On the afternoon of Thursday September 28th, 2000, I had an argument with my husband John, a Calgary police officer… about my procrastination as a writer. We were at the dog park and I confessed to John my fear of waking up twenty years later and still not having finished writing a book. To which he turned to me and said, “You’re probably right about that, Maryanne…just as long as you know that will have been your choice.”
Harsh, yes… but in all fairness, by that point the poor guy had been listening to me talk about wanting to write for twelve years. That’s a long time to watch the person you love flounder about – instead of taking tangible action towards achieving her dreams.
At any rate, after his snarky comment, John threw back his head and laughed. “Geez… I can be a real jerk, eh?”
“I’ll say,” I said.
But he’d made his point. The question was: had I heard it?
After the dog park, we returned home where John had a nap before leaving for work. His shift started at 9 pm.
Before going to bed, I made a promise to myself to wake up early the next morning and do some writing before going into work. I was a civilian with the Calgary Police Service.
But when my alarm clock went off the next morning, what did I do? The usual. I reached over and pushed snooze. I don’t want to wake up. I don’t feel like writing. I don’t want to go 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. Ten minutes later, the alarm went off; snooze was hit. I am SO anxious! I don’t want to go work.
And nor would I. For at that exact same time, 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 – or anyone else – of the danger. The complaint 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 32-year-old police 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.
Two weeks later, I started writing what would become my book, A Widow’s Awakening. Although it took John’s death to wake me up, I finally learned the promises we make to ourselves are often the most important ones to keep.
Three horrific months passed and despite the kindness and compassion of the people around me, the days of grief got darker and darker and at the end of January, suicide suddenly presented itself as a viable option.
The scary thing was, I didn’t even see it coming.
One day, I was my usual sad, depressed, isolated, exhausted, confused and terrified self pretending to be okay – and the next thing I knew, the idea of taking my own life popped into my head as a frighteningly rational 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 perfectly well I was anything but okay… and as I sat there, considering taking a bottle of Tylenol 3’s (leftover from John’s broken ankle), the damn phone wouldn’t stop ringing.
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 John’s Sergeant and close friend, 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 extremely guilty for betraying John by having romantic feelings for another guy (a cop and 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 dark night of the soul.
The next morning, I made the second most important decision I would ever make: I promised myself that no matter what happened in my 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 took 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 the 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 put up a simple safety railing?
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 in the line of duty. And it occurred to me 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 the three recruit classmates of John’s who had set up the John Petropoulos Memorial Fund (JPMF). They had raised over $12,000 by selling pins with John’s regimental number on them. Together, we decided to tackle the issue that had led to John’s death – an unsafe workplace – by raising public awareness about why and how people can ensure workplaces (including the roads) are safe for everyone, including first responders.
Nearly two decades have now passed since John’s death and the JPMF, a registered charity, is still going strong. Over the years, we have produced eight 30-second public service announcements that have aired over two 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 speakers who deliver our powerful workplace safety presentations.
As for me? Well, I became a writer…I got that message loud and clear. I never did return to my civilian job at the police service. It took me eight years to get the A Widow’s Awakening manuscript where it needed to be – but I did it. The book was self-published in 2008 (and sold 2000 copies). In 2018, it was picked up by a publisher (BHC Press) and released as a novel. I also write blogs, play scripts and screenplays.
Rick and I never did end up in a relationship, but we remained friends over the years. In fact, some of my dearest friends are John’s police buddies. I love my life now. It has been a long, hard, difficult road to learn to be happy again. But I did it.
Here are 5 life lessons I’ve learned:
#1) We cannot control what happens to us – but we do get to choose how to respond.
#2) Even nightmares have silver linings… if we choose to see them.
#3) Accepting the unacceptable is incredibly difficult… but learning to transform loss into positive change can help.
#4) It takes tremendous courage to be a police officer; it takes just as much to love one.
#5) We are all here for a purpose; it is up to us find it – or create it – and fulfill it.
“Where there is great love, there are Want to add a caption to this image? Click the Settings icon. always miracles.”
— Willa Cather
If you would like to make a donation to the JPMF, please visit Canada Helps.
Maryanne Pope is the author of A Widow’s Awakening, the playwright of Saviour, the screenwriter of God’s Country and the executive producer of the documentary, Whatever Floats Your Boat…Perspectives on Motherhood. Maryanne is CEO of Pink Gazelle Productions and Chair of the John Petropoulos Memorial Fund. If you would like to receive her regular weekly blog, please sign up here.