Thursday, April 30, 1998.
I was dared to put a personal ad in the San Diego Reader back in April of 1998, and it was in the April 30th issue. It started “Anti Barbie looking for Anti-Ken.” It was a joke, pure and simple. But I received calls. Several of them. But one stood out — a guy named Steve, who left me a voicemail that was funny and witty. I decided to call that one back — just him — to thank him for spending $2.99 a minute to reply but afterall, it was just a joke.
We hung up three hours later. And we talked three hours on Friday and another three hours on Saturday. I was about to go out of town for 10 days. He wanted to meet before I left. I wanted to meet him too but was afraid I wouldn’t get packed and out of town on time. “You have to eat — let me take you to dinner before you leave.” I agreed. I knew myself well enough that it wasn’t going to be beneficial to leave town for 10 days, wondering about this guy. Better to realize he’s a jerk before my trip than to wonder for 10 days and then find out.
So, on Sunday, May 3rd — I remember sitting in my car, in the rear of the parking lot, waiting for him to show up. A burgundy colored Thunderbird drove up. Parked. Got out. Oh. He’s cute. I turned off the car engine and waited a bit more. He walked to the front of the restaurant and looked around like you could tell he was a bit awkward and uncomfortable. He looked like I felt — but I had the safety of my car. And I could still drive away. I thought ‘what the hell’ and got out of my car and walked towards the restaurant. He instantly knew it was me and smiled. I smiled. Damn, he smelled gooooooooooooooooood.
We were at the restaurant for three hours and could have gone three days. The conversation never stalled — he was funny and interesting, cute has hell and just very engaging. During dinner, we’d talked about authors we liked — I mentioned Sue Grafton and Stephen King. He had several hundred audio books and had a variety of tastes. When we were done, we walked back towards my car — and stopped at his first. Knowing I was on my way out of town on a long road trip, he’d thrown in two audio books for my trip. Sue Grafton. Stephen King. What in the heck were the odds of that? He also gave me a beautiful bouquet of flowers — he’d left them in the car because he thought it would be too much to bring them into the restaurant. (Yeah, that’d have been really awkward – thank God he kept them in the car!)
I drove away that night smiling. Ear to ear. I knew in my heart I’d just met the most amazing man. I came into my calligraphy studio the next morning to pick up a few things before I left town and found a message waiting for me on my voicemail. It was Steve. He’d called the night before, after dinner, and just wanted me to know how much he enjoyed meeting me and that he couldn’t wait to see me again. I was hooked. We got engaged on December 31, 1999 (remember Y2K?!), married in November of 2000 and our beautiful baby boy was born in December of 2002.
Life was perfect.
August 7, 2007
It was a normal Tuesday morning. My husband, Steve, had been put on the night shift in April so he was now taking our son to preschool, a nice break after 4 1/2 years of handling the mornings on my own.
In the driveway, I kissed our son goodbye, then kissed my husband goodbye, and we left the subdivision at the same time. I turned left to head to work and he turned right to take Allen to preschool. I didn’t know it was the last I’d see my husband alive.
At 7:30ish, Steve dropped Allen off — and, like we did every day, he called to tell me he’d dropped him off. I reminded him the need of an oil change for his vehicle and he got gas and headed to Walmart. He checked the vehicle in at 7:49 am.
At 7:58 am, he called to tell me it’d be about an hour and that he was going to walk around Walmart until he got paged. He asked if we needed anything. I said no. He said “I love you” and I responded “I love you too” and we hung up. I didn’t know that would be the last time I’d hear his voice.
About 8:15 am, I called to ask him to pick something up. I got his voicemail so I left a message.
About 8:30 am, I got the WORST feeling — head to toe and in the pit of my stomach — that
something was wrong. It’s a feeling I never, ever want to experience again.
I started to call and called his cell phone, and home, every few minutes. I knew in my soul something was wrong.
When he didn’t answer by 11:15am, I logged into my computer and got the number for Walmart. I called and learned he hadn’t picked up his truck yet. I asked them to page him and I called back 2-3 minutes later. He still hadn’t picked it up.
He usually left for work about 11:30 am and would stop and bring me an iced tea or diet Pepsi before he headed to work at 1:15 am. When he was put on nights, he started to do this because it was really the only time except for late at night or early in the morning that we got to see each other during the week. Sometimes, we’d sit in the car and talk while eating lunch.
I was sick to my stomach, knowing something wasn’t right.
I left my desk as-is, locked my computer screen and headed out for an early lunch. I went to Walmart to look for Steve and got there about 11:50 am. I called my best friend, Laurie, in San Diego on my way there and told her was I was scared — I knew something was wrong.
I immediately had them check the bathrooms – something told me to check there – but it was VERY strange that he hadn’t picked up the car. It was about 115 degrees that day – I knew he wouldn’t have left without it.
I walked around the store looking for him, we checked the surveillance videos and saw him entering the store and walking thru the electronics section but nothing else. I ran home to check there and when he wasn’t there, I called my mother in Oregon. I was scared to death.
At her urging, I called 911 and a police officer, Sean, met me at the store. We started the paperwork for a missing persons report. I kept telling them he is NOT the type to just disappear — if he was gone it was because something happened to him within Walmart or he was robbed or there was a gun/knife involved. I was just sick…
I checked the bank — no transactions. Called Verizon to see where his cell phone was transmitting (cell site) — he didn’t match their “protocol” of being a danger to himself or others. Tried to get him on the nightly news — again the protocol bullshit so I started calling around newsdesks on my own from my car while driving around looking in the greenbelts. His cell phone would ring — but no answer — so I dialed it repeatedly while walking thru the store hoping to hear it. I called his work – again, nothing. I had co-workers calling hospitals.
It was now 4:30pm and I had NO answers to where my husband was. Too much time had passed – something was terribly wrong. Someone at the Sam’s Club next door thought they saw him on video so we went over there. It wasn’t him. I absolutely lost it. There was a group of Walmart/Sam’s Club managers and I was urged to talk to them. I barged into their meeting, told them my husband was missing, I was getting nowhere with Walmart, and I needed help NOW. They made a phone call and then sent me back to the Walmart store where the manager, Phil, would meet me at the front doors.
I went back to Walmart and Phil met me at the door. He took me to the rear of the store,and as we were walking I remembered it was 5:05pm and I needed to remember to pick Allen up from preschool by 6pm. What in the hell was I going to tell him? I didn’t even know where Steve was.
The store manager called a department manager meeting back in the old layaway section near the restrooms. We were going to show Steve’s photo around and basically search each department. The manager started out with “you’ve probably heard that we have a man missing for 9 hours now.” At that point, someone in the back spoke up and said “the cleaning lady mentioned someone has been in the john.” I said “what?!” He said “she found someone at 12pm in the handicapped stall, but they didn’t answer. She went back at 4pm and he was still there.”
I screamed at the man WHICH bathroom? He pointed to the one about 20 feet from where we were. I’d been watching the door while they were waiting for the meeting to start because a woman had sent her 6-7 year old son in to use the bathroom. I literally pushed her out of the way — she said something about “it’s a MEN’s bathroom” and I flatly told her I didn’t give a shit — my husband was in there.
I bent down and saw someone in the front stall but the handicapped stall was locked — I didn’t see anything. I bent down further — it was a long stall — and saw Steve’s shoes and jeans. I’d found my husband. But oh my God – I just found my husband.
Needless to say, I was absolutely out of my mind. I tried to get to him, but was pulled away. Phil slammed himself against the door about 3 times before he broke the lock and the look on his face immediately told me what my heart feared but what my brain knew.
The next block of time is a blur. I remember screaming. I remember beating the tile walls with my fists. As protocol, they’d called 911 but they took forever to come. I finally ran into the main part of the store – shoe department on my left, crafts on my right – through the yellow caution tape and shopping carts they’d put up to keep the public away. The paramedic was coming but wasn’t walking as fast as he should of. This was MY husband in the bathroom stall. Al I could do was scream, over and over “HURRY UP! RUN!!!!!!”
“Ma’am, we’re sorry but he’s gone.”
I was 38 years old. Our son was 4 ½. Steve was only 41. He can NOT be gone! I started to go into denial. It’s not him. It can’t be him. WHERE IS MY HUSBAND? Yet I knew the blue color of the Levi’s and the white tennis shoes were Steve’s. But it couldn’t be him. It just couldn’t. By now, my friend was with me – she worked at Verizon and I’d called her to check his cell phone status. She came to be with me and was the one who ended up walking into the stall. I still remember her face coming back out – void of all color, eyes full of tears with a subtle nod that “yes, that’s him.”
As I write this, it has been 57 months and 2 days. I still struggle with the fact that he was allowed to sit there, dead, for 9 hours. All those hours of frantic calling and yelling his name aisle by aisle through the store. The coroner said he died between 8am – 9am that morning. I know when he died because I felt it. It was the feeling I got while at work. The feeling I never want to happen again. I’m told he died quickly. The official cause of death was ‘cardiac tamponade’ which means fluid around the heart. In Steve’s case, the fluid was the blood caused by his aorta rupturing. He died of an aortic dissection, just like John Ritter and Lucille Ball.
I’d later learn that the cleaning lady knew someone was in the bathroom, unresponsive, for six of the nine hours I looked for him. But she had ‘immigration issues’ and didn’t want to rock the boat. We’re lucky that the police never wrote down her address when they interviewed her because it was the first thing I looked for when I got the police report. Probably best for her and for me. In all honesty, I would have hurt her. 57 months and 2 days later – I’ve healed a lot but she still doesn’t want to be alone in a room with me.
One of the Walmart employees, along with Sandra’s daughter, picked Allen up from preschool that day. He went to spend the night at a friend’s house – ‘a great adventure!’ – while I sorted through the first night without my Steve. I had no idea how to tell Allen his Daddy had died.
My best friend, Laurie, flew in that night to be with me. She’ll never know how much that meant – she kept me together than, and has continued to be my rock through all of this. The following morning, we both went to a counselor at 10am to figure out HOW do I tell my son his father is dead? We left at 11:00 am and by noon, I’d broken Allen’s heart with the news of his father.
At first, he was sad but seemed okay – considering the situation. I had some paper and crayons ready for him to immediately draw a picture of Daddy in Heaven, a suggestion by the therapist. Once the crayon hit the paper, I disappeared for 30 seconds to catch my breath, leaving him with Laurie. A few seconds later, I heard the most guttural, piercing, gut-wrenching sound from the other room. It was from my baby boy – and it was the most honest, natural and raw emotion a 4 ½ year old can have upon learning his idol was dead. Anyone who thinks a 4 ½ year old doesn’t understand was NOT in my home that day. He understood every word I said. Every.single.word.
Our journey together continued as boyfriend and girlfriend, then marriage, then parenthood. The 9 1/2 years we were together were the best years of my life. He was my everything — my husband, my lover, my best friend, the father of my son, my confidante, my supporter…..quite simply, my everything. When he died on August 7, 2007, part of me died with him. We clicked from day one. We were so truly blessed to have met each other. He brought so much to my life and I know I brought a lot to his. He was loving, generous, kind, spirited, funny, humble.
I still celebrate the anniversaries of when we met, moved in together, married. I still celebrate his birthday. I put memorial ornaments on our Christmas tree and I tell everyone I can about him. He was the most amazing man…
I’ve started dating again and am hopeful for my future. Our future. I was blessed to have an amazing relationship once and pray I can be blessed twice.
I think Steve would be proud of how we’ve handled the last 5+ years. In the years since Steve died, we’ve gone on to do a lot of healing. And through that healing, ASK was born. But my journey as a widowed woman and mother started just like everyone else’s. I am no different. People tell me how strong I am. I don’t feel strong — but climbing into bed and pulling the covers over my head — while really appealing!! — just wasn’t a choice. Some interesting things can be created with a vision, some perseverance, and a whole lot of people cheering you on with love and support.
I’m glad you’re here, I’m glad you found ASK and I’m glad that we’re in this together. I’d like to hear YOUR story and hope you’ll share it with us.
Love, peace and blessings,
Karen & Allen, December 2012