Department

Wife Interrupted

How one woman is navigating a family tragedy and single motherhood—in a very public way.
December 2011

On a late-summer morning in a suburb south of Denver, Tricia Williford flits through her newly hectic routine. It’s her older son, Tucker’s, first day of kindergarten, and Tricia is making her five-year-old a sandwich while he watches a Smurfs cartoon in the family room. Tucker’s three-year-old brother, Tyler, sits at the kitchen table, drawing with some markers. They all have to leave in 20 minutes.

Tricia cleans up a juice puddle on the kitchen floor, puts away the dishes, and politely—but firmly—asks Tyler to find his Captain America shoes. “I don’t know where they are,” Tyler says without looking up. “Well, I guess you’re going to have to look,” Tricia says. “Get your brother to help you.”

Tricia is 32, with dark strawberry hair and striking features, a schoolteacher turned writer and editor. Her blog, teachingtuckandty.blogspot.com, started as a fun, easy way to update family and friends on the Willifords’ lives. By last December, she had written more than 1,100 entries, everything from game-night recaps to baby firsts to the time Tyler accidentally locked his mother and brother in a room while his dad, Robb, was out of town, and the police had to come let them out. Like so many “mommy blogs,” Tricia’s generated modest traffic, maybe a few dozen hits per month.

Tyler has finally located his shoes, and before they leave, Tricia grabs a red marker and writes on a sheet of white paper, “My First Day of Kindergarten.” She hands it to Tucker, his red hair perfectly parted, looking sweetly handsome in his khaki cargo shorts and a red-and-white striped shirt. “Outside, kiddo,” she says.

Tricia finds her camera, opens the front door, and stops her son on the porch.

“Right there,” she says. “Hold up the paper. Now smile.”

Snap. “Ooooh, that looks good.”

Tricia posts the photo a few days later on the blog, with the caption, “Bring it.” She can’t help but notice how much Tucker looks like his dad.

Robb Williford was born in central Ohio, a pastor’s son. He attended the Ohio State University, where he played trombone in the school’s acclaimed marching band. When he returned home on a break, he met Tricia. She was the daughter of his father’s assistant, but she was still in high school.

At first, Robb wasn’t interested. His staid demeanor was nothing like Tricia’s outgoing personality, and he was four years older than her. (Their age difference was largely why Robb waited two years to ask her out.) Tricia was similarly wary, but Robb, at six feet tall with short-clipped hair, looked endearingly like an oversize teddy bear to her, and she soon warmed to their dynamic: Tricia the vibrant one, the helium in their balloon; Robb the string that kept her grounded. Three months after their first date, Robb proposed.

Robb’s father married them in 2000, and the pair eventually moved to Colorado, where Robb worked as a corporate trainer with Farmers Insurance and Tricia taught elementary school in Jefferson County. They lived the classic suburban life in their modest two-story atop a stamp of land in Highlands Ranch: going to church, playing in the park with the boys, sitting together at their favorite coffeehouse. Sometimes they’d invite friends over. Robb would bake an extra pan of lasagna and make everyone feel at home.

After their wedding, Tricia had a premonition. “She needed to love every moment with him, because she felt that he’d somehow be taken from her,” says Melissa Eisenbrandt, a friend of Tricia’s. Robb had a sledding accident in 1989, after which he had his spleen removed and nearly died. Since then he’d struggled to fight off even basic illnesses. Colds lingered. Infections recurred. Once, his intestines became twisted, a complication from the surgery.

On December 22, 2010, Tricia fetched a prescription from the pharmacy; their Christmas party plans had to be scrapped because of Robb’s flu. But the doctor said with some rest he’d be fine.

Robb had already gotten a Christmas tree, bought toys for the boys, and had found red satin pajamas and sassy black boots for Tricia. Wrapped, tagged, perfect. As he rested in their bedroom, Tricia tried to hand him some medication. “No, no, baby girl. Stay away,” he told her. “You can’t get this.” He said she should sleep downstairs.

Tricia fell asleep on the TV room couch. At 5 a.m., Robb called her cell phone: I need you. She bolted upstairs to find him sitting at the edge of the bed, his eyes wide, gasping for air. Tricia dialed 911. Robb collapsed onto the floor. Tricia screamed for help as his face turned gray. She screamed again.

“For a moment, he opened his eyes, and in a valiant, courageous effort he pushed himself to a sitting position,” Tricia wrote on her blog two weeks later. “He leaned against the wall, rested his head back...and he found me with his eyes.”

Then he passed out. Tricia tried to clear his airway with two fingers, but Robb bit her. Paramedics arrived and tried to revive him while Tricia waited in the kitchen, but Robb, stricken with streptococcus pneumonia with complications from sepsis, never regained consciousness.

Christmas was a fog. The boys played with their new toys as family and friends hugged and cried around them. Pans of lasagna began filling the refrigerator, although Tricia couldn’t bring herself to eat it; nobody made lasagna the way Robb did.

Tricia’s friends came by to get her out of bed, help her take a shower, or walk her to her doorway so she could look out the window and see the sun. She wrote one blog post about Robb’s death and downloaded audio of her speaking at his funeral, but then she stopped writing until January 4. That’s when she drove to a nearby Starbucks—“I felt like it was the only place people weren’t staring at me”—and began a new chapter: “My husband died on the morning of December 23, 2010,” she wrote. “The following is my personal account of his final hours, the story I must write. Please be advised, these paragraphs are graphic, detailed, personal, and mine. Read with caution, respect, and care. These words hold my very heart.”

Tricia’s site soon began receiving hundreds of page views as it was passed along outside her circle to women’s groups and neighbors and new widows just like her. By last summer, the blog was getting more than 3,500 views per month.

Her earliest posts focused on her newly widowed life. As winter melted into spring, she looked ahead, rarely hiding her pain. “Suffering is not scary; worrying is,” she wrote. “I haven’t yet found a moment I couldn’t make it through, but I’m nearly always very, very afraid of the next one.”

Some couldn’t believe Tricia was putting so much of her life—and all of her hurt—on display. This only made her write more: about the struggles of married life, and how she and Robb had battled through a troubled stretch to save their relationship.

She still writes, in contemplative bursts, about everyday struggles for what she guesses is a predominantly female audience. There are entries about squishy brakes, burned-out lightbulbs, recycling chores. Her post from July 13 sums up why she continues: “Who do I write for? Is it for you? The invisible you, who might read it? Is it for me? The tangible me that spills and wants the page to catch me? Is it for the therapy of sorting the words, stringing them together, emptying my mind, pouring out my heart?…If I write today with a sprinkling of my yesterday and my tomorrow, perhaps I’ve found the beginning of balance. And so I write.”

Naturally, the grief lingers. One day this fall, a teacher at Tucker’s school spotted Tricia. The woman’s husband had died seven months before Robb.

“I have something in common with you,” the teacher said.

Tricia smiled. “You’re the one they’ve been telling me about.”

“I am,” the woman said. “And I’m sorry you’re in this club.”

“I hate it.”

“I hate it too,” the woman said. “I wish I could tell you the second year is easier. Everyone’s telling you it will be, right? I have to tell you, it sucks in a whole different way.”

Tricia recently ran a 5K race and was soothed by the rhythm of the run: one foot in front of the other, staying on the same path, fighting through the pain. Soon she’ll return to the University of Denver to pursue a master’s degree in creative writing. Someday, she says, she might write a book about all this. Robb always told her he’d retire early and she’d become a writer. “He did retire early,” Tricia says, “and now I am the writer.”

She took off her wedding ring, only recently, to end the “charade” she felt she’d been playing on herself since Robb died. She polished it and put it away in a drawer, and it left her ring finger indented and pale white across that ribbon of skin—a “reserved seat,” she called it. After a few minutes, she got the ring out of the drawer, and then quickly put it back. She reconsidered and got it out again. This time she slipped it on her right hand. She stared at the ring Robb gave her as it gleamed in its new place.

Robert Sanchez is 5280’s senior staff writer. Email him at [email protected].