WHAT LIES BEHIND
A sequel to
Leukemia, My Husband and Me: A Turbulent Triangle
Cerrigone/What Lies Behind/page iii
I dedicate this book to my family and friends. The people who came forward and showered me with love, support, and encouragement. No matter how difficult things became, they remained firm in their position and continued to offer me their loyalty and devotion. I thank you all. I’m forever indebted. Dealing with my husband’s catastrophic illness was one of the most excruciating times in my life, but what I dealt with after Mike’s death far surpasses any pain I’ve ever experienced.
Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but when the desire is fulfilled, it is a tree of life.
To learn more about Mike’s story, visit
This is a work of creative nonfiction. The events are portrayed to the best of Justine’s memory. While all the stories in this book are true, some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of the people involved.
This story is not an attack. It was written with the intention that it will hopefully be used as a tool in preventing others from having to encounter what I did. I am not trained in any specific areas of psychology or bereavement counseling. The stories in this book are the experiences I had in dealing with individuals and their reactive behavior following my husband’s death.
I want to thank JK Publications for taking on these two books. Nonfiction is an entirely different market and not always accessible to every author. I thank you for this opportunity. It’s a privilege that I don’t take lightly.
Chapter Twelve - Slandered
I think Mike liked the whole Tree of Life theme I was using for his service because everything was thriving. The grass, as well as our plants and flowers, were growing like mad. The growth couldn’t be contained. It was bizarre. I had marigolds that were drooping, falling over from the weight of their colossal blooms.
We had about two acres of yard. I had someone coming to cut the grass, and Mike’s union brother Vic had been here twice to trim some things back.
We had three Rose of Sharon trees. I reluctantly had Vic cut two down. Their trunks were weak, and I was already thinking about the upcoming winter and how I was going to manage the snow removal for an eighty-yard driveway.
Vic had taken a small root from one of the trees. He said he wanted to plant it in a pot in memory of Mike. He planned to keep the small sprig in his garage, which was heated, and then eventually plant it in his yard in the spring.
* * *
I called Ivy, the woman Naomi had referred me to for the quilt. I had all of Mike’s clothes laid out on the bed. When I heard her pull in, I went to receive her at the front door.
She was a young girl, which surprised me. I suppose I just assumed that she was older, because Naomi was. She had an earthy look, with long brown hair that moved at the top of her shoulders.
“Hi, Justine.” She waved through the screen door, which I now kept locked. Due to the recent events and being alone in the house all the time, my guard was up.
“Hi, come in, please.” I opened the door, stepping aside. Her light-brown eyes blinked, her lips a glossy taupe.
“I’m so sorry about your husband,” she said, her condolence soft and airy. “How are you holding up?” she asked, her sensitivity taking me by surprise. I attributed that to not having experienced much in the last several weeks, and again it was coming from a stranger, compassion that I just assumed would come from my husband’s family.
Others were making up for it, and for that I was extremely grateful. Ivy obviously had practice with her tactfully delivered sentiment, considering her line of work. I had to keep reminding myself to acknowledge people like Ivy. It was so easy to be impressed by the negative.
“I’m taking one day at a time,” I said.
Ivy nodded. “It’s so hard. I’m looking forward to creating something that will provide you with many years of memories.”
“Come in. I have all of Mike’s clothes out.”
“Great.” Ivy followed me through the living room. I had set everything out on the bed in the spare room.
Ivy sat on the edge of the bed and sorted out all of my husband’s clothes, piling his jeans and tee-shirts on one end and then stacking the sweaters and few button-downs that Mike had. We weren’t people who dressed up often. During the holidays we tried to make an effort with our attire.
“Okay.” She tucked a pencil behind her ear, a small pad of paper in her lap.“What I usually do is pick out a color for the backing and then cut the squares. It looks like Mike’s favorite color was yellow,” she laughed, thumbing through the tall stack of shirts and sweatshirts that were all in the yellow family.
“Yes, that’s true, as you can see,” I agreed.
I liked her instantly. She was a sweet girl, upbeat and perfectly poised with an empathy that almost had me choked up.
“I say we go with a yellow backing.” Ivy glanced up at me intermittently while jotting down a few notes.
“That sounds perfect,” I said, content about the project.
“Now, if you find yourself thinking tonight that there’s something here that I have that you don’t want me to cut up, please call me,” she told me. Her forehead creased slightly with trepidation. “I’ll probably start cutting the squares tomorrow.”
“Great. No, you can have it all,” I assured her. “I’ve already sorted everything.”
“I just want to make sure that you’re comfortable. You can always change your mind…I mean…I have your husband’s clothes.” She reached for my shoulder, her fingers lightly pressing. “Thank you for trusting me with them.”
This girl was killing me. Tears poked and pricked. I hastily wiped my eyes as we bagged up all of Mike’s clothes. I didn’t want her to feel bad, because I cried at the drop of a hat these days. This girl had obviously done this many times before. Ivy’s compassion was something she had artfully mastered along with an expertise I would soon be able to drape myself in.
* * *
Later on in the afternoon, I went down to the bank. I’d gotten a lump sum death benefit payout from Mike’s union. It was a relief. I’d made back some of the money I’d had to return to Emma.
I walked into the bank and got in line. Tara, one of the tellers, glanced up from counting and gave me a solemn wave.
Mike and I had come in here the day after Dr. Hikaru had given us the news, telling us that Mike was terminal. We’d come in to make sure all of our bank business was in order. I removed the two death certificates from my purse that Tara had told us I would need after Mike passed away.
After she locked her till, she waved me over. I sat down across from her.
“How are you?” she asked, her teeth catching her lower lip. I made people nervous now. They didn’t know what to say or do. Some tried, some ran away, and some wounded me. I diverted my thoughts back to the people who were giving me what I so desperately needed.
Death was something many had trouble with. As time continued to move forward,I would experience a plethora of behaviors from people.
“It hasn’t been easy. I’ve had a lot of trouble with Mike’s family,” I admitted. I glanced over my shoulder. It was nearing noontime. The lobby was empty. Tara knew me and Mike. We’d been doing our business at this bank for over ten years.
“I saw the announcement on Facebook that your sister posted, about you having to cancel the service,” she said in a hushed voice. She shook her head. “God, let the guy rest,” she sighed, sliding my check toward her.
“My mother-in-law offered to pay for the service. After about two weeks she retracted her offer. I don’t think she was happy with Mike’s final arrangements,” I told her.
“Those are arrangements that he made. It was his choice,” Tara hissed, her eyes blazing with irritation. I shrugged.
“All she had to do was tell me. All any of them had to do was communicate with me. It wouldn’t have made me modify anything. I would have gladly returned her money. I’m Mike’s wife. It’s my job to honor my husband’s last wishes. It’s the way his family went about expressing their frustration,” I said. “They’re angry about other things. There’s no one else to target but me,” I said, exhausted from telling the story.
I questioned whether I should delve into the allegation, right here in the lobby of the bank. I quickly discovered that I didn’t have to. Tara’s next words would shroud Mike’s family with a new, dark evil.
Tara nodded, taking a breath. She leaned across her desk.
“Justine,” she whispered. Tara’s eyes darted around. Her gaze returned to me.“They were in here…Mike’s brother and sister.”
The terminal sickness that this family kept trying to inflict upon me returned, racing through my veins like a lethal dose of heroin.
“They were?” Soured bile rose in the back of my throat. “Why?” I asked.
“They wanted to ensure that your name wasn’t connected to any of their mother’s accounts,” Tara confessed.
“Oh my God.” I sat back in my chair, blown away by another toxic squall.
“Justine…” Tara’s words faded, hanging in an empty air that wasn’t pure enough for me to breathe. “I could get into trouble for saying this about a customer—which they’re really not, their mother is—but you need to stay away from these people. You did the right thing, canceling your husband’s service. Take what I’ve told you today and consider it their first count of slander against you, and it only takes one.” Tara lifted a finger into the air, driving her point.
Mike’s family’s first count of slander really came with the initial accusation, an accusation that didn’t stem from any investigation or inquiry, not to mention proof. I’d slipped away, sucked back into some sort of dingy tunnel, unable to see my way out. Tara’s hand touched mine, drawing me back.
“If you hear of anything else, you should really take action.” Her face was etched with seriousness. “I’m telling you, what they did the other day in here is slanderous, and slander is against the law. The fact that they don’t know that only reflects their own incompetence,” she said.
Tara completed my transaction, passing my deposit slip across the counter.
“You stay well, Justine. If you need anything, anything! Come in and see me,” Tara told me.
My in-laws hated me, and I didn’t know why. I’d never had any type of confrontation with any of them over the fifteen years Mike and I were together. If I gave them all a gun, would they kill me? Their actions were all but killing me. My heart was still beating, living through each day, another day without my husband, as their behavior continued to hammer into me. They were maliciously chipping away a little bit more of my integrity with each passing day.
I found myself contemplating how Lyn or Ben would feel if they were the ones who’d lost a spouse and their in-laws had turned on them, inflicting more torture on someone who was already grief-stricken. Jan and Sara had been divorced for years. It was like my father said. They couldn’t see beyond themselves. I had trouble grasping this. I needed to get past this. I just didn’t know how. Mike’s family’s conduct toward me was poisonous. To slander is to slaughter. To slaughter is to kill.