The man who lost his wife on Valentine's eve

Published March 18, 2003|Updated Aug. 31, 2005

On rare mornings when he's not running late, after he has packed lunches for his three kids and made them breakfast, after he has shoved all his students' papers into his backpack, braided Giana's long blond hair and hugged Ashley and David goodbye, if he has a few extra minutes, Jim Wagenman rides his new motorcycle to his new job.

He bought the bike as a present for himself, a symbol of survival _ a new start. He couldn't have had one before. Lisa wouldn't have let him.

He got the new job because he had to be around in the mornings, for the kids. He gave up driving a truck and now teaches language arts and science at Fitzgerald Middle School in Clearwater. He took a 33 percent pay cut, but at least he has summers off.

Last summer, Jim spent most days painting his new house. He had to sell the one he, Lisa and the kids had shared near 22nd Avenue N because he couldn't keep up with the vacuuming and yardwork without her. And without her salary as an interior decorator, he could barely make the mortgage payments. So he and the kids moved into a smaller place.

Lisa didn't decorate this home, like she had everywhere else they'd lived.

But she's all over the walls, the furniture, the refrigerator.

She's even under Jim's shirt now.

Borrowing mommies

It has been more than two years since Lisa Wagenman died.

She was 40. She caught a cold, which turned into pneumonia, and died a couple of hours before Valentine's Day. She left her husband, Jim, without a wife or best friend. She left her kids, who were 5, 12 and 14, without a mom.

Sometimes now, for a few hours at a time, her family can forget the hole she left inside it, ignore the hurt it always feel. Sometimes Jim and the kids can pretend this is normal now, the Wednesday nights eating at Wendy's before church; the four of them, instead of five, sitting around the dining room table; lounging around their new living room, watching While You Were Out, ripping on TV people's tacky decorating tastes.

Then one of them will remember. "Mom made better pork chops, no offense." "Your mother never would have chosen that fabric to go with that rug."

"It's not that we talk about her on purpose. We're not sitting around crying or moping anymore," Jim says. "It's just that it comes up. "Your mother did this or that.'

"Really, she still comes up all the time."

Like when Ashley had her first wreck. She crashed her new/old K-car into the back of some woman's sedan. She sat there sobbing, her long brown hair hanging over her face. "Do you want to call your mom or something?" the woman asked innocently. Ashley looked up through her tears. She started crying even harder.

David wishes his mom could have seen him start high school. He's at Lakewood now, ninth grade. He's getting taller. His shoulders are broadening. He can beat his dad at Playstation 2.

Giana is in second grade at her new school, Maximo Elementary. On Thursdays, which are half-days for her (whole days for Jim) she goes home with her friend Hannah and her mommy. Lots of her friends share their mommies.

Jim finally got some grief counseling. He signed up for a self-actualization seminar through his church. He let his hair grow. He slicks it back now. He started going to the gym again, a couple of times a week. He still wears his gold wedding band. But he moved it to his right hand. He has started dating, some _ maybe four women this past year.

But he can't find anyone he can talk to like he could Lisa. No one will ever know him like she did.

Images of Lisa

At their new house, Jim and the kids don't keep expecting Lisa to walk through the front door. They don't have to remember her picking out that wallpaper or special-ordering those kitchen cabinets. They can't wander into her empty office and sit in what was supposed to be her chair.

Still, even 20 minutes across town, in this house she never saw, she's everywhere.

The sun and moon mirrors that used to shine down from her office walls hang in the front hallway of this new house, the first thing Jim and the kids see when they come home.

Jim painted the living room a light cream color. "Vanilla," he corrects. "Lisa always wore that scent."

He let the kids decorate their rooms last summer. And she's in them, too.

Ashley painted purple stripes down her walls. "Mom's favorite color." David put his mom's framed picture by his Playstation controls.

And in Giana's room, where Jim helped his 7-year-old glue 24 butterflies on the Barbie pink walls, a portrait of Lisa in her wedding gown smiles beside a poster of the Powerpuff Girls.

"I didn't push their mom's pictures on them. They each asked for their own, had a certain shot they wanted," Jim says. He chose the one of her lying back in a lounge chair on the sand at St. Pete Beach, wearing the bikini she had on the day he met her.

Jim put pictures of her on their new refrigerator, too. Lisa hugging David. Lisa laughing with Ashley. Lisa, Jim and the kids dressed up for someone's wedding. And one of her holding Giana. She's gazing down at her new baby, her eyes almost closed, the most content semismile on her full lips. "That's my favorite one," Jim says. "She's just so beautiful, so peaceful there."

He shoves up the right sleeve of his shirt. Pumps his biceps. There, in fresh, greenish ink, Lisa's face shines from the center of a flaming orange sun.

"She didn't want me to get a motorcycle or another tattoo. Now I have both," he says, smiling sheepishly. He strokes the new tattoo, outlining his wife's face with his finger. "I never saw eyes that came out this nice," he says. "She looks so ultimately happy here, then.

"We all were."

To read our Feb. 10, 2002, story about Jim Wagenman and his family, please click on