The Second Year Journey
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.
I once gave Butch and the kids the Strengths Finder profile as a Christmas gift. It is a quick test to identify your five areas of inborn talent. Butch’s number one talent was Strategic. It is described in this way: “People exceptionally talented in the Strategic theme create alternative ways to proceed. Faced with any given scenario, they can quickly spot the relevant patterns and issues.” That was Butch in a nutshell. It was a very practical version, not controlling or airily philosophical. He was like a computer, analyzing data, all the time. He loved to read about history, which he then translated into understanding the patterns in the present. He quietly organized the shopping cart so that it went onto the belt and into the bags according to where it would go when we unloaded it at home. He drove like most people play chess, five moves ahead. He noticed the driving patterns of the cars around and ahead of us and shifted away from anyone who seemed especially erratic. He never said anything about it, you had to observe it to appreciate what he was doing. He never backtracked in the hardware store. He knew where things were and what he needed and worked from one end to the other methodically. Even the parking space he chose had to do with where we would be exiting at the end of the list rather than the closest entrance or the closest spot.
This was yet another example of how opposites attract. Strangely, Strategic is one of my five inborn talents. But it is not the practical version. It is exactly how I operate as a therapist. As someone talks, my brain is gathering the bits and pieces into a pattern that enables me to intuitively head in the right direction in facilitating their growth toward wellness. But in the rest of life, I meander. A trip to the hardware store consistently requires at least two complete circles from one end to the other. The groceries are random. Despite knowing where everything is in the store, it is not unusual for me to circle there as well. I am now listening to Butch’s Audible books that include presidential biographies and war history. Somehow, it feels like listening to the same books he listened to keeps him closer. It helps me know him in a new way. He would have heard the political strategies and military tactics. He would have thought about the bigger picture of the world and how and why it operates the way it does. I hear the relationships between the characters and wonder about their childhood trauma and its effect on their role as world leaders. I think about PTSD. My heart hears how hard it must have been for them to have undergone what they did. I certainly realize that nothing has changed much. From George Washington on, the haters and worshipers lined up in unyielding camps and seemed to have learned nothing from history.
This difference showed up most noticeably in our ways of running errands. He knew where he needed to go and why, before pulling out of the driveway. I am sure he factored in traffic patterns in his perfectly strategic dispatch of his list. He usually finished all the errands on his list. I, on the other hand had a list of things I need to accomplish but the order in which they were to be done was very fluid. The most critical item was first. If that was successful, then I could do item two and possibly three. If it was unsuccessful then two and three dropped off the list and we moved to four. If item one took too long, the list was reviewed for the next critical item with any optional items that were geographically aligned between item one and that new priority added if possible. In that way, items that seemed unimportant or had not been on the list in the first place, were suddenly added based on geography rather than more important items that were in another direction. All of that added up to having no apparent pattern, except what was intuitively developing in my head as were going. It was unusual for me to complete the list. For Butch, this was like fingernails on a chalkboard. It was especially irksome if he was driving.
We resolved the problem by simply discussing our philosophical differences and making some agreements. He no longer attempted to dispatch my list of errands based on his need to be strategic in helping me conquer the list. In fact, he stopped driving so he could avoid the urge to turn the car in the direction of what he thought should be the next logical stop. He simply road along. He re-framed it from “helping me run errands” to “hanging out with me while I ran errands”. That is not to say that he did not regularly wonder out loud why I didn’t do errand seven on the way to errand three when it was right on the way. He just realized that what was important to me on that list was all in my head and possibly my heart and could not be discerned by him.
This meandering way of moving through life is a common characteristic of those who have sustained a major loss. It is often described as “brain fog”. Right after the loss, it is all we can do to put one foot in front of the other. Even if we are beset with mania, frantically hurrying from one thing to another to stay ahead of the pain, it is more reflexive than thoughtful. In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis describes this as “being mildly drunk or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. It is so uninteresting.” Over time, this lessens, and we seem to land back on the planet and begin moving purposefully through our lives again. We develop strategies to manage the unmanageable and begin to gain traction in our journey forward.
While each year will get better in some ways, the journey of grief never ends. As the intensity of the pain lessens, we remember them more. The wall that blocks the pain actually blocks everything. With the wall down, there is more of a steady flow of awareness. This is both good and bad news. Sweet memories begin to drift into our consciousness. Initially, this is hard, because they are reminders of what we have lost and seem always to carry pain with them. We discover that there is no way to avoid their presence in us or in the world around us. Gradually, these memories feel more sweet than bitter and assure us that we will never lose our loved on because they are fully alive inside us all the time. Just no hugs. We also realize that, for the rest of our lives, there will be moments of stabbing pain that seem as intense as ever and come with no warning. We accept this as the new normal and give up on the fantasy that we will “get over it.” We learn, rather, to move through it, one day at a time.
What will catch us off guard is the way that his fogginess can settle back in unannounced. Anniversaries and birthdays might send us instantly to square one. Holidays open the door and invite us back into the haze. If we are not mindful of the potential to slip back into the fog, we are at risk. It begins so subtly that we may not notice it is happening until it is bad. Being “partially concussed” inevitably results in lost objects, often important ones, accidents, injuries, missed appointments, impatience with others who do not understand what we are experiencing, and an endless list of inexplicable moments that leave us wondering what just happened and why. Chores go undone. Goals become unimportant or unattainable. Life loses flavor. Left unchecked, we can arrive in a very bad place.
Becoming us without them will include much brain fog. It is best accomplished in the presence of loving others. They know us and will notice when we are adrift again. They will throw us a lifeline back to ourselves without losing themselves in process. Our grieving mentors will not chastise us for losing ground or tell us to “just get over it.” Being honest about the pain, we receive comfort and build confidence to move forward and upward. As we share our truth with those both ahead and behind us on the journey of grief, we grow ourselves and empower others to grow with us. The years the locusts have eaten are redeemed when our story becomes light and salt in the lives of others. We get better at negotiating the fog.
To say that Butch disliked the dentist would be like saying the ocean is moist. He had a bad experience with the Army dentist and swore never to go back. He was in so much pain when his wisdom teeth were trying to come in that he flinched every time he ate something cold or hot. They needed to be removed and he wasn't willing. He asked me one day what I wanted for my birthday. We were living outside of Fort Hood, TX. I answered that question with one of my own. “Can I have anything we can afford?” “Sure”, he carelessly replied. “Well then, I want those four teeth in my hand, and I found a dentist in Waco I can afford to do it for you.” He was cornered. We drove the hour to Waco the next week. He went in, and they began the Sodium Pentothal immediately. I heard them tell him to count backward from 100. “99, 98, 97….” In what seemed like only two minutes later, I heard the nurse say, “He wants his wife.” I found him in a tiny little recovery room, like a closet with a shelf for him to lay on and a chair for me to wait. It was then I learned that anesthesia turned Butch into a comedian. He tried to convince me to lay down with him on the shelf. I told him to behave because the closet didn’t have a door and the staff were walking by. As an assistant passed, he said, “Excuse me, miss, you can take the rest of the day off.” Had he realized how much pain he would be in by the time we were halfway home, he would have tried to sleep while he still could.
He became the most faithful user of a toothbrush and dental floss in the world to increase the likelihood that he would never have to go back. Despite his best efforts, he would require lots of dental work over the years. When he needed a root canal, he again opted for sodium pentothal to miss as much of the torture as possible. I drove him to and from his appointment first thing in the morning. I took the keys to his truck back to work with me to avoid any antics he might devise. An hour later I received a call from his boss saying that he was there, clearly still under the influence, giggling smugly about having found his extra keys and run away from home. They took away his keys and held him prisoner until he was in his right mind again.
Even teeth cleaning was tough. His idea of a good dental hygienist was someone who was friendly before and after the appointment but did not expect him to be chatty while he was hyperventilating through the procedure.
I went to our old dentist for a cleaning last week. It was tough. We had the same dentist for years. He knew all of us. I learned the dentist had retired. Somehow that upset me. One more long-term relationship gone. A piece of Butch gone with him. The hygienist remembered details of our lives and our family. She remembered Butch and how much he struggled. We had a good laugh together. She gave me back a little of him as I lay in the chair and remembered his experiences of the dentist in the stories she told. Once the distraction of the conversation was over, and she quietly set to work, I found myself crying as those memories of him played in my head. Even the dentist office, a place we never went together, is haunted by his ghost.
On the journey of grief, there is no part of life untouched by the loss. Even years later, we can be blindsided by these unforeseeable moments. We get pieces of them back in the telling of the stories, in the shared laughter, in the mutual enjoyment. We can hear their voice and see their face a little more clearly as the stories unfold. Then they are gone in an instant, disappearing again, as the past gives way to the realities of the present, and the life we are left with in their absence.
Becoming us without them makes us great jugglers. The losses of the past, the realities of the present, and the promises for the future pass before our eyes in a constant flow. Those trained as jugglers will tell you that it takes time, practice, and patience to develop any skill. You have to focus on the balls travelling upward to anticipate where they will drop into your hand at the bottom without looking down at your hand. Focusing on any one ball, causes you to loose sight of the other two and drop.
So it is with the journey of grief. To build that new life awaiting us in the future, we look hopefully upward and trust things will drop into place as they should. If we hold on to one for too long or lose our upward focus they will fall to the ground. we spend lots of time picking up the balls and starting over again.
One of the hardest parts of becoming us without them is the slow motion approach of the death anniversary. Somehow it is as if we are reliving it again. The logical part of is knows it is in the past, but some other, illogical part of us begins to quietly dread it happening in the future. We can feel ourselves growing more anxious, or flakey, or some combination of the two as the time grows closer. Facebook nicely reminded me of this via a memory of a post from the first anniversary.
This is the week of the “last times” anniversaries. It is filled with the hope that the love we realize now was successfully conveyed last time, because it was, the very last time and there are no more chances.
On January 16, 2016, we celebrated what was to be our last family Christmas with the kids at Jeremy and Angela’s. It was our first Christmas with both or precious granddaughters. He played Santa Claus and seemed so healthy. January 17th was our last Sunday off together. Our work schedules were off synch and so full, that every other Sunday was our only concentrated time together. We spent the day mostly relaxing and getting ready for the family vacation at Tahoe that would begin on Thursday the 21st. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday we both worked, which meant he was asleep when I left for work and I was asleep when he got home. We sometimes had brief conversations but one of us was mostly out of it and not very focused on the other. We talked by phone during the day, and I called him on my way home from my last appointment every night. If he was home early, he would be waiting on the front porch for me when I arrived, still talking to him on the phone.
So Wednesday, January 20th, would turn out to be the last time I would wake up and find him sleeping beside me. I was always grateful to wake up and find him there, but I can’t imagine that I expressed that clearly enough to feel sure he knew. Thursday he got up in the wee hours of the night to go duck hunting with his nephew, Bruce, and I left for Tahoe to meet the kids.
He worked Friday and rode up to Tahoe on Saturday with Jeremy, who had come home to coach soccer for the day. It was fairly late when they arrived. Sunday, January 24th, was my birthday, which means I am about to spend my first birthday without him since I was 17 years old. I will turn 65, feeling much older than I would have if he was here to celebrate with me. We spent the morning relaxing. My brothers and their families came over in the afternoon to celebrate my birthday. It was a very relaxing time, just enjoying the time together, laughing, and enjoying our last family meal together.
Monday was another day of simply relaxing and spending time with Jeremy, Angela, and Schuyler. Schuyler was always afraid of men and, while she flirted with him constantly, she had never allowed him to get very close. With days together, she had begun to warm up to him. He figured out that it was his size that was the problem, so he took to sitting on the floor so he seemed less intimidating. I caught a great picture that morning of her bringing him her favorite book and sitting on the floor next to him so they could read it together. I had not idea that would be the first and only picture I would have of them together like that. In the afternoon, he and I went on a drive around the lake. We enjoy a mellow evening watching TV with the kids.
January 26th, what would be his last day in our lives, I woke up very sick and he spent the morning tending to me. He and Jeremy planned to go snow shoeing in the afternoon and he was very excited about that. He had always wanted to share his outdoor world with his sons but they were always too busy to coordinate their schedules do to that. When it was time to go, he asked me If I wanted him to stay. I assured him that I was feeling much better. I told him he was the best husband in the world for offering. He had waited years to go play outside with his kids and I would never ask him to miss that. I have replayed that moment over and over, wishing so desperately that I had said, “Yes, please stay with me and don’t leave me.” There was no way to know that he had been overwhelmed by the duck hunting adventure and his heart was probably already stressed. The addition of the snow shoeing at 6500 ft. elevation would push him to the edge. Carrying one bin of groceries to the car, going down three flights of stairs and back up for the next triggered the heart attack. He dropped outside the door of the condo. Jeremy valiantly administered CPR of over 10 minutes while we waited for the fire department. And while Jeremy kept him alive so he had a chance to fight for his life, he had lost oxygen for too long and his brain was already gone.
Both my family and his surrounded us in the hospitals in Tahoe, Carson City, and Sacramento, every medical intervention possible was offered. His heart was beating on its own and although he was on a ventilator, he was breathing on his own. But in the end, on February 11th, we put him on comfort care and watched him leave us. He quietly stopped breathing at 6 pm on February 13th, taking half of my heart with him. On Valentines day, a day that he always celebrated with a flare, Jeremy put flowers and a card in my car so that day would not be such a black hole.
So now we are walking through the land mine of the anniversary of those days. So much has changed in this year. We are all learning to go on without him. My friends and family have been my life blood. I have a beautiful life, a wonderful new home around the corner from Jeremy, Angela and Schuyler, and meaningful work that gives my life purpose. But there will forever be a gaping black hole where there used to be an amazing partner and friend.
I would give a million dollars for one more minute with Butch to be sure I tell him how much I loved him and how awesome my life with him was. I just want to know that he knew that for sure. But my moments are gone forever and I’ll never get that one minute I want so badly.
Thanks to all of you whose prayers have carried us through this year and will most surely carry us through the next.
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.