In August 2001, three months after Rob and I met, we were mugged at gunpoint in an apartment complex parking lot in Dallas. We’d driven in that evening, the last leg of our trip moving me from New Hampshire to graduate school in Texas. Before we met my new roommates, Rob and I ran down the street to a burger joint to grab a bite to eat. When we returned to my gated apartment complex, we parked in the darkness and paused a moment gathering our things. As we stepped out of the car, two men blocked our exit. One pressed a gun into Rob’s side. The other backed me into the passenger seat.
Almost 20 years later, I still don’t tell the whole story to everyone I meet. The only one who knows all the details has now gone to his grave. I struggled for many years with the effects of post traumatic stress, as my brain attempted to process the events of that night. For a long time, I lived like a war veteran — facing toward doors at restaurants, sitting only in the aisle seat, avoiding closed environments that were hard to exit. I’ve been through three rounds of cognitive behavioral therapy to help my brain to heal. That hot August night destroyed my sense of security; I move about with an altered perspective now.
I can think and talk about that night without it giving me nightmares anymore. I no longer see the faces of the men in crowds. Even if I don’t like it, I can be in closed spaces — the middle of a crowded room or a tiny elevator. I can remind myself, “I am uncomfortable, but I am safe.” The memory of that night has grown fuzzy as the years wind on, even though the trauma remains imprinted on my brain cells. But even if some of the memories become hazy, I will never ever forget the sound of Rob’s voice as I stood beside him at a convenience store payphone the next morning. Rob called my father. Was it collect? I don’t remember. He explained what had happened and told my father we were okay. As I listened to Rob’s reassuring, measured voice, I knew in that moment I wanted to be with him forever.
Rob never knew the girl who did crazy, irresponsible things. He never knew the me who walked through city streets at night without looking behind her back. The me whose business travel took her around the country multiple times a week without a second thought about small airplane spaces. The me who went to bed without checking all of the door locks twice. We met. We were mugged. We were married. Our mutual trauma bonded us together. For the next 17 years, Rob was the man who brought me a sense of security, my beloved who took care of me in the deep ways my heart needed most.
Since Rob’s death, I’ve been told (among other awkward things) that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I assume they’re talking about how if the shock and sorrow of Rob’s death hasn’t killed me yet, I’m probably going to be okay. Maybe a vague strength will rise out of this trauma and turn me into some sort of dark superhero widow. I respectfully disagree. Sometimes what doesn’t kill you can turn you into a neurotic mess. I know that storyline. I’ve lived it.
Rob’s sudden death has been its own form of trauma, and often my brain still struggles to grasp the enormity of that loss. There have been many moments since Rob died where life has required me to use the tools I learned in my rounds of post-traumatic therapy. I regularly pull out my memorized verses, do my deep breathing, and engage in my cognitive behavioral activities. I wasn’t a particularly brave person before Rob died, but I’ve got a whole belt of tools to help me face my fears now. It feels an irony that my life with Rob prepared me for my life without him.
Having lived through two traumas, I’ll tell you with full assurance, that what doesn’t kill you doesn’t necessarily make you stronger. It may make you grow a thicker shell, get tougher. But honestly, that’s not who I want to be. Instead, I hope that what hasn’t killed me makes me softer, gentler, more compassionate, more accepting of weakness, more willing to sit with contradiction and mystery. I hope the tender and wounded places in my life will bear fruit not of inner fortitude but of the fruits of Spirit. Someday, when I look back at these places where tragedy has darkened my path, I hope I’ll be able to say instead that nothing was wasted. That darkness didn’t win, not because of my strength but entirely because of Jesus’ grace.