The Second Year Journey
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.
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.