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When You Know for Certain

One of the most startling things to deal with in the aftermath of trauma is how quickly the rest of the world moves on.
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Excerpted from All the Things We Never Knew: Chasing the Chaos of Mental Illness by Sheila Hamilton, published by Seal Press, members of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2015.

The police search-and-rescue squad had gone back to the mountain several times after its initial search and covered hundreds more miles with Boy Scouts and dogs. Now, the snow was coming, and the department's search budget was dry. Maybe they could search again come spring. David's sisters left the house one by one. Jill had passed her nursing exam and would begin working soon. Adele needed to return home to deal with her own divorce and her patients. My sister and mother flew home, promising they'd check in on us.

One of the most startling things to deal with in the aftermath of trauma is how quickly the rest of the world moves on. The tow-truck driver needed to be paid. The bank called due David's home equity line of credit. My cellphone stopped working due to an unpaid bill. I was in the worst kind of limbo, one in which David had simply vanished, leaving me to tie up a million of his loose ends.

I was struck during this in-between time how Sophie instinctively wanted to re-engage with the people and activities that were present. She refused to be stuck in limbo, moving, as my therapist pointed out, like a tree in a windstorm. This was our big storm together, and the only thing that could soften the pain and the process for her was love and a return to the familiar.

I went back to work, desperate for something I knew. Back in my office, I pulled out a legal pad from my file and made a crude list of my priorities. It read:

1. Sophie's emotional well-being (therapist?).

2. Buy a phone card.

3. Go to DMV--David's car.

4. Hire an accountant.

5. Call mortgage company.

6. Call utilities.

7. Meet with investment advisor.

By the time I was finished, I had thirty items that needed to be taken care of immediately. I got started.

Snow fell hard and heavy in November. From time to time, I would talk to the officer from Clackamas County who'd run the search for David, and she'd give me an update. "More than a foot of snow in the gorge," she'd say, then two feet, and then three. Normally Portland doesn't get much snow; it was one of the heaviest winters we'd had in decades. One evening, I awoke from a night terror, my heart beating wildly and sweat covering my body. I'd dreamed of David, lost in the wilderness, barefoot, looking for his Columbia jacket. My pillow was drenched with tears. I knew then that we would find his body.

It was supposed to snow the day I told Sophie I would prepare her favorite meal of crab cakes and risotto for her and our friends, the Wilsons. We planned the meal at Colin's house since I hadn't even begun to decorate for Christmas. Sophie helped smash the crab and mush the cornmeal; we stirred rice and assembled crackers and cheese on big plates. There was snow falling quietly outside, and it was starting to stick. After dinner, we made a huge fire in Colin's living room. Sophie snuggled next to me on the couch. Maddie sat on the other side of the room with her parents, and her sister Jemma was lounging on a long, elegant chaise. Colin, who'd been washing dishes, stepped into the room, the color drained from his face.

"What is it?" I said. "What's happened?"

Colin motioned me to come to the phone. "Take this," he said. "It's important." When we were out of Sophie's earshot, Colin put the phone to his chest and held me tight. "They've found him."

I felt my body collapse against Colin's, the weight of the months falling in on me. He held my arm as I stumbled to his study. No, not now, I thought. Sophie is so happy tonight.

I raised the phone, and a man spoke. "Ms. Hamilton?" the voice said.

"Yes?" I whispered.

"We had a volunteer search team up on the mountain tonight. Seems like we've been over that place a hundred times."

I was half-hearing the words. The voice seemed distant, distorted, too slow, like a tape played at a quarter speed. It felt like it was pulling me down into quicksand.

"We started back at the house and did a grid search again," the voice said. "And, uh. Well, this is very hard to tell you, Ms. Hamilton, but we found David."

My fingers loosened around the phone. I was going to drop it, drop to my knees. I held on, forcing myself to listen, forcing the reality I'd known for so many weeks to crash down on me.

"I'm very sorry."

"Where was he?" I didn't know how I formed words. A tremor ran through my body. My legs and arms began to shake. Colin's study was the old Episcopal church office--cold tile and a high ceiling. The windows were frosted. I could feel my body freezing from the inside. Colin stood by me, rubbing my back. The blood stopped pumping to my extremities. My fingers felt white, frostbitten.

The voice continued. "He was about five hundred yards north of the house, ma'am, in a heavily wooded area. I don't know how we missed it before. One of my officers said he swore he'd walked through that exact spot a dozen times. But there he was, all right. Sitting right up against a tree, with his legs crossed."

I wanted to stop him, to say, please slow down, it's too much all at once. But this was his trauma too, now, a total stranger and I now bound by a senseless death. I thought I was ready for this call, that six weeks had prepared me for the inevitable. I was not.

"And can I tell you something?" the officer said. "I've come across a lot of suicides in this territory. For some reason, this is a place people come to when they want it over. But this was different. He looked so calm. Peaceful. Really, I am not just saying that, ma'am. He looked like he was at peace. He was looking out at a valley, and he looked like he'd sat there for a long time before he pulled the trigger."

My fingers went limp around the phone; the will that had held me up during the conversation was gone. I could not hear anymore. I could not manage the details of how he'd committed suicide, or why the dogs missed a man's frozen body five hundred yards from where the search started. I could not ask him all the questions that the reporter in me would have asked: What was the caliber of the gun? Was his body decomposed? Was there any sign of foul play?

I whispered, "Thank you." I shoved the phone into Colin's hand. "Take this; please take this."

Colin said something into the phone. I turned and walked away. I didn't want to hear what it was I was supposed to do next, where they would take his body, and what kind of responsibility I had to the police department, or the coroner, or the dozens of people who had aided in his search.

I watched myself walk back into the living room, where Sophie and Maddie's family were talking in low, worried tones, and I watched myself sit down next to Sophie, grabbing her small hands to make sure she wouldn't run screaming into the night. She looked closely at my face, and her eyes widened. Her slender legs were covered with tights that were the color of the snow. Her long blonde hair was pulled back with a red ribbon. I noticed this because David loved her hair that way, out of her face, away from her pretty eyes and her lips that looked like a perfect heart. She moved her face closer to mine, and she tightened her grip on my hands until the blood left them.
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I spoke slowly, so I would not babble, so I would not make her more fearful than she already was. The hardest part was hers to bear now. I tried to calm the tremor moving through my body so that I could tell her correctly, tell her the unthinkable.

"Remember when I told you it would be better if we knew, one way or the other, what happened to Daddy?"

Her face tightened, her eyes becoming wildly alert, as if she might bolt from my grasp, away from me. She interrupted, already knowing, already crushed.

"What, Mama, what?"

They were the most dreaded words of my lifetime, and I knew I had no choice but to tell the truth. "They found him, sweetheart, and he's dead. I'm sorry, baby."

I put my arms around her, holding her deep in my chest, trying desperately to cushion this blow. Her body fell into mine, a moment I knew I would have to replay again and again in my lifetime, a memory seared into my brain, deeper than the deepest grief I knew. The shuttle exploding, the Twin Towers falling, all the images of innocence lost I had ever seen -- and now this, too. Sophie held my waist, her face buried in my chest.

I had never heard a child's heart breaking. It is a sound so unforgiving I knew I would never stop hearing it. It would ring through my memory at exactly the same pitch, with the same intensity, reminding me of the crippling of her heart.

The deep, grieving wail she let out echoed through the home, into the street, interrupting the silence of the falling snow.

I held her.