Wednesday, May 03, 2006
Past a curved lane and down a rocky driveway sliced through a swath of skinny towering pines in New Franklin, Ohio, an oasis emerges. Complete calm exudes from the modern ranch resting amid fives acres of greenery, despite telltale signs of young life everywhere: upside-down bicycle helmets strewn about the lawn, a gray pygmy goat hopping atop his pen.
Other clues point to a cog missing from the well-oiled machine. Fresh lettering on the mailbox spells out only one name, that of 41-year-old Dan McNeill, who jokes with his children as they beg to go fishing. Yet when they depart and talk turns to their mother, Barbara Jean McNeill, Dan’s eyes glisten behind the panes of his glasses and his head drops. “I’m capable of dying of a broken heart,” he sighs.
Feb. 6, 2006
The date will forever be a bold notch on the timelines of those who loved Barb, a 38-year-old homemaker. On that cold Monday, Dan carted their six home-schooled children down to Salt Fork State Park for a day of fun and learning, while sons Jerry, 7, and Christopher, 14, attended their respective conventional schools.
This left Barb home alone with newborn Edward Benedict – a mere two weeks old at the time – plus 19-month-old Matt, and Andy, 3. Perhaps she paused to admire the vista from the bare picture window above her kitchen sink while cradling Eddie to her breast. What is known is that Barb placed two bowls on the counter, all set to serve her toddlers a lunchtime ice cream treat – but instead, she collapsed and died.
When Christopher arrived home from school an hour or more later, he discovered his mom on the floor and little Andy caring for their two youngest brothers. Christopher called both 911 and his dad, who eventually learned that the woman who’d been his first and only real girlfriend was gone. But Dan pressed through shock and turned his concern to another: “I didn’t know if Eddie was alive or dead,” he says. Eventually, Dan learned that Eddie had suffered a bloody nose and black eye, probably due to falling from Barb’s arms, but was okay. “There’s nothing official yet,” says Dan regarding possible causes of Barb’s unexpected end, but conversations with the coroner point to natural causes pertaining to the heart. Whatever the diagnosis, Dan is comforted by his belief that his humble wife is rid of the low self-esteem that she experienced on occasion: “Only in heaven could she…see her own perfection and finally believe it,” says Dan.
A Love Story
It is a perfection that Dan saw in Barb from the beginning, before the day they married in 1989, and in years following, as they filled their home with 11 of the dozen offspring she desired. “She always loved children,” says Dan. But Dan admits that even a patient, faith-filled woman like Barb could be pushed to the brink with such a large brood underfoot and her husband toiling away at his insurance job. “Some days she’d be waiting for me in the driveway,” Dan chuckles.
In spring 2005, the duo escaped on a much-needed vacation – their first one sans kids – to Ireland and London. On August 13, 2005, Barb’s final birthday, Dan poured out his appreciation for his wife of 16 years in a long letter. “Holy crap…” he wrote, a man still entranced by his bride, “those tiger eyes…I can’t believe she’s mine!”
Signs and Wonders
At the cemetery, Dan needed a sign. He faced huge familial decisions, “80 percent of which would have normally been made by Barb,” he notes. He prayed for an indication that he was going in the right direction. After traipsing over to a Chinese eatery, Dan was saddened by the elderly couples surrounding him. “I realized Barb and I would never grow old together.” Cracking open his fortune cookie, he pulled out a sliver of paper – now laminated and kept deep in the recesses of his brown leather wallet – that read, “The love of your life is right in front of your eyes.”
A Legacy Lives On
“She’s very close,” Dan says, describing the miracles that began happening the day after Barb’s death. First there was the ER doctor from Akron Children’s Hospital who was deeply touched by the life of the selfless housewife. Years earlier, Barb had been treated abruptly by one of the hospital’s ER docs and vowed not to return there, but she prayed that one day she and her family would somehow touch the heart of one of the facility’s doctors. Her prayer came true. Dr. Scott, who took care of baby Eddie the day Barb died, told Dan that her personal and professional life had been touched by his family more than he could imagine. Dr. Scott attended Barb’s funeral, which took place four years to the day since Barb had been treated abruptly at the hospital.
Another legacy was the effect of Barb’s sudden death on friends. One of the family’s friends quit his all-consuming job to spend more time with his family. When Dan and several others viewed Barb’s body, a transformation took place. “I felt complete peace,” Dan recalls. “We were faithful and had no untold secrets.” Just like that day, some sob upon hearing of the open and honest relationship between husband and wife, hoping to emulate it. “There was guilt in that grieving from the others,” Dan senses.
Dan looks to the future with “cautious optimism,” and plans to expand his home to get all his children on the same level. “I really want to get the kids out of the basement,” he says. The widowed father doesn’t hide behind platitudes and machismo. “I’m a mess, personally. There’s a fear that I’m going to screw it up.” Yet deep-seated regrets and anger aren’t apparent. “We did it all,” he says. “We gave 110 percent. I’m still married and committed to my vows. Barb was God’s gift to me.”
How to Help
Send checks payable to:
The McNeill Children at Sky Bank, 1790 Graybill Road, Uniontown, OH 44685.
Sidebar: “Help for the Hurting”
Tips from The Grief Recovery Handbook: The Action Program for Moving Beyond Death, Divorce, and Other Losses by John W. James and Russell Friedman:
1. Ignore advice to “keep busy,” “be strong” and that “time will heal all wounds.” Face your hurt feelings over a loved one’s death – the sooner the better.
2. Identify and avoid short-term energy relieving behaviors that prolong problems, such as overeating, isolation, fantasizing, workaholism, unhealthy sex, “retail therapy,” alcoholism, etc.
3. Be honest about your relationship with the deceased. Graph both the good and bad interactions you two shared.
4. Log all the apologies, forgiveness requests and significant emotional statements you never got to communicate.
5. Turn your list into a letter and read it aloud to a trusted friend who agrees not to interrupt, judge or repeat what you’ve shared.
This profile originally appeared in the May 2006 issue of Akron Family magazine.