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John Ritter’s widow recalls heartbreak of his loss

Amy Yasbeck, actress wife of John Ritter, writes poignantly of her life with the popular star of  “Three's Company.” In this excerpt from “With Love and Laughter," she recalls the impact of his sudden loss on her and their 5-year-old daughter.
/ Source: TODAY books

Amy Yasbeck, actress wife of John Ritter, writes poignantly of her life with the popular star of “Three's Company” and “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter,” who in 2003 died of an undiagnosed aortic dissection. In this excerpt from “With Love and Laughter, John Ritter,”  she writes candidly of the effect that Ritter’s sudden passing had on her and their 5-year-old daughter.

John died the night of September 11, 2003. Not only was it our daughter Stella’s fifth birthday, but it was only a few days into her first real week of school. In fact, it was the first day that we parents were expected to drop our kids off instead of walking them in and hovering.

I think the thing with which children and their parents comfort themselves is the knowledge that these separations last only a few hours. Moms and dads reassure their little ones that they will be back for them, even though most parents feel in the pit of their stomachs that they’re kind of abandoning them — especially if it’s their first kid and/or only one. I remember seeing parents and their kids dotting the campus in little intimate clumps, basically having the same conversation: “We’ll be back for you. It’s just a few hours — you’ll have a lot of fun and it’ll go by before you know it.”

Stella had gone to a small co-op nursery school for the previous two years. Co-op, mind you, means that the parents work at school, so John and I were there a lot. This whole kindergarten thing on a giant campus at a big school that went up to eighth grade was a really different feeling for all of us. It was like trying to merge onto an L.A. freeway driving a Big Wheel. As a brand-new 5-year-old, Stella was as brave and trusting of the world — and of us — as we could have hoped. She shared a goodbye kiss with her father that morning believing, on faith, that her time at school would be bookended by another kiss at the end of her day. She’ll never have that kiss.

Late that afternoon, John was taken from work to the emergency room of the hospital across the street. I rushed there to be with him. He died hours later. Stella never saw him again.

Every 5-year-old’s nightmare, whether they can verbalize it or not, is that when they say goodbye to their parents, their parents disappear. Goodbye is goodbye. No differentiation between “goodbye see you later” and “goodbye forever.” This nightmare came true for Stella.

I know kids live through this. I’ve met plenty of adults who lost a parent very, very young. But you can never imagine, until it happens to you, what it’s like to witness your child’s suffering. As much pain as I was in, trying to wrap my head and heart around my own loss, nothing will ever compare with the absolute despair of experiencing this tragedy through my daughter’s eyes.

My first instinct was to keep her out of school and hibernate the rest of the year away; she could just start again the next September. I knew this was the wrong tack and I would have to pull her out of school for a while and then slowly reintroduce her to the idea of kindergarten. After a pretty cruel false start, it wasn’t going to be easy. Besides, John was the big school fan. He loved school, everything about it. He had an abundance of warm memories about his adventures in grade school and at his beloved Hollywood High and USC. Me? Not so much. My experiences were not so nice. John and I had an understanding that he was going to be holding my hand for the next twelve or so years when it came to anything school-related. I was in this alone now and everyone’s advice that September was that Stella needed school and normalcy ... right. Okay.

One week after John died, Stella started back at school. The drill was: I would go to school with her, drop her off in class, hang around close by, and then slowly start to leave campus for longer and longer periods of time. Clearly, this was as hard for me as it was for her. Her school was up on Mulholland Drive. And when I first forced myself to get back in my car and actually drive away from her, I didn’t get very far. In fact, I just drove in huge loops down to Ventura Boulevard, slowly cruising along for a couple of miles, then back up another canyon to Mulholland, across the tops of the mountains past her school, and then back down another canyon road to Ventura Boulevard in the Valley.

I didn’t listen to the radio. Not only was talk radio to be avoided — especially Howard Stern — but every song was about John. When I was pregnant with Stella, he told me that one of the many amazing effects that having a baby has on your relationship to the world is that every song on the radio becomes about your baby. Every love song is suddenly about your new love. This little person.

It’s true for every parent. I remember my dad, who sang me to sleep every night with a repertoire of songs from the thirties and forties, his era, used to effortlessly replace the word “baby” with “Amy.” As in, “just Dorothy and me and Amy makes three, we’re happy in our blue heaven.” Now here I was driving radio-free, testing the radius of my invisible umbilical cord; all the songs were about John now. Just the thought of music, any song, made me cry so hard my glasses would fog up. Unsafe at any speed.

At some point during that first week back at school, I decided to widen my comfort zone by taking a longer drive down Ventura Boulevard before I climbed back up the mountain on the way to Stella’s school. I found myself at the stretch between Jerry’s Deli and The Good Earth Restaurant, two of John and Stella and my favorites. This was worse than being blindsided by a Beatles song. My face flushed and my glasses fogged and I had to pull over. I happened to have stopped in front of a newsstand. I had purposely been avoiding headlines. No TV. No Internet. Nothing. I should have been expecting some stories about John to show up in the gossip magazines, but I certainly wasn’t seeking them out. And, thankfully, I had been surrounded by friends and family kind enough to keep any knowledge of press coverage to themselves.

As I glanced up at the newsstand, a big, bold headline caught my eye: JOHN RITTER’S WINDOW COLLAPSES. I was thinking, Holy crap, now what? His dressing room window over at Disney? I pulled down my Dodgers cap — actually, John’s Dodgers cap that he had given me to hold with his watch and wallet and wedding ring that night in the emergency room. I really did not want to be recognized. Nobody wants to be spotted reading the rags. I got out of the car and stood about ten feet away from the magazine rack in an attempt to appear nonchalant, nearly backing into traffic in the process.

JOHN RITTER’S WINDOW COLLAPSES — maybe it was a concocted story about a window at our house? Under the headline was a photo of us from some event. I inched up to get a closer look at this picture that I had never seen before. John standing behind me with his hand on my shoulders, smiling. It hit me like a throat punch. Not “window.” Widow.

The reality sat me down right where I stood, literally. I didn’t cry. I didn’t panic. I just sat there on the curb and took in the events of the last week in one bitter gulp and let it move through me. Past my skin, into my gut. I felt it settle like a flock of birds somewhere around where my heart sat seemingly motionless in my chest, waiting for permission to beat again.

The reality of my new label took up residence in the center of my being. JOHN RITTER’S WIDOW COLLAPSES. Define “collapse.” Nothing in the article was true. And yet having the W-word used in reference to me was truth enough. Even though John and I had been together a long time, we had been married for only four years. I was still getting butterflies every time he or anyone else would use the other W-word, wife. I’m sure the word “widow” was all over the place in reference to me. I just didn’t feel it — own it — until then.

When I was a little girl, my friends and I would play with our baby dolls outside in our yards. Thinking back, none of us really felt comfortable pretending to be single moms. It was the end of the sixties, beginning of the seventies, and even though we didn’t know what the concern was exactly, we knew there was something troubling about it. We would start every session of playing house by explaining to one another where our husbands were. Usually everyone just said “at work.”

I remember being with my friends one day in my side yard beneath our famous crabapple tree (famous because of my mom’s applesauce and apple jelly). On this particular afternoon, our imaginations extended past the daytime housewife hours and we all seemed to be living with our babies in some kind of kibbutz. We were gathering food for them when one of the girls announced that her husband had gotten killed in Vietnam and wasn’t coming home.

There was a heavy pause and then the other girls began to nod knowingly and commiserate that they, too, had lost their husbands to the controversial war in Vietnam. I remember the little war widows looking at me expectantly. I couldn’t even say the words. Even then I couldn’t quite go there.

“He’s an astronaut,” I said. “He’ll be away for a couple years, and then he’ll be back.” I assured them that the baby and I were fine. I remember that like it was yesterday.

I think that’s where I was for a long time after John died. That’s the kind of place I would go when uninterrupted by condolences or tributes or Stella’s innocent but brutally stark questions. It wasn’t exactly denial or mental illness or some kind of veiled religiosity. My head game was survival, pure and simple.

The only way I could take a step or a breath, much less go about the business of living, was to cling to the closest recognizable feeling I could handle. At night, all hell would break loose inside my head. And my heart would break over and over and over. But in the morning, after the initial slap in the face that every new awakening would bring, I would drift into survival mode. I allow myself to believe that this was all just a crazy extended version of all the brief times apart that John and I had already survived.

So familiar, this waiting. Over our years together I’d had so many tastes of it. The anticipation, the romantic longing, the resenting everyone for not being John. Then just when I was sure I would lose my mind: the crashing together and making up and out for lost time. I knew in my heart I wasn’t going to get my way this time. I wanted to hold my breath till I turned blue ... I am blue now. Was all of that a rehearsal for this? Excerpt reprinted with permission from "With Love and Laughter, John Ritter" (Simon & Schuster Publishing) by Amy Yasbeck.