Jan. 1, 2020

The First Date

Our first official date was on December 31, 1969.
We hung out on November 5, 1969, when we met at a local pizza place where my friends went after football games. He was not a member of my social network. Actually, neither was I. I floated along next to the in-crowd. I never really belonged anywhere. I had the looks and the grades to fit in. My family had all the social trappings to gain me entrance into the rooms, but I held too many family secrets to have sleepovers and parties. Looking back, I was too wounded to let anyone close enough to know me. Butch had been relegated to the island of misfit toys via an undiagnosed learning disability that gained him entrance into the “don’t expect too much from this one” group, despite being very bright. My friends were less than welcoming when they saw us together. The difference in economic status between our families was one of the many things that contributed to our being labeled as “the odd couple.” That was a problem for me when we first met as freshmen, as he attempted to initiate a relationship. I behaved like an entitled jerk and that went away. Junior year, I became infatuated with him from afar as I watched how kindly and tenderly, he treated the girl he was courting. He was unavailable, so I gave up. Our senior year found us sitting together in government class due simply to alphabetical order seat assignment. It took two months to negotiate the first tentative meeting for pizza. We left together afterwards and sat in his car to talk until my curfew. We were soulmates. Unfortunately, my curfew was much later than his, so he arrived home to find a furious mother and receive a month of restriction. We could only hang out at school. It very quickly became apparent that he was sweet, romantic, and treated me better than anyone in my life. I, being completely feral, could not tolerate being treated nicely, so I ended the relationship. It took only a short time to realize that was a terrible mistake and begin desperately flirting my way into a second chance.
At last, I was invited to spend New Years Eve with him. He later confessed that his plan was to get me to care about him and to then break my heart as I had done twice in the past. While I probably deserved that, I am lucky that we stayed together after all. I often said that Butch was a miracle, imposed on me by God, despite my best efforts to screw it up. Butch was assigned the role of bouncer for the party his sister was having at his house, so we went to the party together. They were her college theater class friends, older and very quirky. Around 11:30 pm, when it was clear that everyone there was harmless and well behaved, we slipped out for a romantic surprise he had planned. We drove in his 1957 Ranchero to an open field on top of a hill. There were lots of undeveloped areas around, so it was still very close to his home. We looked out over the Christmas lights under a clear, starry sky, talking and drinking sparkling cider, while the radio played in the background. So romantic!! When he attempted to start the car, the battery was dead. After some thought, he decided we would walk the few blocks to his boss’s house, borrow a car and some jumper cables, and be good as new. It had been rainy, so the field was very muddy. With each step we would sink into the mud, making it hard to keep from losing our shoes as we went. I finally took my shoes off and carried them. His boss and family were amused and intrigued by our adventure and happily contributed to our rescue. I thought it was a grand adventure, making for a great story to tell for the rest of our lives. I was impressed by his resourcefulness and his ability to engineer our escape. My dad would have had to call a tow truck. Butch was mortified. He would go on to create romantic moments and memorable dates for 46 years before his death.
Becoming us without them means facing those anniversaries again and again. As with everyone else, anniversaries invite us to remember the years of celebration together. On the journey of grief, those lovely memories become bittersweet. While others look fondly back over the past, they also look forward into the future, anticipating more to come. As we gaze into the future, we see only the empty place where our loved ones should be. It can be hard to imagine a time when those days and places will not be haunted by the fading memories of them there. The fleeting images are so real. We see them clearly for a brief moment; remember what they wore; hear their voice, what they said. Then they are gone again, and the emptiness descends. Only our grieving mentors understand what this is like.
As with all parts of the journey of grief, birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries are best faced in the presence of others. In the telling of the stories among those who were there, our loved ones become three dimensional again. Their memories, added to ours, lift the pain and add laughter to the process. While still gone, they are made much more alive and present as the story is told from the hearts of other people who cared about them. As the memory is wrapped in the love and laughter in the room, so is the pain. The new version of the story doesn’t end in our past memories. It goes on in the new version, with everyone who is present in the telling, where we are not alone, and not forgotten. Magically, even loving people who did not know them, can add their love and laughter to the memory and change it every so slightly as we tell it with them. Only in the shame and misery of isolation does the memory remain frozen in time and wrapped in pain.
Only we can choose to invite love and laughter into those memories so they can be redeemed and remembered with joy once again. Others are not likely to begin those conversations, worrying that they will cause us pain. We must invite them into a celebration of the life of our loved one so we can all see them clearly, hear their voice, and hold them warmly in our hearts forever.