A Confession

By Amy Satterthwaite Pappas

All that banging was happening inside my dream; yet it kept going. Insistent. Urgent. 

I rolled over and squinted at the clock. 2:20 a.m. Someone was pounding on the front door. Ahhh, my husband forgot his key. He’s home, finally, from the college basketball game he’d flown down to Wake Forest to see. In darkness, I lurched down the hallway to let him in.

On my porch stood a young Fredericksburg cop. His cruiser was in the driveway, blue lights swirling in the night. I tugged my T-shirt down as far as it would go over my bare legs and wondered if I was in some kind of trouble.

“Are you Mrs. Pappas?” he asked. 


“Was your husband aboard a plane that was supposed to land at Stafford Airport tonight?” 

Yes. Wide awake, shivering, waiting for his next question.

“May I come inside, Mrs. Pappas?”


That’s how I crash-landed into widowhood. My busy, boisterous husband, Mike, was reduced to a coffee can-sized mix of ash and bone because the plane he was in, flown by a local builder who was an amateur pilot, missed the runway in heavy fog and hit the treetops instead. The plane plowed through the trees, smacked the ground, and burst into flames. All four men aboard were killed. We hope they were dead before the inferno, but nobody knows for sure.

They should have said to me that night: Gather all your strength, darling; your husband is gone forever and you must carry on alone. What they said was, “I’m sorry. There were no survivors.” 

I was 44 years old and had two children, in grades four and seven, soundly slumbering in rooms down the hall. It was a school night. The school bus would come at 7:30. I had a tennis match at 9. Mike was to see a foot doctor at 10. Nobody had time for this shit.


We’ve all got our journey, us widows. Some of us squeal in hot, and some of us shuffle in weary. We can learn from each other. I’m a villain in my own story. Use me as a cautionary tale if you want.

I let Eva and Charlie sleep as long as possible that morning; I would have frozen them right there if I could have—sleeping children who still had a daddy. By the time they woke, the crash was all over the news. My house was starting to fill up; the phone was ringing. I swept them bleary-eyed into my bedroom. And after a while, after I told them Mike was gone but I was right here and we would be strong and brave, I left them together on the bed. People were looking for me.

A brand-new widow, especially a younger one in a small Southern city where the newspaper honors all four dead men with stories and columns, is not left alone. Not for a long while. My house was stuffed with people who had no idea what to say to me. One of them informed me that my daughter had been in the shower for 30 minutes. Another tried to gift me a basketball autographed by the Wake Forest team. Rejected.

A woman told me, in front of my mother, that I was welcome to ask her husband for anything I needed “except for sex.” It took all I had left not to slap her. There exists an all-too-brief time early in a woman’s widowhood when she’s the recipient of amazing largesse. People shove each other out of the way to back her up. I tell you this in case you can use it later. I wish someone had told me. The grace period ends soon as the dirt is thrown on the grave.

More people arrived in waves, bringing fresh tears and clichés of condolence. They wanted hugs from me, assurances, other things I couldn’t give. Everything happens for a reason, they told me. They drank. They ate. They laughed too loudly for my children to bear, and my children hid from them.

They took over. They cooked in my kitchen. They threw out fading bouquets and made room for new ones. They answered my phone and said glowing things about my husband to TV reporters camped out in my front yard. They arranged memory cards, speeches, and a catered lunch for 400 mourners at Mike’s Greek Orthodox funeral. They made pilgrimages to the crash site and scavenged pieces of the plane, which they took to Ullman’s Jewelry and had made into dog tags for us that still smell like fire. They raised a sack of cash and gave it to us. They watched me like a boiling pot. It was love, lost in translation—I know that now—yet their love was picked up and received as pity. Insulting, suffocating pity. I never let them see me cry. 

And I would find a way to pay them back, but not in the way they expected. 


A widow forced to manage the two businesses her husband owned, plus the shock her children were under—well, she’d best play against type. The usual script calls for distress, defeat, and gratitude for all the help you never asked for. I gave them a soldier, silent, seething, and ready to fight. No one liked this soldier, but she could march into battle. She got things done. Mike Pappas wouldn’t have liked her, either, but that’s just too bad. He’d been foolish enough to accept a last-minute invitation on a Wednesday night in February and now he was dead.

Another man was supposed to have been the fourth passenger, but he had backed out. We didn’t know him—but he had the gall to phone me up to tell me how lucky he felt. His wife had talked him out of going. “I feel terrible for you, though,” he offered.


We began family counseling. Everyone advised this. I sat stonily through the sessions like a Marine guarding state secrets while my children wept so uncontrollably the therapist couldn’t make out their words. I stayed glued to my chair and let them sob, was relieved to see it. Crying makes me feel helpless and slightly ridiculous, but I was willing to allow that the release of emotions in front of a stranger might benefit my children. It did not. They dreaded going back. We quit after five sessions. Made us feel we were doing grief the wrong way, an unnatural way that needed intervention. 

We were doing many things the wrong way. We pulled away from people, each of us forging our own separate shield against prying eyes. We were three islands floating in the same sea of misery. Unreachable, even to one another.

I was no longer comfortable in our close group of friends. We’d been five couples whose children grew up together. We used to walk to each other’s houses. Now it was four couples plus me, the one they felt sorry for, the extra woman. 

My seventh-grader lived through the same at school. “I hate being the one whose dad died,” she said. She quit the field hockey team and turned down invitations to be with friends. They eventually stopped asking. Middle school drama was in full swing, and my daughter retreated from all of it. She made herself irrelevant.  

“What is happening with Eva?” her friends’ mothers sometimes asked me. I let the silence fall.

My fourth-grader lived on his bicycle in those days, stayed out pedaling Fredericksburg’s streets until dark. Today he has a snazzy road bike from Germany and takes long rides through Albemarle County’s hills and valleys. Charlie won’t talk about his father. He claims to have little memory of Mike or the events surrounding his death. Lies; magical thinking.


People kept knocking at my door. There were lawyers, wanting to represent me should I file a lawsuit over the crash. There were insurance agents working for the pilot’s estate, wanting me to sign things I knew better than to sign. NTSB officials investigating the crash stopped by to collect samples of my children’s saliva to match it to the handful of bones collected in the rubble.

One day a man who knocked at my door asked me what Mike’s wedding ring looked like. I told him it was solid gold with an inscription in Greek engraved inside the band. He pulled it out of his coat pocket like a magician. He’d found it at the crash site, nearly burned through in some places. Morbid and magnificent a thing it still is; a talisman I wear on a chain around my neck when I need extra power.

Sometimes at my door would be men I knew from town, and they wanted things, too. This surprised me, though I’d heard when men were made widowers they suddenly had women clamoring for their attention. Most of these men were married and showed up without their wives. At first they wanted to talk about Mike, and I let them. They had come to check on me, they said, and I could tell they wanted to be counted as someone who stepped up in a crisis. But they stayed too long. Drank too much. Had to be told to go home. 

That woman I regret not slapping? She had spoken unholy prophecy. 

A preacher at one of the city’s oldest churches used to stop by in the evening unannounced to ask if I was sleeping all right. I was, believe it or not. It was the only thing I was succeeding at. I slept deeply and dreamed vividly. I dreamed I was a serpent that glided a few feet above the ground, a low-flying snake twisting down my hall and floating out my front door. On the hunt, venomous and vengeful. 

I stopped answering those knocks on the door. I marched on. I sold Mike’s collection of antique toys. I sold his safe full of pistols and rifles from his skeet-shooting days. I sold his power-washing business; sold off four of the houses he’d bought to flip or rent. One day I looked around and all his stuff was gone. What I had left was his voice on our machine asking callers to leave a message—but the kids convinced me it was unsettling. So I erased that, too. Recorded a new one. Mike will go ballistic when he comes back to nothing, I thought. He’ll say I didn’t ask nearly enough money for his things, wasn’t patient enough to wait for the right buyer. He’ll just die to see it. More magical thinking. 


We’d met as teenagers, Mike and I. He hot-rodded around Charlottesville in his ’69 Chevelle in the company of other boys living and driving too fast. His parents sent him away to boarding school, and I didn’t see him again until after college. We both ended up working in little Orange, Virginia. He sold Harley-Davidsons at Waugh Enterprises and I wrote for the weekly newspaper. We started dating because we were the coolest single people in town, and because there wasn’t anyone else to date. He’d become steady and organized, while I was messy and mercurial. We balanced out, moved to Fredericksburg and got married, had children, bought houses. Fifteen busy years flew by.


I was having my hair cut not long after Mike’s funeral when my stylist, out of the blue, told me she had a customer who said she talked to my husband. I was confused. I’d misheard her. What?  

“She talked to Mike just last week,” my stylist said. “She’s just… that kind of person.” I asked for this customer’s phone number, though she was probably a kook. The crash investigation was front-page news and was bound to stir up strangers wanting to insert themselves into the story. 

But wait, that name. I’d met her before. She was a substitute teacher in the yoga class I used to take. A lovely woman, my age. Mike, who had stuck with yoga long after I stopped, had studied under her. I think she went to his gym. I started to wonder if Mike had known her much better than I’d thought. I dialed her up.

The yoga teacher told me her story. She said she had walked into her living room in the middle of the day and there was Mike Pappas, sitting in a chair. She knew he was dead, but there he was. He was troubled, worried sick about me and the kids. He wanted me to “keep going.”  

My brain took in what she said and then my brain ejected it as gibberish. More lies; still more magical thinking. We were silent a few minutes. She waited for me.

“Why didn’t you call me up and tell me?” I asked. We had a landline. We were in the phone book.

She said she wasn’t sure I’d remember her, or that I’d want to hear any of it. By telling our stylist, she figured it would be my choice whether to contact her.

“Why does he talk to you and not me?” I asked her.

He says you’re too angry to listen, she said. OK, now I was listening. But she was done. If Mike had said anything else to her, the yoga teacher kept it to herself. She told me she sometimes got important messages from her dead grandmother, but she had no control over when that happened either.

I asked her to call me if Mike ever came back, which sounds bizarre when I write it out as a sentence. I never expected to hear from her again. Mike appeared in my dream not long after, a forlorn figure who couldn’t or wouldn’t speak. I persuaded myself that the yoga teacher’s encounter with Mike must have been a vivid dream of hers as well.

Then it was late spring and I couldn’t start our lawn mower. I almost jerked my arm off yanking on the pull-start. I was alone in the backyard and therefore not wearing my shield of armor, so I cussed my dead husband out loud. How dare he leave me with all the work, all the bills, all the parenting forever and ever! It was a hissy fit for the ages. But I had to knock it off because my cellphone started ringing in my back pocket. 

It was the yoga teacher. 

“Are you screaming at your husband right now?” she asked. I sank to my knees on the grass. 

She said my fury made Mike so awfully sad and sorry.  She said, “He wants me to say “You’re doing it, Honey.” 

There’s no way—none—she could know that’s exactly what he used to say to me when I struggled with something. He’d almost sing it. “You’re doing it, Honey!” 

She never called again. She died a few years later from a fall while she was hiking. I hope she and Mike reconnected somewhere in the great beyond, because now I’m sure there is a “beyond,” which is a much more exciting prospect for death than eternal nothingness.


The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the pilot’s inexperience and mistakes were to blame for the crash. This pilot owned a large insurance policy, but the piece offered to me was appallingly low. I hired a lawyer and we filed a $10 million wrongful death lawsuit against the pilot’s estate and insurance company. We asked for the maximum after they had offered me the minimum. We settled privately. It’s all very boring compared to talking ghosts, but the minute we filed the lawsuit people’s attitudes toward me changed. I was greedy. I was cruel. The pilot lost his life, why should his family have to pay out? 

No one was brave enough to ask me that to my face; but they talked. I heard. We felt it. And you know what? I preferred their disgust to their pity. It suited me.

And that’s the very point when I should have packed us all up and moved home to Charlottesville. Where our parents would see how we floundered behind our shields. Where we wouldn’t have to pretend. Where they would love us no matter how ugly we were being.

“Don’t make any sudden moves for at least a year,” is the common advice given to widows. Like most advice, it belongs in the garbage. By the time we finally packed up and left—four torturous years later—all the damage had been done, all the bridges burned.


“Do you think you’ll get married again?” a friend asked me back then.

“Never,” I said. “Never again will I be someone’s wife.” It felt like taking an oath when I said it.

Mike’s mother told me that was nonsense. “You’re too young to be alone,” she said. “Someday, I hope you’ll fall in love and remarry.” 

Well, I had fallen in love again, but I couldn’t tell her that. Marriage was out of the question. He already had a wife. I kept so many secrets back then, told so many lies. But small towns are fishbowls. People found out. I lost about every friend I had, which is what I deserved. I eventually lost him, too, which is what he deserved, though I still love him and always will.


A deadly February blaze began my story, and a careless February blaze four years later would be its bookend. It was bitterly cold; snow on the ground in February 2010. I’d spent the evening staring into the fireplace. The children were asleep in rooms down the hall. It was a school night. The bus would come at 7:30. I had a tennis match at 9. 

I scooped up the hot coals into a box to put outside to cool on the icy driveway. But I went to bed and left them on the wood floor in my den. The coals burned through the box and into the floorboards and walls.  

I dreamed I heard a clangorous beeping noise that went on and on. An insistency. An urgency. 

Jesus, my smoke alarms were going off. It was hard to breathe. The house was on fire! I woke the children and we shivered in our pajamas outside in the snow until the fire department came and let us sit in a warm firetruck.

We were strong and we were brave, but it was time to go home for good. We left for Charlottesville. Mike would find us there.   

My husband remains a golden young man, handsome and honorable. Above reproach, which is irritating. He’s watched me screw up, but he also got to see me learn to make his mother’s favorite Greek dishes before she died. Our kids are adults now, and complicated as all people are, and Mike has watched me love them the best way I can.

As for the surviving widow? She ages, gets wrinkles, no longer has to shoo men away. She is haunted by her mistakes. Confessing them here is throwing the last match on the embers. I guess that’s what I do. I get angry and I burn things down. Sometimes those things grow back. If they don’t, that’s probably how it should be. 


Amy Satterthwaite Pappas lived and wrote and raised two children in Fredericksburg, Virginia, before moving back home to the Charlottesville area in 2010. She fools around with writing and painting when she’s not fighting the wild woods from taking over her Crozet property.