I was 17 when Butch and I started dating. I had three younger brothers and a younger sister. He became big brother to all of them over the years. He was infinitely patient.
My oldest brother challenged Butch to a weight lifting contest early on. He lifted every day and looked like it. Butch did not lift weights, but loaded and unloaded trucks for a living. He was 6’4” and weighed 165 lbs. soaking wet. My brother assumed it would be an easy victory. I don’t remember the details, but I believe Butch told him to do his best and Butch would follow. Butch doubled my brother’s best. The 80,000 lbs. of cases Butch stacked and restacked onto pallets every day, made the weights easy work. My brother never forgot. Once, they went into a computer store together. Butch was a technophobe in the truest sense of the word. They were rebuilding my computer, with Butch as the trusty assistant. Butch asked for the component he needed and the clerk was rude and condescending to him. Not being able to tolerate Butch being treated like that, my brother quietly went from computer to computer typing a little something in each. When Butch had what he wanted, my brother typed one more thing in the last computer, sending a command to all the computers to reformat themselves so they would all be blank. As they walked out the door and the clerk realized what was happening, my brother told the clerk he should not treat people like that. Needless to say, the clerk was furious. Butch had no idea what had just happened, but he was sure it was bad.
My second brother was the family scapegoat. My dad’s favorite indoor sport was verbally abusing him. The first summer after we were married, we decided to give my brother a break and invited him to come and live with us for the summer. One night they were wrestling. Even though Butch consistently won, my brother initiated these sparring matches regularly. I told them to stop wrestling in the house and take it outside. Butch threw my brother over his shoulder and headed out the door. Attempting to prevent himself from being dragged outside, my brother grabbed at the door, slamming his hand through the glass pane at the top. We spent a few hours bonding in the emergency room. Undaunted, my brother asserted that had he not been injured, he would have won that round. Many years later, they played on a men’s soccer team together. They worked really well in tandem—much better than in Texas.
My sister tells the story of the night I was put in charge while my parents went out. She was 12. I discovered she had climbed out of her window to hang out with her friends. It was a given that if my parents came home and found her gone, something bad would happen to me. I was so furious. I set out on a scavenger hunt, going to the home of each of her friends. As she tells the story, it was only Butch being there that kept me from killing her. She liked to thank him for saving her life. Her son came to live with us one summer when he was 16 and things with his step-father were bad. My nephew and our youngest son were mad at one another and not speaking but our son was sent to pick him up from an event at church. While they were gone, Butch and I filled every squirt gun we could find. We split them 50-50 and left their share on the front porch. Butch left five gallon buckets of water in several locations outside. When they arrived on the porch, we opened the door and started world war three with our half of the squirt guns. By the time they fought together to defeat us, drenched us both thoroughly, and took away all the guns, they were bosom buddies.
My youngest brother, 13 years my junior, was like our son. We drove all the way to Chihuahua City, Mexico because my brother was going to marry a woman who lived there and had asked Butch to perform the ritual of formally asking her father for permission for my brother to marry his daughter. He spent hours writing his lines. It was so sweet. We served as surrogate grandparents to their kids, with Butch dreaming up exotic ways to surprise them with their first bicycles when it was time. They would come to our home every couple of months and the guys would work together on a project in the house or on one of the cars. Then we would go to their house and do the same next time. My brother stepped in to fill Butch’s shoes in that way for me after Butch died. He even spent a couple of weekends with my boys, doing projects in their homes, teaching them what Butch would have taught them if he had been around long enough to have the chance.
We forget sometimes that others have been profoundly affected by their loss as well. Not only has a hole opened up in our homes, but in their homes as well. We are all in pain to varying degrees. They miss them too. Our relationships with each of them changes. Becoming us without them requires us to return alone to those homes and families where we were once an “us” or we lose everything. We are left with the arduous task of building a new relationship in each of these places that does not include them. It is unlikely we can replace them in the role they played with others, so new roles must be created. Our shared history can be a source of comfort for all of us as we tell our stories and laugh together, even in the face of the pain of the loss. Their memories can help keep them alive in our hearts. They are our closet companions through the mourning.
It is horrible to believe that no one will ever know us the way we were known by the person we lost. But that is only partially true. Our families and close friends knew them as long as we did. More importantly, they knew us first. And God, it is said, knew us before we were put in our mother’s womb.
We are known. We are seen. We are loved.