Spotting the warning signs of suicide is what Michele Tavernier had direct experience with as a social worker for the Dane County Jail, but nothing could have prepared her for the sudden loss of her loving husband, Paul, just over two years ago.
The couple’s life together seemed to begin as a fairy tale. Michele and Paul met, by happenstance, on a beach in Texas over spring break in 1998, only to discover they had been both attending University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and living in the same apartment building. They were together ever since.
But the late evening of July 25, 2009, Michele returned home from work to find her two young daughters (Samantha, then 8, and Allison, then 4) alone and huddled on the couch downstairs, not tucked into bed by their father as they typically would be.
“They were scared and said, ‘Daddy left you a note. We don’t know where he is.’ And my heart just dropped,” said Michele.
After bolting up the stairs, Michele found the letter Paul left propped against a pillow on their perfectly made bed revealing the feelings he could no longer contain — feelings Michele wishes he would have expressed sooner.
"My husband was 34-years-old when he took his life inside of our garage,” said Michele.
She described Paul, a newscast director for the morning show at NBC 15 in Madison, as smart, charming, generous, lovable and humorous.
“I do think he used some of that humor to hide behind,” said Michele, adding that Paul suffered from depression but was never treated for it. “He must have been a master at (disguising) it, and I can’t imagine how exhausting that must have been for him. I just wish he would have said something, because he would have had so many people in his corner.”
As a member of Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church of Watertown for nearly a decade, Michele was confronted by the Rev. Terry Larson just a few months after Paul’s passing. The pastor mentioned the state of her garage.
The Rev. Larson told Michele that members of the congegration, composed of many retired carpenters and roofers, wanted to build her a new garage to get rid of the memory, negativity and symbolism of the place where her husband was found as part of an outreach project by the God’s Work Our Hands group at church.
"At that time I was not ready, and he (the Rev. Larson) respected that,” said Michele. “I completely almost forgot about the proposal, and then he came back to me almost two years later and said, ‘We haven’t forgotten about it. The men still want to do this for you.’”
Michele didn’t hestitate at the second offer. “I was so ready to have that garage down. I wasn’t using it, I wouldn’t put a car in there, I didn’t like to go in there and if I did it was just very negative,” she said.
Time seemed to fly after she accepted the proposal for a new garage. “All of a sudden he (Rev. Larson) was sending out letters to family, friends and people in the congregation, donating money and setting up a bank account for the funds. It was just wonderful,” she said.
The first few nights leading up to the demolition of the garage this summer were unnerving and created anxiety for Michele as she felt herself reliving the pain and grief just as she had immediately following her husband’s death.
But as soon as the garage came down, “I felt lighter, I felt better, I felt more optimistic,” said Michele. “Even though it is now two years (after his passing), I hit new beginnings all the time, but this is a big fresh start for us.”
“It’s another stage, it’s another way for me to get closer to acceptance of it and just giving me more optimism (that) life can still offer us a lot of good things,” she said.
The project progressed throughout July and August with the help of nearly 25 volunteers from the church. Special efforts concerning the construction of the garage were made by Bob Eske, Dan Argus, Vern Wegner and Doug Zwieg.
“I had this little, rickety wooden garage, and when it rained the water would come in because the roof was so bad,” said Michele. The sided, two-car garage now complies with regulations, because her old garage was too close to the property line. “It’s going to be very nice,” said Michele. “I’m very blessed.”
Although Samantha and Allison typically spend two weeks at summer camp in New York (where Paul is from), Michele canceled their trip last minute so they could be home during the garage project. She noted that her daughters handed out lemonade to the workers and also took part in the demolition by taking a sledgehammer to knock out the walls.
“I needed my kids to be here to see this event and see the generosity of all these people,” said Michele. “And these are just strangers doing this for me. That’s what is just so mindboggling is that they’re so kind, and they just want to help and do a good thing.”
“I’m hoping that with this garage project and meeting new people here I can try to get back to the church,” said Michele, who had attended services regularly after her husband’s passing but suddenly stopped when she could only visualize the aisle and casket when walking into church.
Through it all, Michele said that her faith never faltered, nor was she ever angry with God, simply praying, “Please get me through this, give me the strength to get up every day, give me the strength to keep living.”
“If anything, I’ve been even more spiritual, because I couldn’t have gotten through all of this if it wasn’t for my faith and how strongly I know Paul is in a good place and has the peace he wants. Realistically, I can’t be sad, because I know he’s not miserable and I know I’ll get to see him again — I never doubt that.”
While faith was key to Michele’s healing, so was stability for the sake of her family.
“I just couldn’t see uprooting my kids and saying, new life, new school, new friends, new house,” said Michele. “Paul took so much out of our lives and our world, but there were certain things where I said, I’m not going to let him take this from us — my house, my job, my ability to be a good mother.”
“I think my husband would be glad that we’re doing as well as we are,” she said. “It’s going to be a different life, but it doesn’t need to be a bad life or a negative life.”
Part of Michele’s healing has included blogging about her marriage and her experiences since her husband’s passing. She plans to have all of her blog posts turned into a book to give to her daughters when they are older.
Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church of Watertown is asking for financial support to help pay for the garage project. The fundraising goal of $7,000 is meant to cover the expenses incurred by material costs only. Nearly three-quarters of the funds have been raised.
“It is still a work in progress, but we’ve had good support so far,” said Larson.
An account has been set up at the State Bank of Reeseville, 1312 W. Main St., specifically for the project, and checks can be made out to Immanuel Lutheran Church - Tavernier Fund. Any funds in excess of the cost of materials will go directly to the family.
“Please consider this opportunity to help,” wrote Larson in a letter addressed to the congregation, community, family and friends. “Together we can help bring God’s healing to Michele and her daughters.”
A short dedication service will take place at noon on Sunday, Sept. 25, at the Tavernier residence, 213 E. Green St., in Watertown, as an appreciation event to thank the volunteers for their hard work on the garage. All are welcome to attend.