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Awful Beautiful Life
When God Shows Up in the Midst of Tragedy
By Becky Powell
By Katherine Reay
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You can’t really smile until you’ve shed some tears…
—“Awful Beautiful Life” by Darryl Worley
Within these pages, you’ll find the story of my family’s journey after my husband, Mark, committed suicide on May 16, 2013. It’s a story of life, tragedy, and the wellspring of love that lifted us. In many ways, it is a call to all of us to love well.
You’ll read about how God showed up in our darkest time and carried us through. You’ll read about the people involved and the incredible grace and patience they bestowed upon me while I worked to pay back every cent my husband had borrowed. You’ll find tears, laughter, faith, and lots of country music within these pages as well.
The heartbreak and hope within country music sustained me through many stormy nights and turned tears to laughter most days. I will forever be thankful to Gary Allan and his song “Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain).” I trusted in that truth as firmly as I trusted Psalm 34:8: “Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.”
Sometimes—oftentimes—we feel both truths only after the storm is behind us, but that doesn’t mean that bright horizon wasn’t always there.
Don’t go looking for the reasons.
Don’t go asking Jesus why.
—“Broken Halos” by Chris Stapleton
In all good stories, you have to understand who the character was to enjoy the journey to who she becomes. It’s no different here, I guess, for fiction often tells the truth about life, and life is often stranger than fiction. My story begins as a perfect fairy tale.
If you knew my family around Christmas 2012, you were probably invited to our annual Christmas party. On the first Wednesday of every December, my husband, Mark, and I, along with our friends the Dalgleishes, hosted a Christmas party for 450 guests at our home. The party was so big—both in its size and grandeur—that the Austin American Statesman featured our 2011 festivities as the event where Democrats and Republicans raised a glass together. “Everyone” in town knew—even if your invitation got lost in the mail—to show up at our house at six p.m. on that first Wednesday in December, and to bring an unwrapped gift.
We lived in Austin’s Tarrytown neighborhood in a sprawling eight-thousand-square-foot home, with a stone exterior and vaulted roof, which gave it a church-like aesthetic that set a perfect backdrop for a Christmas party. The side facing our quiet cul-de-sac was full of windows. During the day, those windows let in gorgeous east-facing light. On that first Wednesday, they highlighted the bustling party within.
After pulling up to our home, each visitor would hand their keys to a valet, who would take the car and welcome them to the party. On their way up the stone walk, and noting a few friends through the windows, they would drop their unwrapped toy into the sleigh in our front yard. The gifts were for the Rainbow Room at Travis County’s Child Protective Services. Each year we collected hundreds of toys for needy kids. Once the gift was nestled among the others, the guest walked up the large stone steps to the front door, where I hugged them. I always stationed myself at the front door since it was the only way to see everyone at least once. I’d tell each guest about their friends who were already inside and wish them a merry Christmas.
Stephen Shallcross’s 2 Dine 4 catered the party. Waiters silently passed through the rooms, offering appetizers to the crowd, offering mini beef Wellingtons or the party’s signature cocktail, the Powell Mistletoe Martini. They refilled their platters in the carport outside. There were waiters who worked the party every year and remembered the names of the guests, whispering to them that the favorite rosemary almonds were in a silver bowl in the living room this year.
The thirteen-foot Christmas tree sat regally in the living room, and off to the right the dining room table was piled high with Christmas desserts. Scott Calvert at The Cake Plate outdid himself that year. Our twelve-person table overflowed with every sugary delight imaginable: mini gingerbread houses, Christmas tree brownies, glittery bonbons, cake pops, and French macarons. If one walked deeper into our home, saying hello to friends and acquaintances, and enjoying the Christmas music, they’d see the seven fully decorated live trees throughout the house. Martha Stewart had nothing on me that first Wednesday of every December—this party was a labor of love, and the highlight of my year. It ushered in a beautiful, magical, and holy month for me.
Christmas 2012 was particularly memorable because, after celebrating at home, we headed to the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City. Madison, our eldest, was twenty that winter and celebrated her debut at the International Debutante Ball on December 29. It was an extraordinary affair covering four whirlwind days and culminating in a glorious ball with girls in white gowns, each escorted by a young tuxedo-clad man.
We arrived back in Austin just in time for the kids to return to school and for Mark and me to regroup for a few days before our next trip.
Mark and I always celebrated our December anniversary—twenty-two years in 2012—with a trip in January. It was a special way for us to unwind and reconnect after our busy falls. In January 2013 we headed to Bora Bora for nine days, a land of paradise. We relaxed, lay on the beach, went deep-sea fishing, snorkeled, read books, and thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company.
Once our plane touched down in Austin a week later, the new year began in earnest. I went back to my world of work and Mark returned to his…
At that time, I was a stay-at-home mom, living a fairy-tale life. I had groups of close friends, lunched out often, and volunteered across town. Not long ago, a friend told me he felt that during those years I lived for my kids, and my husband made all the decisions. I can’t say he was entirely wrong. The bills I paid came from an account Mark funded each month. The plans I made were structured in concert with Mark’s work and travel schedules. I volunteered for the Women’s Symphony League, Hospice, Young Life, and the Helping Hand Home; I served on the board of the Austin Bridge Builders Alliance, the parents’ council at our kids’ school, and the guidance committee for Westlake High School. I handled our family schedule and our kids’ activities. I orchestrated the tenor of our home. Mark managed the business of it.
Mark worked as managing director of Atlantic Trust Private Wealth Management in the Austin office. And while his work rarely took him from home, golf trips did. Mark’s great passion, besides his family, was golf. He belonged to numerous clubs around the country and was a founding member of Ben Crenshaw’s Austin Golf Club and Sand Hills. He played almost every weekend with either friends or our sons, Boone and John Luke. After all, in Austin, one can play golf year-round.
Our next full family trip was spring break in March. We headed to our usual destination, the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in the Cayman Islands.
Our final trip that spring was spent with friends in Turks and Caicos. Along with three other couples, we traveled to the Grace Bay Club to celebrate our dear friend Lisa Stedman’s fiftieth birthday in style. We returned to Austin on May 7, 2013.
From the outside, it was a glamorous life. We looked like that family. We were that family. In photographs, we smiled and looked gloriously happy. And for the most part we were. We took wonderful vacations; Mark and I attended all the named galas; we hosted fund-raising dinners and events for the governor, judges, congressmen, and other statewide politicians; and we volunteered and participated in many of the political, cultural, and philanthropic highlights in town. While one couldn’t call us “Old Austin,” as neither Mark nor I were born in Austin, we were certainly a staple within its political and cultural life.
Madison, our only daughter, was a sophomore at Baylor University that spring. She was a communications and public relations major. Our second child, Boone, was eighteen and was approaching high school graduation. We were thrilled he would join Madison at Baylor that fall. John Luke, our youngest, was twelve years old and finishing sixth grade. He too lived for the game of golf and enjoyed regular private lessons with Bill Moretti, one of Golf magazine’s “Top 100 Instructors.” Even at that young age, John Luke had a handicap that turned most men green with envy.
The kids were busy. Mark and I were busy. And the daily routines of our home felt safe and comfortable, warm and welcoming. Mark met with a men’s Bible study during the week, and I met with a women’s group. While Mark joined friends on the golf course each weekend, my friends dropped by the house most afternoons. We went to church together as a family every Sunday. And for ten years, from 2000 to 2010, we housed Young Life students from the University of Texas in our guest room and held the campus’s Young Life bi-monthly meetings in our living room. Our home and our lives were full, varied, and very blessed.
I confess that in looking back, it feels as if our lives ramped up from 2011 to 2013, and by that spring we were truly overscheduled. The tenor of our home had changed without my really noticing it. No longer tied to carpools, since two of my three children drove, Mark and I traveled more, went out more, hosted more political fund-raisers—we simply did more. Yet Mark still managed to spend time golfing with our sons and made a special effort for daddy-daughter date nights with Madison. I still cooked every evening we were home and left home-cooked meals for the kids when Mark and I dined out. But rarely did we sit down for a family dinner together as we had only a couple years before. In fact, if we were home, there were usually more people at our table.
I’m an extrovert and love nothing more than having friends and family around. Our home was a gathering place for our kids and their friends, and a gathering place for my friends as well. Friends often dropped by for a glass of wine on their way home and sat to talk while I made dinner. Many would even stay for dinner, perched at our kitchen island, chatting with my kids and their friends as easily as they would with their own children. The kids laughed, saying that our house had a revolving door, and they were more surprised when friends didn’t fill our home than when they did.
But that revolving door spun faster the spring of 2013. I was drinking more, a couple glasses of wine each night, and I slept less, often waking in the middle of the night, unable to find sleep again for hours. And just days before we boarded our flight to Turks and Caicos, Mark and I had one of our biggest fights in years. Although the subject matter was a serious and recurring theme in our marriage, Mark’s dismissive attitude that morning shocked and infuriated me. He actually said, “It’s no big deal” to me and brushed my feelings aside. If someone had taken a picture of me that day—and for a few days after—I would not have looked “gloriously happy.”
Upon returning from Turks and Caicos on May 7, life didn’t slow, though the school year wound down. On May 18 Boone was heading to his senior prom; Madison, just home from Baylor, was scheduled to leave for a semester in Italy on May 19; John Luke was finishing the school year on May 25; then we were going to celebrate Boone’s high school graduation on May 31. With all the year-end projects and celebrations, I still had final details to pull together for Madison’s semester abroad.
And there were more trips to plan. We often traveled to Colorado Springs in the summer to see Mark’s parents, and we talked about visiting Madison in Italy. But every time I tried to secure dates and book flights, Mark pushed back.
On May 15 Mark made plans for a special family dinner—just the five of us. We’d had a full family dinner at home on the fourteenth, but that night he wanted to go out. He’d planned every detail, saying this was our last night together for many weeks. His golf trip, starting two days later, meant he would miss Madison’s departure for Italy. We ate at Uchiko, one of our favorite restaurants, and swapped stories the entire evening. Mark asked the kids loads of fun family questions, including their favorite pet, family memory, and vacation.
Home again, Mark wanted to watch Caddyshack with the kids, but I put my foot down. I was all for family fun, but John Luke was too young for the movie’s humor. I headed to bed, the kids headed off to their rooms, and Mark sat in the family room strumming his guitar. I drifted to sleep as Mark played the guitar and sang one of his favorite Eagles songs. I felt incredibly blessed. I loved the daily rhythms of our lives and couldn’t see that underlying fabric ever changing.
This was who and what we were.
When I bow my head tonight there’ll be no me, myself, and I…
—“All I Ask for Anymore” by Trace Adkins
May 16, 2013, started early for me. May rivals December for busyness, but it never gets the respect. We all expect December to roll us, but the end of school can push just as hard. On that Thursday, I was a couple steps behind before my feet hit the floor. As I rolled out of bed, I glanced back at Mark, still sleeping, and smiled. His request for a special family dinner the night before had been inspired. Yes, it was our last night as a family for several weeks, but it was also a night of more family connection and fun than we’d had in a while.
I leaned over and kissed his cheek. That woke him and, after a longer, deeper kiss, he headed to the shower. I dressed, loaded the car with all I needed for the day, and took our youngest, twelve-year-old John Luke, to school.
After dropping off John Luke, I drove across Austin to volunteer at Helping Hand Home, a residential home for children taken from abusive homes. It’s such a special place and only one of seven in Texas equipped to handle such tender children. The committee I was on served lunch to the staff each month. After serving them at noon, my close friend Leslie joined me for a lunch of our own at Asti in Austin’s Hyde Park neighborhood. Our friend Dinah, who usually joined us for both the work and the lunch, had left for Russia the day before.
School wasn’t even out and summer plans were in full swing. Dinah was already in London on her layover to Russia, Leslie was organizing the last details for her summer in Telluride, and there were a million details to settle for both the boys’ summers and for Madison’s trip. After lunch, I spent the afternoon running errands.
I arrived home around five o’clock just in time to start dinner. The house was strangely empty. A text soon told me Madison had left moments before with Boone and their older cousin Joey, who lived with us that spring, to catch Gatsby, showing at the Barton Creek Mall. John Luke was also out: he had a weekly standing golf game with Jackson, a family friend and Young Life program leader at the University of Texas.
I was standing at the refrigerator when the phone rang.
“I’ve done something really bad. I love you and the kids and I’ve left a folder for you in your closet, on the top shelf. You need to follow the instructions exactly.” Mark’s voice was tense, but level, directed, and in control.
He cut me off. “Tell the kids I love them and I love you.”
“Mark, wait!” My voice pitched up. “What are you saying? What did you do?” I tripped over my words and questions as dread filled me. “Wait— What— It doesn’t matter. Whatever it is, it doesn’t matter.”
Mark’s tone told me there was no quarter. It was a tone he used when decisions were made, and were final. But I found something else in his tone, too—an eerie calm that terrified me. I kept speaking to keep him with me, on the phone, and to get to the bottom of whatever this was.
I glanced out the windows to see someone approaching our house.
“Mark?” I spoke into the phone, but watched the woman. She stopped and we stared at each other. “Mark? What is Monte James’s wife doing here?”
I caught my words. The woman outside was a friend. Her name was Katherine. But at that moment, something within Mark’s voice alerted me that my friend was not approaching our front door. Instead, Mark’s lawyer’s wife was approaching our front door.
He replied in a level tone, “I love all of you.”
I strode the short distance to the door, opened it, and thrust my hand into Katherine’s face, palm out with fingers spread wide. “I cannot do this right now.”
The phone was in my other hand, pressed to my ear. Mark was silent. There was a quality to the silence that pricked me as I stepped back and slammed the door shut.
Katherine is five-foot-four, petite, and gentle. If I’m not one to shove my hand in someone’s face or slam a door, she is certainly not one to stick her foot into it to stop it. Yet that’s what she did. The door bounced back into my hand. Eye to eye, she whispered, “I’ll be right out here,” and turned away.
I called into the phone. “Mark? Mar—”
It was silent. Mark had hung up.
Looking back, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what was going through my mind. Thoughts and questions spun too fast. I grabbed my keys and got into my car, calling Mark. One touch, four rings, then voice mail—again and again. He never answered.
I drove down the street determined to find him, only to turn back at the first corner when I realized I had no idea where to begin my search. I drove the block home and noted Katherine sitting in her car waiting outside my front door.
More questions raced through my mind. Why is she here? Is she to keep me here? Did her husband send her because Mark has done something wrong? I didn’t have answers, but I needed help. Help I could trust. I placed two short calls as soon as I reached the house.
The first was to my sister, Mary Beth, who lived three hours away in Houston. “Something’s wrong. Please get here now.”
My second call was to Jeff Stedman, Mark’s best friend. He and his wife, Lisa, lived in Colorado Springs, Colorado. If anyone knew anything, Jeff would. Jeff was about to begin the opening evening for a charity he’d brought to his community, The First Tee, so his phone went to voice mail. Lisa answered her phone and, hearing my voice, promised me Jeff would call me right away.
Seconds later, Jeff called. “I got a package from him today. I’ll go get it.”
We hung up, and I made another call, this time to Bill Jones, another lawyer and a good friend.
This call was longer because, as former general counsel to Governor Rick Perry, Bill could help me—and Mark—immediately.
Bill heard the panic in my voice, learned Katherine was outside my house, and headed to my house right away. While driving, he called Monte James, Katherine’s husband, and learned he had sent her to my house.
He sent her because he knew I would need a friend. Mark had called Monte before calling me, and Monte suspected what lay ahead of us. Mark had emailed him a copy of his employer Atlantic Trust’s insurance policy, highlighting its indemnity clause, and had ended their talk with “Take care of Becky and the kids.”
Monte too had tried to keep Mark on the phone. When Mark hung up, Monte sent Katherine to me.
In Houston, my sister Mary Beth got into her car immediately.
In Colorado Springs, Jeff opened the package and left his charity event for the Denver airport and the first flight he could catch to Austin.
In Austin, between Bill, Monte, the state troopers, and the local police, everything was being done to find Mark.
I glanced out the windows again and found Katherine had been joined on the front lawn by one of my dearest friends, whom I call my “Austin mom”—with my mom’s permission, of course. Kathy Smith’s presence made Katherine safe for me, and I let them both in the house. The three of us started to make calls.
It wasn’t unlike the scene in It’s a Wonderful Life when Mary Bailey and Uncle Billy run around town with no more knowledge than I had, but were filled with the certainty that “George is in trouble.” Mark was, without a doubt, in serious trouble.
I called Jill Adams. “I can’t find Mark and I’m worried something is wrong. You and Mark [her husband] need to come here, without your kids.” They did, immediately.
I called Mark’s dad, who also got into his car in Dallas without delay and headed to Austin.
By this time, Bill Jones had arrived and was communicating with the state troopers from our house. He stepped in and out the front door, taking calls and answering questions about the search.
Soon after six o’clock, Bill stepped back through the front door and walked straight to me.
He clasped my face in his hands and took two full breaths before he could say the words. “Becky, Mark is dead.”
“No! No! No!” I screamed and thrashed. Bill held firm. “Maybe he’s not dead yet,” I whimpered, because there was no air to fuel another scream.
“No, Becky, Mark is dead.”
Kathy Smith recalls my phone crashing to the wood floor. The echoing thud startled her. I remember only the feeling of all the air being pulled from me. I couldn’t breathe. I was in a vacuum and, as the last air was pulled, it drew a deep moan and I fainted. Bill caught me.
Although many aspects of that night remain a blur, some details are etched so sharply, they’ll haunt me forever. Bill carried me to my bed, where I woke minutes later. I leaped up. The kids weren’t home yet and they couldn’t find me there. They couldn’t see me in bed; I needed to be strong. This first instinct, to lead and protect my kids, kicked in that moment and stayed with me until…Well, like any mother, it lingers still.
By this time, as I learned the details of Mark’s death, friends had called friends, and my house was full. Others had to tell me later who was there. It took prompting and time to remember some of those details. But I can still see Madison, Boone, and my nephew Joey coming home from the movie around seven o’clock. Madison quipped softly to Joey and Boone as they walked up the front walk, “Mom and her parties…someone’s always here.”
I can still hear them laugh and joke as they made their way into the living room about some motorcyclist doing wheelies on the street during their drive home.
Within a few steps they noticed the living room’s silence and shot their attention to me. “Mom?”
I focused on Madison as I crossed the room. How do you tell a twenty-year-old girl her dad is dead? I glanced to Boone. How do you tell an eighteen-year-old boy about to graduate from high school, the very image of his father, that his dad has taken his own life and he is now the man of the family? The grief was crushing.
When we were close and touching, I simply said, “Your father is not alive.” I had no other words.
Madison immediately said, “What happened?”
I told her Mark had shot himself. Even if I had wanted to lie to protect her, the truth would come out soon enough.
We tumbled into each other’s arms and held tight, until their questions began. Where? When? Why?
Madison kept shaking her head with each answer. “No. No. No.” Again and again, she repeated the word, just as I had, trying to rewrite what I had told them, trying to make it not true.
Within minutes, Kathy Smith heard her cry out, “Who’s going to walk me down the aisle?”
A commotion drew my attention to the door. Through the windows everyone could see John Luke and Jackson approaching the house. Bill stepped outside and paused with Jackson to allow John Luke to enter alone.
- "The sad irony of the title of Becky Powell's book, Awful Beautiful Life, is not lost on those of us who know her and her children. Becky's bravery in the face of tragedy is an inspiration to us all."—Tim McClure, Author, Don?t Mess with Texas
- Becky Powell is a strong lady who has integrity, honesty, and unequivocal faith. Becky is a dedicated mother who teaches her children these values. When Becky faced a dark chapter in her life, it took all of these qualities to see her through to the light at the end of the tunnel. We are all grateful to have Becky in our lives. She is a role model that we should all strive to become. Becky, well done our friend!
—Linda and Michael McCaul
- On Sale
- Dec 3, 2019
- Page Count
- 256 pages