Aug. 1, 2017
Our youngest son turned 40 today. How did that go by so quickly?
Our first son was born on August 20, 1973. He was born just weeks before Butch completed his service in the Army. Butch had to go away for training the last six weeks before I was due, so the members of his unit, who I fed and sheltered for two years, created a schedule so that I had a phone number to call 24/7 if I went into labor. On the day of the company picnic, no one wanted to stay home to babysit me so I was required to attend in Butch’s absence to ensure that someone was keeping track of me. August in Texas, nearly at my due date, spending an afternoon in the heat. Now there’s an adventure. To say that we were poorly prepared for parenthood would be one of the world’s greatest understatements.
Everything I know now about how to be a wife, a mother, a friend, and, well, a human, I learned from a book or a therapist. My father, an only child, was born in 1927 and lived through the great depression. His father died suddenly when he was only 8 years old. A long series of very difficult experiences left him believing that the only thing you could trust in this world was money. My mother, a very unhappy person, would contribute greatly to that belief over the years. While I was the oldest of five, practically raised my youngest brother, and babysat for years, I was far too wounded be left in charge of children who I did not give back after a few hours. On the job training reigned supreme in our house. I actually held my son the first time and apologized to him for his being stuck with me for his mother. I then began what I was sure would be my journey toward failing as a mother. My children are very lucky that my life was generously sprinkled with mentors and good therapists or it could have gone much worse.
Butch was the youngest of four and the only boy. I have seen pictures of Butch and his father as an infant and young boy and it was clear that he loved Butch very much. Both of his parents came from very troubled families. They worked long and hard to provide for their children but there are books written about dysfunctional families whose chapters could easily be about theirs. He was an extremely hands-off dad. She was an extremely complicated mom. Yet they taught them to be respectful and hard-working and graced them all with that combination of humor and sarcasm that only we of the wounded family can appreciate. He came to parenthood with a very strong desire to be a better parent to his boys that his father had been to him. Like the rest of us, he learned that was much more easily said than done. He did all the good stuff he knew to do, and worked hard not to be like his parents had been. No one ever had a dad who loved them more or was more committed to figuring out how to be a good dad.
Butch was completely amazed by our first son. He would bring Army buddies home to see him nearly every day. He would stand over the bassinet and loudly say, “We have to be quiet or he will wake up and we will have to hold him.” He knew way more about nurturing than I did. My mother did not nurture. She endured. When our son screamed through his baths, it was Butch who would patiently get us through it. When he wasn’t sleeping, it was Butch who knew about bundling him. Butch talked to the baby as he was getting dressed and eating his breakfast. He played on the floor with him every night. When he had to leave us in Minnesota to take a good job back in California, he sent our six month old son a letter telling him how much he loved and missed him and to take good care of mom, enclosing a five dollar bill so he could take me out for a coke. Butch took a week off the week before our second son was due to have dad time with the first before the new baby invaded his world. They rode horses, fished, and hung out.
When our second son was born my mother came to help after my C-Section. That was like asking one of Santa’s reindeer to help the elves wrap presents. Step-father number four had a heart attack after she was there two days. With great relief, we sent her on her way back to Minnesota. Butch stepped up. Unlike our first son, this one loved and was amused by everything. He laughed at the tongue depressor at his first checkup. When he cut his hand barely more than age two, he repeatedly asked, “What doing?” as they stitched his hand and complained, “Move. Can’t see.” Rather than being afraid and upset when he was bound into the contraption for a chest X-ray, he wiggled his fingers delightedly and waved at me behind the window. Being best buds with his dad, he once got tired of waiting for dad to come home from work and announced that he was taking his three-year-old little self for a walk to find his daddy. I followed close behind to see how far he would get before he got scared or lost his way. Neither happened. He was well on his way when Butch passed us on the street and stopped to pick us up.
Those were rocky times in our marriage. Having had no modeling from his dad for how to be a husband, as our problems increased and the cute little babies were replaced my strong willed young men who stretched us well outside our comfort zone, it was touch and go. That “making up answers” parenting style is hard on everyone. It was only with three rounds of marriage counseling, two rounds of family counseling, and the grace of God that we got through. Fortunately, no animals or humans were harmed during these experiments. When our youngest son was in his 20’s, we were helping a team of people provide growth groups at a local church. The team decided it would be cool to have a panel of “strong willed” children who had survived to adulthood talk about what it was like to be the kid in that drama. You always hear from the parents of those kids, but rarely the little devils themselves. No one knew that one of the panel members was our son. The panel of young people was talking about what it was like from their perspective to live in messy families, go through family counseling, and come out at the other end with a family that enjoyed one another. Our son casually said, “You know what was cool about having an asshole for a father? I could always make him mad to distract him from what we were supposed to be talking about. That wasn’t all bad. I liked the new version of my dad much better, but I missed being able to distract him when the discussion wasn’t going my way.” Butch just laughed along with everyone else. After it was over and our son came to say goodbye, people were stunned to realize that he was our son and that neither of us had reacted as he very honestly described what it was like for him to have parents for whom every day was on the job training. When another man came over and asked Butch how he could be so OK with that, Butch calmly told him, “We aren’t those people anymore.”
Butch was really looking forward to being a grandfather because he was sure he could do a much better job with the girls than he did with his sons. He was already showing what a cool grandfather he would be when he died. But our granddaughters were only 15 and 5 months old so he never got a chance to enjoy them. They would have had him eating out of their hands!
Becoming us without them means relating to everyone in our world in a whole new way. The birthday cards don’t say, “Love mom and dad” anymore. We don’t get to sit on the porch and watch the grandchildren laugh and play together like we dreamed for so long. There isn’t one social setting in which we functioned as “us” in the past that does not become “us without them” now. Every friendship is changed. Every holiday requires modified traditions. People around us don’t know how to be. They can feel awkward enjoying what they still have when we have lost so much. Conversations are fraught with black holes where it was once uncomplicated. We love to hear stories about our loved ones. They worry their stories will make us say—and they may. There is no manual for learning to ask for and receive support without becoming a burden or avoiding things that we can and should do on our own. We are launched into doing new things that make us stronger and more resilient. But we’d much rather have them healthy and alive than be resilient. We learn to enjoy our life again and look forward to the future. But there is always that little voice that reminds us we would rather hit the rewind button and have them back. This is the hardest part. The logical side of our brain gets better and better at accepting that they are gone and nothing will ever undo that. Would we, if we could, demand that they leave the peaceful place they now enjoy to come back to this crazy world only to die again later? But the emotional side of our brain resists. The selfish part doesn’t care. We want the pain to stop. The surest route to the end of the pain is if they just come back. Who needs to be a new person if we can just get our old lives back? That crazy-making loop can go on and on.
Only the passing of time, chipping away at the pain, supported by our loved ones and grieving mentors pushes us forward. In the meantime, thank God for how-to videos on Youtube!