Existing. That was what the weeks after the funeral felt like—a string of continual stresses from the mountain of immediate family responsibilities, punctuated with pangs of overwhelming sadness, and then those sudden — surprising — interruptions, moments of hope. Also, a lot of logistics.
Every morning I asked myself what I was grateful for, then I spoke aloud the words: Be happy, be happy, be happy. Often it would take almost half an hour before I could budge and roll out of bed.
The mantra sounded trite and forced at first. After a few months, I was surprised to find tiny bursts of peace bordering on happiness. But of course, I didn’t know that early on.
Most mornings, I ran early by myself. I started running the Monday after the funeral. I listened to music from my fortieth birthday party playlist Rob created with songs like Train’s “Marry Me.” I jogged past the “Tri-Mesa Guys” – an intense group of triathletes always training for their next ironman it seemed. They stared at me. I felt like a freak show. I wished I could disappear.
It took me about a month to get back on my road bike. I drove to a remote hill and did repeats with Masey and Emily. I felt trapped. I couldn’t let anything happen to me for eleven years, until Karl, my youngest, was eighteen. I worried that someone would hit me and my kids would be orphans.
After I ran or rode my bike, I woke up the kids. Ansel cranked Andy Grammar’s song “Keep Your Head Up” as soon as he rolled out of bed. This became our theme song to get us through the dark autumn.
My mom continued to be a stalwart source of strength. She took leave from work for a time to support me. She came over every morning.
I was used to hearing the familiar soft rapping of my mother’s 7 a.m. knock on the kitchen door. I left sweaty footprints on the hardwood floor as I moved toward the door. I was grateful and annoyed that she stopped by each day to go over my work and children’s schedule for the day. Most of the time, I didn’t want to do either. I wanted to lay in bed and wallow – not an option.
“Good morning. How are you today?” she asked, her gaze intent on gauging my current emotional state. “Do you need me for anything today?”
And one day: “Would you like to sit down and make a budget?”
My mom is one of the most frugal people—ever—and I needed her help. My dad called her Frugal McDougal, her maiden name.
After Helena was born, when I was beyond overwhelmed, I told Rob he was now in charge of our finances, which included paying the bills. I argued that he was the one with the accounting degree, not me. Over the last decade, our routine had morphed into a weekly finance meeting. We sat in his office and I read receipt amounts aloud to him as he plugged them into a spreadsheet. Sometimes these meetings got heated when he asked if I could hem in different line items. I would get defensive and Rob would say something ridiculous like, “We’ve got (X amount of money) until bankruptcy.” I would ask if we could end the meeting on something more positive. He would laugh and say, “This is our runway, that’s it.”
Needless to say, I had a very rough idea of our expenditures.
Second, my mom supported me by helping me make a “Plan for the Day.” What most people don’t realize after a family death is that much of the aftermath consists of a long list of unpleasant logistics that are the last thing a person feels like conquering. These “Plans” with my mom helped me break up many momentous tasks: ensuring a generous life insurance policy came through to help me support our kids (even though the double coverage had expired a few months earlier), closing business credit cards and accounts, as well as Rob’s unfinished work, going through his office, syncing up with his partner, Brian Moore, meeting with investors to assure them their investment monies had already been deployed.
Essentially, pleading with them not to pull their money.
Every once in a while, as I went through my “Plan for the Day,” I discovered even bigger problems.
A few days after the funeral, I was told by our accountant that I owed six-digits in personal taxes Rob hadn’t paid, due in less than a month to the IRS:
I’ll never forget the heat of that day. The vintage saddle displayed in the foyer of our accountant’s office. I longed to find a horse and ride off into the sunset. I declined the bottle of water offered to me by a kind secretary. I did not want to appear any needier than I already was. Paige, a kind mature woman, seemed to search for the right words to say.
“I’m sorry for your loss, Bridget.”
“Thanks,” I answered, still unsure how to respond to the sentiment.
Bill, a pasty, more pallored version of Martin Short, entered the room with tangible energy. “Hello, Bridget. Pleased to meet you,” He stuck out his hand to shake mine. “I’m sorry to hear about your loss.” He looked away for a brief moment. “I enjoyed working with Rob. He was smart.” Bill glanced around. “Follow me.”
He moved with haste. Our footsteps echoed as we walked down the tiled hallway into the conference room. I set my backpack down on the conference table.
“Would you like something cold to drink? Water?” I heard his now faint New York accent when he said “w-aw-tur.”
“I’m good, thanks,” I said as I sat on the well-worn office chair. Nerves crept up my spine. I wanted, needed, to get to the point.
“Alright. Let’s get to the heart of it.” He scooched his chair to the table.
I braced myself. It had been just a few days since Rob’s death when Bill had called me to schedule our meeting two business days after the funeral.
He began with the good news: Rob signed and paid all his business taxes for his investment fund before he died.
The Bad News: Rob had filed an extension for our personal income taxes.
Bill quoted the number owed and the impossible time frame.
“What! How can that be? I don’t even have anything close to that amount of money in our checking or savings accounts. Two hundred and forty two thousand!” I played piano scales on the table with the fingers of my right hand as the rest of my body sat very still and processed the information. “What if I don’t have the money, then what?”
“The IRS could potentially work out a payment plan with you or….”
I didn’t hear much after that. Actually, I didn’t hear anything after the six-figure number.
I felt my face turn red and knew the dam of tears was going to burst. I didn’t want to ugly cry in front of anyone. I waited until I left Bill’s office and stormed out into the blasted Arizona furnace, unsure where I parked the car. The heat waves baked my bare legs as they rose off the parking lot asphalt. A restless rage brewed inside of me.
How could Rob have done this to me?
After all the ways I supported him as a partner, with his races, with SAG support, with making his funeral the best I could possibly make it.
I am going to have to sell the house.
I am going to have to move into my parents’ basement with three kids.
I gritted my teeth. My mind was ready to snap.
I drove south toward US 60 after I grabbed a 64-ounce Dr. Pepper at the Circle K gas station. The oppressive heat clung to the outside of the car. As I sipped, the carbonation from the soda zapped the moisture from my mouth. It was then that a bold thought came to my mind. An image. A place I always meant to pay a visit.
“Where is it?” I said aloud as I drove up and down Impala Street for the fourth time. “I thought there was one over here, right by Saguaro Dive Shop,” I said vaguely remembering pointing out a shooting range to Rob after our scuba certification class, a certification he was not interested in either.
Rob wasn’t here to snub or voice his opinions now.
I am going to do whatever I damn-well, please.
My mind continued to play the movie reel on anger, flipping to scenes of some of my biggest resentments. Most marriages that lasted as long as ours – twenty years, were bound to have them. I let the painful memories smolder as I drove:
I was the Queen of Little Shit during his lifetime.
I put up with everything and even had a good attitude when he switched careers from accounting to law to venture capital to his own management group.
I was stuck cleaning up his messes: his dirty dishes, damp towels, dirty clothes and scrunched up black socks shoved under the sofa.
I was in charge of paperwork filing, writing out bills, which was supposed to be his job, mailing bills, all errands, the yard work.
He’d always put up a stink about stopping at the grocery store to grab milk after a date on the weekend and I didn’t even drink milk. It was for him!
I was in charge of supervising homework with the kids, grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, laundry, organizing his church assignments.
A few months ago, I’d asked if we could hire someone to clean the house twice a month. His response was “What would you do?”
But when I’d told him I didn’t want to do the yard work while he was out riding his bike on Saturday mornings, he hired someone without a fuss.
What an ass!
Now, at his death, he had stuck me with the overwhelming responsibility of raising our kids alone, figuring out the finances – that he led me to believe we were both involved in — not so, and cleaning up his business.
He was right, he was a selfish a-hole! Rob had said so himself, just a few days before his death.
I sat in bed reading, the crisp white sheets resting on the tips of my toes. Rob wandered into the bedroom and paused by the fireplace. I looked up as he leaned against the door to the master bathroom. His forehead wrinkled as he thought.
“Why do you love me?” he asked, turning to face me. “I’m such a selfish asshole.”
I looked up from my book and said, “You are a selfish a-hole and I do love you.”
Both could be true.
Rob jutted his jaw forward, twisted his mouth, and walked into the bathroom, deep in thought. It never occurred to me to keep pressing, to ask what those thoughts are. Now, I’ll never get the chance. Instead, I looked down at the page and resumed reading.
I gripped the steering wheel and felt my body tense with satisfaction when I saw it: Caswells Shooting Range.
I pulled into the parking lot and looked around to survey the demographics of people going in and out of the building. I looked in the mirror to see if my face still looked red and puffy from my post-accountant meeting pity party. I saw a woman wearing a tank top go in the front door – an employee. Relief spread through me when I realized I would not be the only woman there. I opened my car door and took the first steps toward Caswell’s.
I wandered through the store for a few minutes and tried to observe the protocol.
“What can I do for you today?” An older guy, still an imposing physical specimen, cornered me. I slid my hands deeper into my pockets.
“I would like to do the shooting range today,” I said, trying to act tough, like I knew what I am doing.
“Ok. Let’s go on over to counter and have you fill out some forms.” I followed his muscle-bound frame to the back of the store. “Did you bring your own gun today?”
“No. I don’t have one.”
“Which one would you like to use?”
I can’t keep pretending. “I don’t know. I’ve only been to a shooting range twice before. Once on a date with my fiancé, and I was a better shot.” I forced a grin, concealing my rage. “The other time, after we got married. I was still a better shot, so we never went again.”
He laughed. “Sounds about right. Are you thinking a pistol or rifle?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Well, let’s start you with a pistol. It’s your lucky day today, it is Ladies Day.”
“Oh?” I looked at him and wondered what the heck that could mean at a shooting range.
“That means range time is free and you can try different guns for free too. We only charge you for ammo.”
“The pistol will have less kickback. Would you like to try a Glock, Ruger, Springfield, Beretta or Colt? We’ve got a few others too.”
So many words. “May I try the Beretta and then the Glock?” The Beretta sounded familiar, because a kid in my neighborhood drove a maroon Beretta in high school. “Actually, can I do the Glock instead?”
Specimen Gun Guy still had his head bent down, opening the locked gun case. He raised his eyebrows and opens his eyes wide to look up at me.
“Glock sounds cooler, less like a French hat.”
“You mean beret,” he said, laughing at my ignorance.
“Let me show you how to use the shooting range.” First, he hung a paper target of a man’s silhouette, like a shadow, on something like a clothesline. He pushed a button, and the target flew down the shooting lane. Specimen Gun Guy handed me a pair of safety glasses and earphones. “Put these on for hearing protection.” I slid the headphones around my neck and followed him.
“Let’s start with thirty yards,” he said. “I’m going to show you how to load the bullets into the chamber. These are standard bullets for a 9mm. I suggest you stick with a 9mm. You can fit more rounds in the mag than a .45. It’ll be easier to shoot too.”
“Alright,” I said, not understanding his firearm vernacular.
He showed me how to load the ammo into the semi-automatic weapon. “It’s not like – the movies, sweetheart. Hold your hands on both sides of the gun.”
I held the pistol in front of me, which now felt heavy in my hands. My respect increased for the powerful weapon.
“Now square up the front blade into the notch of your rear sight.”
“I don’t even know what that means.” I lowered the gun to my side.
He chuckled and took the gun from me. He explained the parts of the gun. No one else was in the range, so I could hear his explanation.
“You’ll want to square up your sights and relax while you’re holding the gun.” When I heard the words, “square up,” my stance widened automatically. “Slide your safety button,” he said.
“Ok,” I said as my thumb searched for the round button behind the trigger.
“You’ll need to remember how to hold your gun so you can get your sights again after the gun recoils.”
“Oh yeah.” I had forgotten about doing it again.
“Let’s see your first shot,” he said. “Put your earphones on.”
I slid the earphones over my head and squared up as I held the pistol. For a moment, I let go of my anger. I exhaled and relaxed my shoulders, then slowly pulled the trigger back. BANG. I felt the acceleration of backward movement from the pressure on the discharged bullet. I experienced recoil. I felt a heightened sense of alertness coursing through my veins. Then I felt alive.
I turned my head and looked back at him for approval. He motioned to me with his hand to keep shooting. I shot until I emptied the chamber. I lowered the gun and pulled the earphones back down around my neck.
“Is the chamber empty?” he asked.
“I think so.” I lowered the gun and ran my finger along the raised chevron shapes at the rear of the gun.
He took the gun from me and opened the chamber to double-check. Then he pressed the button and brought my paper target forward and grabbed the corner.
“You’ll want to lower your sights if you’re going to get him in the heart.”
“I thought his head was the target.”
“If that’s where you were shooting, you got him in the head every shot.” He laughed. “Damn good shooting.” I tried to stifle a grin and failed.
“Do you want to try another pistol?” he asked.
“Sure.” I tried to suppress my eagerness as I followed him out of the shooting range over to the counter. I was a good shot!
“Gals like the Springfield XDM.” He leaned down and unlocked the gun case. He pulled the XDM out and set it in a square velvet box.
“Why is that?” I asked.
“Ergonomics. Smaller Handle.” He lifted the gun off the velvet and handed me a box of bullets.
“Then I’ll try that.”
I went back out to the shooting range and clipped a new paper target onto the hook. I held down the button until the target arrived at fifty yards. I slid the bullets into the chamber of the Springfield XDM 9mm. I squared up, exhaled, then relaxed my shoulders again and aimed at the heart of the man’s silhouette on the target.
“This is for sticking me with cleaning up your business, Rob,” I said as I shot the first round — bullseye.
“This is for sticking me with two hundred and forty-two thousand dollars of taxes!” I said as I shot the second round—bullseye.
“This is for making me the Queen of Little Shit!”
Another shot. With each shot at the artificial target, the reel of rage continued, firing off like the bullets.
That’s for riding your bike one more day of each week than I did.
That’s for the day I called you about winning the twenty-six-mile Tour of Phoenix and you got after me about riding with mostly men, never realizing how loyal I have always been to you.
That’s for asking me to cut expenses when we were over on the “Children’s Activities” budget category because I bought piano books, while you drove around like Mario Andretti and blew money on speeding tickets.
That’s for never apologizing for not being there while I labored with Ava.
That’s for throwing a fit when you had to go grocery shopping when I was on bedrest pregnant with Ansel.
I continued firing at the target.
That’s for your lack of empathy during my incredibly difficult pregnancies.
That’s for the passive-aggressive comments you made in our worst arguments about Karl’s legitimacy that resulted in me ordering a paternity test to settle it once and for all. Karl is ours. You were jealous that I have always had close male friends.
That’s for the worst night ever, that night you packed a suitcase, the night you said you couldn’t do this anymore, when I was pregnant – and had to cry and beg you not to leave, the night you kicked your suitcase and threw your shoes in the closet before coming back to bed.
Another shot, another shot, another shot.
And worst of all? This is for dying! For leaving me here alone!
I shot for more than an hour only stopping after my aggression and focus were spent. I held the button down and my paper target came screaming toward me on the automated clothesline. I grabbed the corner of the target; only the outside border of the man’s silhouette remained untouched. I unclipped the target and brought it back to the counter to show my unofficial teacher. I placed it and the gun on the counter.
“Nice. There’s nothing left of this guy!”
I don’t laugh. Of course, the silhouetted man was not Rob or even my projection of him. Despite everything, I still loved Rob fiercely. The target was nothing more than a piece of paper, a shadow, a vague figure to project my anger and fear onto. And I had many fears to confront, many angers to feel out and, maybe, forgive.
What do you think?” Specimen Gun Guy asked as he leaned his forearms on the counter.
“It is a really good way to vent frustration,” I said. “My thinking is clear now, more so than when I walked in here.”
He chuckled again. “Which did you like best?”
“The Springfield XDM 9mm.”
I promised myself that if I ever found a way to pay for the taxes, I’d come back again and buy that gun.
The shooting range both awakened and relaxed me. With more clarity, I went to Rob’s office to speak with Brian Moore, Rob’s business partner. Legally, Rob had, in the event of his death, made me the managing partner.
Robs’ office was Just So. He wanted everything right, down to the “In Focus: National Geographic Greatest Portraits (National Geographic Collectors Series), a book on the antique metal barrel between the cognac leather, low slung club chairs. The Willie Holdman photo display of autumn colors on Mount Timpanogos hung over the reclaimed wood credenza in the entry, created an inviting atmosphere.
“Hey, Bridget, what’s up?” Brian said.
I gave as neutral an answer as I could muster. I was not up for small talk. I had a problem I needed to solve. “Hey, Brian don’t you have your realtor’s license?
“Yeah? Are you looking to buy something?” He slipped his hands into the pockets of his slacks.
“I need to sell my house this month,” I said as I bit my bottom lip.
“Why?” He looked confused. He ran a hand through his slicked back, dark hair, a nervous reaction.
I told him about my meeting with the accountant.
He laughed and laughed.
“Brian, this really isn’t funny,” I said on the verge of tears. He leaned forward to catch his breath.
“Rob left the tax money in the business account.” He continued to laugh.
“What?” I can’t believe it.
“I’m pretty sure. Let me pull up the accounts online. I’ll show you.” He waved for me to follow him into his office. I stood behind him as he sat at his desk and logged into the accounts. Sure enough, there was the tax money Rob put away!
Now, it was my turn to laugh – sheer relief.
I told Brian about the shooting range.
“You just went and shot the guy completely out of the target.” Brian threw back his head and laughed. “I didn’t know you guys were gun people.”
“Uh, we aren’t. Rob didn’t want one in the house. He said I’d mistake him for a burglar and shoot him dead in the middle of the night while he was getting cookies and milk.” The thought was both humorous and saddening. I was the one responsible now. I could decide if I was or was not a “gun person,” and anything else about my future.
I thanked Brian and walked back into the heat of the day, which was finally beginning to relent and cool.
Bridget Verhaaren resides in the Wasatch Mountains, is an avid fan of skiing, and enjoys travel adventures with her husband, Gary Garner, and their eight children (five “bonus” children). She has a B.A. in English from Brigham Young University and an M.F.A. in Creative Nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She spent a life-changing Spring of 2022 working with refugees at the Polish Border after the Russian Invasion of Ukraine. She is revising a memoir.