The Second Year Journey
Butch’s whole family was very creative. His mom could convert an empty room into a place of wonder for an event. She decorated cakes, arranged flowers, and pretty much everything else needed to pull off a big bash or a family dinner. His sisters all paint and are generally creative and skilled in all things artistic. In 1974, I took a craft class that lasted 12 weeks. Each week they taught us another craft or artistic medium. No matter what I learned, one or more of them had already been doing it. When he was away in the Army, Butch would include drawings he had done with my letters. They were great. He dabbled at a few guy-type creative hobbies but never really found his niche early on.
When the insurance agency where I worked hired Butch to take pictures of houses and cars, he discovered photography. The talent and creativity in his family genes finally found their expression. He enrolled in a photography class at the local junior college. He learned to develop his own film, eventually creating a small darkroom in a part of the garage. I have great pictures of my sons that he took at their sporting events. He reshot old family photos, cleaned them up and enlarged them for anyone who asked. He figured out how to get a treasured old photo of our boss’ grandmother when he drew him in the office holiday exchange. He enlarged, matted and framed it for a gift that left him speechless and teary eyed when he opened it. Butch found out that his co-worker’s daughter was having her first soccer game and created wonderful matted photos for him.
We drove miles together, as he was sent to photograph homes out in the country or up in the Sierras for our agency. A world that he previously rode by on his bicycle, oblivious to the landscape, was suddenly filled with amazing things that needed to be photographed. He loved to capture city shots of an old building and a new one side beside in contrast, especially at night. He searched and searched for the perfect dilapidated old barn to photograph. He had a great eye for scenes in nature. It was not unusual for an insurance agency photo excursion to include hikes up streams for just the right secluded spot to photograph and climbing to the top of hills or up rocky slopes in search of that barn. His sunsets were phenomenal. Once, we drove far out into the country to find a place that was completely dark. He set up the camera with the lens open and we left for a couple hours to get a pizza while the camera captured the stars moving across the sky. In addiction to the streaks of light arching across the night sky, you could see a dotted line where an airplane had flown over the camera with lights blinking.
The year I bought him his first good camera for Christmas, we drove to San Francisco to find unique scenes where holiday lights were most striking. He decided we needed to be “just a smidge” inside a military facility across from great lights in the city to get the perfect shot. He jumped out of the car and walked down the hill to get the angle he needed. “Don’t worry. You’ll be fine. I’ll be right back.” The MP who pulled up behind me as I sat there and came slowly to the window with his gun drawn was not impressed. When he asked me what I was doing, I told him I was waiting for my idiot husband with the new camera, who was taking pictures of the cool lights, to return to the car, and hoping he did not fall and break his neck in the process. Fortunately, said husband came strolling up onto the road about then with his cool new camera in hand. Turns out that was not a unique idea and trespassers often stopped in that very spot to take photos. In sympathy for the guy with the crabby wife, he merely scolded him and sent us on our way. That was not the only time the obnoxious wife routine worked that well.
He was such a nice guy that when we sent him to photograph homes or their contents the homeowners often held him prisoner, enjoying long talks and his warm personality. Rich guys, in particular, seemed to enjoy talking to someone that was just nice and didn’t want anything from them. He knew a little about everything from driving thousands of miles in the truck at work, listening to books, the news, and talk shows. I would have to call and tell him we had another job for him to do to get him out of there because he didn’t want to offend a customer by leaving in the middle of a conversation.
The thing he taught me about photography was that you never stop learning. Choose the right lens and you completely change the picture you produce. Know how to select your film and you can shoot at night without a flash. Understand the myriad adjustment settings on the camera itself and the sky is the limit. Seek the guidance of experts and you discover tricks and techniques you could not have learned on your own. The more you experiment, whether you succeed or fail, the better you get. It takes education and experimentation to become a competent photographer. In the end, though, what the camera sees is reality. The illusive barn will only show up in the picture if it is actually there. While you may end up with an amazing picture of a meadow, full of lovely growing things, soaring birds, and an idyllic stream flowing by, that perfect barn will not be there unless you falsify the picture.
Becoming us without them means accepting the reality of what lies before us even if it is not what we desperately wish was there. Time is a lens that softens the image and removes some of the harshness. Old and new friendships help us change the film so we can again see beauty, even in the darkness. Relying on the wisdom and experience of our grieving mentors helps us discover what we might not understand on our own. As we slowly learn how to adjust our lives, some things work, some don’t. But we get better, whether we want to or not. Only by taking risks and experimenting with life, will we develop the confidence and experience that allows us to feel competent again.
It is important to remember that if we focus too long on the perfect old barn, we will miss the opportunity to capture life all around us.
When we were 18 years old, the Vietnam war was raging. With a draft number of 26, it was inevitable that Butch would be drafted. Plagued by undiagnosed dyslexia and the limits it imposed, he was unable to pass the Air Force entrance exam, so he enlisted in the Army ahead of the call. The recruiter showed him a book of aircraft and told him he would be able to work on any one he chose. This was, of course, a lie. It turned out the book he showed Butch was an Air Force book that he borrowed from his buddy the air force recruiter to entice young men into the army. Despite being very bright and mechanically inclined, Butch’s poor scores on the written exam relegated him to the job of helicopter mechanic, better known as crew chief. The helicopter he was assigned to required him to double as door gunner. This left him with a very low life expectancy while under fire.
It was June, 1970. We were just out of high school, and devastated that we would soon be separated by a continent as he left for basic training in Monterey, CA and then helicopter mechanic training in Virginia. We spent as much of our remaining time together as we possibly could. As the departure date drew near, I engaged in the very annoying practice of counting down the “last” things. Last Monday, last Tuesday, last Wednesday……Last camping trip with my family, last time to swim together, last walk under the stars, last marshmallow roast. Last visit with friends. Last breakfast, lunch, dinner. Last kiss, hug, look. Last vestiges of childhood and a carefree existence.
All that, and Butch ended up at Fort Hood, TX, not Vietnam. We spent two fun years with other young, broke, couples, creating a feast from scraps among those stranded on holidays, playing double deck pinochle, having babies, and enjoying being young and poor together. We were only a few hours away from our extended families in Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana allowing us to visit more than we would ever again. Among my close friends was a woman named Sondra, who taught me more in my first six weeks as a mother than I learned in 18 years at home. Her warmth, confidence and modeling as a mother kept me from total panic when I found myself with a son and no idea how to parent him differently than my very miserable parents. Those were good times. We both remembered them fondly forever.
That tendency to dread life-altering events and to count down the moments has been a lifelong habit. I remember doing it as high school graduation approached and adulthood loomed on the horizon, as our wedding drew near and my life as a single person came to an end, and as the birth of our first child grew eminent, making me forever a mother with no clear idea of what any of those new roles required. I quietly repeated that process when my children left home and the hole in our lives once filled by their presence came clearly into view.
I didn’t have the luxury of savoring the “last things” with Butch’s departure from my life. One minute he was packing the car for our return home from vacation with our son and his family and the next, a heart attack ended my life as I knew it. It took 18 days for his body to leave, but he, the center of my universe, was gone in an instant. Would I trade a lingering illness with an opportunity to say goodbye and commemorate each last thing for an instant death that spared him from all suffering? Would he? Who can say which is worse? No one gets more than one ending to their story.
Each year since his death, I dread what I irreverently call “anniversary season”. November 5, 2019 will be the 50th anniversary of our first date in high school. Thanksgiving was never a big deal for us, yet I am uneasy as it approaches whether I spend it with my family or his. His birthday was December 5th and I miss serving him breakfast in bed, searching for a gift he will actually enjoy, and making old people jokes. Christmas is fully loaded with potential land mines, feeling like a burden for whoever gets stuck with me that year, doing Christmas with his family without him, and celebrating Christmas in January with my kids with an empty chair where he should be sitting and enjoying our lovely granddaughters. Next is our anniversary on January 4th, reminding me that our dreams of being that cute little old couple will never come to pass. My birthday is January 24th, now complicated by the heart attack date of January 26th. And not to be outdone, is February 13th, when he died, taking Valentine’s Day with him into the sorrow.
The first year, I didn’t know what was coming but I was a disaster in general so it blended right in. The second year, I was sure it would be better. I didn’t see it coming and was a total mess by Valentine’s Day. It took months to recover. The third year, I knew it was coming, got ready for it by lining up social support and mindfully setting up self-care around critical days. Valentine’s Day found me less shell shocked and ready to move on. This fourth year, I really wanted to roll through it with ease. Not so much….Like the sensation of a tsunami still out of sight but roaring toward shore, I can feel November 5th coming ever closer. When I think of initiating a conversation with someone about my sense of dread, I find myself tearing up and preferring not to try. “It’s just part of the process.” “I’ll be fine.” “No use bothering anyone else with this craziness.” “It’s probably not as bad as is seems.” And on and on and on…..While some of that may be true, the bottom line is that no part of the grieving process goes well in isolation. I can choose to crawl through this alone and risk making it worse. Or I can accept my human frailty and my need for comfort and support and double up the self-care, which I know only too well how to create. All the while wondering if there isn’t a “fast forward” button somewhere that I have just failed to press.
Becoming us without them means living a dual life. There is this person that is us, who has changed, and grown, and been forced to find strength and courage and even amazement as a new life emerges from the rubble of the loss. We know how to do things we would never have known. Like it or not, we have persevered, risen above, and become someone we would never have imagined. There does appear to be a light at the end of the tunnel that is not an oncoming train. At the same time, there is this crabby person walking along next to us, who stabs us in the heart now and then, with no warning, just for something to do. They are a permanent fixture. The more we accept that, the less surprised we will be when they assault us and the more kindness and grace we can extend to them along the way. “If you can’t beat em, l em.” is sage advice on the painful journey of grief with our uninvited companion.
Everyone who knew Butch at all can remember one of his silly remarks. He was always trying to get a smile out of people, even if it was because what he said or did was outlandishly out of the box.
If she was alive, my mom would have been 89 on June 9, 2019. She really loved Butch. She always enjoyed spending time with him. He could make her laugh and had a way of making her feel valued. That wasn’t the case with me.
When we were still in high school, Butch moved out of his parent’s house after a huge fight with his mom. He dramatically moved into a tent in the empty field across the street from our house. He would hang out at our house but sleep out there. He as unloading trucks three days a week and going to school two days a week. He had enough units to graduate mid-term but stuck around for the last semester after we started dating. His classes were Bachelor living, guitar, PE, and shop. When the principal heard about this, he told Butch he was a bad example for other students with his poor attendance and wanted him to leave. Butch told him he was only sticking around so he could do all the if the end of the year senior activities. The principal agreed that if he would go quietly away, he could fully participate in anything that other seniors go to do in May and June.
This freed him to work more days if he could. It also meant spending time at my house with my mom. I would sometimes come home and find them weeding together, talking away, like old friends. She actually seemed to talk to him more than she ever talked to me. I usually came home to find her engrossed in a book on the good days and hanging out with her drinking buddies on the bad ones. She once told him that if our marriage ever ended, he was welcome to move home, but I wasn’t.
Never willing to plan her summer visits so we could organize our lives, she would just show up and complain that we weren’t available. I once had to travel for work for a few days during one of her unplanned visits, so Butch and the boys entertained her while I happily escaped. She talked about how much she enjoyed that time with them over the years.
Butch even took her on a trucking adventure with him. She loved every minute. The view from the 18-wheeler is wonderful. You can see into the open spaces and over the bridges and mountainsides much better. She would have known the names of the birds, flowers, and trees, giving them lots to discuss as they drove. That trip with him was one of her fondest memories.
My mom came to live with us the last few years of her life as she disappeared into dementia. I could never have pulled that off without Butch. The trick was to district and redirect when she was not tracking or dug in for a power struggle. Sometimes when I attempted to get her going in the morning so I could drop her at grandma daycare and get to work, she just wasn’t having it. All I had to do was call for Butch. He would come into the room and immediately begin telling her a story or a joke. He would tease her about her snappy outfit or her messy hair and she would sit up with a big smile on her face and engage with him without the slightest resistance. If she forgot who I was as we were coming out of a store and started telling strangers I was kidnapping her, he could have her in the car in moments. Too bad he wasn’t always around for that.
My dad, on the other hand was not an early fan. The idea that I was marrying a truck driver rather than an attorney or doctor was always a thorn in his side. His only commentary when I announced my engagement was to say, “You don’t want to marry him. He lacks ambition.” Discovering Butch’s incredible work ethic changed that view, but my choice to be a stay-at-home mom and our not being rich always invited my dad to remind me that I wasn’t living up to my potential—or his expectations. Watching Butch engage lovingly and patiently with our first, cholicy son, my dad remarked, “Butch is a great husband for you. No one else would have you.” Eventually, however, he came to admire and appreciate Butch as a person, father, husband, and provider. Butch even took a week of his vacation to go to Minnesota and visit my dad without the rest of us after multiple entreaties to come and share all the great fishing available there. My father, too, loved Butch’s humor and patience with a grumpy old man. We were the only ones in my family that remained married and who deeply enjoyed one another at that point in time. My dad only came to California to visit us a few times in 44 years of marriage. On his last visit, we were all sitting on the patio after a summer bar-b-que with my dad and stepmother and some good friends we invited to help break up the tension. We were telling fun stories, laughing, and enjoying the history we had with these people. I looked over and saw my dad quietly weeping as he observed us, so happy and contented with our lives and one another. I never saw him like that before or after. If he wasn’t usually so critical of me and my life, I might have let myself believe he was proud of me for one moment.
Being loved by Butch allowed me to let all that go. Having him, I didn’t need them. I could stop trying to get those two very wounded people to meet my needs. I didn’t feel like an orphan when they died because I had him. Long before the therapy that enabled me to function like a grownup, Butch made me, too, laugh and feel valued. I felt seen and protected and believed I could do anything. He was the wind beneath my wings. I discovered my orphan when he died.
Becoming us without them invites us to heal wounds inflicted before we ever met them, in addition to the excruciating pain of their loss. It means walking into the catacombs, opening each tomb, and making friends with the occupants. If we fail to do this work, we run the risk of using others as distractions. We lose the opportunity to discover what we were meant to become. We eliminate the possibility of feeling fully alive and connecting with God and others in a whole new way. The love they offered us becomes a curse if we cannot return to that experience of their love and care and use it to fuel the journey of grief. Worst of all, we cannot lead others into and out of their own catacombs and back into the light if we have not done the work ourselves.
The children’s book, There’s a Nightmare in My Closet, by Mercer Mayer, is the story of a young boy who decides to conquer the nightmare that comes to the foot of his bed each night. Finding that the nightmare is more scared of him than he is of the nightmare, the boy befriends the nightmare and invites the nightmare to snuggle in his bed. The book ends with this line, “There’s probably another nightmare in my closet, but my bed isn’t big enough for three.”
In the early days of grief, it is impossible to believe that anything good can come of this ordeal. We simply survive until bedtime. Only our grieving mentors can guide us in surviving the nightmare until the light of day dawns again and hope returns.
I once gave Butch and the kids the Strengths Finder profile as a Christmas gift. It is a quick test to identify your five areas of inborn talent. Butch’s number one talent was Strategic. It is described in this way: “People exceptionally talented in the Strategic theme create alternative ways to proceed. Faced with any given scenario, they can quickly spot the relevant patterns and issues.” That was Butch in a nutshell. It was a very practical version, not controlling or airily philosophical. He was like a computer, analyzing data, all the time. He loved to read about history, which he then translated into understanding the patterns in the present. He quietly organized the shopping cart so that it went onto the belt and into the bags according to where it would go when we unloaded it at home. He drove like most people play chess, five moves ahead. He noticed the driving patterns of the cars around and ahead of us and shifted away from anyone who seemed especially erratic. He never said anything about it, you had to observe it to appreciate what he was doing. He never backtracked in the hardware store. He knew where things were and what he needed and worked from one end to the other methodically. Even the parking space he chose had to do with where we would be exiting at the end of the list rather than the closest entrance or the closest spot.
This was yet another example of how opposites attract. Strangely, Strategic is one of my five inborn talents. But it is not the practical version. It is exactly how I operate as a therapist. As someone talks, my brain is gathering the bits and pieces into a pattern that enables me to intuitively head in the right direction in facilitating their growth toward wellness. But in the rest of life, I meander. A trip to the hardware store consistently requires at least two complete circles from one end to the other. The groceries are random. Despite knowing where everything is in the store, it is not unusual for me to circle there as well. I am now listening to Butch’s Audible books that include presidential biographies and war history. Somehow, it feels like listening to the same books he listened to keeps him closer. It helps me know him in a new way. He would have heard the political strategies and military tactics. He would have thought about the bigger picture of the world and how and why it operates the way it does. I hear the relationships between the characters and wonder about their childhood trauma and its effect on their role as world leaders. I think about PTSD. My heart hears how hard it must have been for them to have undergone what they did. I certainly realize that nothing has changed much. From George Washington on, the haters and worshipers lined up in unyielding camps and seemed to have learned nothing from history.
This difference showed up most noticeably in our ways of running errands. He knew where he needed to go and why, before pulling out of the driveway. I am sure he factored in traffic patterns in his perfectly strategic dispatch of his list. He usually finished all the errands on his list. I, on the other hand had a list of things I need to accomplish but the order in which they were to be done was very fluid. The most critical item was first. If that was successful, then I could do item two and possibly three. If it was unsuccessful then two and three dropped off the list and we moved to four. If item one took too long, the list was reviewed for the next critical item with any optional items that were geographically aligned between item one and that new priority added if possible. In that way, items that seemed unimportant or had not been on the list in the first place, were suddenly added based on geography rather than more important items that were in another direction. All of that added up to having no apparent pattern, except what was intuitively developing in my head as were going. It was unusual for me to complete the list. For Butch, this was like fingernails on a chalkboard. It was especially irksome if he was driving.
We resolved the problem by simply discussing our philosophical differences and making some agreements. He no longer attempted to dispatch my list of errands based on his need to be strategic in helping me conquer the list. In fact, he stopped driving so he could avoid the urge to turn the car in the direction of what he thought should be the next logical stop. He simply road along. He re-framed it from “helping me run errands” to “hanging out with me while I ran errands”. That is not to say that he did not regularly wonder out loud why I didn’t do errand seven on the way to errand three when it was right on the way. He just realized that what was important to me on that list was all in my head and possibly my heart and could not be discerned by him.
This meandering way of moving through life is a common characteristic of those who have sustained a major loss. It is often described as “brain fog”. Right after the loss, it is all we can do to put one foot in front of the other. Even if we are beset with mania, frantically hurrying from one thing to another to stay ahead of the pain, it is more reflexive than thoughtful. In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis describes this as “being mildly drunk or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. It is so uninteresting.” Over time, this lessens, and we seem to land back on the planet and begin moving purposefully through our lives again. We develop strategies to manage the unmanageable and begin to gain traction in our journey forward.
While each year will get better in some ways, the journey of grief never ends. As the intensity of the pain lessens, we remember them more. The wall that blocks the pain actually blocks everything. With the wall down, there is more of a steady flow of awareness. This is both good and bad news. Sweet memories begin to drift into our consciousness. Initially, this is hard, because they are reminders of what we have lost and seem always to carry pain with them. We discover that there is no way to avoid their presence in us or in the world around us. Gradually, these memories feel more sweet than bitter and assure us that we will never lose our loved on because they are fully alive inside us all the time. Just no hugs. We also realize that, for the rest of our lives, there will be moments of stabbing pain that seem as intense as ever and come with no warning. We accept this as the new normal and give up on the fantasy that we will “get over it.” We learn, rather, to move through it, one day at a time.
What will catch us off guard is the way that his fogginess can settle back in unannounced. Anniversaries and birthdays might send us instantly to square one. Holidays open the door and invite us back into the haze. If we are not mindful of the potential to slip back into the fog, we are at risk. It begins so subtly that we may not notice it is happening until it is bad. Being “partially concussed” inevitably results in lost objects, often important ones, accidents, injuries, missed appointments, impatience with others who do not understand what we are experiencing, and an endless list of inexplicable moments that leave us wondering what just happened and why. Chores go undone. Goals become unimportant or unattainable. Life loses flavor. Left unchecked, we can arrive in a very bad place.
Becoming us without them will include much brain fog. It is best accomplished in the presence of loving others. They know us and will notice when we are adrift again. They will throw us a lifeline back to ourselves without losing themselves in process. Our grieving mentors will not chastise us for losing ground or tell us to “just get over it.” Being honest about the pain, we receive comfort and build confidence to move forward and upward. As we share our truth with those both ahead and behind us on the journey of grief, we grow ourselves and empower others to grow with us. The years the locusts have eaten are redeemed when our story becomes light and salt in the lives of others. We get better at negotiating the fog.