‘Hours began to pass, and still no Andy. I called him. It went to voicemail. Then I saw it. The paddleboard, empty.’: Widow still has no answers after husband drowned, but ‘will never know how, why’

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“My life took a dramatic turn – on Paradise Lane of all places. This road is the last road my husband would drive and the first place I would have to face a new life. A life I did not choose, one I did not want, one that brought unimaginable pain, sadness, and fear. More emotional, physical, and mental turmoil than one human should not have to bear.

What happened at Paradise Lane? It is quite the story. It all started with a pregnant woman, an episode of a sappy TV show and a man dancing in a child’s birthday party hat. This is how my day started, one very unseasonably warm Minnesota day in November – the Saturday after Thanksgiving. One would never guess that by the end of the day I would find myself returning back to this same room where laughter and joy once filled the space, to now a room filled with immense anxiety, uncontrollable pacing, and pure and utter heartache.

Courtesy of Katie Stifter

You see Andy was a man of great interest and hobby – and it drove me crazy. Ever since I met the man, he had this quirky trait that continued the entire 10 years we were married – from learning to play the harmonica, marathon running, ordering designer shoes online, beer making, origami, gardening, growing loofah’s, conquering the rubix cube – literally you name it he tried it. His current hobby was photography and paddle boarding, which he loved to do on our beautiful lake in the small town we lived. So that day in November, he decided to venture out on the lake one final time before winter set in.

Courtesy of Katie Stifter

I was pregnant with our third child at the time, and my hormones had gotten the best of me that morning, as I sobbed watching the above-mentioned sappy TV show. He always loved to make me laugh and smile. He was the funniest man I had ever met. I’m pretty sure he married me to have a permanent audience to all of his jokes. It worked – I always laughed with, at, and about him. So of course, my last memory of him is dancing in a child’s party hat that my 6-year-old son had received from a recent birthday he attended. His dance was a success; I chuckled and rolled my eyes as he danced across the room, trying his best to make me smile before he left.  In fact, this was the last memory I have of my dear Andy. I wouldn’t change it for the world. This is who he was and this was who we were – always laughing, always teasing, but most importantly, always sharing our love for one another.

Jody Savage photography

Hours began to pass since he left earlier that morning. We had plans with friends later that day with our children (9 and 6 years old at the time). So as time went by and still no Andy, I decided to call him. I picked up my phone and called Andy – no answer. At the time I wasn’t worried. A half an hour later I tried calling again. Still no answer. Not worried yet. Eventually, the ringing stopped and the calls started going directly to voicemail. It was very unlike him to not answer, and for his phone to now be dead. It was around 1:30 and I started to worry. I told myself at 2:00 if he was not home, I was going to drive over to the lake and see what was taking him so long. 2:00 came and went.

2:45, anxiety started to go in overdrive. It was not like Andy to be gone for so long, to not answer his phone, especially when we had plans later in the day. 3:00 came. No Andy. I threw on one of Andy’s jackets and told my daughter to watch her brother. I tried my best to be as calm as possible for my children. They didn’t suspect anything was wrong. I tried to push my anxieties out of my head, but I was shaking and crying as I drove to the lake.

Courtesy of Katie Stifter

I made a left turn onto Paradise Lane which was the road that lead to our local beach access. I pulled up and saw our car. The car we bought together earlier in the year to prepare for our new baby boy. Then it was as if my worst nightmare, the worst moment, had now become a reality. I pulled past the parking lot and my husband’s car and drove on the little gravel road that was adjacent to the lake. And I saw it. The paddleboard, far from shore… empty.

‘This isn’t real, this isn’t real,’ kept repeating in my head, as I paced and tried to process what to do next. ‘Andy is going to be so angry at me if I call 9-1-1. He is probably on the shore somewhere taking pictures.’ Time felt still and in fast forward all in the same moment. I grabbed my phone and called 9-1-1. I started screaming his name, ‘ANDY, ANDY, ANDY,’ as I frantically looked on the shore line that was covered in trees, shrubs, and fallen leaves. I hear the sirens roaring, coming in my direction. It felt like the makings of a movie, except I was the lead character in a new horror show, which was my life.

As I paced and waited for help to arrive on the scene, I began making phone calls. First to my neighbor, and asked her to get the kids. I don’t know exactly what I said but something to the effect of: ‘Andy is missing… and the kids, can you get the kids?’ She had her husband get my children and she fled to my aid. When I saw her, we hugged and cried. Later she told me all she could hear me repeating over and over is ‘I don’t want to live without him, I want to die, I want to die’ as I knelt in the grass opposite of the shore.

Courtesy of Katie Stifter

Police and ambulance began to arrive and start the process of trying to find Andy. Much of what happened that night was a blur, a lapse of time that I don’t think my body and mind can handle to remember. I do know that as my neighbor and I stood there in the cold, with noises of sirens in the background and pure terror on our faces, an ambulance driver approached us. He asked us to pray with him. We huddled together and began the words of ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ and for that moment, I felt peace.

By the lake, there was an event center that was used to host weddings and different celebrations. I can imagine all the happy times and memories this place held, but to me it will forever be a holding a cell, a place I never want to return, a place where I spent countless hours praying, sobbing, and screaming at God to please find my husband. We were allowed to use this event center to warm up and were quickly ushered inside after the owner arrived. By this time family had arrived and the waiting began. I remember officers telling me that if he is in the water, they will find him quickly. By this time, they had already found my Andy’s keys, camera, and phone on the bottom of the lake directly under the board. But no Andy. This gave me such hope. If he did drown, he would be there with the keys, camera and phone. This means he was on the land.

Of course, he was on land. He was in such good shape and always had been. He was a veteran who was training for an Ironman. If anyone could swim to shore – it was Andy. The water was eerily calm. There was not a current, the water was so still it looked like glass, so there was a confidence which was followed by confusion as the night dragged on, with no Andy. If he was in the water, they should be able to find him. Where was he? As disgusting as this is to say: conditions were perfect for finding a body, ‘my’ husband’s body.

Courtesy of Katie Stifter

Countless rescue teams, including rescue dogs, were present with boats and equipment searching both land and water. Eventually, teams were sent home. It was getting colder and officers and rescue teams were tired. We were told we should go home too and try to get some rest. ‘Rest, Rest!? My husband is out there somewhere! It is cold and he could be dying right now, and I have to go home and rest? Why are we stopping? I should be looking!,’ kept ringing through my head. It was unfathomable to me, but eventually I was persuaded to go home and searching would continue right away the next morning. I couldn’t just think of me but I was also 17 weeks pregnant, I had to try to rest my body. Andy wasn’t found that night. 3 weeks and 4 days to be exact. That is how long the waiting lasted.

Courtesy of Katie Stifter
Courtesy of Katie Stifter

At first the lake and event center where buzzing with activity. Search teams, divers, dogs, drones, volunteers, anything you could think of – they were there helping. But as the days progressed, so did the cold weather. Eventually, the lake froze. I could not sit at the event center each day anymore. I was sent home to sit, day in and day out, waiting for news. With the closure of each day – no news. Panic had already set in, but now a new terror had taken its place – the reality and thought of not finding him. Thoughts of not having closure and having to wait until spring to begin the process of searching again. It was both frightening and sickening to have to imagine my life alone without Andy, but now without even being able to put him to rest.

On December 20th, 2016, a man went ice fishing. This man drilled his hole, dropped his camera, and it landed on my husband’s foot. This fisherman did aid in the search and knew the lake better than anyone, but was not searching for Andy that night. This fisherman found my Andy when countless volunteers and experts could not. To me, this was nothing but divine intervention.

The retrieval of a body from a frozen lake does not happen quickly. As the hours started to pass and close family started to arrive, I knew this was going to be a long process into the night. I was going to have to talk to my babies. I was going to have to tell them their daddy, their comforter, their wrestling partner, was dead. They knew their Daddy was missing and there was a good chance he would not return, but just as I did, they held out hope that he was alive. I am not exactly sure how I told them, my mind has suppressed that painful moment. There were many, many tears and shouts of pain as they learned the news.

Jody Savage photography

For reasons beyond my understanding, this is where my husband’s life would stop. We will never know exactly what happened – because he died alone. One could speculate hypothermia because the weather was deceivingly warm but the water wasn’t. We do know he drowned, but we will never know how or why. What I do know is the pain is raw, heartrending. It was then and will follow me throughout my lifetime.

The finding of his body resulted in a funeral, which happened a day after Christmas. We were able to have an open casket. The cold water preserved his body. The viewing of this missing man was necessary for everyone. My community had rallied around us. Finally, seeing the person they were looking for after such a long-awaited search. Finding him was both bitter and sweet relief. I finally had him back. I finally knew where he was. I could touch, kiss and talk with him again. But the conversation would only be one-sided from here on out.

The intensity of the heartache is real, but this is not where I am choosing to stop. On April 29th, 2017, Andy and I welcomed our 3rd child. Although Andy was not there physically, he was there. We all felt his presence as our baby boy Sullivan ‘Sully’ Andrew entered the world. He brought so much healing, love and new life to our family. He will never meet his earthly daddy, but my hope is he will feel the love of his daddy from all of us and the stories we share with him.

Courtesy of Katie Stifter

We mis our Andy, daddy, son, and friend every day. There is no denying his death was very tragic and has caused great emotion, sadness, heartbreak and so much more (it’s actually hard to put words to the feelings) but my life will continue to move forward. I will cherish all the wonderful moments and memories my late husband and I created. Meeting Andy, having 3 wonderful children and constantly laughing will never fade from my heart.

Courtesy of Katie Stifter
Courtesy of Katie Stifter

That being said, my lifetime did not end the day that Andy’s did. I will have more tragedy, sadness, loss- it’s inevitable. More importantly, I will have love again, happiness, laughter, accomplishments, and hope. My heart will heal but the scar of loss and love will remain.

I am in no way an expert at grief and will never claim to be, but through my experience and journey through loss, my hope is: whatever tragedy you are experiencing or have experienced, know that life can move forward, life can still have laughter, joy and most importantly, happiness! I will spend each day trying to find it – because those are all the things that he brought to me and I owe it to him and myself to have a Life Continued!

Stephanie Witty Anderson Photography

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Katie Stifter of Waconia, Minnesota. You can follow her grief journey on Facebook, Instagram and her website. Katie has a book about her full story being released Summer of 2019. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here, and subscribe to our best stories in our free newsletter here.

Read more inspiring, powerful stories from widowers:

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