The Call I Never Saw Coming

I have lived a pretty charmed life.  Not to say it’s been perfect but really, the stuff I complain about is mostly “first world problems.”   Yes, I lost my dad when I was 14 but beyond that I have had no “major” setbacks in life. No big bumps in the road.  I am happily married, have two great kids, loving extended family, many great friends, live in a beautiful house in the suburbs, and have a successful career.  Most people would probably say life was going pretty well for me, and I wouldn’t argue.  On March 11, 2016 I was given the shock of a lifetime.  My mom was killed by her husband of 26 years.  So many directions that story could go.  One story, in the Salt Lake City newspaper, focused on the ironic tragedy of a woman who had volunteered at a women’s abuse center for 25 years that was killed by her husband.  That wasn’t the real story to me though.  Perhaps the story is better gun control laws but that’s a can of worms I don’t want to tackle.  To me it comes down to mental health.  That’s really the bottom line. We, as family, as friends, as strangers, as a society, have got to find ways to help people with mental health issues and, most importantly, never ignore any warning signs of anybody in your life because stuff really does happen!

Trigger warning – this blog post contains references to both murder and suicide which may be upsetting to some people. 

That phone call….  the one I will never forget. A bad phone call to top all bad phone calls. “I am so sorry to have to be the one to tell you this, but….” We have all have received bad news at some point in our lives. A loved one was in a serious car crash, a loved one was very sick, maybe even a loved one died. However, to be told by a police officer that your mother had apparently been murdered by her husband of 25+ years – your step-dad who you really liked – and that he had killed himself too, really goes down as a life altering phone call.

The day had started out great. It was Friday, March 11, 2016. I was in Las Vegas with some buddies. The night before, we’d gone to some Pac-12 conference tournament basketball games. I woke up to a beautiful morning, unseasonably warm for March, and went for a nice walk with my buddy, Dan. We had a marginal, overly greasy breakfast but, while exiting the casino, Dan threw a few bucks in the slots and won $185. The day was looking up. We had plans to sit by the pool, drink a few beers, tell a few stories, then go watch more basketball at night. Life was good!

John's mom in front of a tractor wearing a teal top, blue shorts and a print blouse, unbuttoned. She has blond hair cropped above her shouldersSomeone from my office called to say that a police officer in Logan, Utah was looking for me and that I should call him. I imagined he’d found me online. As my mom had lived in Logan the last 30 years, I figured it was about her, but I certainly didn’t think anything as bad as what it turned out to be. The officer was very nice. He told me that my mom and her husband could not be reached and asked if I knew where they were. He explained that a letter my step-dad, Dell, had sent to the local newspaper had caused them to look into their wellbeing.

I later learned the officer had downplayed the seriousness of the letter but I suppose there was no reason to alarm me. He explained they just wanted to do a welfare check, didn’t see anybody in the house from the windows, and hadn’t been able to reach them by phone. I was sure they had just gone out of town for a couple days as they were known to do. They often drove to Salt Lake to see a show, stay the night at Little America Hotel, stock up on way too much food and stuff they didn’t need at Costco, then head home. Maybe they had driven up toward Idaho or over toward Wyoming to look at antique tractors and old farm buildings. They often drove around the Rocky Mountain states, racking up Best Western points, so I really didn’t think much of it. I gave the officer the name of a much loved granddaughter, Chelsie, who had a key to the house.

Dan and I returned to Bally’s, unsure of what to do. So we sat in the bar and watched basketball while we waited for the police officer to call back.  I do not normally drink at 10:30 am but it seemed like the right thing to do so we had a drink. As the time marched on, my other friends, Pete and Forbes, arrived back from some morning gambling.  We sat around the bar talking. I told them about the phone call and expressed that I was mildly concerned. I was not that interested in the games on the TV, but my friends tried to help me take my mind off the worry.  We chatted about good plays, bad plays, and talked March Madness in general. By far my favorite time on the sports calendar!

I also contacted my wife, Kathleen, as I was starting to worry. Kathleen loved my mom, and my mom loved her so much. I do not know of a mother-in-law/daughter-in-law who had a better relationship than they did. I hated to tell her as I didn’t want her to worry, but I needed to talk to her. So now, she was worrying back in Sacramento, and I was worrying in Las Vegas.

My step dad had always been a bit obsessive about two things: 1) the Mormon Church and 2) the Republican party. He was raised a Mormon, and I assume he used to be a Republican. I never thought much of it other than I occasionally suggested they move out of Utah as two things Utah has a lot of are Mormons and Republicans. I personally have no problems with either group but Dell certainly did. As he got older, he’d become mildly paranoid. He took anti-depressants, I believe, but he was not receiving ongoing medical care. Dell was a great guy, always making friends with strangers, friendly at social gatherings, full of interesting stories and lessons. He traveled the world with my mom and cared for my kids as if they were his own grandkids. When he rambled on about the church or Republicans, I tuned him out as the paranoia was such a small part of him.

As time ticked on, I started to get more and more nervous. Why hadn’t Chelsie or the police officer called to tell me something? Finally, I saw a 435 phone number come up on my phone. The area code for Northern Utah.

It was the officer from an hour earlier.  He was friendly, but didn’t beat around the bush.  In that familiar Utah accent, he said something like “I am so sorry to be the one to tell you this, but they are in the home… they are laying in bed… and they are both dead.”  I dropped to my knees on the floor in the Bally’s hotel lobby bar.  I recall a security guard coming over to make sure I was ok. My friends were around me, and they talked to the guard. Chelsie, who was outside the house, called Kathleen to relay the horrible news to her. A moment later, Kathleen and I spoke on the phone and started making plans.

I have learned over the years that everybody is hardwired differently in the way they deal with death. I learned this from my mom as I watched how she dealt with my dad’s death when I was 14 and he was 41. My father had a congenital heart defect so his death was not as shocking as my mom’s. Some people retreat into a protective shell, and some people busy their mind doing stuff. I am the do stuff person. Not to say it’s the right way or the best way, it’s just how I dealt with this situation.

I also tried, for my friends’ sake, to lighten the moment. The week before, Pete, who owns hearing aid stores, had sent my mom a new pair to try out for a week or two and then return if they didn’t work for her. At the worst moment of my life, the only semi-funny think I could think of was to tell Pete I would be sending those hearing aids back!

John's mom with a white poodle mix. She is sitting with her purse on her lab wearing a print shirt and a blue ¾ length sleeve jacket. She has blond hair and is wearing glassesI remember Forbes buying me another drink and rubbing my shoulders, telling me they were there to help however they could. Everybody was on their phones, checking flight schedules, trying to figure out the quickest way to get to Utah from Las Vegas and also how to get Kathleen and the kids to Utah from Sacramento. They were checking different airlines schedules, how long the drives would be, etc. Sadly, even in that moment of craziness, I wanted to make sure I got frequent flyer miles. What’s wrong with my mind that it can think of frequent flyer miles at a moment like that!? We determined driving would be best, and without delay, Dan went off to find the closest rental car office. It was decided that Dan would drive me to Utah, an eight hour drive, if I recall. Someone got my suitcase and checked us out of the hotel. I told Forbes and Pete to have a good time. With that, Dan and I raced across the street to rent a car at the Westin and begin the drive.

Kathleen picked the kids up from school and headed toward the Sacramento airport. We decided to have them fly to Salt Lake and pick them up there. Side note, people do the nicest things. When Kat and the kids were changing planes, they had a tight connection, so the flight attendant asked everyone to let a grieving family deplane first, and the other passengers honored that request by remaining seated. As they got off the plane, a flight attendant handed Kathleen about $50 that some passengers wanted to contribute to help.

If my rambling thoughts have no other value, please TAKE MENTAL ILLNESS SERIOUSLY. The situation might be a lot more serious than you realize, and once it’s too late, it’s too late!  That’s what happened here. I didn’t understand that there’s actually a fine line between paranoia and murder/suicide. Please do not fall victim to this in your life.  Take mental illness seriously for yourself and for your loved ones!

P.S. I do want to circle back to Dan’s winnings that fateful morning. We are not big gamblers so $185 is a lot to us. The issue of how much he won that morning has come up in conversation since. I thought it was $80, and he thought it was $180. I was cleaning out the photos on my phone recently and found that photo. The last photo before my life changed forever. It was $185. That picture still makes me smile as I sent it to Dan to remind him of the “big” win. Life goes on, and though March 11th is the worst day of  my life by far, I can get a small smile thinking about something trivial like the $185.75 Dan won that morning!

John's friend Dan holding his winnings check for $185. He has a beard and mustache and is wearing a baseball cap, holding the check against his chest with his right hand.

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