Our first date was November 5, 1969. Butch turned 18 on December 5th and I turned 18 on January 24th, 1970. He asked my dad if he could buy me a car for my birthday. It was a 1958 Ford that he could get for $75. That was a lot of money for a high school student back in those days. He was a great mechanic and was excited about keeping it running for me. My father assured him that they were going to get me a car for graduation and thanks anyway. We celebrated every birthday for 46 years together, with his heart attack just two days after my birthday in 2016 and just three weeks after our 44th wedding anniversary on January 4th. He died February 13th, leaving a black hole where Valentine’s Day used to be.
In June of 1970, we graduated from high school together. He immediately joined the army since his draft number was 69. I was at his graduation from basic training in Monterey, CA. He was at my graduation from Junior College in 2000, from my bachelor’s program in 2006, and celebrated with me when I completed my master’s program in 2013. He always remembered when I was having a big exam or making a presentation and called to see how I did. As soon as each diploma arrived, he grabbed it out of the mail and had it matted, framed, and wrapped by the time I got home from work.
We celebrated 46 years of holidays in four different states with my family and his. When our boys became teenagers, and spent more and more time with their girlfriends for Christmas dinner, we started a tradition that we called Christmas Tacos. We would both invite all the Christmas orphans we knew for dinner. We would have tacos and play Trivia Pursuit. We had a set of Trivia cards called “Christmas Around the World.” The questions could be as hard as “In 1929, in Czechoslovakia, a new Christmas song was released. Name that song.” Or, they could be as easy as “What color was Frosty the Snowman?” It was hysterical either way. We tried to make it as non-traditional as possible. Our guests were generally people who had just moved, or divorced, or lost a loved one and needed one year to reset and do something completely out of the mold before starting new traditions. This meant we had different people every year. One year I was learning sign language. Butch had to work. The only guest was a deaf man who spent most of the evening teaching me how to sign the questions and answers and kicked my butt in Trivia.
Butch had an older aunt who was very poor and lived in a really bad neighborhood. He took the gift certificate he received from his employer for Thanksgiving, bought all the fixings for a feast, and took them to her so she could have Thanksgiving with her grandchildren. He never told anyone he did that. He was just that kind of a guy.
Everyone who has survived the first year after the loss of a loved one knows how tough those holidays and celebrations become after their death. With very few exceptions, all of the birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays piled up between November 5th and Valentine’s Day. In case it was not bad enough, I moved from our home of 31 years in November. It was the longest three months of my life. I thought that nothing could be worse. I am realizing that I was in such a fog and such a whirlwind that I was only partially participating. The good news is that this year I am fully awake. It seems like there are more and more days when I can make sense of my new life and getting used to life without him. The bad news is also that this year I am fully awake, making the bad days seem much worse.
The worst day of all was last Monday, July 3rd,, 2017, when I took and passed my clinical licensing exam. It was the hardest test I have ever taken, with 170 questions and a 4-hour time limit. After spending four full days cramming and feeling really confident as I entered the testing center, I was sure I was flunking by the time I got to the end. When I went out to the proctor, she looked at her computer and told me I had passed. I was first relieved, then grateful. That lasted about 50 feet out the door. I realized that I should be picking up my phone to call Butch and tell him that I passed and hear him say how proud he was of me. The culmination of a journey which meandered along from my entry into Junior College in 1994 and included thousands of hours of internship at three different levels was finally over. I will never live long enough to pay my student loans. But the person who believed in me, supported me, put up with my long hours and let me practice on him was not here to celebrate with me when I finally crossed the finish line. I really wanted to be more positive. But all I could focus on was that phone in my hand and how much I miss hearing his voice on the other end. Fortunately, realizing it would be a really bad idea to go back to my empty house with my little piece of paper that didn’t seem to mean much anymore, I had arranged to leave town directly from the testing enter and spend the holiday with my brother and his family in Reno.
Becoming us without them redefines celebrations. Nothing is the same without them. Our grieving mentors assure us that while the pain of the loss will lessen but not end, joy returns. New traditions gradually replace the old ones. Life brings new things to celebrate. The memories of past celebrations are more often sweet rather than bitter. We change and grow and take risks we would never have taken if they were alive. Gradually we feel proud of ourselves. More importantly, becoming us without them forces us to reach out to others for support. Our worst enemy is isolation. But only we can make the choice to reach out to others to fill the gaps that are left in the wake of their death. If we convince ourselves that no one is like us and therefore no one can love us, we are doomed. The first thing we can celebrate is our willingness to live fully in a world without them rather than crawling into a cave with our grief and pulling the darkness down around us. They would want that for us and we gradually learn to want that for ourselves.
Butch spent his entire adult life loving me and doing his best to contribute to my happiness. If I don’t take that love, and find that happiness, I will make his efforts on my behalf a waste. I would never want to do that to him or to myself.