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The last Valentine's Day
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A year after his wife's sudden death, a widower with three children has learned to braid hair and paint fingernails - and found out more than he ever knew about loneliness, patience and love.

Story by LANE DeGREGORY • Photographs by JENNIFER DAVIS

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 10, 2002


ST. PETERSBURG -- Every morning for almost a year now, Jim Wagenman has gotten up in time to tell his older daughter goodbye. He smacks the alarm clock on his nightstand at 6:30 a.m., nearly knocking over his wedding portrait, and rolls out of his king-size bed. Then, barefoot, he pads down the hall to Ashley's room.

She is 15, a sophomore at St. Pete High. She has thick walnut hair, parted on the side, sad oval eyes, a shy smile. On this Wednesday in late January, she's tucking a long-sleeved red blouse into black pants, shuffling into white sneakers.

"You look terrible!" Jim teases her, squinting.

"Thanks. I have exams, remember? I'm tired."

She buckles her belt, grabs her backpack. A cork bulletin board above the bookshelf is filled with photos of her with her friends, at the mall, at the beach. Next to one of her in her green cheerleading uniform, there's a page torn from a small spiral notebook.

She thumb-tacked it there almost a year ago.

Ashley, says the note in blue ballpoint pen, I LOVE YOU. (Those three words are underlined.) You are a bright spot in my day. Every day. (Those two words are underlined.) Smile. Love always, Mom.

Ashley always looks at that note before she leaves for school. She walks out, closes the door to her room. Strands of green and blue beads bounce against it.

At the bottom of the stairs, Jim hands her two raspberry Nutragrain bars. "Good luck!"

"Thanks. Bye."

Then Jim heads back to the kitchen, bidding a bright "Morning!" to 13-year-old David, who grumbles something back at him, and cooking a handful of ziti for 5-year-old Giana's lunch.

After a quick breakfast of milk and chocolate Pop-Tarts, Giana goes to kindergarten at North Shore Elementary, David walks to the bus stop where he'll ride to Riviera Middle, and Jim drives to Azalea Middle School, where he's been substitute teaching.

Finally, Jim and his kids are starting to get through the mornings, settle into new routines. To feel like a family again.

It's been almost a year now.

Feels like forever.

photo
Jim Wagenman often sits by himself at Crescent Lake Park in St. Petersburg while his 5-year-old daughter, Giana, plays nearby. His life has changed much since Feb. 13, 2001. “I lost my wife, my best friend and the mother of my children.”

Losing heart

About this time last year, Lisa Wagenman got a cold. She was 40 years old, had never been sick. Jim took her to the hospital. Doctors didn't know what was wrong. They put her on machines to help her breathe, to help her heart beat.

Jim's first letter was writen to Lisa after she had been in the hospital for two weeks. It was the first time he had ever written her a letter. He read the letter to her while visiting her in thehospital. Read the letter

Second letter was written later the same day. He said that he kinda knew when writting it that Lisa might not make it. It started out being his thoughts on paper and ended up being a prayer. Read the prayer

On the 17th day, Jim overheard Ashley at the hospital, fussing at her mother, telling her she was tired of doing all the dishes, making all the meals, taking care of her little sister. "So you better get better and come home soon, Mommy!"

That's when Jim told her. "Mommy's not coming home."

That night, Jim wrote his wife a letter. He had never written her a letter. He read it to her, hoping she could hear: Dear Lisa, Where do I begin? I miss your encouraging words, your hugs, your smile, your lips, I even miss your smell. . . . I long to see you at the beach again. I miss your voice and your cooking. My shirt drawer is set up to accommodate shirts the way you fold clothes, now everything is a mess. I don't know what I would do without you. I can't stand the fact that I have to prepare myself for that possibility.

A few hours later, two hours before Valentine's Day, she died. Influenza B and pneumonia, the coroner typed on the death certificate.

Changes for everyone

Now Jim is 35 years old, a widower with three kids. The two oldest are Lisa's from her previous marriage. They chose to live with Jim even though their father came back into their lives after Lisa died. They call Jim Dad.

That's about the only thing that hasn't changed.

Jim had to give up his job as a truck driver because he has to be home mornings to get the kids off to school. He's working as a long-term substitute teacher for $102 a day. Without the income from Lisa's interior decorating business, he can't afford their Crescent Lake house anymore, so he's having to sell it. He can't keep up with all that space anyway, all the vacuuming and dusting, the garage and the yard, can't take care of all that and raise three kids plus care for a whiny dog and a mean old tomcat. He had to ship the terrier, Polo, to California to live with a relative. He kicked the cat outside.

"Buzz seems to like it better out there anyway," Jim says. "He's been acting happier. He's the only one around here you can say that about."

Jim can't afford his membership to Gold's Gym, and he doesn't have time to go there anyway. He feels out of place hanging out with his married friends now that Lisa's gone, but he really doesn't want to dive into the bar scene with his single friends yet, not so soon. And he doesn't have anyone to talk to about all this, not anyone who knows him as well as she did.

Some days are better than others. Some days, Jim and the kids eat hamburgers at Wendy's or watch Friends reruns or chase each other around the park. Some days, no one feels like frolicking.

Holidays have been the hardest. Valentine's Day will always be awful now, and Jim has to plan the kids' birthday parties by himself. Mother's Day was horrible, and his wedding anniversary was worse, and he didn't think he'd get through Father's Day. Lisa's birthday would have been on Thanksgiving, so no one was hungry.

For Christmas, they didn't even get a tree. Jim bought Giana a couple of Barbies and an Operation game and gave Ashley and David money to pick out their own presents. "Lisa always did all the shopping. And the kids said they'd rather have the money anyway," Jim says. "But on Christmas morning, when they didn't have anything to open, they were both really upset."

He's trying, he says. But it's all so hard. So much harder than he ever imagined. And sometimes he gets so mad and lonely and frustrated he needs to scream, needs to hit something until his hands hurt. So the rest of him won't feel so bruised.

Working things out

On a warm Tuesday after school, while the other kids are off with friends, Jim makes Giana a vanilla milkshake and tugs her ponytail. "C'mon, Gigi, let's go out to the garage."

The garage is across a brick patio, behind the house. Jim clicks on the bare bulb overhead. "Here you go, Honey," he says, handing her a brown washcloth. "You wash your Barbie Jeep while I'm working out."

In the back of the garage, a pingpong table has been folded in half to make room. Jim bought an Everlast punching bag after he gave up his gym membership. He hung it above the pingpong table on silver chains.

He tapes his knuckles, then slips on boxing gloves, tugging at the laces and gritting his teeth. He's wearing a white tank top, loose gray gym shorts, crew socks and dirty sneakers. He stretches for a minute, then starts in slowly, attacking the center of the bag, moving up, punching harder, getting into a groove, working up a sweat. The garage is quiet except for the rhythm of his frustration. He's trying to whack out 12 months in 20 minutes.

When Lisa died, so did his old life. He had to quit the $50,000 job he loved and turn to teaching so he could spend weekends and summers with his kids. He found out he needed six credits to become a science teacher, learned he would earn less than half his former salary.

He enrolled at St. Petersburg College in September. Three days a week, before heading to Azalea Middle School, he takes an oceanography class. He got an A on his first exam. "I picked up the cell phone to call Lisa, to tell her," he says. "I was so excited, for a second, I forgot."

He wants to tell her things all the time, little things, like when Ashley made cheerleading. Big things, like when he took the training wheels off Giana's pink bike. "She wobbled a little," he wanted to tell Lisa. "But she kept trying. And before long, she was cruising all over the park. . . . I wish you could have been there." He spends a lot of time wishing.

Sometimes when he was driving in the car, Lisa would hold his right hand and rub his thumb with her thumb. He hated when she did that, and sometimes he pulled away his hand.

He would give anything to feel her doing that again.

He hasn't sought counseling, for himself or the children. He talks to his parents, to his in-laws, to his pastor at Pinellas Community Church. He talks to his friends, too. Married friends who want to set him up on blind dates. Church friends who want to post his photo on Christian singles Web sites. It's hardest talking to his divorced friends.

"Most of my friends wanted to be divorced; they're happy to be out of the bad situations they were in. I loved Lisa. I was happiest when I was with her. So now I've got all this grief, too, mine and the kids'. Plus, I had no time to plan, like someone who is getting divorced, or even whose spouse gets cancer or something. My wife just slipped into a coma. Then she was gone."

As the darkness grows, a cricket starts chirping outside the garage. Jim's punches get harder, faster, louder. Giana finishes scrubbing her Jeep and climbs behind the steering wheel. Silently, she watches her daddy beating up the bag.

His arms and back and neck are soaked. His cheeks are wet, too.

What they want

Giana wants to hear her mommy read stories to her at night, in her own bed, instead of falling asleep alone in front of Animal Planet. She wants to see pictures of her mommy, but they make her cry. She wants to show her mommy the picture of the crown she drew, the one with all the blue and red jewels.

One night, while Jim was tucking in Giana, she pulled his head close and whispered in his ear. "Hey Daddy, if I died, I'd go see Mommy, right?"

Jim closed his eyes. The clock clicked in the quiet. He scooped her into his arms and kissed her on the nose. "Yes, Honey," he whispered. "We would see Mommy again. And you know I love Mommy." Giana nodded, her blue eyes searching his face. He nuzzled her neck. "But I hope we don't see Mommy for a long, long time."

Jim has learned to braid Giana's hair, clean her earrings with alcohol and cotton balls, file her tiny nails and paint them Barbie pink. He's learned to hug David more often, instead of just wrestling him, to let him win every once in a while when they play Playstation 2. And he's learned to talk more to Ashley, to make her talk to him, to listen.

"I want to be more patient with those kids," he says. "I used to go off on the kids about once a month. Now, it's at least once a week."

The kids have had to learn to help do the laundry, to unload the dishwasher, to refill the toilet paper rolls. David has learned to lock the door behind himself, to toast an Eggo, to put his alarm clock across the room so he has to get out of bed to shut if off.

"I used to wake up to the sound of my mom's voice," David says. "Every morning when she walked into my room, she'd say, "Good morning, Sunshine!' " He stops for a second, savoring the memory. Then he smashes both fists into his eyes. Swallows hard.

"Now I wake up to bzzz, bzzz, bzzz," he says.

He wants to play baseball and football, or at least baseball again in the spring, he says. Last year, he didn't get to play sports. His dad didn't have time to take him to practices or games.

Ashley has learned to cook grilled cheese and pork tenderloin with key lime and lemon pepper, not half as well as Mom used to; she's learned to give Giana bubble baths, to read her stories. "Dad tells me I have to act more like a mother to her. One night I had to tell him, "I'm her sister, not her mom.' " Ashley looks down at the floor, scuffing her sneakers. "I'm not her mom."

Ashley wants to wear thong underwear, she wants acrylic nails, she wants to get her belly button pierced. Her mom would have let her, she keeps saying. "Well, Mom isn't here," her dad keeps answering. Like she doesn't know that.

It's hard being a single parent, but it's even harder being the dad of a teenage, motherless girl. One who is starting to look just like her mom, who has her hips and her waist and her face, whose mannerisms, pout, even her arguing remind you of the woman you loved, the woman you lost. Before Lisa died, Jim let her handle most of the parenting. It's hard enough to discipline your daughter. Harder still when her mom still lives inside her.

"Dad was more our buddy before. Now, he's a lot harder on us, on me especially," Ashley says.

She wants to get her driver's license. She wants to hear her dad laugh again. She wants this certain boy in her class to give her a Valentine. She wants to go Rollerblading with her mom again and tell her about the boy and ask her stuff about dating. She wants to date.

She doesn't want her dad to start dating, though. Well, maybe, after a while it might be all right. But it would be weird, for sure.

Not in the dining room

On the first Tuesday in February, two weeks before Valentine's Day, the kids are splitting a Paisano's pizza while Jim tackles a pepperoni stromboli. He's yawning between bites. He was up late last night studying. They're eating on paper plates, sitting on wooden chairs around the kitchen table. They never have dinner in the dining room anymore.

The walnut dining room set was Lisa's favorite furniture; she had saved and saved to buy it. Now, school work and piles of mail blanket the lace tablecloth.

Jim clicks on the small kitchen TV. He and the kids watch Seventh Heaven while they eat. Before, they all used to tease and tell stories around the table. Now, usually, the TV does most of the talking.

During commercials, Jim goes through the mail.

"Hey, David, you didn't show me this." It's David's report card.

David turns away from the TV, studying his pizza.

"Hey, what is this?" Jim shouts. He strides toward his son, wielding the report card like a sword. "Three C's? Three C's? You don't get on the honor roll five times in a row, then come home with three C's. That's just lazy." He throws the offending evidence on the table. "I'm working full time, raising you three kids and going to school, too. And I'm getting A's. Surely, you can just go to school and get B's. It's only eighth grade!"

David hangs his head and takes it. It's not so easy being in eighth grade. His dad ought to know. He's teaching eighth-graders now. But Jim doesn't know.

He doesn't know what it's like to get in trouble, just for talking or something, and have the teacher threaten to call your mom, but you don't have a mom, and should you tell her that? Or would it sound like an excuse? And what would all the other kids say?

After dinner, Jim throws away the plates and turns off the TV, heads upstairs to cool down.

Sometimes, when he is more tired and overwhelmed than usual, he thinks about how much easier his life would be if he didn't have those kids. He could move back to New York, drive a truck again, do all the things he did when he was free.

In his mind, he tries to build his life without them, tries to fill the hole Lisa left with things that used to make him happy before he met her.

But then he thinks about Giana, and how she looks when she's sleeping, so still and small in his big bed. It helps him fall asleep when he can cuddle her, smell her strawberry shampoo, hear her soft breathing.

And then Jim thinks about Ashley, how she calls on his cell phone after school, just to check in, to ask how his day was, to tell him the varsity boys lost their basketball game again, to ask if she and Renee can go to the mall.

And he thinks about David, how some of Lisa's friends have come to take the two girls out for movies and shopping, but no one has come to mother David. Jim thinks he really shouldn't be so hard on the boy, he is a good kid, and he's tired and overwhelmed and angry and hurting, too.

Then it hits Jim, like his hardest blow against the punching bag: He needs those kids even more than they need him.

Another late night

About 9:30 p.m., a half-hour after finding David's report card, Jim strides back downstairs and hugs his son. David looks up questioningly, says nothing. He hugs his dad.

"I have an idea," Jim says, sitting back down at the kitchen table. Ashley and David look up from Looney Tunes. Giana climbs into his lap. "I'm taking Valentine's Day off. And the day before, too. And if you all want, you can stay out of school those days, too." He waits, making sure they understand.

"I was going to stay home alone. But if you all want to, you can stay here with me. We can all be together. Okay?"

The kids nod, wide-eyed.

photo
There’s a moment to smile as Jim jokes with a friend after church.
Jim forces a smile. Then he walks into the laundry room, brings back a stack of freshly folded towels, hands it to Ashley. "Put these away for me, please, and head on upstairs, now," he says. He walks into David's room, turns on the alarm clock. "No, you're not grounded," he tells his son. "But I do need you to do better. You need to study more. Now, get some sleep. Good night." Then he carries Giana upstairs and tucks her into his bed, turns on Animal Precinct. She wraps her thin arms around his thick neck, kisses his scratchy cheek.

"Good night, Daddy. I love you."

"Good night, sweet Gigi. I love you, too."

As he heads out of the room, Jim takes his canvas briefcase from beside the dresser. He still has to do his oceanography homework. And grade the quizzes from his sixth-period class. And finish two more loads of laundry. He clicks off the hall light.

Then Jim Wagenman, who has been a widower for almost a year, goes back downstairs in the dark, yawning, and faces another late night alone.

***

Related stories:

WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO . . .
The man who lost his wife on Valentine's eve
New job. New house. A motorcycle. A new tattoo. Life has gone on for Jim Wagenman and his kids, but they still deal with the aftermath of Lisa's death every day. [3/18/03]

If I could do magic like Harry Potter ...
Then perhaps a powerful spell could heal a heart shattered by a mother's death, a St. Petersburg teen writes in a contest. [6/12/03]

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