Sep. 24, 2017

Christmas Tacos

Butch was always thinking of ways to provide service to others. He was not someone you would ever find standing behind a podium speaking to a crowd. But he was always someone you would find in the background, doing the huge things that mattered the most.
When he was in the army, we lived in Texas for a couple of years. He regularly brought home one of his single platoon mates for dinner. As they came in the door, I would hear them ask, “Are you sure its OK that you didn’t call to check before you invited me?” Since I learned to cook for my family of seven, it took me a long time to pare that down to dinner for two. Butch knew there would always be plenty for three in those early days. When his best friend’s wife needed to go home to Michigan, the friend and his six-month-old son stayed with us for a couple of months.
His very elderly aunt lived in a terrible neighborhood and was nearly crippled with arthritis. He visited her regularly without telling anyone about it. When one of the young men who roomed with us was not able to pay his rent regularly, Butch sent him to do yard work for his aunt. Every year when he got his Thanksgiving turkey from work he went to the store and purchased the rest of the makings for a turkey dinner and took it all to his aunt so she could have Thanksgiving dinner with her young grandchildren. He never bragged about that. He just quietly did it year after year.
He always introduced himself to our new neighbors at the first opportunity and let them know he was happy to help them out if he could. He kept an eye out for the elderly next-door neighbor, checking on her whenever something seemed suspicious in the area. At our first home, Butch once came home from work late at night and saw that three guys were about to jump the young man next door. While Butch was sure the troubled boy probably brought it on himself, three against one just didn’t work for him. He strolled over and announced that they were welcome to fight him one at a time, but not three at once. Given that Butch was 6’4” and unloaded 80,000 lbs. of freight every day, the aggressors decided not to fight that decree. One by one, they took turns with the neighbor. He easily defeated the first one and gave the second one a run for his money. But fatigue and drunkenness took their toll and the third one got in a few good licks before Butch announced that the neighbor had learned his lesson and they should go home. As it turned out, he had, indeed, brought it on himself. Another time Butch marched past eight Sheriffs with guns drawn attempting to get the same neighbor to come out of the house after his crazy girlfriend called 911 and told them the neighbor had a gun and their two-year-old in the house and would not let her out. The baby was actually at his other grandparent’s and she was at our house on the phone. She just knew what to say when she called 911 to get the most attention. The Sheriffs ordered Butch to stop but he ignored them, knowing the neighbor was an idiot, but not dangerous. He banged on the door, told the neighbor he was ruining Butch’s TV viewing with all the noise, and ordered him to come outside before Butch used the spare key they kept at our house (for when they locked themselves out) and dragged him out himself. The neighbor obediently marched outside and was taken away in handcuffs. Butch suggested that they take the crazy girlfriend away as well since she created all the drama in the first place. No one on the block was especially disappointed when they all moved away.
Thus, it was no surprise when Butch came home and told me that a couple of the people he worked with were orphaned for Christmas and he wanted to invite them for dinner. My family lived out of town, his family celebrated on a different day, and our boys preferred to be with the families of that year’s main squeeze. We had Christmas morning and brunch with them and they were off. Butch’s plan was that we should both invite any Christmas orphans we ran across to join us for dinner. Over the course of many years delivering to stores and businesses, he heard people talk about how hard Christmas was after a major loss or change. Whether caused by death, divorce, a move, or an empty nest, he thought it would be good if people could do something totally new that first year so it wasn’t so hard. That would make it easier to build new traditions in the future. So that became our tradition. We provided a build-your-own taco salad bar and yummy desserts, none of which conformed to the typical Christmas dinner pattern. He named the night, “Christmas Tacos.” We played Trivia Pursuit using cards entitled, “Christmas Around the World.” The questions could be as easy as “What did Frosty the Snowman wear on his head?” Or, they could be as obscure as, “What is the most commonly served side dish for Christmas dinner in Norway?” People laughed like crazy and forgot, if only for a while, that they were Christmas orphans. Each year the group was different, always very diverse. While there were a few regulars, most of the guests enjoyed that transition year and moved on to build new Christmas traditions just as Butch imagined they would. Eventually we, too, moved on and Christmas Tacos faded into history.
We spent the next few years serving together at the Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center on Thanksgiving and Christmas mornings after our sons left home. We would arrive early to help set up, serve the men and sometimes their families who were orphaned at the facility as part of their initial 30 day blackout, or because there was no one inviting them for Christmas, or because they had no home and no money to celebrate on their own. Then we would help clean up. It was very humbling. We returned home tired and grateful and spent a quiet evening together.
It never occurred to us that one day, one of us would inevitably be one of those Christmas orphans ourselves. But there I was. I had not demonstrated great skill at preparing for these major milestones after Butch died, so my family stepped in to be sure that I was not alone. My brother and his lovely family planned a trip to San Diego the week before Christmas and invited me to join them. They spent Christmas Eve with me at my home and we celebrated Christmas morning together. My son and his family joined us for brunch for the hand off, making sure I spent Christmas evening with them. I continue to wonder how people survive the loss of a loved one without the amazing support from friends and family that I have experienced.
Becoming us without them means treading gingerly through the major milestones of life on our own. Every date on the calendar that is special in any way shines light on the tear in the fabric that was once our lives with them. We are adrift. We are like a small boat in an ocean of sadness, with a torn sail and no rudder. There is no familiar script from which we read our lines in this new life. It is all improvisation. Complicating this process is the fact that we don’t want to do any of this. We want our lives back. Our grieving peers tell us it can take a lifetime to stop hoping this is all a bad dream, that we will wake up, and they will be right there, just where they belong. We are uninspired in our efforts to fill those gaps with new things we wouldn’t need if they weren’t gone. Yet we have no choice but to write a new story, with new traditions. Because they are gone, and nothing can change that, ever. Only we can decide if that story will be written in isolation, intensifying what is already excruciating pain. The alternative is to ask for help from anyone and everyone we can. It is foolish to believe that anything can take away the pain. But the suffering of isolation is an option. It is true that life goes on and our support people have their own lives to live. Our couple friendships change or end (if we represent a threat somehow or make them feel guilty). But if we are mobile, there are options. Whether we spend time with our own family, ask others to include us with their families, or find community resources, there are options. We can fight our way out of the quicksand only by putting one foot in front of the other and heading in a new direction, no matter how hopeless it feels as we begin.
I reawakened Christmas Tacos this year to celebrate my first birthday without him and my new home. I invited everyone I knew. And lots of them came!! We didn’t play Trivia Pursuit, but there was lots of laughter. And, just as Butch imagined, it was a little easier to forget that I am an orphan.