Note: Every Monday until July 31, I’ll be posting chapters of Room for Two on my blog. Read Chapter 4 below. Want to start at the beginning? Read Chapter 1.
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Per my request, only close friends and family members were invited to Hope’s funeral. After a large funeral for Krista, I wanted to keep this one private. Officially saying good-bye to my daughter was going to be the most difficult thing I had done, and I wanted as few people as possible to witness it.
There was another reason I wanted to keep Hope’s funeral small. Krista’s suicide had made everyone uncomfortable in my presence. I felt like a leper. People acted as if coming near me would spread some unexpected tragedy into their life. By this time, I realized their hesitation was because they didn’t know what to say. When a loved one dies from a tragic accident or an illness, most people can find words to express their sympathy. "It must have been his time," or "The doctors did everything they could." With a suicide, everyone avoided me, almost as if they blamed me. Most people couldn’t even choke out, "I’m sorry." In place of comforting words were a lot of questions no one dared ask. I saw them in the sad faces of family and friends. They wanted to know why Krista had done it. Why hadn’t I prevented it? How could I not know she was suicidal? Everyone looked to me for answers. I had none.
I was beginning to feel isolated. No one knew of a widower under sixty. The term widower, for me, was not only remarkably astonishing, it was almost ironically funny. Almost. And no one had ever heard of a pregnant woman killing herself. Late into the night I scoured the Internet for information or news stories about pregnant women committing suicide. I found nothing. Believing there was no one out there to relate to or tell me I’d get through this only reinforced my feelings of separation from the world.
Hope’s funeral was less than ten minutes. While the bishop spoke, all I could think about was the life Hope never experienced. And as her tiny pink casket was lowered into the same plot as Krista’s, I felt something for the first time since Krista’s death. Anger. The anger burned inside me like the glowing embers of a fire — small, hot, and waiting to burst into flame.
I went home and mingled with those who’d come back to the house for lunch and to mourn. All I really wanted though was to be left alone. After the guests left, I picked at leftover ham and cheese in the kitchen. I put the food into my mouth, but couldn’t taste anything.
A pile of pamphlets three inches high was stacked neatly nearby. Grief literature. There were brochures on how to cope with the death of a spouse, the death of a child, and losing a loved one to suicide. Intermingled with the brochures were business cards for grief counselors and therapists.
I skimmed through most of brochures, finding they were worthless — especially the literature on losing a spouse. Those pamphlets were written for people who were retired, old, and ready to die, or "prepared" to be a widow or widower. They contained such pearls of wisdom as remembering the many years the two of you shared together and tips for spending your retirement years alone. There was nothing in them I could relate to. Krista and I had only been married thirty-four months. I was twenty-six years old. I still had a life ahead of me, though I couldn’t picture it without Krista and Hope. My future, which only a few weeks before had looked bright and sunny, was now obscured by a thick, gray fog.
I leafed through one of the brochures, looking at pictures of people being comforted by others who had their hands on the grieving person’s shoulder. I would have laughed if it didn’t hurt so much. I scooped up pamphlets and dumped them in the trash.
"What are you doing?" My mom stood in the doorway, a half-eaten sandwich on the plate in her hand.
"Throwing this crap away."
I put on my coat and boots and headed toward the door.
"Where are you going?" Her voice sounded worried.
"Abel, are you all right?"
"I just need some time alone," I said. People kept asking me if I was okay. Did they really expect me to say yes?
I started my car and cranked up the heat. I wanted to get away from everything that reminded me of Krista. But that was nearly impossible. Ogden was a minefield of memories. Krista was attached to every part of the town. A park reminded me of a date where we’d sat at a picnic table and laughed for hours. I drove by a market and remembered dozens of shopping trips, where Krista and I had picked up the essentials and non-essentials that had made up our lives. I drove by a street corner and recalled the time my car broke down on the way home from school. Krista and I had both been late for work that day. Everything was a reminder that she was no longer part of my life, but was still there in almost every sense of the word.
After driving aimlessly around for thirty minutes, I ended up by the mall on the south side of town. The parking lot was jammed with Black Friday shoppers. I needed to surround myself with people who didn’t know me, my tragedy, or that I was a young widower. The mall seemed like the perfect place to lose myself in a sea of anonymous faces.
It took ten minutes to find a parking space. Inside the mall was just as packed as the parking lot. Most shoppers carried boxes and bags of presents. Long lines snaked back from the cash registers. Everyone, even those standing in line, had smiles on their faces. It was the beginning of the Christmas season. It was an official holiday. There was no reason not to smile.
I wandered in and out of the stores all the while fighting the feeling that I should be buying presents for Krista. In each store, I picked out something she’d like: sweaters, jeans, lingerie, books, and jewelry.
My eye became attuned to couples who were shopping. I spotted a man and a woman in their twenties standing in front of the Gap. The woman pointed to a coat the mannequin in the window was wearing. The man nodded his head. They walked into the store, holding hands. Another couple sat nearby, drinking large steaming cups of gourmet coffee. The man leaned forward and whispered something in the woman’s ear. She smiled and whispered something back. Their intimacy brought feelings of excruciating envy. Still, this didn’t prevent me from continuing to study them. It was almost a comfort to hurt that much. I wanted someone to whisper words that would bring a smile to my face. I wanted someone to love me. The only person I ever loved was gone. And there was nothing I could do to bring her back.
At the far end of the mall, across from the fourteen-screen movie theater, a bunch of tired-looking shoppers sat on benches. Bags of presents lay at their feet. One or two looked at their watches, then around the mall as if hoping to see someone coming.
As I walked by a memory flooded my mind. It was seven years ago, mid-December and cold. Krista and I had been dating a few months. We had spent the entire day together in Salt Lake looking at the Christmas lights downtown. On the way home we stopped at her favorite Italian restaurant near the mall. The hostess informed us in a voice that sounded way too perky that there would be an hour wait. To help pass the time, Krista and I decided to walk through the mall. Tired and hungry, we finally slumped on a bench across from the movie theaters and watched people buy tickets for shows. After a while we started arguing over something. To this day I can’t remember what it was about. But I do remember the argument escalated and I decided to leave.
Glaring at Krista, I stood and said, "I’m going home."
"How?" Krista said, "I drove." She pulled a ring of keys from her pocket and shook them. The jingling sound infuriated me.
"I’ll take the bus." I was bluffing. I had no idea if there was a bus at this end of town that would take me home. I was hoping that Krista would run after me and concede the argument.
Krista called my bluff. "Fine, I’ll just have to find another dashing young man to have dinner with."
Furious, I started toward the exit. I was determined to go home even if that meant walking all the way across town. I had taken no more than five steps when, over the din of the mall, I heard Krista’s voice. She was speaking very loudly — loud enough for anyone within fifty feet to clearly hear — but her voice was full of affection and love.
"Abel, I love you! Will you please forgive me?"
People walking past and those in line for movie tickets turned to see what was going on. I could feel the blood rising to my face, not from anger, but embarrassment. I turned and saw Krista on her knees. Her arms were outstretched toward me.
"I’m so sorry. Please don’t be angry at me. I love you so much!" she said.
My eyes did a quick scan of those who had stopped to watch. Most had amused looks on their faces. Off to my right I heard someone laughing. I felt my face turning redder. I wanted to disappear. I didn’t like the attention.
I walked over to Krista and helped her off her knees. I gave her a big hug, hoping this would please the crowd. A few people clapped halfheartedly. An older woman said, "Aren’t they a cute couple?" The memory blurred and changed. Instead of hugging Krista in the mall, I was kneeling by her side in our apartment, her body slumped against white packing boxes. Her mouth hung partway open, eyes glazed. Her body trembled.
On the verge of tears, I walked quickly out of the mall. My mind shuffled between the Krista with outstretched arms and the one that put a gun to her head. The latter Krista seemed foreign and unfamiliar. As I unlocked the car, my thoughts turned to Hope dying in my arms. I got in and slammed the door.
"I hate you! I hate you!" I screamed. I pounded the steering wheel with my fists until my hands hurt. Then I allowed myself to cry — something I hadn’t done at either funeral. I cried, great heaving sobs, until my head throbbed and the tears wouldn’t fall anymore. Then I wiped the tears and mucus off the steering wheel with my sleeve.
"I hate you!" I said again. It felt good to say it.
My anger had just burst into flame.
I was furious at Krista in a way I had never felt toward anyone. I could make the fifty-mile drive to work and do nothing but curse her under my breath. Even after an hour of this, the anger really never subsided. It was always just below the surface waiting to explode. Krista took the blame for all of my difficulties. If traffic was bad, I blamed Krista. When a deadline at work forced me to stay late, it was her fault. And when the Denver Broncos missed the game-winning field goal one Sunday afternoon, I found a way to blame that on Krista too.
Despite the anger, I still loved her immensely. My rage stemmed more from wanting to know why she would take her own life — especially when she was seven months pregnant. I thought a reason for her suicide would go a long way to soothing my rage. The only rational explanation for her death was that she had an undiagnosed mental illness. The theory wasn’t a reach since mental illness was prominent in her family. Coming from mentally ill parents, it had always been a wonder to me that Krista was so normal.
I read a lot about schizophrenia. Some of the signs Krista exhibited in the months before her death matched up well. There was the talking nonsense, not having the energy to do anything, not wanting to talk to others, or care about her appearance. But many of these were also symptoms of depression. Krista had taken Prozac on and off since we were married but had discontinued it once we tried to conceive. Usually I could detect a difference in her moods after a few days when she stopped taking her medication. This time — at least through the first months of her pregnancy — I hadn’t noticed a change in her attitude or behavior. It wasn’t until her pregnancy was well underway that her demeanor changed.
And Krista was nothing like her mother, Susan, who was schizophrenic. I had seen Susan in dozens of full schizophrenic attacks. She would rave about the voices inside her head or the police who she claimed were watching her through the television. During these episodes she would scream at the top of her lungs and had a psychotic look in her eyes — the look I always imaged a serial killer having before murdering his victims. If I hadn’t known Susan was schizophrenic, I would have mistaken those episodes for drug-induced psychosis. Susan’s schizophrenic attacks always scared the hell out of me, and I was hesitant to go over their home when one of them was occurring. Krista, however, always thought she could help. I accompanied her only because I worried about her safety. Susan’s more severe schizophrenic episodes would lead to hospitalization for several weeks. Once she was back on her medications, she would return home, stop taking her medicine, and the cycle would repeat itself.
Krista’s father, Todd, was manic-depressive. He sat in his overstuffed rocking chair all day, chain-smoking and drinking tall glasses of diet Mountain Dew. The rift between Todd and me came from the way Todd treated Krista. Every day there was a phone call from him asking for food, money, or to pick up one of his many prescriptions at the pharmacy. He expected Krista to be at his beck and call twenty-four hours a day. If Krista did not agree to help, he would call her ungrateful and a lousy daughter and verbally abuse her until Krista would agree to help or slam down the phone in tears.
Todd and Susan had the means to support themselves. Their monthly Social Security and state aid checks were enough to survive. It was their spending habits that were horrible. Within days of their checks arriving, most of the money was spent on cigarettes and alcohol. According to Todd, their inability to save money, their addiction to tobacco and booze, and any other thing they were unable to do for themselves was all due to their mental illness.
Her parents hadn’t always been so dependent — or so Krista said. When things would become very frustrating with them, Krista would tell me how life had been different when she was growing up. She had memories of her dad coming back from work and late at night studying to become a police officer. Her mother did the best to keep house and raise Krista and her younger brother, Scott. When she told me these memories, it was as if she believed her parents could turn their lives around and become productive members of society again, not the people who chain-smoked and watched television all day.
Krista said when she was about eight, something happened. Todd stopped working, and Susan began to spend time in and out of mental institutions. Unable or unwilling to care for their children — depending on whom you asked — Krista and Scott went to live with their grandmother. Krista really never lived with her parents again, though once things calmed down a little and her parents were able to find a government subsidized home to live in, Krista spent most weekends with them.
Logically it made sense that schizophrenia or some other mental illness could have scrambled Krista’s brain enough for her to take her own life. But I wasn’t totally convinced. And without Krista to evaluate in person, I started to wonder if the cause of her suicide would ever be known.
After church the next Sunday I went for a walk. I needed to separate myself from the lingering sadness that seemed to occupy every corner of my parents’ house. Though I understood their feelings, I was done being sad.
I stopped in front of a small abandoned house next to my parents’ home. A large For Sale sign leaned crookedly in the front yard. I walked to the side door and threw my weight against it. The door swung open and I walked inside.
I stood in the kitchen. A broken dishwasher hung partway out of its crawlspace. There were empty spots where a refrigerator and stove once stood. The cupboards were the color of coffee beans and covered with a thick layer of dust. Thousands of box elder bug and fly carcasses covered the floor, their legs curled at ninety-degree angles. Insects crunched underfoot with each step.
Each room had at least one hole in the drywall. Broken blinds hung crookedly from the windows. A dilapidated waterbed frame sat in the master bedroom. A partly disassembled washer and dryer lay on their sides in a second bedroom. In the bathroom, the bathtub was an old cast-iron monster. The cheap protective covering that had been used to protect the walls from water had long ago peeled away leaving behind a warped, water-stained mess. The toilet looked like it hadn’t been cleaned in years. The entire house smelled of dust and neglect.
Growing up, this was the only home on the street I’d never entered. The outside of the house was an eyesore. It was covered with brown and white siding that wouldn’t have looked good no matter what decade it came from. The box elder tree in front of the house was overgrown. Its branches reached for the power lines above like long slender fingers. The yard usually contained more weeds than grass. The occupants were always renters who never stayed more than a couple of months. Eventually the house was abandoned and taken over by the bank. Soon after a For Sale sign was put up and remained for years. I wondered if the realtor even remembered it was for sale.
The first time I entered the house was with Krista the previous summer. We were taking a walk one evening when Krista asked about the house as we passed. I told her about its history of renters and that it was in a deplorable condition. To prove it to her, I took her to one of the windows to take a look.
"Let’s find a way inside," Krista said after she had scanned the interior.
"We can’t just break into the house," I said, a little surprised at the suggestion.
"I just want to look around."
Krista tried the front door, then walked around the house attempting to open the windows. I looked around nervously as I followed her.
"The house is a dump. Why do you want to go inside?" I said.
"I think it has potential."
"Sure, if you have twenty thousand dollars to put into it."
"I think twenty thousand is a bit high. I think it could be fixed up nice for twelve or fifteen grand."
By this point, we’d reached the kitchen door. Krista turned the knob to no avail. She pushed the door, and it opened slightly. She pushed again. The door didn’t budge.
"It seems to be stuck," she said.
She threw her weight against the door, and it flew open. Krista shrieked as she fell onto the dusty, insect-riddled floor. I helped her to her feet and brushed the dust and off her clothes and picked dead bugs out of her blonde hair.
"Since we’re in, we might as well look around," Krista said, giggling.
As we walked through each room, Krista talked about what she’d do to fix it up, what color she’d paint the walls, and what each room would be used for. An office. An exercise room. A nursery. I kept my mouth shut, hoping that one walk-through would be enough to indulge her fantasy. It wasn’t. Every time we stopped by my parent’s home, Krista would take me through the abandoned house, telling me about the promise the house had. Even though I didn’t want to buy the house, I liked how Krista saw potential in old, broken things and wanted to make them new again.
The sound of someone opening the kitchen door brought me back to the present.
"Abel, are you here?" My dad’s voice echoed off the old, dirty walls.
I walked down the hall to the kitchen. My dad was still dressed in his Sunday shirt and tie. A few flakes of snow were stuck to his hair. He stood looking at the dilapidated kitchen as if the empty room might hold all the answers.
"I didn’t see you at home when we came back from church."
"I’m fine, Dad."
He wiped some dust off one of the cupboards.
"Are you still thinking about buying this place?"
"I don’t know."
"If you do decide to buy it, I’ll come over when I’m in town and help you fix it up."
"I know you will."
"When do you have to decide?"
"I think the whole family would like it if you bought it."
Neither one of us said anything for a long moment.
"Did you ever tell Krista you made an offer on this place?" he asked.
"I told her two days before she died. I thought she’d be excited about it. But she didn’t really seem to care."
"That doesn’t seem like her."
Silence enveloped the kitchen. I felt uncomfortable. I knew where the conversation was heading.
My dad’s voice sounded as downtrodden as the house. "I feel terrible that I never told Krista how much I loved her. I never told her how happy it made me that she was part of the family."
"Krista knew you loved her, Dad."
"I had so many opportunities and I never told her. . . ." my dad’s voice trailed off. He looked far away, lost in thought.
I tried to think of a way to change the subject. It was painful because it brought back memories of things I wished I would have done differently when Krista was alive.
"I should have been around more. All my work . . ." My dad didn’t continue the sentence. He looked around the kitchen absentmindedly and wiped some dust off one of the counters.
I shifted my weight from one leg to another. I didn’t want to talk about the past, Krista, or anything else I couldn’t change.
Sensing my unease, Dad finally said, "I’m going to head back to the house. You want to come?"
"Not yet. I want to be alone a little longer."
I listened to the sound of the snow crunching under Dad’s feet as he walked by the side of the house. When his footsteps faded away I leaned against a dusty wall and slid down to the floor. I didn’t bother clearing the bugs out of the way. I tilted my head back and closed my eyes.
I felt as if I should buy the house. The feeling was strong and reverberated through my entire body. I had been taught to recognize this feeling as a spiritual impression telling me whether or not to do something. In this case, I felt buying the house was the right thing to do. Despite the prompting, I didn’t want to buy it. It would take months to make the place livable. It would mean a one-hundred-mile round-trip commute to work every day. And I didn’t have the time or energy for either of those. It was Krista’s house. She was the one that liked it. As far as I was concerned, the house’s potential had died with Krista. I knew that if I bought it, my family and friends would think I was doing it because it was what Krista would have wanted. I saw no reason to do anything in her memory. What I wanted right then was to move far away from everything associated with her.
I looked at the six-inch hole in the far wall. "Why’d you do it, Krista?" I asked the empty room. "This place could have been yours." I slammed my fist on the carpet. Dead bugs scattered from the force of the blow.
I thought back to the morning Krista died — something I often did when I was alone. When I had returned from running errands, the first thing I noticed was Krista’s car was not in the driveway. I immediately called the apartment. Krista had answered on the first ring.
"What are you doing?" I said. "I thought we were spending the day at your grandmother’s."
"Unpacking," Krista said. "I’ll be back soon."
Her comment had struck me as odd. Since we had moved into the apartment a week earlier, Krista had had an aversion to staying there alone. She never told me why, but after I left for work in the morning, Krista would drive over to her grandmother’s and spend the day with her.
"I’ll help you unpack," I said. I pulled the keys from my pocket and started toward the door.
"I’ll be home in an hour."
There was something in Krista’s voice that wasn’t right. Again I told her I was on my way, but Krista strongly insisted that I stay. Finally I gave in.
"I’ll see you soon," I said.
"Tell me that you love me." Krista said.
"Tell me that you love me," she repeated.
"I love you," I said,
The line went dead.
When an hour had passed and she hadn’t arrived, I called the apartment again. Krista said she would leave momentarily. And like the previous conversation she ended it by saying, "Tell me that you love me."
The calls went back and forth every thirty minutes for another two hours. Each conversation would end with Krista asking me to tell her I loved her. Toward the end of our last conversation, our words become heated, and Krista insisted she was really leaving this time. But her voice had the same faraway quality it had all morning. I knew it was a lie. When thirty minutes passed, I called again. There was no answer. Even the answering machine didn’t click on. At the time my mind wasn’t focused on the answering machine. I thought Krista was actually on her way over. I turned on the TV and watched a movie. At the slightest noise outside, I looked toward the driveway hoping it was the sound of her car pulling in. Occasionally I walked to the kitchen window and looked down the road waiting to see her red car. But Krista never came. When I called again and no one answered, I drove to the apartment.
Thoughts of that morning always brought out a lot of guilt. I blamed myself and my inaction as a reason Krista may have died. Finally I grew tired and cold sitting on the floor. I stood wiping the dust and dead insects from my pants and coat.
"There is no way in hell I’m ever buying this house," I said loudly. My voice echoed off the bare walls. I slammed the kitchen door as I left.
But in the end I did buy the house. The gentle prodding I felt each time I thought about purchasing it convinced me this was something I needed to do. Four days before Christmas, the woman at the title company slid another form across the desk for me to sign. Each time, I told myself I was making a tragic mistake. Stand up, I thought. Tell the woman this is all a misunderstanding. This is a move based on feelings, not logic. Think of the commute and the wear on your car. Think of the work the house needs. Don’t do this.
Even so the woman continued to give me papers and I continued to sign. Thirty minutes after the flurry of paperwork started, the house was mine.
The woman stood up and shook my hand. "Congratulations on being a homeowner," she said.
"Thanks." I gave her a weak smile.
"I wasn’t given any keys for the property," she said.
"That’s all right," I said. "I know how to get in."
I drove home in a daze. When I arrived at the house, there were blue, yellow, and red balloons tied to the mailbox, and a sign that read "Congratulations, Abel!" was taped to the front window. My mom was standing outside with a camera, ready to take pictures of what, to her, was an exhilarating moment.
"Are you excited?" she said, her voice strained with her own enthusiasm.
"I’m a little overwhelmed right now," I said.
I stood for a couple of pictures anyway.
When Mom left, I walked through the house with a pen and a notebook making a list of supplies I needed to pick up at the hardware store. After paying off Hope’s hospital bills, I calculated what remained of Krista’s life insurance money and figured I’d have just enough to buy what was needed for all the repairs and hire out the work I would be unable to do myself. What I’d be left with was a house I didn’t want to buy in the first place.
My cell phone rang, and the caller ID displayed the name and number of a good friend, Brent, who lived in Phoenix. Since Krista’s death, I felt he was the only person who knew how to talk to me. Other than his initial sympathies, he talked about everything except Krista and Hope. Instead he told me what a fun city Phoenix was to visit and invited me to fly down to spend some time with him. He talked about the two years we lived in Bulgaria as missionaries for our church. He was fun to talk with. The few reasons I had to smile since that cold November afternoon were due to his kind words. This conversation wasn’t much different. After talking about the house I had just bought, Brent got right to the point.
"I really think you should come down to Phoenix," he said.
"I don’t know," I said, even though I wanted to jump at the invitation to get away from everything.
"Winter’s a great time to be in Arizona. The temperatures are perfect."
"I have a lot of work to do on the house."
"It doesn’t have to be immediately. I was thinking more about the first weekend after the New Year."
I told Brent I’d think about it.
The next day as I tore up the carpet from the bedrooms and removed the cabinets from the kitchen, I considered Brent’s offer. The more I thought about leaving Utah for a couple of days, the better it sounded. Later that night, after a long day of working on the house, I dialed Brent’s number. I wanted to make sure he was serious.