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There I sat, my 3-day-old infant in my arms, trembling in fear as chaos and horror played out in my living room. Muffled by my bedroom door were sirens, chattering voices, and screams that will forever haunt my dreams. Frozen and in a state of shock, all I could see in my mind was the lifeless face of the only man I ever intended to love, his lips white and his body lying on the floor in an unnatural state. “I couldn’t feel a pulse, but he has to be alive,” I told myself. A police officer slowly opened my door and disturbingly made his way to my bed. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the willing arms of family members reaching out for my infant son. As the words “He’s deceased” came out of the officer’s mouth, all went black.
A stray bullet is how the news reported the story, but we will never know the whole truth. The bullet that killed Justin went against pure logic and had a statistical probability of one in infinity. In a drunken stupor, my backyard neighbor fired his 9mm semi-automatic handgun. The bullet managed to travel through his screen door (dodging dozens of trees) over 200 feet to our home. It crashed through our glass door and blinds, continued across our living room, and finally stopped when it hit Justin in the head at the very second he jumped up from our sofa.
It’s been two years since that tragic day, and at 33 years old, I see myself a much sadder but wiser girl. Going through something so horrific and life-altering not only changes the way you see the world, it transforms it. Grief is a very personal thing, and while I would never claim to be an expert on coping, I do know firsthand how to live with it. I like to compare it to a scar. More specifically, an internal scar on your heart and in your mind that follows you everywhere. A dark cloud that hovers over everything good and beautiful for the rest of your life. For one to truly understand the full gravity of the situation, you have to know the story as a whole, not just the ending. Therefore, I must jump back 19 years.
I was barely a teen, a 14-year-old girl in the eighth grade, when I first met and fell in love with Justin Ayers. He could play the guitar like Jimi Hendrix and crack a joke like Jerry Seinfeld. He was a smart, talented, adorable, funny, passionate boy, and I took notice. As I think back on our love story, a specific song lyric comes to mind: “Each night I ask the stars up above, Why must I be a teenager in love?” I would sob, “Why can’t we just get married today?” My friends and family (with the exception of my mom) would chuckle at the idea, dismissing us as just kids who would grow up and realize it’s just the hormones. But I never once doubted. In 2003 (one year after I graduated high school) we finally tied the knot.
Over the next 10 years, Justin and I made our own rules in life. We had several goals we wanted to pursue, so we decided to wait to start a family, knowing we needed time to grow up. We formed multiple bands, traveled for leisure and work, and wrote and recorded an album together. It was definitely outside the norm, but it was our norm, and we savored it. Then one morning, I woke up and suddenly felt different. I wanted a baby! And Justin agreed. We’d been married for 10 years, and we both knew we were ready to become parents. We got busy between the sheets and in September 2013, I became pregnant with our son, Jax.
On June 14, 2014, I remember looking at my infant son and realizing, “I finally understand!” His hair was thick and silky, his lips were bright red, and his eyes were captivating. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, bringing a child into this world has to be one the most incredible feelings a woman can experience in life. A few minor birthing complications cost us an extra day in the hospital, but on the third evening, we were released and went home to be a family.
We tend to refer to the next day as “the day the music died.” I had a 3-day-old baby and now a dead husband. I was a brand-new mother and now a widow at only 31 years old. I never had a chance to tell Justin goodbye or tell him how much I loved him. I like to think he already knew.
We buried Justin on a Saturday, exactly one week after Jax was born. The day after his funeral, the crowds were starting to disperse, and my support system was dwindling down to a much smaller group. It seems incomprehensible to try to portray the level of darkness I slipped into. A darkness that is so scary, I wasn’t “allowed” to be left alone for one second. NOT even to take a shower.
“Jess, you okay in there?” my friend Casey hollered as she banged on the bathroom door, “Jax is crying and needs to eat. Do we need to break the door down?” Time seemed frozen as I realized it had been two hours since I’d snuck away to the bathroom, granting my first chance to be alone since losing Justin. I took it as my only opportunity to bask in my own misery. The light from the hall shone brightly under the door as I lay in a pool of tears staring at everyone’s feet pacing back and forth. With the chill of the bathroom tile on my cheek being my only comfort from the pain, I decided in that moment that I was ready to completely give up. I wanted to die.
I could hear multiple voices in the hall way all pleading for me to open the door. But in the distance I could hear a tiny voice that resonated in my heart. It was Jax, he was hungry, and I knew I was his source for food. “We are sending someone to the store for formula,” my mom said to me. That was the defining moment when I had to make a choice, life or death. I realized that even though the life I’d worked so hard for was gone, I could try and start a new one. My son needed me to survive, and I needed him. It took me over 10 minutes to actually stand to my feet, but once I did, I felt a little hopeful. Life is a series of choices, and this choice to live started with my decision to get up off the bathroom floor and feed my infant son.
Over the next year, I was like a chameleon. I became so many different versions of myself that I didn’t know who I was anymore. Was I Justin’s wife or his widow? Was I a stay-at-home mom who used to be a musician or would I sing again? Would I ever have the opportunity to have another child? I had always wanted three. The endless questions and constant wonder consumed me from the inside out. For close to 10 months I disappeared from any social scene, social media, or social circle that didn’t include a few select people. I was hiding from the world and wasting away to nothing, a shell of my former self. Then it happened again. I looked at my now 10-month-old baby and felt ashamed. That hungry infant, once crying for mommy’s milk, was now starting to talk, walk, and think. Looking at my gorgeous baby boy I once again realized that it was time for me to make another choice between life or death!
Looking back on the last two years of my life, I realize how many choices and decisions I had to make to arrive where I’m at today. I needed to find “me” again and that required throwing myself back into my biggest passion, which had ironically become my biggest fear: music. My love for performing and music was something I shared with Justin, and it was now something I was forced to explore on my own. By sheer circumstance, I reconnected with a former bandmate and was presented with the opportunity to fill in on a few gigs. With much hesitation, I accepted. Declining the opportunity and turning my back on what I used to love would have been the much safer bet. But, I knew it would mean I would end up spending the rest of my life running away from the pain and the joy it would bring.
The rollercoaster of emotions I go through during a Fortag show are endless. However, I choose to face them every night because in the end, the good outweighs the bad. I maintain the idea though that the happiness I experience day to day is by my own choosing. Every single day I wake up like everyone else and I’m faced with a choice. Some days I hate life and choose to be sad, angry, hurt, scared, resentful, and lonely. Other days I feel blessed and choose to be happy, optimistic, thankful, forgiving, and compassionate. Each day is a new decision, and with each decision brings a new outcome. I can only hope I’m making the right choices for my future, especially for Jax’s.
When I close my eyes at night, I like to tell myself three things. I will be eternally grateful for you, my mommy! I will forever worship you, my Justin! And I will always love you, my Jax!
Some of the greatest quotes in life come to us in the form of song lyrics. So, I will leave you with these words:
“Life’s a journey, not a destination. And I just can’t tell, just what tomorrow brings.”