grief, anxiety, loss

The Home Invasion

In the first few months after Rick died, I was in a state of nearly constant anxiety. The house no longer felt safe and I felt very alone. I have lived alone (as a single parent) before in my life, and I have also lived in an extremely unsafe neighborhood, yet it had never been like this. My safe and cozy home that I shared with Rick before his death suddenly seemed scary and uninhabitable.

I’ve read a little bit about that since, and I’ve seen posts from new widows in my Hope for Widows group, and it seems to be a common occurrence with the newly bereaved widow. I guess when your entire world is turned upside down, you no longer have confidence in much, nothing seems safe anymore. In my case, I kept lots of lights on overnight, invested in some Amazon “screech locks” for the doors and windows, and I left my very bright LED porch lights on every single night – and – on doctor’s orders, I also took some Xanax.

After a few months, I noticed that I was no longer as anxious as I had been. The world was beginning to seem more normal, and I was adjusting to being a person living alone, not a fear-filled woman jumping at shadows. I became a little more lenient about setting the door alarms, and I soon forgot that I had ever felt so nervous in the first place. Now that more than a year has passed, it’s difficult to believe I ever feared living by myself. I’m back to “normal.”

And then a man broke into my house while I was sleeping, and it all came back to me.

I awoke, dressed, and was leaving for work Wednesday morning, when I was puzzled to discover my backpack with my MacBook and all my other junk wasn’t where I left it by my chair the night before. That’s not an unusual occurrence. I often think I leave something somewhere only to find I left it in the car, or in my office, or some other place. So I assumed my widow brain wasn’t working, again. Then I picked up my clutch bag. It’s really my version of a large wallet with my license, credit cards, keys, and essentials that I sometimes carry by itself, and sometimes tuck inside my backpack. The purse has a long shoulder strap made of brass chain – I bought it because it had a kind of 1960’s vibe. The chain was missing. I have NEVER taken the chain off that purse since I bought it a couple years ago. It was one of those lobster claw attachments like a chain leash that attaches to a dog’s collar, so it came off easily but I never found a reason to remove it.

This took some mental processing. Why the heck was the chain off my purse? And my backpack was positively there when I went to bed, wasn’t it? As I stared longer at my purse, suddenly, I was filled with fear. Someone had come into my house and removed the chain. It made absolutely no sense, but it had happened.

Still feeling off balance, I was afraid to call the police, because I thought maybe I was having some weird Alzheimer’s moment. I haven’t trusted my instincts much since Rick died. I always think I’m just mixed up, or have confused the issue. So, instead, I called my son at work and babbled into the phone that someone had taken my backpack and taken the chain off my purse while I slept. I’m sure he thought I was nuts. And I kept crying and trying to explain how I’ve never taken this chain off, so someone must’ve come in my house. My son very calmly told me he was on his way. Then said, “Mom, get out of the house right now.”

I immediately thought of that creepy horror movie from my teens where the woman keeps getting phone calls (Have you checked the children?), then the police call to inform her that the weird calls are coming from inside the house, so get out! I grabbed the purse, went out through the back door to the attached garage, jumped in the car, and backed out into my driveway. I sat there still stunned and disoriented looking around while trying to process it all as I waited for my son to come. And then I noticed the screen on my front window had been moved aside and knew it was true. An intruder had actually entered my home while I was sleeping.

Before the police arrived, I was thrilled when Brandon discovered my backpack with my laptop on the far side of the house. It had been ransacked, and between the purse and the backpack, the thief got very little: five dollars and my prescription pill holder (which only had one Motrin). He also got my husband’s iPhone, the phone that I was finally relinquishing a year after his death. It was in the return envelope ready to return to Sprint. Timing is everything. I finally decided that I had to return it, only to have it stolen before I could get to the UPS store.

But, by far, the creepiest part of the whole event was when we looked at footage from the security cameras I had set up. It was a cheap little camera I got off Amazon, and it was in my bedroom window facing the porch. I hadn’t set it up correctly after putting the screens in at the beginning of the summer and had intended to fix it. So, because the little light was reflecting off my window, the night vision wasn’t working correctly and the video was a murky dark gray instead of the infrared night vision it was supposed to be. However, at 5:09 am, the porch lights were on, and at 5:11, they were not. You can see a shadowy man who had jumped up on the far end of my porch and, one by one, was slowly moving down the porch, reaching up to unscrew the four very bright LED porch lights. Then the the entire porch was in darkness, and that’s apparently when he broke into my front window. Watching him methodically preparing to invade my home was pretty unnerving. Then the police told me that he had broken into one neighbor’s house twice in a two-week period (and stole his wallet from the kitchen counter), and another neighbor’s that same night (simply to shut off the lights that faced across the street to my home). By that point, I felt sick to my stomach and fearful that he may return.

Still, I know I was lucky. I wasn’t hurt, he didn’t take my credit cards, and I only lost five dollars and an old iPhone, but, emotionally, I lost a whole lot more than that. Throughout this entire ordeal, any new widow knows what I was thinking: I need Rick. I want my husband. I wish Rick was here. For 21 years, I had a partner who loved and took care of me. Yes, feminist that I am, I felt protected by him always, and it was a wonderful feeling that I miss, especially during events like this.

And, as lonely as I feel not having Rick to comfort me through this, I once again discovered how fortunate I really am. I know I’m not alone. I have a son who was there for me in an instant. I have family members and friends who offered me everything from well wishes and sympathy to sage advice and security measures. One friend offered her spare bedroom for as long as I needed it, another offered to bring his dog and stay overnight, and a coworker insisted that I take his pepper spray. I’m not alone. I’m okay, and I’m loved.

And that evening, I prepared for my first night after the home invasion. I guess, movie lover that I am, real life always reminds me of some story I’ve seen. As in Dawn of the Dead, I began to prepare my house for the night ahead – only not for a zombie attack. I installed a couple more of those blaring window alarms, and also knew I needed a longer board in the window the burglar had jimmied open (the last one left a 4” gap that I never thought could be used to enter).

I went out to my garage and found leftover wood from one of our home improvement projects. There were boxes in front of the outlet, so instead of using our chop saw, I found a hand saw, and I used that to cut the wood to the perfect size. And while I was cutting it, I remembered how Rick had showed me the proper way: longer, even strokes so “the blade does the work,” so I stopped doing the little choppy motions and did it the proper way. It was quick and easy work.

And in the midst of doing this one small task, and thinking about Rick and what he taught me, I started to feel like myself again. By taking action to take care of myself, I felt stronger and less fearful. And then, I began to remember all those home improvement projects, the houses we remodeled together, and the time we enjoyed installing and building things. And after reliving those memories of what we accomplished and shared, it hit me that he is still here with me. He will never be gone. I still know all the things he taught me when we worked on projects. I still remember how to do the things we puzzled out together. Our time together will always be a part of who I am today. And I can easily measure and saw a piece of wood to secure a window against a burglar (or a zombie invasion!).

So, after surviving a long year of “firsts,” I’ve now made it though one more: I’ve survived my first home invasion without my husband. And I’ve coped with it. A man who crept into my home while I slept nearly stole more than my few belongings, nearly stole my confidence and my sense of security. But instead, he’s made me realize my how blessed I am: I have a support system of friends and relatives who have my back, and I have the know-how to take care of myself, and he can’t take that away from me. After a couple of nervous days, I’m back on track, and I feel like I can handle something that I’d rather not handle alone, but that’s life.

But that’s not all.

After spending a semi-sleepless night following the break-in, I was still jumpy and distracted yesterday, and was having a difficult time concentrating at work, so I decided to make an emergency appointment with my grief counselor on my lunch hour. After telling her what happened, and expressing how upset it had made me, I told her it seems to have triggered my strong feelings of grief, again. It was another huge reminder of how much I missed Rick, and how much I wished he was here with me. I told her how much I missed his comforting arms when I went to bed alone the night after the break in. How I always felt so safe when he was here, and how hard it was to feel that again. . . and how much I wished he had been with me that night when someone invaded our home.

And she asked something that hadn’t occurred to me. She said, “How do you know he wasn’t there? You weren’t hurt and the thief took very little. Maybe Rick was there, protecting you, after all.”

And depending on how you view the afterlife, you may not believe that. And as someone who is constantly pondering the meaning of life, and death, and the existence of angels, I’m not sure, either. But since it brings me comfort to think that my big fellow was there that night, and that he’s here with me today, that’s what I’m going to believe. So, as a widow living alone, I’ll be practical and I’ll take all the precautions I can to be safer in the future – everyone needs to do that. I’ll batten down the hatches, and I’ll get the security alarms installed, and I’ll hope they catch this guy soon.

But as for that “widow living alone” part? Maybe I’m not really here alone, and maybe someone was watching out for me that night, keeping me safe. Maybe I have my own personal guardian angel. And if I do, I know he’s a big one!

About the author

Katherine Billings Palmer is a technical writer, poet, and essayist from Garden City, Michigan. She’s won several academic writing awards, including first place in the University of Michigan Dearborn Critical Essay Contest for her work about poet John Donne: “‘The Sun Rising’: A Lover’s Boast.”

In 2017, Katherine’s husband, Rick, died of complications from small cell lung cancer. She wrote a series of poems and essays about her struggles to cope with her grief. I Wanted to Grow Old With You is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions.

Her latest book, A Widow’s Words: Grief, Reflection, Prose, and Poetry – The First Year was published in January 2019 and is also available on Amazon.com.

Katherine is a guest blogger for the Hope for Widows Foundation and writes about her grief journey at www.TheWritingWidow.com.

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