Aug. 22, 2017


After spending many years wondering why someone as smart as Butch did so poorly in school, testing at Kaiser determined that he had dyslexia. Using a tricky laser machine, he discovered that his eyes would go to the middle of the word and read to the right, then go back to the middle of the word and read to the left. No wonder he hated reading so much. That was a very freeing discovery for him, redefining him not as someone who was not smart, but as someone who just didn’t see what the rest of us see when reading. With some exercises and tons of practice, he greatly improved. More importantly, he was more likely to try new things knowing he could stop hiding his poor reading ability as a sign he was terminally flawed.
Butch told lots of stories about school when he was young. If you have ever raised a child with a learning disability, you know they are not likely to be up for student of the year. Like many others, it was clear that Butch substituted class clown for class scholar. It is likely that he would have been diagnosed with ADHD if anyone had bothered to check.
He reported being suspended from either kindergarten or first grade for punching a neighbor. He was riding his bike home from school and opted to cut through her yard. Having been told not to do that, she was waiting for him that day. Believing she was going to take his bike away from him when she tried to grab him, he apparently punched her and made a run for it. In addition to the trouble he got in at school when she reported him, he had to face worse music at home.
He said that he got good grades through the third grade. In the fourth grade, when the reading load really started to pile up, his grades began to drop. It was then that he began using comic relief to mask his fear that he would be found out as being barely able to read. Having thoroughly annoyed his teacher one day, the teacher apparently lost it. He came up behind Butch and began twisting Butch’s collar, cutting off the air supply. His classmates described with glowing admiration how, just before passing out on his desk, Butch “clocked” the teacher. This gained him the admiration of his classmates and successfully diverted anyone from worrying about his grades.
In Junior High, he and some other boys cut in line in the cafeteria. The principal, saw them and decided to make an example of them. He stood them up on stage and made them eat standing up, holding their trays. Not seeming even remotely contrite at that point, he then required them each to take a turn reading aloud while the other students ate their lunches. Butch said that he got at the end of the line, desperately hoping lunch would end or the world would end before it was his turn. As his turn approached, he felt nauseous waiting for the impending humiliation as the entire school discovered that he read horribly. Much to his surprise, as he fumbled over the words, his classmates decided he was doing it on purpose to mock the principal and applauded his defiance. He escaped!!
By the time I met him as a freshman in High School, he had been relegated to that group of students you might describe as just above the thugs, but very unlikely to succeed. His low opinion of himself prevented him from launching out on adventures that would take him out of his bubble of shame. With his complicated home life, he would never have had kids over to play or hang out unless they, too, had messy families and would think nothing of his.
I, on the other hand, ran on the fringe of the group that included the cheerleaders and football players. But I always felt like I was masquerading as a popular kid and waited every day to be discovered and voted off the island. When I was younger, I, too, found teacher torture to be a wonderful outlet for my angst. When the principal or one of my teachers would call to discuss my evil adventures, my mother would ask them what grade I was getting in the class where I was having the problem. They would say, “Well she is getting an A, but..” At that point, she would tell them that if my grade got to a C to call her back. Classroom management was their problem. She would then hang up. As my mother’s drinking got worse, my friends rarely came to my house to avoid repeats of some humiliating and scary incidents they witnessed over the years.
When we were seniors and dating, I received the Betty Crocker Homemaker of the Award for my school simply by getting 98 percentile on a written test. Raising my brothers and sisters and covering for my alcoholic mother, I knew lots about “housekeeping” and taking advanced placement English enabled me to max out the essay question on the test even though I really didn’t understand the terms I was writing about. Like Butch always said, “If you can’t blind them with brilliance, you can always baffle them with b******t.” When we arrived in the home economics classroom to pick up my award it was hard to tell if the teacher was more repulsed by the fact that a student who never took one home economics class from her won the award or that I was accompanied by a young man who had tormented her every day in her Bachelor Living class the year before.
That was what made us kindred souls—the feeling of being misfit toys. They called us the Odd Couple, seeming to be such polar opposites. But we were kindred souls. He was amazed that I saw past the learning issues to the person he really was. I was amazed that he saw past the craziness and loved me anyway.
We went on to support one another in reaching for the stars when neither of us even looked up at the starts before we met. When he decided to try college, I read his textbooks onto audio tape (dark ages) so he could listen to them in the truck as he drove. He actually got a better grade in economics than I did, because he liked it and I thought it was terminally boring. I shuttled equipment for his jock stuff, supporting him in any way I could. His faith and encouragement kept me going in school when I lost heart and wanted to give up. We even figured out how to combine those two as I did my homework in parking lots before, during, and after his practices and events and he brought his bicycle or kayak as he kept me company on work or school related travels.
Becoming us without them means finding the will to keep moving forward without them. When the gut wrenching pain of their absence subsides, we can begin to hear their voice again, encouraging us to do the hard things just like they did before. The terror of not being able to go on without them is lessened at first by allowing people who care about us and cared about them to help us. In time, we realize we are surviving without them, whether we want to or not. But does enjoying our new-found resilience mean losing some part of them? The good news is, we begin to notice that we absorbed them into our cells in many ways. We find that when we hit a roadblock we can ask ourselves, “What would they do right now?” And much to our surprise, answers come into our heads. We must have been paying attention!! Frequently, we either know what to do, or know who to ask. And let us not forget YouTube videos!! But the bad news is, the more we appreciate all the ways they made life better, the more we miss them. The more we hear their voice or remember their support, the more we wish they were here. Becoming us without them is a balancing act. In one hand ,we hold the pain of the loss. In the other, we hold the good parts of the life we had together. There is no way to block the pain without also blocking the sweetness of their presence in our lives. The only way back into the light of their love is through the darkness of the mourning. Our grieving companions help us accept this wavering as a normal part of the life we now live and comfort us when the darkness descends. One day at a time, the parts of them that we carry with us and the parts we are creating on our own, merge into a version of us that we can live with, in spite of the pain. The glimmer of that something new appears like the sunrise, grey and indistinct, but promising that a new day is dawning, even for us.