The year that Butch was turning sixty, I decided we should have a surprise party to celebrate. He was always very observant, so pulling off a surprise would be nothing short of a miracle. His birthday was in December. It was cold outside, requiring a large, inside venue. People were busy with the holidays, reducing the number of people who could attend. I devised what I thought would be a fool-proof plan to solve all of those problems. We could have the party in the summer instead.
Butch participated in the Eppie’s Great Race for many years. The iron man competition consisted of running, bicycling, and kayaking along the American River in Sacramento. He would leave at dawn to place his kayak at the bike/kayak transition point and then go to the starting line for the run. I would arrive at the run/bike transition in time to place his bike and cheer him on at the finish of the run. I would gather any belongings he shed after the run and see him off on the bicycle. I would then head to the finish line in time to see him arrive in the kayak. His bicycle was safely stored at the bike/kayak transition to be picked up by a friend. At the end of the race there was a celebration in the park with vendors, music, and food. It was a great day seeing all the people and awesome bikes and kayaks. Everyone was enjoying the fun, the competition and the enthusiasm at the park. Friends and family sometimes came to the finish to support them.
The last few years, his sisters put together a team consisting of a family friend who was a bicycle riding enthusiast, one sister who did the running leg, and another sister who finished up in her kayak. The third sister and his mom would post up on top of the foot bridge across the river that was directly above the finish line. After the race, everyone would go back to his mom’s house for a barbeque. They all enjoyed sharing stories about the day. Family and friends came when they could. After he died, our sons and his best friend put together a team for the very last run of the Eppie’s Great Race as a tribute to him.
It was a perfect day to try for a surprise party. His mom’s yard was large enough for lots of people. She lived in an area that was central to the various people who might attend. He would not be suspicious if he drove up and saw familiar cars, as that happened every year. And there was plenty of parking nearby for people who needed to park out of sight. All the prep could be done at her house. While he often went to her house to visit and complete her “Honey do” list, he would be too busy with the race to drop by before the party. What could go wrong?
We reached out into all the parts of his world from our years in Sacramento. I invited the high school friends I could find. We sent the word out to soccer team members he had coached and on which he had played. Coworkers were invited. Friends from his various sporting interests and bicycle journeys were included. Everyone knew it was a surprise and worked very hard to keep the secret. It was not until a few days later that I learned the surprise had been blown by a neighbor who could not attend and had forgotten that his birthday was actually in December. As Butch left home at dawn for the race, the neighbor was out in his yard and wished him a happy birthday. Given that his birthday was months away he immediately understood that we were planning to ambush him with a 59 ½ party. He acted very surprised, so we all enjoyed thinking we had succeeded for the day.
It was a fun and interesting group of celebrants. He was given a ridiculous hat as a gift and he wore it most of the time. The celebratory mood from the race grew with the addition of old friends and family. Everyone was so happy to be together. People told great stories about how they knew Butch and their times together. It was an awesome celebration of his life and the lives he touched. There was no way to know how meaningful that day would turn out to be. It was only four years later that we would see those same people at the final celebration of his life. I am glad to have the photos of that party to remember him and all the guests at the party as they are laughing and enjoying life together.
The greatest lesson we learn as we are thrust onto the journey of grief is that nothing and no one is permanent. There is no going back for a do-over. The naïve belief that there will be plenty of time for all the important things is gone. Life becomes a long series of images of things left undone, words left unspoken, amends not offered, love not shared. The precious gift of a celebration of life on a warm, unhurried, summer afternoon, surrounded by joyful friends and family, with hope for a bright future is not likely to have happened. But the earnest wish that it had can haunt our nights.
Becoming us without them means finding our way from tragedy to triumph as best we can. If nothing else, we can be the voice in the lives of those around us reminding them to appreciate every moment while it is still possible. We can share the stories of our loved ones as celebrations of their lives and invitations to others to say and do all the things they want to say today. We can share our healing in the absence of our loved ones to invite others to make their amends to the living. We can encourage them to heal their relationships while there is still time to find joy and share love while looking into the eyes of the people who are here to receive that gift. It may seem to them that it will be years before death closes the door on those moments. We are living proof that life is fleeting and regret is a terrible price to pay for waiting.
In all these ways, our pain and our lives are transformed. Even this awful chapter of our lives becomes part of a redemptive story that makes us and the world around us a better place. As we focus on the celebration of our lives with them, we gradually begin to find things about our current life to celebrate, share, and enjoy. We know, as only the grieving can, that living each moment as if it is your last, is the most important thing we can do and model for others for the rest of our lives.
Season Tickets (https://www.facebook.com/BarbaraFieldOnGrief)
Butch played on our high school soccer team when people barely knew that soccer existed. I was often the only fan at the field. He hoped our sons would love soccer as much as he did, but did not force it on them. They both discovered soccer early, played at various youth soccer levels, and continue to play recreationally as adults.
When our oldest son began playing professional, indoor soccer at our local arena, it was very exciting. After years of financing his advance up the youth soccer ladder, the money was finally going to flow into his pocket rather than out of ours. Butch met him at the stadium during practice one day to consider which seats he wanted to select for our season tickets. On a limited budget, he literally sat in seats in multiple locations to decide which were the very best seats available at the price he could afford. They were great seats. The people who sat around us were lots of fun. They knew we were parents and cheered extra hard for our son as if we were all family. Butch was really pleased with himself for his seat selecting prowess. I appreciated what a great support he was to our son and how hard he worked to get us the best possible seats.
The next year, we saved up for box seats and Butch hunted for and chose the most perfect seats ever. It was always funny to listen to the people sitting behind us as they criticized the various players and their play. Our son, who had a combination of both our features, didn’t look especially like either of us. Nearby fans would have had no reason to suspect we were parents rather than typical fans. During the half-time break, we would chat with those seated near us. The discussion regularly turned to their asking what was our affiliation with the team and a description of theirs. The look on their faces was priceless when we told them we were our son’s parents. You could sort of see them searching their memory banks to recall whether they had been especially critical of him without knowing his parents were sitting right there listening. It was interesting that the parents in the low rent district were more typically encouraging of the players and the team while the fans in the box seats were so critical.
I was an insurance agent at that time. On occasion, we would be invited to sit in a corporate box with one of my business associates. It was a great networking opportunity. Butch was never especially excited about giving away our seats to schmooze with my clients. On one such occasion, I let him know I had corporate tickets and asked him who he would like to contact to give away our regular seats. He ignored my question. First thing in the morning I remembered he hadn’t replied so I asked him again as we were getting ready to rush out the door to work. I was stunned when he crabbily announced that he was going to sit in his seats and I could sit wherever I wanted as he stormed out the door.
After three rounds of marriage counseling, we did not typically do that kind of thing anymore. So knew I had somehow done something hurtful to cause him to respond like a lion with a thorn in its paw. It only took a moment to come to my senses. I realized it must seem to him that I considered him and his seats to be inferior to what I was being offered by my rich clients. I felt so terrible. He had gone to great effort to get us the very best he could afford and I had carelessly thrown them aside when a seemingly more worthy offer was made. He attended the games to support our son and the team, not hang out in a lounge with strangers. I could easily pop up to the box and say hello without abandoning my carefully chosen seats and our band of merry fans. Truth be told, it was much more exciting outside the box than inside. The lounges were walled off from the game, it was actually more difficult to feel engaged in the action, and they were farther from the field than our regular seats. I called to tell him how sorry I was for my insensitivity and ingratitude and we had a great time in our regular seats.
Our two precious granddaughters, ages 6 and 7, are now playing soccer. It is such a mixed emotional experience. Watching them each express their spunky personalities and follow in the footsteps of Butch and our sons is so fun. I can hear him quietly chuckling as they exuberantly plow down the field, running wildly in every direction. Unlike their fathers, the girls seem much more focused on the relational experience of hanging out with their buddies than the game. There is so much hugging and celebrating that you would never have seen from the boys. It is wonderful to see their very competitive fathers simply enjoy the fun rather than push them toward perfection. It is also very sad that Butch is not here to watch them discovering soccer when it was so much a part of our lives together.
Becoming us without them means accepting that we cannot avoid suddenly stepping onto new land mines that we don’t see coming. No matter how long since their death, it will be painful every time. Always, there are others nearby, living out our dreams. Again and again we are forced to let go of the carefully selected future we envisioned, and embrace what can feel like the inferior version.
We can grow weary on the journey. All around us we see those who still have what we lost. It is easy to slip into bitterness and resentment. Only with the continued support of our friends, family and grieving mentors can we learn to find joy again. Allowing others to show us that they are glad to be with us, even on the bad days, fills the emptiness and enables us to look to the future with hope. We are able to receive the gifts that are available right here, right now, and savor the life we are creating.
I would give anything to be sitting in our perfect seats, surrounded by our band of merry fans instead of standing on the side of a soccer field watching our girls without him. But if I choose to remain behind a wall of pain, I completely devalue the lifetime he spent loving me and trying hard to make me happy. And that is much worse.
In 2008, Butch and I traveled to Bakersfield for the wedding of Butch’s nephew. While there, we went to his sister’s ranch for a gathering. The caretaker of the ranch trained border collies to herd cattle. Trained cattle dogs were apparently expensive and in high demand. He ran a few head of cattle there for training purposes. We noticed that several family members had border collies and were curious about the training process. His sister took us to the caretaker’s home, where the dogs were kenneled. The caretaker explained that dogs need to have a certain temperament to be appropriate for herding cattle. In order for small dogs to intimidate the cattle into doing what they were supposed to do, the dogs had to be bold and confident. To demonstrate this trait, he lifted one young dog up by the scruff of its neck, held it close to his face, and mildly growled at it while giving it a playful shake. He plopped it back down and waited to see how the dog would react. This particular dog turned back to him, tail wagging, jumped up his legs, and barked as if to say, “Again, dad. Again!” He noted that this puppy would be a great cattle dog. The next puppy did just the opposite. As soon as he let go of her, she ran away to find a hiding place. He told us that on these rare occasions, a dog was too timid to herd cattle, so they would be put down. Butch could not bear the idea that she was going to be put down simply because she was too nice. He had been thinking about getting a second dog so it seemed inevitable that she come live with us. His nephew pointed out that this was precisely why each of them had border collies of their own.
Soon, we were driving away from the ranch with our new puppy. She was clearly not happy about leaving her buddies. Riding in the car for the first time had her quaking in the back seat. Before the end of the driveway, Butch decided I should drive and he would hold his new pal in his lap. Within a mile of the ranch, she deposited her last meal all over Butch. Fortunately, we began this trip with me picking him up at work after an overnight run so he had his suitcase and rain gear in the back of the car. While I jumped out gagging from the smell, he cleaned the car as best he could with handy wipes and bottled water. He changed out of the smelly clothes (thank goodness we were out in the country), and put on the rain gear. He covered his lap with a towel to capture future deposits. Every few miles, she would soak him again. He simply shook out the towel, washed off the rain suit, and climbed back in. I remained in charge of jumping out gagging from the disgusting smell. Eventually, with an empty stomach and worn out from the ordeal, she slept in his lap for most of the trip home. She threw up in the car on every trip, farther than a few miles, forever.
They were bonded for life. She followed him everywhere, slept at the foot of our bed, and protected him from marauding cats, and house guests. After he died, she was never the same. She lay by the front door, waiting and waiting for his return. She tried to go home with any man who came to the house, including repairmen and visiting relatives. When my brother and his family came for visits, she switched her allegiance to him. She followed him around, slept in the guest room with him, and would happily have gone home with him if invited. Despite all my efforts, she basically ignored me. I tried everything I knew and everything anyone suggested but she remained in deep grief for the loss of her buddy and was never her happy self again.
As it turned out, she was a skilled herding dog, but only with small targets. When my young niece and nephew first came for a visit and went into the back yard to play, Ollie dutifully herded them back onto the safety of the back porch and insisted that they remain there. It took awhile to convince her that small children were not her responsibility and restore their freedom to run wildly through the yard without being herded. She seemed to learn what it meant when we said, “No running in the house, Nicholas.” In time, whenever he ran in the house, she quickly herded him to a stop.
I suggested naming her Olivia. Butch assured me that was not a proper dog name. So we compromised. I called her Olivia, while everyone else called her Ollie. Our oldest granddaughter, while learning to talk, called her Ollie god, then Ollie gog, and finally made it to Ollie Dog. She officially became Ollie Dog, which stuck permanently.
As is true for all border collies, she was very smart. She and Butch played soccer every day. She could watch the ball, and you, and know precisely where you were heading. It was hard to get past her. When no one was playing with her, she would weave in and out of the low hanging branches of our redwood trees as if they were opponents. Butch began kicking the ball for her. She would grab it before it left the end of his foot. So he threw the ball high in the air away from himself. She caught it in the air every time, using one front leg to stabilize it and roll it to the ground so she could dribble or carry it back and drop it on the ground at his feet. She would throw the ball up in the air for herself when Butch tired of the game and signaled, “No more.” After he died, I did my best to spend some time each day throwing the ball for her because it was such good exercise and it felt like keeping one piece of Butch intact. Our toddling granddaughter would even pick up the ball to play the game. Ollie would madly circle her, waiting for the throw. Even though the ball only went three feet, Ollie dutifully scooped it up and dropped it back at her feet for another throw. This resulted in happy giggles. When Ollie tired of the game with any of us, she would simply carry the ball to the far end of the yard and lay down with it instead of bring it back. She threw the ball to herself, even after his death, until the end.
Recently, I discovered a fast growing tumor on her belly. X-rays revealed that it was cancerous and that her heart was enlarged. A friend and her daughter made plans to meet me at the SPCA to help say goodbye. I arranged to drive directly from there to visit my brother and his family in Reno. Another friend came for a visit a few days later to be sure I was OK. I hadn’t expected to be very upset about losing a dog that has completely ignored me for almost six years. What was devastating, however, was losing this last living connection to Butch. It felt as if another large hole was opening up in my world and nothing would ever be able to fill it. Yet I felt wimpy and pathetic receiving these gestures of love and solidarity.
I gave myself a week to say goodbye and get my 6 year-old granddaughter ready. She was first worried about me being alone. After I assured her I have lots of people with me, she grew excited about Ollie going to heaven to be with Pa (Butch) to play soccer again. Then she got even more excited when she decided we could make him a girly card and use Ollie to deliver it to him. We figured out we could pin the card to Ollie's coat (since she doesn't have hands). Schuyler then requested that we make cookies for Pa, since he never got to taste her cookies before, and put them in the coat while we were at it. And at the last moment she added an orange balloon to help Ollie Dog remember us. In doing all of this, the sadness was lifted. Rather than losing Ollie Dog, we were sending her to be with him. Her loneliness and grief were over, along with her suffering. While making the card and the cookies together (with a friend and her daughter), Butch became more alive for both of us for a brief moment in time. Despite being completely imaginary, it felt like a chance to offer one last goodbye, one sweet loving gesture, to send to him via his precious dog, in the hopes that he would actually received our love in some way.
Becoming us without them means navigating these sudden invitations back into the pain and grief, no matter how long it has been since we lost them. With time and practice, we will grow more skilled at turning even a bushel basket of lemons into sweet, cool, and refreshing lemonade. And if we are really lucky, we will be joined in that process by sweet angels who remind us that we are not alone, and that people who love us well, are glad to be with us in the pain and in the joy.
Butch would have made quarantine so fun. He was always down for an adventure and loved to dazzle you with his attention to every detail to surprise you even more. He could easily use his MacGyver skills to save the day no matter what we did. Being a true outdoorsman, he would have found countless ways to remain socially distant but fully engaged in life. I can imagine hikes, bicycling, picnics, jeep rides, kayaking, and so many other things that are just not fun to do without him. Even indoors on cold or rainy days was better with him for a playmate.
When we were first married, he was stationed at Fort Hood, TX. We would leave home on a Friday night and head for nearby Lampasas, TX for pizza. Not once did we make it to Lampasas. Instead, we would end up in Abilene to visit my cousin, or Louisiana to visit dozens of others. Wandering aimlessly on the myriad farm roads in Texas was just an adventure. A tank of gas in our Volkswagen and his toolbox in the boot, and we were ready for anything.
When our son attended a parent coop preschool, we were required to do a number of hours of volunteer work at the school. He not only attended his fair share of parent meetings alone, while I was at home with our newborn, but he participated in work parties as well. One Saturday, a crew of primarily white collar fathers was working on a landscaping project in the large yard. When someone turned over the rented tractor they were using, it was Butch who gleefully engineered a series of levers and pulleys to flip it back over.
Our family spent a week at Camp Sacramento for several years when our kids were young. It was like summer camp for families up in the Sierras. There was fun stuff for everyone. Butch consistently hit home runs in the baseball games, often launching the ball across highway 50 for good measure. It was Butch that helped free the camp van when a young staffer hit loose gravel and swerved into the ditch.
For my 40th birthday, he invited three of his truck driver buddies and their wives over for dinner. He assigned each of them a part of the taco dinner he was planning. When they arrived and settled themselves in the living room, he ushered the guys into the kitchen and the wives into the living room to relax. He then lead them is preparing the dinner and later doing the cleanup while I and the other wives enjoyed the break. Clearly, roles have changed over time, but this was a big deal back then.
He once showed up at the adult education school where I was teaching in the evening with a seven course meal served in the back of his pickup. It included such delicacies as canned soup served from a thermos, packaged salads, frozen entrées warmed and wrapped in foil, pudding cups and steaming hot coffee with flavored creamer to make it more official seeming. There was a small folding table that fit perfectly between the wheel wells with a table cloth and battery operated candles to ensure candle light in case of wind. When my allotted dinner break time was almost over, he lifted the table cloth by the four corners and whisked the whole meal into a box to be disposed of at home. My students were beside themselves with delight that old people still did such cool stuff. We were no doubt posted on social media sights we had yet to learn about.
On a vacation to San Diego, we took our kayaks along. Finding a quiet area off the bay, he taught me how to use my new kayak and then lead me some distance away from the launch area. When I expressed concern that I would be too tired or unskilled to make it back, he continually said, “Not to worry, I’ve got this.” When it was time to return, he opened the hatch of his kayak and pulled out a tow rope and a large umbrella. He tied us together, opened the umbrella, and sailed us back. He had carefully steered us into the wind on our way out, so the wind would easily take us home. People around us were duly impressed!!
There is no part of a global pandemic that is good. The irreversible damage will take years to overcome. Yet it offers each of us a chance to grow and change in many ways. In the wake of the tremendous loss, in lives, in financial devastation, in the consequences for students, in mental health, in countless other ways we can find gratitude for what remains and strength we might not have known we had. But we all would prefer that the clock reverse and that we get our original lives back.
Quarantine, however, is what you make of it. My technophobic senior companions have found their way to online church, social events, watch parties, card playing, doctor appointments, and holiday celebrations in ways they could not have imagined a year ago. My granddaughter has attended all manner of entertainment online. We have done kindergarten, ballet, jazz, French and singing class, yoga, martial arts, play dates, cousin time, and her grandparents retirement party online. Her aunt in Canada sends her what they call chapter books and meets her online each week to read and discuss a chapter. She and my granddaughters in another city spend long periods of time sharing play dough, playing dolls, reading books, and giving tours of their rooms and toy boxes on Zoom or Duo. My family had a Zoom reunion that enlisted nearly every member when we would never have had that kind of turnout in person. We had dessert with family members on Thanksgiving and opened presents with them at Christmas on Zoom because some of them are out and about and don’t want to risk the health of others. I was even able to say goodbye to my amazing aunt via Zoom before she disappeared into brain cancer when it was not safe to travel to see her in person.
Becoming us without them is very much like a pandemic. Denial feeds the false hope that this is all a dream and we will wake up any minute and have our lives back. As reality sets in we are forced to face the global changes that this loss will impose upon us. Nothing is the same. The mind numbing pain isolates us from people, even when we are all in the same room. All the fun goes out of life for a time. There is a sense of waiting and waiting for some unnamed thing that will never come. It is hard to trust ourselves to make good choices for the future. It is even harder to invest in others when we now understand, in very real ways, that no one and nothing is permanent. There is no avoiding that we will have to do everything a new way because no amount of protest will make it not so. While the memories grow sweet again as the pain diminishes, they are no more a replacement for the real thing than a Zoom Christmas will ever be a replacement for a room full of loved ones and yummy dinners. There will never be a vaccine to prevent or cure grief.
Slowly we adapt and adjust to this new reality as we have to extended quarantine. The new normal unfolds whether we welcome it or not. Much to our surprise, and sometimes against our will, we find strength we never knew we had. We can learn to be grateful for what is here now, and shift our focus away from what has been taken. The pain becomes but one facet of the diamond that emerges from the intense pressure required to move forward with courage and hope. We survive. And in the process, we may to discover a version of ourselves that we could never have imagined before the loss. They would be proud of what we have become and we can be proud of ourselves as well.