Grateful…for a cruise!?

A cruise you may ask? Well, it is not exactly the cruise itself, but the people who were on it…

My late husband Jesse was part of a Brady Bunch type of family. His parents divorced when he was two, his biological mother out of the picture for many years. There were three kids, he was the youngest. His dad remarried to a woman who had two children already (very close in age to Jesse) and then they had another child together. No, there will not be a quiz on this later. I met his biological siblings early on, and the others as time went by. In retrospect, as one gains a sharper and clearer lens, I now understand the ebb and flow of the dynamics and relationships.

There was a lot of shit that went down in his childhood that the siblings did not know the extent of until months before his death. Frankly, the details were illuminated to Jesse during our time together as he got older and began to understand and explore in therapy some of the things that were locked deep inside, boiling up as they do. The more I read (after-the fact) about wonky brain chemistry and childhood trauma, the more I understood the demons he fought his whole life. And the more I got upset that he lost his ability to cope with those after the car accident that changed the course of his life. I realize now that there were times when that chemistry was off and he held his family at arms length and then there were times it was the opposite. I paid some attention over the years, but we had young children and I was the sole provider for so long, my attention was not always in the details. There was a time a year or so (time is fuzzy) before his accident where his biological mother betrayed him one time too many and the shit hit the fan. In retrospect, he was hypo-manic around then, and then went into a deep depression. That is where he really explored the extent of the messed-up-ness of his childhood. Again, the thing about Jesse was that I think he realized he had wonky brain chemistry, and he was so smart. He always sought out therapy, used medication to balance things out and focused on exercise, I now call them the trinity that he leaned on.

His family was always so kind to me. They enveloped both Raffi and I into their fold. We did not get to see them much, but when we did, it was awesome. When he was manic, I remember talking with them and their concern and support was palpable. Jess would barely talk to any of them after. He holed up. He was mortified as in his chameleon like way, he wanted to show them he was strong, confident, able. And after the hospital, he was broken (those are his words). He was embarrassed. He was hopeless. I emailed them for help. Again, Raffi was nine and Bells was four, and I was self employed and the sole provider for our family. And help they did. There was a procession of visits after he got out. I don’t know what I would have done without that help. But again, Jess was in a dark place, and I said to him how great it was to see everyone and have them come visit. His response, you invited them, I did not get a say. Yet, when they were there, that charismatic person showed up, even though underneath his mind and body were failing. The weekend before they died, I went to my best friends wedding in North Carolina. I made sure people were here the whole time. His sister brought her youngest, who was a year younger then Bella. They totally bonded and the pictures from there visit are priceless. Then his step brother came and was there when I got home. He left Tuesday, and they died Thursday.

In retrospect, sorry for using that word again, but I have had nothing but time to think of this all for the past three plus years, those visits were his goodbye. Those visits he wanted them to see the person he wanted to be in their eyes. Not the person who wanted to die. Not the person who had become hopeless and hid the bottomless pain within.

This past weekend was the first time since the memorial that we were all together. I have seen them all over the past three years because they are all amazing people who instead of walking away from Raffi and I, brought us even closer. The conversations and relationship with each has deepened even more. I cannot even begin to convey my gratefulness especially when it comes to Raffi. I often hear her talking to one of them in fits and giggles in the other room. There have been times when I have texted them and say, hey, can you call Raffi, she is having a hard time. This past weekend was a reminder that I have so much more than my blood family. I cannot imagine that will ever change. Seeing the cousins all playing melted my heart.

Seeing my nephew, who is now four, in his many resemblances to Bella, was amazing. I had first met him five months after they died. He was still in a stroller! But when I fist laid eyes on him, my breath was taken away, he was almost a twin to my sweet girl. I had to walk away to gather myself. I was better prepared this time, seeing pictures over the past three years. I would not call them twins in looks, but there are pictures that their expressions are exactly alike and it is uncanny how much they are alike in other ways. On the last morning, he came and sat in my lap and looked at the picture of Bella on my phone, which is the one of her silhouette on the swing. He said, who’s that? I answered, that is your cousin Bella. You know, she and you look and act a lot alike. I showed him some pictures and he said she has the same color hair, and I said yes, and hers was wavy and curly (his is wavy). I said she had a lot of energy like you. And the same scrunch smile, which he promptly demonstrated. I said she was four, like you. Kids are smart man, he immediately asked, did she die? I said yes, yes she did. He asked why. I said, that is a really good question that I don’t quite have a good answer for. I talked with his mom after and she was like, wow! They were too young when it happened and it hasn’t come up yet. I told her about the Dougy Center and told her when the time was right that I would connect her to find the right words. Spending time with everyone was so special, but I have to admit, spending some time with him was precious. I so look forward to watching him grow to see glimpses of what she would have looked like.

I wish. I wish for so many things. But I wish I had the knowledge I have now. You have heard me say that so much over the past year. But there are things I am grateful for. I have read of suicide deaths (there is little research on murder suicides) can tear families apart. This has brought us even closer. I have so many “brothers and sisters” now. We have this bond of grief, but it is so much more. I am truly grateful for each of them choosing to keep us in their lives.

Me and my fi
The view from our window

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Stephanie Willard

Originally published at on August 15, 2017.