Butch and I moved 15 times the first five years we were married.
We were married in 1972 while Butch was home on leave from the Army. He was stationed at Ft. Hood, TX. Prior leaving to come home for the wedding, he rented our first apartment. The rent was $75 per month, which was 25% of his income. It was classic. There had once been a window in the bathroom. When the owner decided to convert the building to a triplex and live in the new unit, he simply cemented the window in. He was clearly not plagued with a spirit of perfectionism, so it was pretty rough on our side of the wall. The drain in the bottom of the shower (no bathtub) was not quiet in the center so you had to scoop the water into the drain to avoid standing water. With the window sealed, there was no air circulating through the bathroom. The combination of those two problems resulted in the constant growth of mildew in the shower. Every Saturday we had to spray the whole thing with Clorox to stay ahead of it. There was no sink in the bathroom. Not to worry, there was a medicine cabinet over the kitchen sink. The positive view of this was that it allowed for multi-tasking. You could cook breakfast and brush your teeth at the same time. No matter what I did, I could not stay ahead of the cockroaches. I tried everything. They would be gone for a week or two and then start showing up again. When I painted the kitchen, I amused myself by painting the ones I saw with unique markings. It was kind of like a migration pattern study. I asked the neighbors to let me know if any of my painted bugs showed up at their house. Then I would fumigate and see how long it took before painted bugs showed up in my kitchen again. There was no heating or air conditioning. For heat, we had a very tiny space heater but it wasn’t safe to leave it on when we were asleep. Thankfully, his sister gave us an electric blanket for a wedding present. On freezing Texas mornings, I would get up, turn on the space heater, light all four burners on the gas stove and run the oven with the door open. I would go back to bed for 30 minutes until it was warmer and then get up for the day. Air conditioning was a box fan set in the window with a pan of ice in front of it. I found a cute duplex we could rent for barely more than we were paying already. It was modern!! I was working in an insurance agency that was also a property management office. I brought home the keys so Butch could go look at it the next day after work. He was unconvinced that we should move. I left for work hoping he would even go by and look. Fortunately, a monstrous spider chased him off the throne in the morning. He went to work with the keys in his pocket. There wasn’t much to do that day so his sergeant asked if anyone had any ideas how his group of 10 coworkers should spend the day. Butch suggested that they help him move. He called me after lunch and said, “Better do the paperwork on the duplex. We live there now.” Using linens and rugs in place of boxes, the 10 guys had literally packed everything, moved us to the new place, and then unpacked everything. Beyond some mild anxiety about who exactly had moved my underwear, it was the best move of my life. We lived there for the rest of the two years he was stationed there.
Moving next to Minnesota near my parents, we became apartment managers. The first week we were there, I warmly greeted someone heading out of the building through the laundry room as I was cleaning and mopping the area. Turns out he and a crew had been busily robbing several apartments on the 2nd and 3rd floor while everyone was at work, taking the most valuable of their Christmas gifts from under the tree. Every time there was a blizzard, Butch was delivering a newly purchased truck for the dealership where he was employed. Shoveling snow is only interesting the first time! After only a few months of trying to get a truck driving job, during the recession in 1974, in the middle of winter, we headed back to California.
We made a brief attempt at living in Louisiana and Texas near my family but it didn't work out. We settled back in Sacramento and bought our first home. After eight years, we moved to the house we lived in for 30 years, until his death. Our home quickly become a building full of ‘nots”. It consisted of a living room where Butch was not watching TV or working on a project. It had a kitchen where he was not coming in for a snuggle during commercials or cooking his famous creations. There was a bathroom where he was not leaving me messages in the steam on the mirror. There was a back yard where he was not playing soccer with the dog or waiting for his fruit crops to ripen or practicing with his bow and arrow. Evenings were times when he was not sitting with me in the swing he made and not tinkering in his shop full of treasures. It was like living in a mine field waiting for the next explosion to occur. I realized that every widow or widower had to live through that and come out on the other side, but it became very tempting to move. My daughter-in-law was unrelenting in her efforts to find a house close to them. Because of her diligence, I was able to make an offer on a great house, blocks away from them, at the same moment it was listed. It had not been updated since it was built in 1972 so there was lots of work to do both before the move and since. It is all fresh and new. I love my house. At the same time, moving was incredibly hard. In dozens of ways, it was like losing him again and again.
Becoming us without them includes losing them in stages over time. Whether we change addresses or not, there is lots of “moving” involved. Is it more painful to leave their things in our bedroom and be reminded of them constantly or to clean it all out and rattle around in the space created by their absence? What do we do with their stuff? Do we give it to people they loved, only to see it later? Do we sell it for pennies on the dollar, releasing their treasures to people who won’t value them? Do we give it to charity, turning our loss into a gift to someone else? What do we hold on to and why? Do we follow the advice to not clean out too early and be sorry for giving away things we later miss? Or do we clean out while we are still numb with the shock and can be more ruthless, unlikely to even remember what is gone, much less miss it later? Can we ask for the support we will need for the heavy lifting and the heart wrenching process? Will they know that we can't ask? Each and every object can have memories attached. The sweet memories of gifts given and received only call to attention the depth of what is lost and now gone forever. Working our way through their world paints a fuller picture of them, even for us. We see their heart, their quirks, their humor. We feel the sadness of not having known those things about them while they were alive. We feel the pain of having known them so well and appreciated them so poorly. We remember what made us crazy, but would gladly embrace even those things if we could have them back. The life that was us with them crumbles one object at a time, one room at a time. It feels as if we are crumbling too. Eventually, we are told, the emptiness will be filled. The pain will lessen. The new life we create emerges out of the ashes of the past. We survive and eventually thrive. Our healing lights the way for those who come behind us on the path. What felt like unending pain becomes resilience.
And in the depths of despair, at the darkest hour, we find God waiting with arms open wide, and it means more than it ever did. When he is finally all we have, we can begin to understand that he is all we need.