Nov. 25, 2018

Melting the Iceberg

Butch was not a huggy-feely guy when I met him. His family was not physically demonstrative in that way. The first time I attempted to kiss him on the cheek in public when we were 17, he flinched like I was trying to bite him. His idea of holding hands was to hook pinkies. He very quickly moved beyond that. Like many of our peers in high school, we would meet before school and during lunch break to snuggle in the hallway. One of our instructors was well known for his mission of walking down the hall and loudly saying, “UNWRAP” as he passed an intertwined couple. He knew full well that we would all resume our original position after he was out of sight, but he gave it a valiant try.

When Butch was stationed at Fort Hood, in Texas, right after we married, we were close enough for visits with my very large family in Louisiana and Texas. The first time we visited my Grandmama, we left after work and arrived fairly late at night. Despite the hour, there were at least 15-20 aunts, uncles, and cousins there to greet us. As each of my very huggy-feely family members introduced themselves and gave him a big hug, I fully expected him to blow up and fly around the room backwards. By the time of his death, he was a big time snuggler. I miss those snuggles almost more than anything.

We moved to Louisiana for a short time. He loved being part of a big, close family. He was amazed by the size of the family net when he applied for a truck driving job about 100 miles away and found himself being interviewed by one of my cousins. It was disappointing that wages for truck drivers were so low and usually meant driving jobs that required him to be on the road most of the time. We eventually returned to California.

My cousin’s love did not protect anyone from the traditional “city cousin” hazing. Leaving for town to buy groceries, I warned Butch not to go outside with or trust any of my cousins until I returned. Of course, he thought that was ridiculous. Returning home, I was horrified to learn that he had gone with two of my more sadistic cousins to fish in the pond behind Grandmama’s house. Bolting out the back door I ran as fast as I could toward the pond. My worst fears were realized as I saw him innocently fishing in the pond as my cousins stood on the opposite side, throwing rocks in a semi-circle toward him. They would have told him they would “shoo” the fish toward him with the rocks. He had his back to me. My goal was to get there in time to yell “RUN” before it was too late. But I had to get close enough for him to hear me clearly and actually run, rather than just turn his head toward me and stop looking at the pond. I was too late. Just before I got close enough to warn him, he seemed to lift straight up off the ground, turn mid-air, and fly away from the water moccasin, escaping from the rocks, heading straight toward Butch. If he hadn’t already dreaded the sight of snakes, that would have synched it. Another time, they handed him a 12-gauge shotgun, knowing he had no experience with guns, and told him it was a 22-gauge rifle that had no kick at all. Needless to say, he learned a lot about guns and my cousins as he lay there on his back wondering what happened. I’m sure they were disappointed that he was too old to fool with the snipe hunt. He grew to love all of them, giving as much as he got among my rowdy cousins, and even enjoying the hugs.

On the opposite end of the spectrum were the ways in which my family has been there for us over the years. When we married, Butch was in the Army. His pay was very low. Three weeks after we arrived in Texas from California, we had three days left before his next paycheck and no food. We had one dime and a few coke bottles we could recycle. Out of the blue, my cousin and her husband from a nearby air force base, showed up for a surprise visit. Discovering our plight, they bought us enough food for three days and gas for our car. I found a job right away so we had enough to go around the next month. But we would have been in dire straights without them. We frequently headed to a nearby town for pizza on Friday nights but diverted to visit that cousin instead. I don’t think we ever made it to the pizza place. My sister, her husband, and I drove with our children to a family reunion when we were all young and broke. Sadly, we blew an engine somewhere in Texas. Cousins pitched in for expenses. Despite the distance from Grandmama’s, there were cousins nearby to house us, get us on the train home, and help the stragglers repair the van. When Butch died, my aunts and a cousin made the trek from Louisiana to California for the memorial. It was wonderful to be wrapped in their love. The whole family stays in touch via social media. They have celebrated my accomplishments in Butch’s absence, reminding me I’m loved and supported.

I decided I needed a big dose of those hugs this Thanksgiving. In an uncharacteristic move, I shifted things around, so I could leave for five days and stock up on huggy-feely. In addition to a steady banquet of Southern delicacies, I enjoyed a parade of hugging relatives. I was reminded, again, that despite Butch being gone, I am far from alone in the world. He is with me here, in the memories and the stories.

Becoming us without them provides us with an advanced degree in iceberg science. The initial shock of losing a loved one is different for everyone. In the early days it is much like being encased in ice, cold and numb. There is so much to deal with but so little interest in doing any of it. The pain is intense. We feel brittle and easily shattered. Those who have never sustained a major loss see only the tip of the iceberg. That looks manageable enough to them. They assure us with a litany of platitudes. As our grieving goes on, they wonder why we seem to be taking so long. Our grieving mentors, on the other hand, are fully aware of the enormity of the iceberg we actually face.

As time goes by and the initial busyness ends, the thawing uncovers new layers of pain. We may have hoped that “time heals all wounds” could actually be true. That is a hopeful fantasy. The second year is often worse than the first. With time, the numbness melts. The thawing layers expose us to chilling blasts from awakening to yet another long day in a world without them. The best memories remind us of the deepest losses. But layer by layer, we begin to feel alive again. Much to our surprise, we find them living in the deepest part of our being. The memories more frequently wash over us like a warm ocean wave rather than a stabbing shard of ice. We experience their tender presence more often than the ache of their absence. We come to understand the enormity of the iceberg in a more peaceful way. Those unpredictable moments of stabbing pain become familiar landmarks on the journey of grief that we now accept as our future. There awakens a version of us without them that we can embrace and even begin to enjoy. Hope glimmers in the distance.

Isolation is our worst enemy, leaving us trapped in frozen waters and prolonging the painful thawing process unnecessarily. Our support network draws the iceberg into warmer water where the healing occurs. There can’t be too many hugs, smiles, or words of encouragement. We can ask for them and accept them whenever they are offered. We can search endlessly for loving people to hang out with and keep going back.

Accept no excuses from that person who stares back at you in the mirror. They can’t be trusted. Ask, seek, knock.