I don’t talk about it, not often. The words, like a rocky lump, seem to get stuck somewhere in my throat. The number of people in my daily life who know how Brandon died is much, much smaller than the number of the ones who have no idea. In the first few weeks after his death, everyone asked how. I suppose it’s a normal human curiosity to ask when you hear that a healthy 25 year old man was alive and well yesterday and dead today. I didn’t have any answers to give that early on, so the most I did was shrug and say I don’t know. At the time, I really didn’t. It took me weeks to even fully remember the events of that night, and it was going to be another 8 months before the police said anything about it. Most people just took my shrugs and never dared to ask the question again, I imagine because the idea of death just makes people insanely uncomfortable, and no one really had a good reason to ask twice.
Brandon’s death was ruled as a suicide. God, it hurts to even type that sentence, much less vocalize it. To this day, years later, that is still the sentence I use in the rare occasions when I do talk about it. I can’t say, “He committed suicide.” I just can’t. Those words, in that order, get stuck in my throat and I swallow them back. Saying that his death was ruled as a suicide is safe; it’s a fact. These are the words the detective investigating his death used; he was very factual and clinical about it. Saying it as a fact does not imply that I believe it. And I think, deep down, that is at the root of my inability to say that he committed suicide. I still don’t 100% believe it…all these years later and I still don’t believe it, not fully, not enough to vocalize that sentence. How irrational and insane is that? Will I ever truly believe it?
It’s funny to realize that the worst day of your life starts like a normal, boring, ordinary day. You wake up in the morning, the sun is shining, your routine is uninterrupted, and everything is so completely average. In movies you see ominous clouds lurking in the distance, you hear an angry roar of thunder, you notice that SOMETHING is off. But real life is not like the movies. There are no hints, no clues that today is going to be the worst day of your life. One minute it’s just an ordinary day and then the next minute your entire world breaks. That’s just how it happens. That is exactly how March 1, 2013 started for me…just another day. It was Friday and the end of the work week. I remember being excited that I just had to get through work and then we’d have the weekend to do whatever it was we wanted. So I went to work, did my job, laughed with coworkers, and called Brandon on the walk to the car at the end of the day, like I did every day before that. We chatted about how busy he’s been through the day, all the yard work he did, all the landscaping he changed around the house because the yard had too many little bushes and he hated mowing the lawn around them, so he decided he had enough and tore all of them up. When I pulled into the driveway at home, he came out to greet me with one of his big hugs, like he always did. Brandon then pulled me by the hand, his eyes full of excitement, and walked me around the house, talking about how he picked out the new carpet and what did I think about painting the bedroom purple, since it would go well with the dark brown carpet? We were in the process of moving in and renovating…it was clear he spent some time thinking about the changes he wanted to make to the house while I was at work. I had dinner plans with my dad in less than an hour so I rushed off to get out of my scrubs and into normal clothes. Brandon asked if I wanted to grab dinner with him, if I wanted to reschedule, but I said that I couldn’t change plans with my dad so last minute, that we’d grab dinner together tomorrow, and rushed out of the house, saying, “I love you” while giving him a hug.
I didn’t know that was going to be the last time I ever saw my husband alive.
To this day, I hate myself, deeply hate myself for not rescheduling my plans…for not even inviting him to come to dinner with me. They say hindsight is a bitch, and this, my friends, is that moment that I will look back on for the rest of my life and wonder why the hell I didn’t make a different choice, because if I had, then the outcome of the night would have been completely different. But as my numerous therapist said over the years, I didn’t know then what I know now, and I couldn’t have possibly foreseen events as they happened. The rational part of me, the sane part, knows that’s the truth…I couldn’t have done anything differently, because I just didn’t know. I didn’t know that day was not going to be another ordinary day. What I’ve learned though, is that just because you know something is true, that does so very little to stop the guilt from suffocating you.
So I went and had dinner with my dad, like we have done hundreds of times before. I drove home, like I have done hundreds of times before. When I pulled into the garage and got out, Brandon didn’t come out to greet me like he usually would, but I figured he must have fallen asleep at his computer. So I went to his office to say hi, like I always do. I saw that he was slouching in his computer chair, as if he’d fallen asleep. I’ve found him asleep like that many times, so I didn’t think anything was wrong. As I got closer, I noticed he had one of his guns in his lap; again, he’s always cleaning and taking them apart, so I didn’t think anything of it, I took it and put it on the table. I touched his shoulder to try and wake him up, he didn’t respond (that didn’t alarm me because he often falls into deep sleep and it’s very hard to wake him sometimes), but his head moved. That’s when I saw there was a string of blood hanging from his right nostril (it occurs to me now that the blood had already clotted, that’s why it was in a string). I became a little alarmed, tried to wake him up again, and wiped the blood from his nose with a paper towel. When I did that, his head changed position again and that is when I saw that his neck had a big blue-purple bruise on it, right over the Adam’s apple. Looking closer, I saw that there was a big cut there. At this point, I think I was in shock. I don’t remember much after that, except my first instinct was to try to wake him up again, I think I may have yelled his name. With shaky hands I managed to dial 911.
The operator answered after what seems like now too many rings, but maybe time was moving strangely for me at that point. He asked me basic information, and I told him (I was shaking and pretty broken up at this point, so he had to ask me to repeat myself frequently). He said he would send paramedics and police my way, and that I should stay on the line with him until their arrival. He asked me if Brandon was breathing…I honestly could not tell; I saw his bloody nose, bloody bruised neck, his eyes were partially open and rolled back, his mouth a little open. I could not tell or feel if he was breathing. The operator told me to get Brandon down on the floor; I tried, but couldn’t move him. He told me no matter what, no matter if he falls kind of hard, get him to the floor because that might help him breathe. I had to put the phone down and somehow managed to get Brandon out of the chair and laid him down on the floor. His head made a thud noise as it hit the floor. The operator asked me if he was breathing again…I put my ear up to his nose and honestly could not tell. He told me to leave Brandon and go open the front door. I hesitated, but he insisted I go do that immediately. I did. He then instructed me to do chest compression until the ambulance arrived. I think I started to cry at this point, because the operator made me count with him. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6….we got to 60 three or four times, maybe more. I kept asking him where were the paramedics? When were they going to come? The operator told me they were close, then when they turned in the neighborhood. During this time I kept doing chest compression. Blood started to come out of Brandon’s mouth. I think I whimpered and begged the operator to send them faster…he said they were pulling up into our street. I started to hear big engines outside, people talking.
I heard knocking on the door, I yelled for them to come in. Three police officers came in. The 911 operator told me to talk to them now. I didn’t see any paramedics; I asked where they were. The police said they were coming. One of them took me outside; as I was walking out of the door I saw I had blood on my white sweater. The paramedics finally came into the house, but the cop wouldn’t let me move from the front yard. He started to ask me what happened, I told him what I’ve written here…in the frantic pieces that my mind could remember. He asked me for my information, name, date of birth, height, weight, social security number. He asked the same about Brandon. I answered him, but the entire time I kept looking at the front door; I didn’t see enough movement there and that terrified me. The officer asked if I could call someone to come be with me and I called Brandon’s dad. The first time the call didn’t connect, so I had to try again. His dad answered, I told him that something happened to Brandon, that police were here…he said he’d be right over. At this point I sagged down to the grass; I couldn’t stand anymore. The police officer stayed by me for a while, then walked away to talk to someone. His dad came, asked what happened. I don’t remember if I told him or the police officer. I saw the two paramedics exit the house now…they were wheeling away their gurney, but it was empty. I kept repeating, they aren’t doing enough, they aren’t doing enough, they aren’t doing enough…why aren’t they doing anything? We were told to go sit in his dad’s truck.
From the truck, I could see there were police officers inside the house, but the paramedics were outside, heading towards their ambulance. I kept asking why they were leaving. Deep down I knew it was because there was nothing they could do…but that thought paralyzed me, so I kept asking what they were doing, what was happening, where they were going. I don’t know how long we sat there, it seems like hours, but I saw a news van pull up, start to get their camera out and set up a tripod facing our house. I desperately wanted to know what was going on, why they were here. I think it was then that I noticed that at some point, the ambulance had left. I didn’t even notice when it happened, I kept staring at the front door. I remember I was very shaky, my right leg wouldn’t stop tapping on the floor board of the truck, my hands shook, I was very cold. I saw a police officer start to wrap the perimeter of the house with yellow crime scene tape. One of them came over and said that this was nothing to worry about, it was routine in these situations. I kept telling Brandon’s dad that this all meant Brandon wasn’t okay. I kept repeating that, over and over, trying desperately to understand. At some point, it seemed like hours later, a police officer, I think he introduced himself as the sheriff, came over to my side of the window, asked me if I was the wife. He then said that he was very sorry we had to meet under these circumstances. He said that he was sorry, but Brandon was no longer with us. I think I started to hyperventilate at that point, I couldn’t breathe. It was so hard to breathe. He said that he knows this neighborhood, because his ex-wife used to live in the house right across the street. He said he was sorry again, and that a person from the Victim Advocate unit was going to come by and talk to us. I couldn’t breathe.
I think a short while later, I really went into shock. I no longer felt anything, I stopped shaking. All I could do is sit there and stare at one of the palms in the front yard. When I wasn’t looking there, I was looking at the front door that was ajar…there were people in there now taking pictures and walking around everywhere. I could see a part of Brandon’s foot as he was lying on the floor. I kept staring at it, waiting for him to get up off the floor. A blonde lady with bangs came by to my side of the door, introduced herself as someone from the Victim Advocate unit. I didn’t hear her name. Started to try and make small talk, ask us how we were, etc. She kept saying that she was sorry to meet us under these circumstances (oh how tired I was of hearing those words at this point). I don’t remember how long that lasted; I kept staring at the palm and Brandon’s foot.
I don’t really remember much of the conversation that took place with her; I remember asking her how people survived this. She said one day at a time, and if that gets too hard, one moment at a time. I was numb. I couldn’t feel anything. At this point I was glad, because I was terrified of what I was going to feel once the fog lifted. So I sat there, staring. I remember she said, “I’m really worried about you, Valerie” and wrote her personal cell phone number down on a business card, telling me to please call her if I ever needed to talk. It was here that I read her name. She had my name. I’ve never known anyone with my name, and here she is, on the worst night ever. I think when I read her name I laughed like a crazy person and told her that we had the same name.
I don’t know why she was worried…did she expect me to scream and cry? Was she worried about the calm way I sat there, staring at the house? Maybe. And maybe I should have screamed and cried, maybe that’s the better response to something like this. But I couldn’t feel anything, I didn’t have a single thought in my head…I just sat there and stared ahead.
This went on for over an hour. I remember now that the ambulance and police got to the house at about 10:00pm. No one left until almost 2am. At some point I called my Mom. All I remember is I told her Brandon was dead, and she kept asking me questions. She started to cry at some point.
There came a time when the medical examiner, police officers, etc. were all done taking their pictures, standing around, discussing things. Even the news van packed up the tripod and left at some point. I noticed a white van parked by the driveway. It was then that I saw two people wheeling a gurney with a black body bag outside towards the van. That was a second time that night I couldn’t breathe. It was here when tears started to form in my eyes, and I had to breathe rapidly and deeply, otherwise I think I would have passed out. I kept staring at those two people wheeling away a black bag. I knew inside of that black bag was my husband, my best friend, my soul mate. And still all I was able to do was hyperventilate. They finally shut the doors of the van and drove away. I think a part of me died.
At some point after that, the medical examiner and someone else walked up, talked to us. They said that their department didn’t clean up anything, and they didn’t want us to be surprised, because apparently there’s still some blood on the floor. I couldn’t say anything to that. All I could think about was my sweet Brandon, I started to remember parts of our life. I asked him to explain the cut on Brandon’s throat. It kept flashing in my head, the way I found him, the injuries. That damn cut on the throat made no sense to me. I couldn’t think of a scenario where it would. So I asked the medical examiner. All he could say was that we had to wait until the autopsy on Monday, at which point I would have to come and sign a release form so Brandon can be transported to a funeral home. He told us we should start making arrangements. During this conversation, I had two more business cards shoved at me, each telling me to call if I had any questions or wanted to talk. Another lady said that there’s a receipt on Brandon’s desk of everything they took into evidence.
Finally, everyone left. I called my mom back, we talked for a few minutes, we both started to cry. She kept saying how she doesn’t understand this. I didn’t either. Things like this happen in TV shows, in books, in the news…they don’t happen to us. They are not supposed to happen to us. That’s what I kept thinking. I was so exhausted, both mentally and physically, so when Mom and I hung up, I crawled into bed. I think I must have passed out instantly, because the next thing I remember is waking up at 4am. When I woke up all of this started to run through my mind again and I cried. I fell asleep again at some point, and sleep was welcome. In sleep I didn’t think or dream about this, it was blank. As soon as I woke up again around 6am, more tears came. I so desperately hoped that when I woke up this would all be a nightmare.
So that was March 1, 2013…the worst day of my life. The ordinary day that turned into something dark and horrible. Strangely enough, it wasn’t until two weeks later that I even remembered there was a gun in Brandon’s hand when I found him that night. I didn’t remember right away having to peel his fingers off the grip, either, since he was still holding it pretty tightly. The mind does what it can to protect itself. It would be 8 months before I heard a final ruling on the cause of death. It was terrible waiting all that time to hear something, even if I had already started to suspect what it was. My memory let me remember more and more from that night, and if I’m being honest, the pieces fit in a very particular pattern – the pattern of suicide. It’s one thing to suspect something and another to have it be confirmed, you know? About a year after, I decided I wanted to read the police report from that night, so I requested it. A very nice lady emailed me a copy very quickly. You know what it said? The police called it a suicide that very night. I remember being so angry that they made me wait 8 months to hear the result of their investigation. They knew what they were going to call it that night. I think they couldn’t say anything, not until all their test results came back though. I say this because I got a call from the medical examiner about the results of Brandon’s blood alcohol level and then a few days later the detective called me to say they were done.
I’m uncomfortable with the idea of putting all this out in the open. It feels very vulnerable. So many people don’t know what really happened, and now there’s a chance they will, should they ever stumble into my blog. But you know what? I think my discomfort stems from how society deals with widows, much less suicide widows. Suicide has such a heavy stigma attached to it. People immediately judge, jump to conclusions, or pretty much just condemn your loved one for it. Few people understand suicide. I won’t pretend that I understand it, I don’t. I just know my own thoughts on my personal experience with it. I hate how uncomfortable I feel talking about it. I hate that it’s been over 4 years and most people still don’t know what happened that night. I hate that I’ve been scared to share it. Brandon was a wonderful, kind, smart man who was so selfless and giving. I’ll be damned if I let his life be defined by how he died. He is not defined by his cause of death. I so desperately hate the stigma suicide has attached to it…so I’m going to talk about my experiences, openly and honestly, and I’m not going to be silenced by the stigma, not anymore.