in our country. We don't like it. It makes us uncomfortable. Someplace deep inside, we believe if we're smart enough, fast enough, clever enough, it won't happen to us. Take a look at the newspaper. When an adult dies tragically, there is always at least one letter to the editor blaming the idiot who got himself killed. When a child dies, the letters are directed at the parents. They should have known better. It couldn't happen to us.

In September, we flew to California, picked up his ashes, met a small group of friends and family and drove to Tahoe. We put him back where he had come to belong. No one would disturb him again, and he couldn't rise up, breaking our hearts one more time. A week later, I drove our daughter out of state to her freshman year in college and settled into an empty house. 

Invariably, someone asks about closure. It's a made-up word and it won't go away. Do people really think that when we tamp the dirt down on the grave or send the ashes to the wind, we brush our hands off and are done? I've buried two brothers, both parents, both parents-in-law and a husband. The dead are always with us. They sneak up behind us at a party and whisper a joke in our ear. They rise like fish on a calm stream and present us with a memory from years before. They wander through our days and nights like dreams.

And over time, if you're one of the lucky ones, you learn to live happily with them again. Grateful for all they gave you and still give. 

This essay originally appeared in Mamalode's print magazine themed Capacity.


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Erin Britt

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March 2015 – Simplify
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