The Second Year Journey

Sep. 24, 2017
Butch was always thinking of ways to provide service to others. He was not someone you would ever find standing behind a podium speaking to a crowd. But he was always someone you would find in the background, doing the huge things that mattered the most.
When he was in the army, we lived in Texas for a couple of years. He regularly brought home one of his single platoon mates for dinner. As they came in the door, I would hear them ask, “Are you sure its OK that you didn’t call to check before you invited me?” Since I learned to cook for my family of seven, it took me a long time to pare that down to dinner for two. Butch knew there would always be plenty for three in those early days. When his best friend’s wife needed to go home to Michigan, the friend and his six-month-old son stayed with us for a couple of months.
His very elderly aunt lived in a terrible neighborhood and was nearly crippled with arthritis. He visited her regularly without telling anyone about it. When one of the young men who roomed with us was not able to pay his rent regularly, Butch sent him to do yard work for his aunt. Every year when he got his Thanksgiving turkey from work he went to the store and purchased the rest of the makings for a turkey dinner and took it all to his aunt so she could have Thanksgiving dinner with her young grandchildren. He never bragged about that. He just quietly did it year after year.
He always introduced himself to our new neighbors at the first opportunity and let them know he was happy to help them out if he could. He kept an eye out for the elderly next-door neighbor, checking on her whenever something seemed suspicious in the area. At our first home, Butch once came home from work late at night and saw that three guys were about to jump the young man next door. While Butch was sure the troubled boy probably brought it on himself, three against one just didn’t work for him. He strolled over and announced that they were welcome to fight him one at a time, but not three at once. Given that Butch was 6’4” and unloaded 80,000 lbs. of freight every day, the aggressors decided not to fight that decree. One by one, they took turns with the neighbor. He easily defeated the first one and gave the second one a run for his money. But fatigue and drunkenness took their toll and the third one got in a few good licks before Butch announced that the neighbor had learned his lesson and they should go home. As it turned out, he had, indeed, brought it on himself. Another time Butch marched past eight Sheriffs with guns drawn attempting to get the same neighbor to come out of the house after his crazy girlfriend called 911 and told them the neighbor had a gun and their two-year-old in the house and would not let her out. The baby was actually at his other grandparent’s and she was at our house on the phone. She just knew what to say when she called 911 to get the most attention. The Sheriffs ordered Butch to stop but he ignored them, knowing the neighbor was an idiot, but not dangerous. He banged on the door, told the neighbor he was ruining Butch’s TV viewing with all the noise, and ordered him to come outside before Butch used the spare key they kept at our house (for when they locked themselves out) and dragged him out himself. The neighbor obediently marched outside and was taken away in handcuffs. Butch suggested that they take the crazy girlfriend away as well since she created all the drama in the first place. No one on the block was especially disappointed when they all moved away.
Thus, it was no surprise when Butch came home and told me that a couple of the people he worked with were orphaned for Christmas and he wanted to invite them for dinner. My family lived out of town, his family celebrated on a different day, and our boys preferred to be with the families of that year’s main squeeze. We had Christmas morning and brunch with them and they were off. Butch’s plan was that we should both invite any Christmas orphans we ran across to join us for dinner. Over the course of many years delivering to stores and businesses, he heard people talk about how hard Christmas was after a major loss or change. Whether caused by death, divorce, a move, or an empty nest, he thought it would be good if people could do something totally new that first year so it wasn’t so hard. That would make it easier to build new traditions in the future. So that became our tradition. We provided a build-your-own taco salad bar and yummy desserts, none of which conformed to the typical Christmas dinner pattern. He named the night, “Christmas Tacos.” We played Trivia Pursuit using cards entitled, “Christmas Around the World.” The questions could be as easy as “What did Frosty the Snowman wear on his head?” Or, they could be as obscure as, “What is the most commonly served side dish for Christmas dinner in Norway?” People laughed like crazy and forgot, if only for a while, that they were Christmas orphans. Each year the group was different, always very diverse. While there were a few regulars, most of the guests enjoyed that transition year and moved on to build new Christmas traditions just as Butch imagined they would. Eventually we, too, moved on and Christmas Tacos faded into history.
We spent the next few years serving together at the Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center on Thanksgiving and Christmas mornings after our sons left home. We would arrive early to help set up, serve the men and sometimes their families who were orphaned at the facility as part of their initial 30 day blackout, or because there was no one inviting them for Christmas, or because they had no home and no money to celebrate on their own. Then we would help clean up. It was very humbling. We returned home tired and grateful and spent a quiet evening together.
It never occurred to us that one day, one of us would inevitably be one of those Christmas orphans ourselves. But there I was. I had not demonstrated great skill at preparing for these major milestones after Butch died, so my family stepped in to be sure that I was not alone. My brother and his lovely family planned a trip to San Diego the week before Christmas and invited me to join them. They spent Christmas Eve with me at my home and we celebrated Christmas morning together. My son and his family joined us for brunch for the hand off, making sure I spent Christmas evening with them. I continue to wonder how people survive the loss of a loved one without the amazing support from friends and family that I have experienced.
Becoming us without them means treading gingerly through the major milestones of life on our own. Every date on the calendar that is special in any way shines light on the tear in the fabric that was once our lives with them. We are adrift. We are like a small boat in an ocean of sadness, with a torn sail and no rudder. There is no familiar script from which we read our lines in this new life. It is all improvisation. Complicating this process is the fact that we don’t want to do any of this. We want our lives back. Our grieving peers tell us it can take a lifetime to stop hoping this is all a bad dream, that we will wake up, and they will be right there, just where they belong. We are uninspired in our efforts to fill those gaps with new things we wouldn’t need if they weren’t gone. Yet we have no choice but to write a new story, with new traditions. Because they are gone, and nothing can change that, ever. Only we can decide if that story will be written in isolation, intensifying what is already excruciating pain. The alternative is to ask for help from anyone and everyone we can. It is foolish to believe that anything can take away the pain. But the suffering of isolation is an option. It is true that life goes on and our support people have their own lives to live. Our couple friendships change or end (if we represent a threat somehow or make them feel guilty). But if we are mobile, there are options. Whether we spend time with our own family, ask others to include us with their families, or find community resources, there are options. We can fight our way out of the quicksand only by putting one foot in front of the other and heading in a new direction, no matter how hopeless it feels as we begin.
I reawakened Christmas Tacos this year to celebrate my first birthday without him and my new home. I invited everyone I knew. And lots of them came!! We didn’t play Trivia Pursuit, but there was lots of laughter. And, just as Butch imagined, it was a little easier to forget that I am an orphan.
Aug. 22, 2017
After spending many years wondering why someone as smart as Butch did so poorly in school, testing at Kaiser determined that he had dyslexia. Using a tricky laser machine, he discovered that his eyes would go to the middle of the word and read to the right, then go back to the middle of the word and read to the left. No wonder he hated reading so much. That was a very freeing discovery for him, redefining him not as someone who was not smart, but as someone who just didn’t see what the rest of us see when reading. With some exercises and tons of practice, he greatly improved. More importantly, he was more likely to try new things knowing he could stop hiding his poor reading ability as a sign he was terminally flawed.
Butch told lots of stories about school when he was young. If you have ever raised a child with a learning disability, you know they are not likely to be up for student of the year. Like many others, it was clear that Butch substituted class clown for class scholar. It is likely that he would have been diagnosed with ADHD if anyone had bothered to check.
He reported being suspended from either kindergarten or first grade for punching a neighbor. He was riding his bike home from school and opted to cut through her yard. Having been told not to do that, she was waiting for him that day. Believing she was going to take his bike away from him when she tried to grab him, he apparently punched her and made a run for it. In addition to the trouble he got in at school when she reported him, he had to face worse music at home.
He said that he got good grades through the third grade. In the fourth grade, when the reading load really started to pile up, his grades began to drop. It was then that he began using comic relief to mask his fear that he would be found out as being barely able to read. Having thoroughly annoyed his teacher one day, the teacher apparently lost it. He came up behind Butch and began twisting Butch’s collar, cutting off the air supply. His classmates described with glowing admiration how, just before passing out on his desk, Butch “clocked” the teacher. This gained him the admiration of his classmates and successfully diverted anyone from worrying about his grades.
In Junior High, he and some other boys cut in line in the cafeteria. The principal, saw them and decided to make an example of them. He stood them up on stage and made them eat standing up, holding their trays. Not seeming even remotely contrite at that point, he then required them each to take a turn reading aloud while the other students ate their lunches. Butch said that he got at the end of the line, desperately hoping lunch would end or the world would end before it was his turn. As his turn approached, he felt nauseous waiting for the impending humiliation as the entire school discovered that he read horribly. Much to his surprise, as he fumbled over the words, his classmates decided he was doing it on purpose to mock the principal and applauded his defiance. He escaped!!
By the time I met him as a freshman in High School, he had been relegated to that group of students you might describe as just above the thugs, but very unlikely to succeed. His low opinion of himself prevented him from launching out on adventures that would take him out of his bubble of shame. With his complicated home life, he would never have had kids over to play or hang out unless they, too, had messy families and would think nothing of his.
I, on the other hand, ran on the fringe of the group that included the cheerleaders and football players. But I always felt like I was masquerading as a popular kid and waited every day to be discovered and voted off the island. When I was younger, I, too, found teacher torture to be a wonderful outlet for my angst. When the principal or one of my teachers would call to discuss my evil adventures, my mother would ask them what grade I was getting in the class where I was having the problem. They would say, “Well she is getting an A, but..” At that point, she would tell them that if my grade got to a C to call her back. Classroom management was their problem. She would then hang up. As my mother’s drinking got worse, my friends rarely came to my house to avoid repeats of some humiliating and scary incidents they witnessed over the years.
When we were seniors and dating, I received the Betty Crocker Homemaker of the Award for my school simply by getting 98 percentile on a written test. Raising my brothers and sisters and covering for my alcoholic mother, I knew lots about “housekeeping” and taking advanced placement English enabled me to max out the essay question on the test even though I really didn’t understand the terms I was writing about. Like Butch always said, “If you can’t blind them with brilliance, you can always baffle them with b******t.” When we arrived in the home economics classroom to pick up my award it was hard to tell if the teacher was more repulsed by the fact that a student who never took one home economics class from her won the award or that I was accompanied by a young man who had tormented her every day in her Bachelor Living class the year before.
That was what made us kindred souls—the feeling of being misfit toys. They called us the Odd Couple, seeming to be such polar opposites. But we were kindred souls. He was amazed that I saw past the learning issues to the person he really was. I was amazed that he saw past the craziness and loved me anyway.
We went on to support one another in reaching for the stars when neither of us even looked up at the starts before we met. When he decided to try college, I read his textbooks onto audio tape (dark ages) so he could listen to them in the truck as he drove. He actually got a better grade in economics than I did, because he liked it and I thought it was terminally boring. I shuttled equipment for his jock stuff, supporting him in any way I could. His faith and encouragement kept me going in school when I lost heart and wanted to give up. We even figured out how to combine those two as I did my homework in parking lots before, during, and after his practices and events and he brought his bicycle or kayak as he kept me company on work or school related travels.
Becoming us without them means finding the will to keep moving forward without them. When the gut wrenching pain of their absence subsides, we can begin to hear their voice again, encouraging us to do the hard things just like they did before. The terror of not being able to go on without them is lessened at first by allowing people who care about us and cared about them to help us. In time, we realize we are surviving without them, whether we want to or not. But does enjoying our new-found resilience mean losing some part of them? The good news is, we begin to notice that we absorbed them into our cells in many ways. We find that when we hit a roadblock we can ask ourselves, “What would they do right now?” And much to our surprise, answers come into our heads. We must have been paying attention!! Frequently, we either know what to do, or know who to ask. And let us not forget YouTube videos!! But the bad news is, the more we appreciate all the ways they made life better, the more we miss them. The more we hear their voice or remember their support, the more we wish they were here. Becoming us without them is a balancing act. In one hand ,we hold the pain of the loss. In the other, we hold the good parts of the life we had together. There is no way to block the pain without also blocking the sweetness of their presence in our lives. The only way back into the light of their love is through the darkness of the mourning. Our grieving companions help us accept this wavering as a normal part of the life we now live and comfort us when the darkness descends. One day at a time, the parts of them that we carry with us and the parts we are creating on our own, merge into a version of us that we can live with, in spite of the pain. The glimmer of that something new appears like the sunrise, grey and indistinct, but promising that a new day is dawning, even for us.
Aug. 1, 2017
Our youngest son turned 40 today. How did that go by so quickly?
Our first son was born on August 20, 1973. He was born just weeks before Butch completed his service in the Army. Butch had to go away for training the last six weeks before I was due, so the members of his unit, who I fed and sheltered for two years, created a schedule so that I had a phone number to call 24/7 if I went into labor. On the day of the company picnic, no one wanted to stay home to babysit me so I was required to attend in Butch’s absence to ensure that someone was keeping track of me. August in Texas, nearly at my due date, spending an afternoon in the heat. Now there’s an adventure. To say that we were poorly prepared for parenthood would be one of the world’s greatest understatements.
Everything I know now about how to be a wife, a mother, a friend, and, well, a human, I learned from a book or a therapist. My father, an only child, was born in 1927 and lived through the great depression. His father died suddenly when he was only 8 years old. A long series of very difficult experiences left him believing that the only thing you could trust in this world was money. My mother, a very unhappy person, would contribute greatly to that belief over the years. While I was the oldest of five, practically raised my youngest brother, and babysat for years, I was far too wounded be left in charge of children who I did not give back after a few hours. On the job training reigned supreme in our house. I actually held my son the first time and apologized to him for his being stuck with me for his mother. I then began what I was sure would be my journey toward failing as a mother. My children are very lucky that my life was generously sprinkled with mentors and good therapists or it could have gone much worse.
Butch was the youngest of four and the only boy. I have seen pictures of Butch and his father as an infant and young boy and it was clear that he loved Butch very much. Both of his parents came from very troubled families. They worked long and hard to provide for their children but there are books written about dysfunctional families whose chapters could easily be about theirs. He was an extremely hands-off dad. She was an extremely complicated mom. Yet they taught them to be respectful and hard-working and graced them all with that combination of humor and sarcasm that only we of the wounded family can appreciate. He came to parenthood with a very strong desire to be a better parent to his boys that his father had been to him. Like the rest of us, he learned that was much more easily said than done. He did all the good stuff he knew to do, and worked hard not to be like his parents had been. No one ever had a dad who loved them more or was more committed to figuring out how to be a good dad.
Butch was completely amazed by our first son. He would bring Army buddies home to see him nearly every day. He would stand over the bassinet and loudly say, “We have to be quiet or he will wake up and we will have to hold him.” He knew way more about nurturing than I did. My mother did not nurture. She endured. When our son screamed through his baths, it was Butch who would patiently get us through it. When he wasn’t sleeping, it was Butch who knew about bundling him. Butch talked to the baby as he was getting dressed and eating his breakfast. He played on the floor with him every night. When he had to leave us in Minnesota to take a good job back in California, he sent our six month old son a letter telling him how much he loved and missed him and to take good care of mom, enclosing a five dollar bill so he could take me out for a coke. Butch took a week off the week before our second son was due to have dad time with the first before the new baby invaded his world. They rode horses, fished, and hung out.
When our second son was born my mother came to help after my C-Section. That was like asking one of Santa’s reindeer to help the elves wrap presents. Step-father number four had a heart attack after she was there two days. With great relief, we sent her on her way back to Minnesota. Butch stepped up. Unlike our first son, this one loved and was amused by everything. He laughed at the tongue depressor at his first checkup. When he cut his hand barely more than age two, he repeatedly asked, “What doing?” as they stitched his hand and complained, “Move. Can’t see.” Rather than being afraid and upset when he was bound into the contraption for a chest X-ray, he wiggled his fingers delightedly and waved at me behind the window. Being best buds with his dad, he once got tired of waiting for dad to come home from work and announced that he was taking his three-year-old little self for a walk to find his daddy. I followed close behind to see how far he would get before he got scared or lost his way. Neither happened. He was well on his way when Butch passed us on the street and stopped to pick us up.
Those were rocky times in our marriage. Having had no modeling from his dad for how to be a husband, as our problems increased and the cute little babies were replaced my strong willed young men who stretched us well outside our comfort zone, it was touch and go. That “making up answers” parenting style is hard on everyone. It was only with three rounds of marriage counseling, two rounds of family counseling, and the grace of God that we got through. Fortunately, no animals or humans were harmed during these experiments. When our youngest son was in his 20’s, we were helping a team of people provide growth groups at a local church. The team decided it would be cool to have a panel of “strong willed” children who had survived to adulthood talk about what it was like to be the kid in that drama. You always hear from the parents of those kids, but rarely the little devils themselves. No one knew that one of the panel members was our son. The panel of young people was talking about what it was like from their perspective to live in messy families, go through family counseling, and come out at the other end with a family that enjoyed one another. Our son casually said, “You know what was cool about having an asshole for a father? I could always make him mad to distract him from what we were supposed to be talking about. That wasn’t all bad. I liked the new version of my dad much better, but I missed being able to distract him when the discussion wasn’t going my way.” Butch just laughed along with everyone else. After it was over and our son came to say goodbye, people were stunned to realize that he was our son and that neither of us had reacted as he very honestly described what it was like for him to have parents for whom every day was on the job training. When another man came over and asked Butch how he could be so OK with that, Butch calmly told him, “We aren’t those people anymore.”
Butch was really looking forward to being a grandfather because he was sure he could do a much better job with the girls than he did with his sons. He was already showing what a cool grandfather he would be when he died. But our granddaughters were only 15 and 5 months old so he never got a chance to enjoy them. They would have had him eating out of their hands!
Becoming us without them means relating to everyone in our world in a whole new way. The birthday cards don’t say, “Love mom and dad” anymore. We don’t get to sit on the porch and watch the grandchildren laugh and play together like we dreamed for so long. There isn’t one social setting in which we functioned as “us” in the past that does not become “us without them” now. Every friendship is changed. Every holiday requires modified traditions. People around us don’t know how to be. They can feel awkward enjoying what they still have when we have lost so much. Conversations are fraught with black holes where it was once uncomplicated. We love to hear stories about our loved ones. They worry their stories will make us say—and they may. There is no manual for learning to ask for and receive support without becoming a burden or avoiding things that we can and should do on our own. We are launched into doing new things that make us stronger and more resilient. But we’d much rather have them healthy and alive than be resilient. We learn to enjoy our life again and look forward to the future. But there is always that little voice that reminds us we would rather hit the rewind button and have them back. This is the hardest part. The logical side of our brain gets better and better at accepting that they are gone and nothing will ever undo that. Would we, if we could, demand that they leave the peaceful place they now enjoy to come back to this crazy world only to die again later? But the emotional side of our brain resists. The selfish part doesn’t care. We want the pain to stop. The surest route to the end of the pain is if they just come back. Who needs to be a new person if we can just get our old lives back? That crazy-making loop can go on and on.
Only the passing of time, chipping away at the pain, supported by our loved ones and grieving mentors pushes us forward. In the meantime, thank God for how-to videos on Youtube!
Jul. 28, 2017

Newly grieving people often report experiences of having seen, heard, or otherwise felt the presence of their loved one after they have died. We are assured these types of things are part of the normal grieving process but are not actually happening. Those of us who have had these encounters are quick to disagree. "They" continue to believe we are out of touch with reality. We continue to believe that they are out of touch with the new reality that is our world. Neither point can be proven definitively.

Like many long-married couples, Butch and I could connect at a non-verbal level that was pretty crazy. When he was driving long haul routes, it was well before mobile phones. After he had been gone for days, I would wake up in the middle of the night and start cooking his dinner on just an intuition that he was back in town. He would walk in as I put the food on the table. He would say he had been imagining "coming home." for 30 minutes.

One time we were laying in bed on a Saturday morning, awake but not yet jumping up to begin our busy day. I asked myself what to give to the boy whose birthday party my kids were attending that afternoon. My eyes had just fallen on a perfect gift on a shelf in my closet that I had purchased for a party later that month. At that same moment, Butch said, "We could give him that toy in the closet.” He was answering a question I had not asked out loud.

Another time, I was in Albuquerque, NM, traveling with my mother and my sons. I was unable to get to sleep so I decided to practice "coming home”. I imagined kind of flying cross country and landing in our yard. I walked in the front door, noticing the mess and dirty dishes on my way down the hall. I saw the clothes piling up on the floor. I climbed into bed, snuggled up behind him, and immediately began to doze off. About that time, my mom, who was my bed mate in Albuquerque, let loose with the loudest snore in the world. It felt like I was yanked from my warm bed at home and slammed into bed with her. First thing in the morning, I received a call from Butch, asking if I "came home" the night before. He said he had been startled awake suddenly and was so sure there was someone in the house that he checked the doors and windows twice and slept the rest of the night in his recliner in the living room.

Based on many such events, it seemed only natural to reach out to him like that the morning after his heart attack. He was miles away, in a medically induced coma, undergoing a body temperature reducing procedure designed to help his brain heal if it could. I imagined floating into his head, wishing I could tell him we were out here, fighting for him and we needed him to fight too. It was the most amazing experience. I thought at the time that he was telling me he was in there and we should not give up on him. Ten days later, as I was describing it to the Kaiser chaplain that I realized he had been telling my goodbye. I just didn't want to hear it. It felt like he was telling me he was so glad I was there and he had counted on me "coming home" because there was so much he wanted to share with me. He wanted me to know that "it's amazing". He had no regrets. He knew how much we loved him and wanted us to know how much he loved all of us. He told me to "Give them my love because they will need that most of all." It felt like I dropped into the place in his brain(?) where he held his love for us and I was watching his life go by in visions of loving moments between him and all of us. That was all that remained of us for him and he wanted that to be known. I felt so energized and positive in my belief that he could get well and come back to us.

Since his death there have been multiple incidents when my granddaughter seemed to see and engage with him. I have experienced him in strange yet tangible ways over and over. They all sound like the kind of things that experts assure us are typical of what grieving people experience but are not really happening. But for me, they are happening.

One of my grieving clients refers to them as gifts. The most recent "gift" happened last week while I was vacationing with my brother, his wife and kids, and her very lovely family in Puerto Vallarta. They booked a room with two queen beds for their kids and me to share. I serve as a surrogate grandmother for their kids and we have gone on road trips together in the past. I booked a single room with a king bed for them to use. It took the hotel a minute to get us as close together as possible and figure out the room switching arrangements. We went to our rooms to settle in and then met her family for dinner. I never gave the room number a thought. It was not until the next day, when I was trying to give my room number to a staff member that spoke limited English that I realized what had happened. I told her my room number was fourteen thirty-four. She didn't track it stated that way, so I slowly said one-four-three-four. It was at that moment that it hit me. In an earlier post I talked about how Butch loved nicknames and numeric codes. From the time we were 18 years old and he was writing from basic training in the Army, he had been writing 1434 on everything. It was the numeric equivalent of "I love you more". I had not seen it written in that way since he wrote it on my birthday card two days before his heart attack, so I missed it until I said it out loud. My randomly assigned room number, including a room switch with my brother was 1434. Every time I came to my room it was like a little whisper from Butch reminding me that he would always be with me. He wasn't riding next to me in the plane or fishing with me on the boat, or sharing the view of the Pacific Ocean out my window, but he was there nonetheless.

Becoming us without them requires that we walk the fine line between holding on too tight, and loosing them altogether. We come to the realization that we can't ever lose them because they live in every cell in our bodies. It means allowing ourselves to look for and receive these close encounters as gifts without worrying too much about what they are or aren't. It means slowly healing to the point that an encounter with them or their memory feels more like a sweet caress than being stabbed by a hot poker. It means reminding ourselves over and over that the best parts of them and the best parts of that treasured "us" lie below the pain. It mean coming to terms with the reality that it is by fighting our way through the pain that we expand our overall emotional capacity. The pain that seems to be such pure agony is building the infrastructure for deeper understanding of ourselves and others and for that peace that passes understanding that is so hard to believe in now.

The greatest "gift" that Butch seems to be giving me is the understanding that he is one with God now. When I look into God's eyes, I see not only the depth of God's love for me, but I also see Butch and his love for me. It is when I look into God's eyes that Butch can see me and send his love into my soul as part of how God has loved me in the past and allow me to believe that amazing things wait for me in the future in this world and beyond.

Rather than finding answers to all my questions, these encounters open me up to a world that is beyond my ability to understand, even if I could figure out the right questions to ask in the first place. I am awakened to indescribable mystery and wonder and faith in new ways each step of the way.

Jul. 12, 2017

Our first date was November 5, 1969. Butch turned 18 on December 5th and I turned 18 on January 24th, 1970. He asked my dad if he could buy me a car for my birthday. It was a 1958 Ford that he could get for $75. That was a lot of money for a high school student back in those days. He was a great mechanic and was excited about keeping it running for me. My father assured him that they were going to get me a car for graduation and thanks anyway. We celebrated every birthday for 46 years together, with his heart attack just two days after my birthday in 2016 and just three weeks after our 44th wedding anniversary on January 4th. He died February 13th, leaving a black hole where Valentine’s Day used to be.

In June of 1970, we graduated from high school together. He immediately joined the army since his draft number was 69. I was at his graduation from basic training in Monterey, CA. He was at my graduation from Junior College in 2000, from my bachelor’s program in 2006, and celebrated with me when I completed my master’s program in 2013. He always remembered when I was having a big exam or making a presentation and called to see how I did. As soon as each diploma arrived, he grabbed it out of the mail and had it matted, framed, and wrapped by the time I got home from work.

We celebrated 46 years of holidays in four different states with my family and his. When our boys became teenagers, and spent more and more time with their girlfriends for Christmas dinner, we started a tradition that we called Christmas Tacos. We would both invite all the Christmas orphans we knew for dinner. We would have tacos and play Trivia Pursuit. We had a set of Trivia cards called “Christmas Around the World.” The questions could be as hard as “In 1929, in Czechoslovakia, a new Christmas song was released. Name that song.” Or, they could be as easy as “What color was Frosty the Snowman?” It was hysterical either way. We tried to make it as non-traditional as possible. Our guests were generally people who had just moved, or divorced, or lost a loved one and needed one year to reset and do something completely out of the mold before starting new traditions. This meant we had different people every year. One year I was learning sign language. Butch had to work. The only guest was a deaf man who spent most of the evening teaching me how to sign the questions and answers and kicked my butt in Trivia.

Butch had an older aunt who was very poor and lived in a really bad neighborhood. He took the gift certificate he received from his employer for Thanksgiving, bought all the fixings for a feast, and took them to her so she could have Thanksgiving with her grandchildren. He never told anyone he did that. He was just that kind of a guy.

Everyone who has survived the first year after the loss of a loved one knows how tough those holidays and celebrations become after their death. With very few exceptions, all of the birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays piled up between November 5th and Valentine’s Day. In case it was not bad enough, I moved from our home of 31 years in November. It was the longest three months of my life. I thought that nothing could be worse. I am realizing that I was in such a fog and such a whirlwind that I was only partially participating. The good news is that this year I am fully awake. It seems like there are more and more days when I can make sense of my new life and getting used to life without him. The bad news is also that this year I am fully awake, making the bad days seem much worse.

The worst day of all was last Monday, July 3rd,, 2017, when I took and passed my clinical licensing exam. It was the hardest test I have ever taken, with 170 questions and a 4-hour time limit. After spending four full days cramming and feeling really confident as I entered the testing center, I was sure I was flunking by the time I got to the end. When I went out to the proctor, she looked at her computer and told me I had passed. I was first relieved, then grateful. That lasted about 50 feet out the door. I realized that I should be picking up my phone to call Butch and tell him that I passed and hear him say how proud he was of me. The culmination of a journey which meandered along from my entry into Junior College in 1994 and included thousands of hours of internship at three different levels was finally over. I will never live long enough to pay my student loans. But the person who believed in me, supported me, put up with my long hours and let me practice on him was not here to celebrate with me when I finally crossed the finish line. I really wanted to be more positive. But all I could focus on was that phone in my hand and how much I miss hearing his voice on the other end. Fortunately, realizing it would be a really bad idea to go back to my empty house with my little piece of paper that didn’t seem to mean much anymore, I had arranged to leave town directly from the testing enter and spend the holiday with my brother and his family in Reno.

Becoming us without them redefines celebrations. Nothing is the same without them. Our grieving mentors assure us that while the pain of the loss will lessen but not end, joy returns. New traditions gradually replace the old ones. Life brings new things to celebrate. The memories of past celebrations are more often sweet rather than bitter. We change and grow and take risks we would never have taken if they were alive. Gradually we feel proud of ourselves. More importantly, becoming us without them forces us to reach out to others for support. Our worst enemy is isolation. But only we can make the choice to reach out to others to fill the gaps that are left in the wake of their death. If we convince ourselves that no one is like us and therefore no one can love us, we are doomed. The first thing we can celebrate is our willingness to live fully in a world without them rather than crawling into a cave with our grief and pulling the darkness down around us. They would want that for us and we gradually learn to want that for ourselves.

Butch spent his entire adult life loving me and doing his best to contribute to my happiness. If I don’t take that love, and find that happiness, I will make his efforts on my behalf a waste. I would never want to do that to him or to myself.