When we were 18 years old, the Vietnam war was raging. With a draft number of 26, it was inevitable that Butch would be drafted. Plagued by undiagnosed dyslexia and the limits it imposed, he was unable to pass the Air Force entrance exam, so he enlisted in the Army ahead of the call. The recruiter showed him a book of aircraft and told him he would be able to work on any one he chose. This was, of course, a lie. It turned out the book he showed Butch was an Air Force book that he borrowed from his buddy the air force recruiter to entice young men into the army. Despite being very bright and mechanically inclined, Butch’s poor scores on the written exam relegated him to the job of helicopter mechanic, better known as crew chief. The helicopter he was assigned to required him to double as door gunner. This left him with a very low life expectancy while under fire.
It was June, 1970. We were just out of high school, and devastated that we would soon be separated by a continent as he left for basic training in Monterey, CA and then helicopter mechanic training in Virginia. We spent as much of our remaining time together as we possibly could. As the departure date drew near, I engaged in the very annoying practice of counting down the “last” things. Last Monday, last Tuesday, last Wednesday……Last camping trip with my family, last time to swim together, last walk under the stars, last marshmallow roast. Last visit with friends. Last breakfast, lunch, dinner. Last kiss, hug, look. Last vestiges of childhood and a carefree existence.
All that, and Butch ended up at Fort Hood, TX, not Vietnam. We spent two fun years with other young, broke, couples, creating a feast from scraps among those stranded on holidays, playing double deck pinochle, having babies, and enjoying being young and poor together. We were only a few hours away from our extended families in Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana allowing us to visit more than we would ever again. Among my close friends was a woman named Sondra, who taught me more in my first six weeks as a mother than I learned in 18 years at home. Her warmth, confidence and modeling as a mother kept me from total panic when I found myself with a son and no idea how to parent him differently than my very miserable parents. Those were good times. We both remembered them fondly forever.
That tendency to dread life-altering events and to count down the moments has been a lifelong habit. I remember doing it as high school graduation approached and adulthood loomed on the horizon, as our wedding drew near and my life as a single person came to an end, and as the birth of our first child grew eminent, making me forever a mother with no clear idea of what any of those new roles required. I quietly repeated that process when my children left home and the hole in our lives once filled by their presence came clearly into view.
I didn’t have the luxury of savoring the “last things” with Butch’s departure from my life. One minute he was packing the car for our return home from vacation with our son and his family and the next, a heart attack ended my life as I knew it. It took 18 days for his body to leave, but he, the center of my universe, was gone in an instant. Would I trade a lingering illness with an opportunity to say goodbye and commemorate each last thing for an instant death that spared him from all suffering? Would he? Who can say which is worse? No one gets more than one ending to their story.
Each year since his death, I dread what I irreverently call “anniversary season”. November 5, 2019 will be the 50th anniversary of our first date in high school. Thanksgiving was never a big deal for us, yet I am uneasy as it approaches whether I spend it with my family or his. His birthday was December 5th and I miss serving him breakfast in bed, searching for a gift he will actually enjoy, and making old people jokes. Christmas is fully loaded with potential land mines, feeling like a burden for whoever gets stuck with me that year, doing Christmas with his family without him, and celebrating Christmas in January with my kids with an empty chair where he should be sitting and enjoying our lovely granddaughters. Next is our anniversary on January 4th, reminding me that our dreams of being that cute little old couple will never come to pass. My birthday is January 24th, now complicated by the heart attack date of January 26th. And not to be outdone, is February 13th, when he died, taking Valentine’s Day with him into the sorrow.
The first year, I didn’t know what was coming but I was a disaster in general so it blended right in. The second year, I was sure it would be better. I didn’t see it coming and was a total mess by Valentine’s Day. It took months to recover. The third year, I knew it was coming, got ready for it by lining up social support and mindfully setting up self-care around critical days. Valentine’s Day found me less shell shocked and ready to move on. This fourth year, I really wanted to roll through it with ease. Not so much….Like the sensation of a tsunami still out of sight but roaring toward shore, I can feel November 5th coming ever closer. When I think of initiating a conversation with someone about my sense of dread, I find myself tearing up and preferring not to try. “It’s just part of the process.” “I’ll be fine.” “No use bothering anyone else with this craziness.” “It’s probably not as bad as is seems.” And on and on and on…..While some of that may be true, the bottom line is that no part of the grieving process goes well in isolation. I can choose to crawl through this alone and risk making it worse. Or I can accept my human frailty and my need for comfort and support and double up the self-care, which I know only too well how to create. All the while wondering if there isn’t a “fast forward” button somewhere that I have just failed to press.
Becoming us without them means living a dual life. There is this person that is us, who has changed, and grown, and been forced to find strength and courage and even amazement as a new life emerges from the rubble of the loss. We know how to do things we would never have known. Like it or not, we have persevered, risen above, and become someone we would never have imagined. There does appear to be a light at the end of the tunnel that is not an oncoming train. At the same time, there is this crabby person walking along next to us, who stabs us in the heart now and then, with no warning, just for something to do. They are a permanent fixture. The more we accept that, the less surprised we will be when they assault us and the more kindness and grace we can extend to them along the way. “If you can’t beat em, l em.” is sage advice on the painful journey of grief with our uninvited companion.