Many of you wrote to say Part 5 made you teary. Sorry about that. It’s why I decided I may as well hit ya’ll over the head with another one and get it over with. This part still makes me cry.
Mary and Mr. Jones made me visit places I’d not been to in years. While I could have been undone, I was proud of myself for facing the fear and feeling the pain and crying the tears, all while losing weight and working and doing all the other things I did in my normal life. Grief hadn’t won. Yet.
Just as I was about to walk on stage and thank the Academy for my awesome performance, Carlene got an email from David – the man who married us, buried Bruce, baptized Carlene and stood in the center of my loss.
“As I sit here at my computer, I have in front of me the bulletin from the funeral service for Bruce,” David wrote. “I often think of that week in the life of the Jasper community because it was filled with some of the most profound pain and sorrow I have ever witnessed. Your dad belonged to those people and his death was deeply felt by all who knew him…
“…Looking back, I also remember one of the greatest errors we made in those days was not letting your mother at least touch some portion of his body. It was not fair of us (the mortician and me) to not make it possible for this physical ending to happen. How difficult it must have been to have Bruce virtually disappear from her life…my deepest apologies for this mistake.”
When I learned Bruce’s tractor was hit by a freight train and David told me I couldn’t see his body, I imagined Bruce strewn in a million pieces along the tracks. Blood, body parts, his coveralls, boots, and hat all unrecognizable pieces of what had a been the person I woke up next to four hours earlier.
A week after the funeral, our local newspaper confirmed I was wrong. And they had photos all over the front page to prove it.
No one warned me there would be photos. I expected there would be an article about the accident, but I never thought there’d be photos of Bruce’s mangled tractor next to a line of coal cars, of people mulling about the scene like it was an Easter egg hung, or of glass and metal scattered all over the tracks and ditch. But one photo in particular hit me smack between the eyes: “The body of Bruce Bouwman can be seen in the center of the photograph alongside the tracks and covered with a tarp.”
What the…? I didn’t understand. For a second, I floated outside my body and looked at me looking at a photo of my husband’s bootless legs sticking out from under a tarp. Then I was riding on an asteroid plummeting through the earth’s atmosphere.
Think, Lynn, think. What’s going on? What is this?
I tried to make it make sense when a few seconds later, wham! I hit the ground, and from the crater rose up so much anger and despair I started to choke and hyperventilate. There is no sense of direction in hell.
“That’s my husband!” I screamed to no one, although Carlene was asleep in her crib in the next room.
Tears and snot ran into my mouth as I reached for the phone on the wall and dialed my parents’ phone number. Dad answered the phone.
“Daddy,” I bawled, “you promised me I’d never have to see his tractor! You promised me!”
“Lynnie?” he said. My voice was unrecognizable and he was obviously taken off guard. He begged me to calm down and tell him what happened. I paced the length of the phone cord and cried and listened to him saying calmly, “Shhhh, honey. Shhhhh. Shhhhh.”
Finally, I slumped to the floor and in fits and stops, told Dad about the photographs. While it was true he promised me that Bruce’s tractor was taken far away and that I’d never have to see it, he couldn’t have known there would be published photographs. My dad, who’d lost his father when he was 6 years old and felt tremendous personal sorrow for Carlene, was beside himself trying to comfort his daughter 200 miles away. As a parent, I can only imagine how he felt. My guess is he wanted to hurt someone. Really badly.
The only thing those photos did was assure me that Bruce had not been cut into a million pieces by a freight train, and that the body we buried in the ground was whole. I wondered why that mattered. Dead is dead. But because it mattered and I was left with so many questions about the accident, I sought the answers a few weeks later. I went to talk to David because I knew he’d tell me the truth. Even though he thought he was protecting me by not letting me see Bruce’s dead body, he knew I needed to know what happened and how.
I told him of my original fear about how Bruce died and he assured me that Bruce’s body was indeed intact and that he died of a severe head injury. Investigators surmised that the train hit the front wheels of Bruce’s cab tractor and that his body was thrown through the front window and into the ditch. The glass lacerated his brain and he was killed instantly. I still wonder if in the last seconds of his life, Bruce saw the train and if he was afraid and if he knew he was going to die. My heart aches for him if that is true.
David was on the ambulance crew that day, so he’d seen Bruce dead, and David’s trauma became my lasting nightmare. I developed what I call “Bruce dreams” shortly after our conversation and I’ve had them ever since. Experts say it’s because I never saw him dead. Never got the chance to say goodbye.
I wasn’t angry with David about his decision to not let me see Bruce. I knew he acted out of love and compassion all those years ago. Still I welcomed his apology because it validated what I’d felt for years – that I needed to see Bruce dead so I could have some closure. If I hadn’t been a 19-year-old bleeding, nursing new mother, I would have demanded it.
Reliving the hardest days in all of my life gave the 19-year-old me some satisfaction, but the present me was falling into a black hole. As Carlene’s project wore on, I became more aware of how the time separating Bruce and me had stolen the small details of our life. I remembered the painful things, but I couldn’t always recall the good.
Carlene’s project was under my skin and had become way more personal than I expected or wanted. By the time the final response came in late winter, I was off the DASH diet and on an antidepressant. I had too many feelings and not enough space in my head. I couldn’t stand the nights of crying and days of sleeping. I got stuck when I tried to break away from the memories and put them in perspective, all the while trying to nurture my real-life relationship. I still loved Bruce and I felt like I was betraying Larry by crying over a ghost.