If she was alive, my mom would have been 89 on June 9, 2019. She really loved Butch. She always enjoyed spending time with him. He could make her laugh and had a way of making her feel valued. That wasn’t the case with me.
When we were still in high school, Butch moved out of his parent’s house after a huge fight with his mom. He dramatically moved into a tent in the empty field across the street from our house. He would hang out at our house but sleep out there. He as unloading trucks three days a week and going to school two days a week. He had enough units to graduate mid-term but stuck around for the last semester after we started dating. His classes were Bachelor living, guitar, PE, and shop. When the principal heard about this, he told Butch he was a bad example for other students with his poor attendance and wanted him to leave. Butch told him he was only sticking around so he could do all the if the end of the year senior activities. The principal agreed that if he would go quietly away, he could fully participate in anything that other seniors go to do in May and June.
This freed him to work more days if he could. It also meant spending time at my house with my mom. I would sometimes come home and find them weeding together, talking away, like old friends. She actually seemed to talk to him more than she ever talked to me. I usually came home to find her engrossed in a book on the good days and hanging out with her drinking buddies on the bad ones. She once told him that if our marriage ever ended, he was welcome to move home, but I wasn’t.
Never willing to plan her summer visits so we could organize our lives, she would just show up and complain that we weren’t available. I once had to travel for work for a few days during one of her unplanned visits, so Butch and the boys entertained her while I happily escaped. She talked about how much she enjoyed that time with them over the years.
Butch even took her on a trucking adventure with him. She loved every minute. The view from the 18-wheeler is wonderful. You can see into the open spaces and over the bridges and mountainsides much better. She would have known the names of the birds, flowers, and trees, giving them lots to discuss as they drove. That trip with him was one of her fondest memories.
My mom came to live with us the last few years of her life as she disappeared into dementia. I could never have pulled that off without Butch. The trick was to district and redirect when she was not tracking or dug in for a power struggle. Sometimes when I attempted to get her going in the morning so I could drop her at grandma daycare and get to work, she just wasn’t having it. All I had to do was call for Butch. He would come into the room and immediately begin telling her a story or a joke. He would tease her about her snappy outfit or her messy hair and she would sit up with a big smile on her face and engage with him without the slightest resistance. If she forgot who I was as we were coming out of a store and started telling strangers I was kidnapping her, he could have her in the car in moments. Too bad he wasn’t always around for that.
My dad, on the other hand was not an early fan. The idea that I was marrying a truck driver rather than an attorney or doctor was always a thorn in his side. His only commentary when I announced my engagement was to say, “You don’t want to marry him. He lacks ambition.” Discovering Butch’s incredible work ethic changed that view, but my choice to be a stay-at-home mom and our not being rich always invited my dad to remind me that I wasn’t living up to my potential—or his expectations. Watching Butch engage lovingly and patiently with our first, cholicy son, my dad remarked, “Butch is a great husband for you. No one else would have you.” Eventually, however, he came to admire and appreciate Butch as a person, father, husband, and provider. Butch even took a week of his vacation to go to Minnesota and visit my dad without the rest of us after multiple entreaties to come and share all the great fishing available there. My father, too, loved Butch’s humor and patience with a grumpy old man. We were the only ones in my family that remained married and who deeply enjoyed one another at that point in time. My dad only came to California to visit us a few times in 44 years of marriage. On his last visit, we were all sitting on the patio after a summer bar-b-que with my dad and stepmother and some good friends we invited to help break up the tension. We were telling fun stories, laughing, and enjoying the history we had with these people. I looked over and saw my dad quietly weeping as he observed us, so happy and contented with our lives and one another. I never saw him like that before or after. If he wasn’t usually so critical of me and my life, I might have let myself believe he was proud of me for one moment.
Being loved by Butch allowed me to let all that go. Having him, I didn’t need them. I could stop trying to get those two very wounded people to meet my needs. I didn’t feel like an orphan when they died because I had him. Long before the therapy that enabled me to function like a grownup, Butch made me, too, laugh and feel valued. I felt seen and protected and believed I could do anything. He was the wind beneath my wings. I discovered my orphan when he died.
Becoming us without them invites us to heal wounds inflicted before we ever met them, in addition to the excruciating pain of their loss. It means walking into the catacombs, opening each tomb, and making friends with the occupants. If we fail to do this work, we run the risk of using others as distractions. We lose the opportunity to discover what we were meant to become. We eliminate the possibility of feeling fully alive and connecting with God and others in a whole new way. The love they offered us becomes a curse if we cannot return to that experience of their love and care and use it to fuel the journey of grief. Worst of all, we cannot lead others into and out of their own catacombs and back into the light if we have not done the work ourselves.
The children’s book, There’s a Nightmare in My Closet, by Mercer Mayer, is the story of a young boy who decides to conquer the nightmare that comes to the foot of his bed each night. Finding that the nightmare is more scared of him than he is of the nightmare, the boy befriends the nightmare and invites the nightmare to snuggle in his bed. The book ends with this line, “There’s probably another nightmare in my closet, but my bed isn’t big enough for three.”
In the early days of grief, it is impossible to believe that anything good can come of this ordeal. We simply survive until bedtime. Only our grieving mentors can guide us in surviving the nightmare until the light of day dawns again and hope returns.