The Second Year Journey

Jan. 21, 2018
Our first Christmas as a couple was in December of 1970. Butch’s draft number was 26 for the military. His brother-in-law got him set up to take the exam for the Air Force Reserves. With un-diagnosed dyslexia, he failed the written test. So, he joined the Army rather than waiting for the inevitable notice that his number had come up. He did basic training at Fort Ord, in Monterey California. Schooling was in Virginia. He had a one-week pass at Christmas time. Having proposed before leaving for the army, my Christmas gift was an engagement ring that probably cost him a month's salary. His sister took one look at it, and loudly announced, “My God, that's the smallest diamond I ever saw.” I'm not sure it qualified as a chip. He later replaced that diamond when he discovered that the manager of my apartment building was a jewelry maker and had access to wholesale prices for diamonds. It was still pretty small. Eventually he gave me a lovely ring for our 40th anniversary.
Our first Christmas after we were married was in December of 1972. We drove home from Fort Hood, Texas where we were stationed, to Sacramento, CA to spend Christmas with his family. We owned a Volkswagen bug. His mom gave us a bean bag chair, a very hot item in 1972. She then announced that, because it wouldn't fit in our car, (which it would have) she had asked his sister to keep it for us until we moved back to Sacramento. It was a great way to give a gift to two people and only pay for one. We never saw the bean bag chair again. It was the only Christmas in my memory that it was cold enough to snow in Sacramento and have the snow stay on the ground for over a week. It was equally cold in Texas that winter. It was great fun to watch the people from all over the world driving in snow for the first time. The snow literally immobilized the town. No garbage. No school. Nothing. There was a yield sign at the intersection where we lived. Not everyone understood what a yield sign was, even in good weather. But on snowy / icy days, we could watch out the window as cars literally ice skated into one another.
The next Christmas, December 1973, we were in Minnesota with my family. Our oldest son had been born in August, so it was our first Christmas as a family. It was also the first Christmas since my parent’s divorce. My mom bought us a tree and we used her ornaments in exchange for hosting Christmas dinner at our apartment, with my family. My dad asked us to come to his house for Christmas morning hoping to create something with the new wife like we had with my mom. His new wife must not have received the memo, as she was stunned that we were there. This was her first Christmas in her lovely new home and her large family was coming for Christmas dinner. She was very upset that we were making a mess in her living room, opening our presents. Halfway through, she made us stop, clean up, and run the vacuum while she started dinner. We were then required to put our paper and ribbons in a garbage bag as we finished opening our packages. She chased us out the door as soon as we finished opening our presents. It was in the middle of the recession, during the oil crisis, and Butch was working as a parts runner for a local Ford dealer. A month later he was offered a truck driving job in Sacramento. He left to take the job and I stayed in Minnesota to close out our apartment and work off the 60-day notice that was part of our agreement as apartment managers.
Christmas 1974 found us living in Lodi, CA on a dairy and Butch driving for a company that made dill pickles in Stockton. At 16 months, our son’s favorite treat was a dill pickle that was as big as his hand. We were so broke that our Christmas tree was originally a poinsettia plant. Just before Christmas, someone gave Butch a Christmas tree that was about 2 feet tall. We strung popcorn and other shiny things to decorate the tree. All of the gifts were for the baby. Even at that young age he seemed to understand that Christmas was all about him and we were counting on him to have a good time. He opened every gift with great flourish and amazing enthusiasm, even the socks. We then went to his mom's house in Sacramento for Christmas dinner.
After we settled down in Sacramento in 1976, we spent Christmas with his family most of the time for the rest of our marriage. Like all families, there were issues. I wasn't my mother-in-law's favorite person for many years and eventually it was just too hard to be there. For 3 years we went snow skiing instead of participating in the family Christmas. We would stay in the motel next door to our favorite ski resort. There were stockings hung on the towel racks in the bathroom and we each gave one another a single gift, using the rest of the funds to enjoy the skiing. Even with the tourists from other countries, there weren't many people there Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. You literally skied until you were too tired to ski anymore. The night skiing was amazing. On clear nights, you could see forever. We drove in to a nearby casino for Christmas dinner. Eventually, the tension and animosity faded away. We all aged and mellowed and Christmas with his family became a pleasant evening that we look forward to attending.
Christmas with our kids slowly evolved over the years as well. With the addition of girlfriends and wives, competition for prime dates in December grew cumbersome. The goal was to have a long, leisurely afternoon and evening together without anyone having to hurry off to the next event. Granddaughters and nap times have forced adjustments, but those are only temporary. We began having Christmas in January. We all take advantage of the sales after Christmas. Returns and exchanges are complete and often supplement the budget for the January gift giving. By the time our boys have Christmas with their in-laws, their own families, and Butch’s family, before, on, or shortly after the 25th, it is nice to have a bit of a break before our family gets together. My favorite part of Christmas has always been the stockings. I look for interesting gadgets, strange trinkets, and unique little surprises all year. In addition to the customary fruit, there are everyone’s favorite candies and snacks. There is the annual tiny flashlight for your key chain and a new pair of scissors for everyone. By the time Christmas comes, the stockings have overflowed into a medium SpaceBag for each person that is handy for storage all year.
Our last Christmas together was January 16, 2016. His heart attack was January 26th and he died February 13, 2016. Christmas 2017 loomed large on the horizon, but the 1 and 2-year-old granddaughters, enjoying the festivities, brought joy to what could have been a very difficult day. This year, we added my brother and his wife and their 9 and 11-year-old kids to our celebration, resulting in a busy and fun-filled day. There was little time to regret what was lost as we created something new.
Becoming us without them turns every holiday into a two-edged sword. There is no way to avoid the fact that the old traditions and rituals are gone forever. Letting go of those is a little like losing our loved ones again and again. Moving on and enjoying the new life we are forced to create is complicated. Embracing something new always involves losing something old, even if it is voluntary or exciting. But this is not voluntary at any level. We would give anything to have the old life back. Focusing on what has been lost, to the exclusion of what is ahead, is like doing math homework for misery. You learn your times tables by reciting them over and over. You learn misery by practicing it over and over too. Finding the balance between the necessary grief and the necessary growth will be the most difficult thing we will every have to do. This is yet another reason why our grieving peers and mentors are some important. They help us find that balance. They give us permission to take all the time we need to grieve the tremendous loss we have sustained. They also help us believe in a future that is worth living for, even when we can’t see it ourselves. All of our friends and loved ones make it worth putting one foot ahead of another until the joy outshines the sadness and life has flavor and color again.
One of the toughest things after Butch died was finding all those stocking stuffers around as I cleaned out the house, his truck, and his shop. Each of them is a reminder that I don’t ever get to do that for him again. But then I watch my granddaughters, niece and nephew gleefully pulling treasures out of their stockings and I feel that joy shining into the dark places again.
Nov. 22, 2017

Why does it take me nagging the home warranty company and three plumbers to figure out that when the bathtub is draining slowly you have to snake the main (whatever that is), not just the tub? And why does the third plumber act like I should have known that? Why does the salesperson who charged me $18,000 for a new heat and air “system” act like I am cheating him when I insist that new grates over the vents in each room are part of the “system” and should have been included in the work? Had someone else not pointed out the grates I would not have known they existed much less advocated for them in time to avoid buying them myself later.

My dad knew how to do almost everything around the house. When I was a girl, he spent Saturdays working in the garage and around the house. He helped build our home in Albuquerque. He made some of the furniture. He knew how to work on cars, but I never saw him do that since he could afford mechanics by the time I was paying attention. He learned all that by being around men who did those things or the sons of men who taught their sons how to do things. Unfortunately, he was not a dad who taught his sons how to do things. Despite all the mentoring he received as a boy, he did not seem to understand that it was his responsibility to mentor his children into adulthood. He expected us to know what he knew, but never took the time to teach us what he knew. While my brothers acquired great skills over the years, they were left to figure things out on their own.

Butch’s dad was very much the same. He seemed to know how to fix anything, including some amazing improvisation. Butch inherited a collection of homemade tools and contraptions that are fascinating. His father never engaged with him as a child, but Butch has memories of working on car projects with him. Butch had a car early and worked on it all the time, so he was a great mechanic. Nothing frustrated him more than taking computer based cars to the shop and paying exorbitant prices for inadequate work he could have done better himself before computers made that impossible. The best way to describe his father’s disengagement in household repairs is to relate a story he told about his parents. His father had taken up paint-by-number as a spare-time hobby. He worked tons of hours, often out of town, and usually came home at night to the TV, a six-pack, and an early bedtime. Weekends he worked on the cars if necessary, but wasn’t known to jump in there and work on the house until it was completely unavoidable. Frustrated by his oblivion to her multiple request for him to paint the interior of the house, Butch’s mom painted large numbers all over the walls of the living room and declared that if he was so excited about paint-by-number, maybe that would inspire him to her project.

Much of our time in the first round of marriage counseling was spent resolving the disconnect between my expectation that Butch would know and do everything my father had, and Butch’s shame and procrastination related to not knowing how to do any of it. Between the dyslexia and the ADHD, he was the living personification of the phrase “measure twice, cut once”. He struggled with cutting things backwards and misreading the directions (on those desperate occasions when he read the directions). Over the years, I watched him battle through one project after another, figuring things out on his own, that others had learned from their dads. He felt so ashamed of not knowing what no one ever taught him, that he found it almost impossible to ask for help. He just kept plugging away. He was progressively given opportunities to work beside a contractor on a remodel, his best friend on the build-from-scratch of a beautiful kayak, and an eventual project sharing relationship with my brother, John, that enabled him to feel confident whenever something needed his attention at home. Too bad YouTube wasn’t around back in those days.

The most prevalent thing I felt after his death was fear. He was the wind beneath my wings in every sense of the word. He fixed everything and kept the cars in working order. More importantly, he plugged the holes in my heart. His belief in me enabled me to move forward when I was more likely destined to run in circles or fall backwards based on my background. Even things that were more my area of expertise made more sense when I had him to listen as I figured things out. I can’t tell you how many times since his death I have reached for the phone to share something with him or ask him for ideas only to remember that he isn’t there anymore. I thanked him all the time for being amazing and for loving me like that. That is one of the things I wish I could tell him one more time to be sure he knew.

Those years of accumulated wisdom died with him. Houses are always in need of repairs. Cars always break down. I know less at about all of this at 65 than he did at 20. I understand that no one expects me to know all this stuff. Even if I did, no one would begrudge me playing the “old lady” card and getting help. Those logical pieces of information mean nothing when something happens. Any childhood issues left unresolved are invited to the forefront immediately.

Every time I have to do something simply because Butch is gone, it reopens the wound. If it is something I know how to do or can easily figure out, its just sad. I don’t like asking for help. I would prefer to be omnipotent and all powerful, thank you very much. I don’t like admitting how lazily I was able to saunter through life, sheltered in his care. So, when I need help, shame, regret, and fear mix with the sadness. I have progressed over time so that the initial volley into his world goes much better now. The biggest problem with asking for help is that people seem to assume you know stuff and only need clarification. I don’t know enough to ask the right questions, so there is inevitably a black hole waiting around the corner. Thus, the help is often not that helpful. When I then learn enough to realize things have gone badly and attempt to hold people accountable for not doing what they said they would do, or not giving me enough information to make the correct decision in the first place, I can’t keep acting like a grownup to the end of the project. While I don’t descend to the level of screeching like a banshee, I can fully imagine how gratifying it might be. I use all those communication skills I teach people in my office every day and assertively forge on, negotiating to resolve the problem. Unfortunately, however, I am usually crying uncontrollably at the same time. Needless to say, this shifts the dynamic, leaves me feeling even worse than I did going in, and behaving like a babbling nincompoop.

Becoming us without them is so much more complicated than just getting over the pain. That illusive “them” turns out to be so much more than we understand when the loss occurs. Even if there has been a lingering health issue that affords time for preparation and some handing-off of information, it is impossible to anticipate everything. Simple projects are “merely” reminders of their absence. Complicated projects are reminders of the ways in which they were woven into the fabric of our lives over the years. It can literally feel as if we are unraveling as each of those fibers is torn from us one by one. The gaping holes in “us” can feel like a black hole, drawing us into the abyss. Our grieving mentors teach us that it is critical that we weave in new strands of support, both practical and emotional, at the first possible opportunity and never stop seeking them. Those mentors are the brightest and most enduring strands in the tapestry we are creating. Their support prevents us from coming unraveled. Nothing can make it go faster or hurt less. But those ahead of us on the path hold the light of their lives to guide us along. One day the sun will rise, and we will discover that a beautiful new design has been woven into our lives. The “us” we have become will include the treasured parts of “them” reinforced by the new fibers we have been slowly weaving without them. Then we will become those mentors guiding the way for those who follow.

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

Oct. 28, 2017

When Butch and I started dating in November of 1969, he was not exactly what you would describe as “huggy-feely”.  In fact, coming from a family that did not touch one another much at all in those days, it took him awhile to enjoy spontaneous hugging.  His idea of holding hands was initially hooking little fingers as we walked.  The first time I attempted to give him a quick kiss when we parted in the hall at school, he was startled.  He adapted quickly.  A regular part of our ritual before school was to meet near his locker and snuggle as we waited for a particular instructor to walk by and ceremoniously drone, “unwrap people.”  It wasn’t morning without him. 

One of the advantages of his being stationed at Fort Hood, TX was its proximity to my very large family spread across Texas and Louisiana.  The first time we traveled with my cousin, Carolyn, to visit our Grandmama, we were greeted by all the aunts, uncles, and cousins who were in the vicinity.  I was sure that by the time the last of them gave him a big southern hug he was near the point at which he would blow up and fly around the room backwards.  He learned to welcome those hugs over the years, but I was never sure he was really comfortable.  

With me, however, he became down right huggy-feely.  We held hands wherever we went.  I was often doing homework in the car or working on a beading project. But whenever I was idle, we either held hands or I was in contact with him somehow.  On the nights when we were both home and went to bed together, we would lay facing each other to talk.  I greatly preferred petting him to the cat.  He would put his hand on my pillow and I would lay my cheek on his hand.  I often fell asleep like that, relaxed by the sensation of his warm hand on my cheek.  If he turned to his other side, I would spoon behind him, putting my hand in the pocket of his pajamas.  When facing in opposite directions, I would lay with my back against his, like a giant heating pad.  If I woke up in the night and could not go back to sleep, spooning was a sure bet for settling down and dozing off.  We watched TV in a double recliner where one of us always had a foot on the other person’s side for light contact.  When we ate in a restaurant we frequently held hands across the table as we talked and waited for our meal to be served.  He loved to sit in the backyard swing in the cool of the evening where I would have a hand on his leg as we unwound from our busy days and gently rocked away the weight of the world. 

He found all kinds of excuses for a hug or a nuzzle.  He would regularly come and find me during commercials, no matter what I doing.  He would say, “Is there anything I can nibble for you?”  This was followed by a short interruption of my project as he nibbled my neck just long enough to become a pest and then return to his television viewing.  If I passed him in a doorway, the hall, or a narrow part of the room, he would often say, “There is a toll here” and then give me a big hug.  When he came in from work, his dog would happily greet him.  He would give her a pat and say, “Mom first” and then give me a kiss and hug.  I could always count on that same greeting if he was home when I arrived.  If both of us were awake in the morning, we always exchanged a goodbye kiss.  

The day he died, I came home and retrieved the wrap-around body pillow he relegated to the closet because it “screwed up the snuggling.”  It was a decoy at best, but I continue to sleep with it now.  I could feel it there, all around me in my sleep.  In the first horrible moments of waking up in the bed alone it gave my body a moment to imagine him there before reality hit and took my breath away.  I avoided sitting in the double recliner, watching TV, and anything else that was a reminder that those precious touches were forever gone.  It’s even hard now to work on projects, anticipating his interruptions that will never actually come.  The sleep inducing comfort of his touch has been replaced by the sound of an audio book, droning away on his pillow. It took a long time to sit in the backyard swing without reaching out for the empty place beside me.  Despite the warnings not to move too soon after the death of a spouse, I was greatly relieved to move after 10 months to escape things like the empty doorways and unobstructed hallway where the absence of his “tolls” was like landmines everywhere. 

Becoming us without them will most definitely include grieving the loss of their touch. Far more than sex, it is affection that finds its way into the stories of loss after a death. Research indicates that meaningful touch is life sustaining from the cradle to the grave.  Witness Cuddle Connection, a growing nationwide chain that offers non-sexual cuddle sessions for the touch deprived. Or a research project that included a grandmotherly librarian whose line is always twice as long because she offers patrons a hug with each interaction.  Like many parts of them that were not truly appreciated until after they were gone, the absence of their touch will loom large on the horizon.  Those touches, snuggles and nuzzles can result in your body producing feel good neurochemicals that are relaxing and provide a sense of comfort and belonging.  In the absence of those touches, anxiety, depression, insomnia, and other emotional and physical ailments abound.  Many who have remarried after the loss of a spouse say that what motivated them to seek a new partner had its roots in touch.  “I got tired of sleeping alone.”  “I just wanted someone to hold me in their arms again.”   “I missed being hugged.”  Those whose subsequent marriages have faltered often realize they sought that touch so desperately that they neglected to notice warning signs of incompatibility. 

Finding ways to fill our lives with healthy and sustaining touch will be one of the most important parts of our journey.  What we know we need can seem far outside our reach for a long time.  Becoming us without then will be far worse if it means us without loving touch.  A great blessing of doing addiction counseling at the Salvation Army is that it is a very “huggy-feely” culture where hugs are freely exchanged. Taking care of ourselves means reaching out for hugs from friends and family members when available, discovering that others enjoy them as much as we do. Widowed people act as baby holders in ICU at a local hospitals or volunteer at nursing homes where hugs are welcomed with open arms. 

The biggest obstacle will be that what we really want is the only thing we can never have while remaining open to the many blessings yet to come.

Oct. 1, 2017

If you haven’t read Brene’ Brown’s latest book, Braving the Wilderness, consider reading it soon. She is a researcher whose findings carried her unwillingly into the world of vulnerability and connection. This newest book is about her most recent research project where she discovered that having a sense of belonging is the most important thing for everyone. She is a great author and speaker so her books have always been helpful in the past. As a therapist, I was cheering as I read. As a trauma therapist attachment and belonging are the basis for everything I do. As a newly grieving widow, not so much. I think this idea of belonging is at the core of my grief.

Like Brene’ Brown, I never felt like I belonged anywhere. As a therapist, I completely understand why. When you have parents who are so broken that there is literally no one in there to attach to, your ability to attune to others and form strong alliances with others is non-existent. Sadly, the effects of this are apparent from the first day of school. The other kids seem to know some secret that you don’t. They understand the unspoken rules that enable social intelligence and the self confidence to take relational risks that pay off in strong, lasting friendships. I, despite being bright and physically attractive, always felt like an observer of this wonderful way of being a kid, but clueless as to how they got that way. I was more likely to adopt strays and fight for the underdog than to run with the popular kids. I was welcome among them, I just never quite knew how to relax and enjoy myself.

Then I met Butch. In his book, Mars and Venus on a Date, John Gray talks about finding your soul mate. He says that you can deeply love someone and yet have an intuitive understanding that they are just not the one. It eats away at the relationship. And when you find your soulmate, it feels like something you were born to do. No matter how bad things get, there is always this sense that you belong together. If you lose that, you will never be at peace with that loss. That must be why we chose to do three rounds of marriage counseling rather than give up on ourselves. I am sure our sons wish we had figured it out sooner so they could have had a stronger foundation to build from as they were watching us. What we taught them about relationship and connection in those early days was messy at best.

All of the bad times in the early days became hysterical stories to tell in the later years. When we did marriage classes at the Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center, Butch loved to say, “We have been happily married for 25 years. And we will be celebrating our 35th anniversary in January.” It took them awhile to figure that one out. He would then tell them that we had experimented with all they ways you could wreck a marriage. He hoped we could give them some ideas to keep that from happening to them. I used to tell them that if they wanted the coolest, most romantic ideas ever, they should ask Butch for tips.

Right from the beginning, Butch made me feel like I finally belonged. He understood me much better than I will ever understand myself. They say that the greatest desire of all human beings is to be fully known and yet fully loved. We had that. He was always bigger than life to me. I thought he could fix anything I could break. I was surprised when he didn’t have answers to nearly everything. He was literally the wind beneath my wings, seeing far more of the good in me than I could ever see in myself. He chose to focus on what he loved about me rather than the annoying qualities I definitely have. For a few years, I spent a week at church camp as a counselor. I voluntarily signed up to live with 12 teenage girls for days and days. One year I packed up all my cool girl stuff, devotional materials, and art supplies and headed off, driving a friends van and six young people. We were about halfway there when I realized I completely forgot the fundamentals like a sleeping bag and pillow. I announced that we were stopping at WalMart to get what I needed when they all broke up into wild, hysterical laughter. They said that Butch packed everything I needed in the back of the van and swore them to secrecy. He said not to tell me unless I tried to stop and buy stuff. They couldn’t wait to tell all their friends!! He had been quietly watching my preparations and known I was as impractical and absent minded as ever. He knew I might just as likely have arrived at camp and unpacked all that without ever realizing I hadn’t packed it in the first place. He was quite proud of himself for having my back without nagging.

Becoming us without them consists of a very long and ominous to-do list. Anyone who has lost someone they loved and lived with can list all the painful parts. There is nothing we can add to that list that those ahead of us on the path have not already survived. When the fog of the first year lifts, we are shocked to find ourselves in a foreign land. Every relationship is changed. We don’t belong with the couples or other families the way we did. We are extra. We are a threat. We make them feel guilty for having what we have lost. In the beginning we don’t belong with the singles who have been at this single life for a while. They often have long-standing relationships that intensify our sense of being on the outside looking in. People who love us make a genuine effort to show us how much they care and to fill what parts of that hole they can. But they belong to each other and we are guests. Living alone wears you out. We must always return to that place that no longer feels like home. The one thing on the list that seems as if it can never be checked off or crossed out is to find the sense of belonging that we had when they were alive. Again it is our grieving mentors who assure us that it can be done. Like that pearl of great value that was created to soothe the irritation of a grain of sand, a life worth living slowly emerges from the what feels like cold and lifeless ashes. The pain of the loss becomes the foundation upon which we build something valuable that we can’t even imagine in the beginning.

It isn’t that I am not whole without him. I love my work, am arrogantly confident in my ability as a therapist and feel grateful every day for who I have become as a person and as a healer. Losing Butch has vastly increased my capacity as a Therapist. The thing I miss is looking into his eyes and seeing not only his love for me, but his knowing me to my core. The most painful part of losing him, is knowing that I will never look into another pair of eyes and see that again.

Sep. 24, 2017
Butch was always thinking of ways to provide service to others. He was not someone you would ever find standing behind a podium speaking to a crowd. But he was always someone you would find in the background, doing the huge things that mattered the most.
When he was in the army, we lived in Texas for a couple of years. He regularly brought home one of his single platoon mates for dinner. As they came in the door, I would hear them ask, “Are you sure its OK that you didn’t call to check before you invited me?” Since I learned to cook for my family of seven, it took me a long time to pare that down to dinner for two. Butch knew there would always be plenty for three in those early days. When his best friend’s wife needed to go home to Michigan, the friend and his six-month-old son stayed with us for a couple of months.
His very elderly aunt lived in a terrible neighborhood and was nearly crippled with arthritis. He visited her regularly without telling anyone about it. When one of the young men who roomed with us was not able to pay his rent regularly, Butch sent him to do yard work for his aunt. Every year when he got his Thanksgiving turkey from work he went to the store and purchased the rest of the makings for a turkey dinner and took it all to his aunt so she could have Thanksgiving dinner with her young grandchildren. He never bragged about that. He just quietly did it year after year.
He always introduced himself to our new neighbors at the first opportunity and let them know he was happy to help them out if he could. He kept an eye out for the elderly next-door neighbor, checking on her whenever something seemed suspicious in the area. At our first home, Butch once came home from work late at night and saw that three guys were about to jump the young man next door. While Butch was sure the troubled boy probably brought it on himself, three against one just didn’t work for him. He strolled over and announced that they were welcome to fight him one at a time, but not three at once. Given that Butch was 6’4” and unloaded 80,000 lbs. of freight every day, the aggressors decided not to fight that decree. One by one, they took turns with the neighbor. He easily defeated the first one and gave the second one a run for his money. But fatigue and drunkenness took their toll and the third one got in a few good licks before Butch announced that the neighbor had learned his lesson and they should go home. As it turned out, he had, indeed, brought it on himself. Another time Butch marched past eight Sheriffs with guns drawn attempting to get the same neighbor to come out of the house after his crazy girlfriend called 911 and told them the neighbor had a gun and their two-year-old in the house and would not let her out. The baby was actually at his other grandparent’s and she was at our house on the phone. She just knew what to say when she called 911 to get the most attention. The Sheriffs ordered Butch to stop but he ignored them, knowing the neighbor was an idiot, but not dangerous. He banged on the door, told the neighbor he was ruining Butch’s TV viewing with all the noise, and ordered him to come outside before Butch used the spare key they kept at our house (for when they locked themselves out) and dragged him out himself. The neighbor obediently marched outside and was taken away in handcuffs. Butch suggested that they take the crazy girlfriend away as well since she created all the drama in the first place. No one on the block was especially disappointed when they all moved away.
Thus, it was no surprise when Butch came home and told me that a couple of the people he worked with were orphaned for Christmas and he wanted to invite them for dinner. My family lived out of town, his family celebrated on a different day, and our boys preferred to be with the families of that year’s main squeeze. We had Christmas morning and brunch with them and they were off. Butch’s plan was that we should both invite any Christmas orphans we ran across to join us for dinner. Over the course of many years delivering to stores and businesses, he heard people talk about how hard Christmas was after a major loss or change. Whether caused by death, divorce, a move, or an empty nest, he thought it would be good if people could do something totally new that first year so it wasn’t so hard. That would make it easier to build new traditions in the future. So that became our tradition. We provided a build-your-own taco salad bar and yummy desserts, none of which conformed to the typical Christmas dinner pattern. He named the night, “Christmas Tacos.” We played Trivia Pursuit using cards entitled, “Christmas Around the World.” The questions could be as easy as “What did Frosty the Snowman wear on his head?” Or, they could be as obscure as, “What is the most commonly served side dish for Christmas dinner in Norway?” People laughed like crazy and forgot, if only for a while, that they were Christmas orphans. Each year the group was different, always very diverse. While there were a few regulars, most of the guests enjoyed that transition year and moved on to build new Christmas traditions just as Butch imagined they would. Eventually we, too, moved on and Christmas Tacos faded into history.
We spent the next few years serving together at the Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center on Thanksgiving and Christmas mornings after our sons left home. We would arrive early to help set up, serve the men and sometimes their families who were orphaned at the facility as part of their initial 30 day blackout, or because there was no one inviting them for Christmas, or because they had no home and no money to celebrate on their own. Then we would help clean up. It was very humbling. We returned home tired and grateful and spent a quiet evening together.
It never occurred to us that one day, one of us would inevitably be one of those Christmas orphans ourselves. But there I was. I had not demonstrated great skill at preparing for these major milestones after Butch died, so my family stepped in to be sure that I was not alone. My brother and his lovely family planned a trip to San Diego the week before Christmas and invited me to join them. They spent Christmas Eve with me at my home and we celebrated Christmas morning together. My son and his family joined us for brunch for the hand off, making sure I spent Christmas evening with them. I continue to wonder how people survive the loss of a loved one without the amazing support from friends and family that I have experienced.
Becoming us without them means treading gingerly through the major milestones of life on our own. Every date on the calendar that is special in any way shines light on the tear in the fabric that was once our lives with them. We are adrift. We are like a small boat in an ocean of sadness, with a torn sail and no rudder. There is no familiar script from which we read our lines in this new life. It is all improvisation. Complicating this process is the fact that we don’t want to do any of this. We want our lives back. Our grieving peers tell us it can take a lifetime to stop hoping this is all a bad dream, that we will wake up, and they will be right there, just where they belong. We are uninspired in our efforts to fill those gaps with new things we wouldn’t need if they weren’t gone. Yet we have no choice but to write a new story, with new traditions. Because they are gone, and nothing can change that, ever. Only we can decide if that story will be written in isolation, intensifying what is already excruciating pain. The alternative is to ask for help from anyone and everyone we can. It is foolish to believe that anything can take away the pain. But the suffering of isolation is an option. It is true that life goes on and our support people have their own lives to live. Our couple friendships change or end (if we represent a threat somehow or make them feel guilty). But if we are mobile, there are options. Whether we spend time with our own family, ask others to include us with their families, or find community resources, there are options. We can fight our way out of the quicksand only by putting one foot in front of the other and heading in a new direction, no matter how hopeless it feels as we begin.
I reawakened Christmas Tacos this year to celebrate my first birthday without him and my new home. I invited everyone I knew. And lots of them came!! We didn’t play Trivia Pursuit, but there was lots of laughter. And, just as Butch imagined, it was a little easier to forget that I am an orphan.