The Awakening; Tragedy as a Wake-Up Call
“Your soul knows the geography of your destiny.”
– John O’Donohue, Anam Cara; A Book of Celtic Wisdom
On the afternoon of Thursday September 28th, 2000, my husband, a police officer, and I had yet another argument about my procrastination as a writer. We were at the dog park when I confessed, again, to John my fear of waking up twenty years later and still not having finished writing a book.
To which he’d turned to me and said, “You’re probably right about that, Maryanne…just as long as you know that will have been your choice.”
My mouth dropped open in surprise at his candour. How rude! And then the oddest thing happened. John broke into a big smile and started laughing.
“Geez,” he said, “I can be a real jerk, eh?”
I nodded. “I’ll say.”
And that was that. Then we went home and John had a nap before leaving for work. His shift started at 9pm.
When my alarm clock went off the next morning, I reached over and pushed the snooze button – despite having made a promise to myself that I would wake up early and do some writing before going in to work. I don’t want to wake up. I don’t feel like writing. I don’t want to go back to my job either. Why do I have to type police reports for a living?
Ten minutes later, the alarm went off again. I pushed snooze. I don’t want to wake up. I can’t write today. Ten minutes later, the alarm went off; snooze was hit. I am SO anxious! I hate my job. I don’t want to go back there.
And nor would I. For during that exact same timeframe, John was lying on the lunchroom floor of a warehouse, dying of brain injuries. He had been searching the building for a break and enter suspect when he stepped through an unmarked false ceiling and fell nine feet into the lunchroom below. There had been no safety railing in place to warn him of the danger. The call turned out to be a false alarm; there was no intruder in the building. My wake-up call, however, was devastatingly real.
Alas, I was awakened: a thirty-two year old widow entitled to receive her husband’s paycheque for the rest of her life. As a writer, this was a dream come true. It was also a nightmare from which I could not awake. Death took my soul-mate; life got my attention. And in that heightened state of awareness and vulnerability that the shock and grief of a traumatic incident can bring, I was – at first – able to recognize the pebble-sized blessings surrounding the boulder-sized tragedy.
John had gone into the warehouse with Darren, the K-9 officer, and his dog, Gino. The K-9 unit cleared the ground level while John climbed a wooden ladder to search the mezzanine; a perfect place for a suspect to hide. Though it was dark, out of the corner of his eye Darren saw John fall through the ceiling. Darren raced into the lunchroom and immediately began CPR.
Getting John breathing again meant that although he would be declared brain-dead within hours, his body was kept on life support for the purpose of organ donation. John donated his heart, kidneys and pancreatic islets. Darren’s actions also meant that I had a living husband – albeit a brain-dead one – to say goodbye to versus a corpse.
And so it came to be that I spent September 29th, 2000 holding John’s hand and comforting him as best I could as he passed between life and death. And let me tell you, I did an awful lot of thinking, crying and talking that day – even though it was a very one-sided conversation that took place…as a hundred other people said their good-byes.
That heightened state of awareness I was experiencing also enabled me to perceive possible connections between seemingly unrelated events. Depending on one’s beliefs, this can either be attributed to the mind doing what it has to do as it struggles to accept the unacceptable – or it can be perceived as a spiritual experience.
At any rate, when I was at the cemetery with Rick – John’s Sergeant, close friend and the family liaison officer assigned by the police service – several days later, I had such an experience while choosing John’s burial plot. I wanted a spot he’d be OK with…I mean, once his soul had, hopefully, come to peace with the fact that he’d died as the result of a preventable fall while trying to protect a premise that did not need protecting.
I found the plot I thought most suitable and then turned my head to the right. And there, a few graves over, was a yellow Winnie the Pooh carved into a young girl’s headstone. Suddenly, I wasn’t in a graveyard anymore. I was back at Disneyland with John.
Exactly one week before his fall, the two of us had spent a magical day together at the Happiest Place on Earth – at least, up until an older lady wearing a yellow Winnie the Pooh jacket tripped and fell in front of him, the back of her head hitting the ground with a thud. A police officer to the core, John had immediately knelt down to assist her while I ran off into the crowd calling for help. When I returned, he was holding her hand, comforting her while waiting for the ambulance to arrive.
I opened my eyes. “Yeah?”
“Are you okay?” Rick asked.
I nodded. “Yeah.”
Then I turned and looked again at the headstone with the Winnie the Pooh carving. I stamped my feet a few times on the ground.
“This is it,” I said. “This is John’s new home.”
Two weeks later, I woke up early one morning and started writing what would become my first book, A Widow’s Awakening. For if nothing else, I had learned that the promises we make to ourselves are the most important ones to keep.
Three horrific months passed and despite the kindness and compassion of the people around me and a determination to continue to try and see the blessings and connections amid the tragedy, the days of grief just got darker and darker – outside and in. Finally, at the end of January, suicide suddenly presented itself as an option.
The scary thing was: I didn’t even see it coming. One day, I was just my usual sad, depressed, lonely, angry, exhausted, confused and terrified self pretending to be okay – and then the next thing I knew, the idea of taking my own life popped into my head as a viable solution to the problem my life had become.
And what was even more frightening than contemplating suicide was the fact that I had already passed the point of wanting help. I just wanted to be out of the pain. The people around me, however, knew damn well I was anything but okay – and as I sat there, considered taking the Tylenol 3’s, leftover from John’s broken ankle, the phone wouldn’t stop ringing. And then I heard a familiar male voice on the answering machine.
“Maryanne,” said the voice, “I know you’re there. Please pick up.”
I answered the phone. It was Rick.
Kind Rick. Compassionate Rick. Divorced Rick.
And in that moment, I made the most important decision I would ever make. I chose life over death. And although I felt incredibly guilty for betraying John by having romantic feelings for another guy – who was not only a cop but also a friend; double taboo – I grabbed onto that tiny thread of hope and held on with all my heart as it pulled me through the night.
The next morning, I made a new promise to myself: come what may in life, I would never let myself get that close to the edge again.
And so, eight more months of grief – and obsessive writing about grief – passed and when the World Trade Centre collapsed in September 2001, I watched it happen on TV.
Out for a walk at the dog park later in the day, I remarked to a stranger: “That was unbelievable.”
“Well,” she replied, with a shrug, “it’ll sure change air travel.”
I stared at her, dumbfounded. That’s what she would take from the tragedy? What about asking how it was possible that thousands of people could go into a building to do their job, yet end up vanishing in a smoldering pile of rubble?
Three weeks later, I found myself in New York, standing at Ground Zero. As I stared at said pile of still-smoldering rubble, I asked myself a personal version of that same question. How was it possible that a great guy could go into a building to search for an intruder who didn’t exist, and end up falling to his death because the company hadn’t bothered to comply with basic safety standards?
So I walked a little further and stopped in front of one of dozens of flower-laden tributes to fallen police officers, firefighters and other emergency workers who’d given their lives by going into the burning buildings. And it occurred to me that there is something worse than ignorance: running away. I began to suspect that the only way John’s soul could be at peace with his death was for me, his soul-mate, to find out the truth about what went wrong that night – and then take constructive action to try and ensure it didn’t happen again to someone else.
Thankfully I wouldn’t have to do it alone. When I returned home to Canada, I started working with recruit classmates of John’s who had set up the John Petropoulos Memorial Fund (JPMF) by selling pins with John’s regimental number on them. We decided to tackle the issue that had led to John’s death – an unsafe workplace – by raising public awareness about how and why people need to make their workplaces safe for everyone, including emergency responders who may have to attend.
More than thirteen years have now passed since John’s death and the JPMF is a registered charity whose five public service announcements have aired over a million times on TV. Our 10-minute safety video, Put Yourself in Our Boots, is being shown in safety meetings, schools and conferences throughout North America. We also have a Safety Presentation Program whereby our professional speakers deliver our workplace safety messages to Alberta organizations.
As for me, well, I became a writer all right. It took me 8 years to get the A Widow’s Awakening manuscript where it needed to be – but I did it. I now also write blogs, play scripts and screenplays. I love my life…but it has been a heck of a lot of work – inside and out – to get from the hell known as grief and depression to heaven on earth, otherwise known as a happy heart and healthy mind 🙂
Maryanne Pope is the author of A Widow’s Awakening and the playwright of Saviour. Maryanne is the Board Chair of the John Petropoulos Memorial Fund and the Founder & CEO of Pink Gazelle Productions Inc. If you would like to receive Maryanne’s e-zine, The Watering Hole, please sign up here.