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.