The Second Year Journey

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.

Jun. 12, 2017

For 64 years of my life, my house has been filled with the sounds of people.  Now, it is filled with silence.

With four siblings and a stay at home mom, it was very rare to be alone in the house for the first 18 years of my life.  Being alone was a treat, never lasting more than a few hours.  After my family moved to Connecticut and I stayed in California, I did a little couch surfing, living a few months here and there.

Soon, I was married and living in Texas, where Butch was stationed in the army.  He was home every night.  His alarm woke us up and multiple punches of the snooze button guaranteed that there would be no going back to sleep.  We adopted a parakeet that year.  He and Butch were bosom buddies.  As Butch sat and watched the news each night after work, the bird would share his chips and French Onion dip.  When Butch showered, the bird would sit on the curtain rod and take his own shower in the splash.  Hartz Mountain had a tape that trained your bird to talk.  I recorded the first phrase, “Hello Baby.” so it played over and over for about 30 minutes.  Whoever got up first, uncovered the cage and hit play.  On weekends, when we tried to sleep in, the bird would begin screaming, “Hello Baby.  Hello Baby.  Hello Baby.” until someone got up and turned on his tape.  I recorded the second phrase, “Wanna Kiss? next and he was well on his way to learning that one.  About the time he could say, “Hello Baby, wanna…” he died.  Probably too much onion dip.

Then came the boys with their own kinds of noise over the years.  There was also a steady flow of siblings, cousins, and other human projects along the way.  Alone time was even more of a treat during those years, and silence was a precious commodity.  It was always temporary. By the time the boys finished moving in and out and were settled on their own, nearly 30 years had gone by. 

Even our empty nest had its own special sounds.  There were snoring dogs, passive aggressive cats, noisy neighbors, traffic on the busy street outside, and Percy, the neighborhood peacock, who could be heard for miles.  I woke up each morning to the sound of Butch quietly snoring.  The roof raising snoring took place in the middle of the night.  The “almost awake” snore was more like a purring sound.  It was the meter that told me if I was making too much noise as I got ready for work.  If it stopped, I had to take it down a notch so he would drift back into a deeper sleep and begin to purr again.  I went to sleep half waiting to hear the “beep beep” of his truck locking followed by the door opening and his keys hitting the table where he tossed them each night.  I could then drop into my own deep sleep knowing that he was home safe and the worrying for that day was over.  The silence that came when he was off with his friends on a 600-mile bicycle adventure or hunting trip never lasted long and was sure to end with a great reunion. 

For the first year after his death, I was numb, exhausted from all the emotionally draining parts of disassembling a life, and the work of trying to do everything myself.  Nine months after he died, I moved to my new home, closer to my son and his family. That was followed by the three agonizing months that included every holiday, birthday, and anniversary of our lives together.  With boxes to unpack, overgrown foliage to remove and replace, two jobs getting intern hours and taking care of my granddaughter a few mornings a week I fell into bed every night too tired to notice anything, and woke up at a dead run.  I wonder if that wasn’t a plan somehow.

With the projects behind me, I am surrounded by silence.  The snoring dog and noisy cats are gone.  My home is on a court where a car rarely drives by. The neighbors are quiet and peaceful and offer no distraction.  I wake up each morning and hear the silence screaming all around me. I think about those “annoying” noises and would give anything to hear them again.  There are only the sounds of me, getting up and heading off into one more day without Butch.  One more silent day, without the comforting rituals of our lives together, marked by the sounds I grew accustomed to hearing. The pleasure of family visits ends in the echoing silence that descends after they are gone.  Returning home from even a great adventure means walking in to the house and being enfolded in the silence again.  I would give anything to hear his voice, even his snoring, just one more time.

The second year is harder because the shock is over, most of the distractions are behind us, and we are awakening to one more aspect of the reality of our new existence.  Becoming us without them means learning to live in a world without their sounds.  Even for those who are not living alone, their particular sounds are still gone.  Years of predictability, no matter how annoying some of it may have been, are over. It means gradually learning to find peace and joy within the silence.  It means filling that silence with new sounds.  It forces us to learn that in the silence, we will best hear the small, quiet voice of God reminding us of his promise that He will never leave us, even until the end of the ages.

Never in a thousand years did I imagine that I would find myself saying, “Could somebody please, just make some noise?”

May. 10, 2017

For those who have wondered if I fell off the face of the earth, I thought I would let you know I'm taking some time off to study for my clinical licensing exam. As you can imagine, writing this blog is hard. And cramming tons of therapeutic data into a 65 year old brain is a project!! I just couldn't do both.

Butch and I had a master plan. I was on schedule to take the exam this time last year. That would give me 18 months to build up my practice, and pay off some bills so Butch could retire at 66 in December 2017. He planned to bicycle around the world with his best buddy. I would work three days a week, and we would finally have time for each other, our children, and grandaughters. We could hardly wait.

Because I specialize in trauma and addiction, I have to have it together before I can help anyone. After he died in February of 2016, it took months to go back to work and be a safe therapist. It was almost impossible to study. I passed the 90 minute ethics exam in November, 2016. Fortunately they only tell you if you passed. I would have hated to learn how low I scored.

That was followed by three long months which included every holiday, birthday, and anniversary that marked our lives together and the anniversary of his death. I was so shell shocked by the end of that, it took until the end of March to turn in my application for the 4 hour licensing exam. Their processing time is six to eight weeks before I am approved to take the test. So I'm studying now, hoping for a miracle that will enable me to pass.

The hardest part is that this was our dream together. He was there on the first day of junior college and at every graduation. He cheered me on for every final and called to see how I did after it was over. He supported my dreams when I might have given up. No matter how much love and support surrounds me now, the idea of crossing the finish line and not seeing him there smiling proudly is the worst thing I can imagine right now.

Becoming us without them means doing just that. It means finding meaning in crossing one finish line after another without their open arms waiting to give us a victory hug. It means learning to be proud of ourselves after years of basking in the glow of their love and affirmation. It also means believing in ourselves the way they did, and giving ourselves permission to claim the victories they believed in for and with us when they were here. Along with that comes an ocean of sadness, disappointment and anger that confuse and alarm us, and a seemingly endless minefield filled with unpredictable moments when pain takes our breath away.

I have been at this long enough to know that this new person I am becoming can do this. Butch would be really proud of her, too. He sees me through the eyes of God now. And through Him, all things are possible!

Let's just hope the new version of me passes that exam!!

Apr. 10, 2017

If you have ever tried to tame a feral cat, you know how difficult it can be to get them to trust you, even if you have them for a long time. We all associate a cat purring with contentment. While cats purr for many reasons, it is rare when a feral cat relaxes enough to sit on your lap and purr. Cats really trusted Butch. Even the feral cats he tamed would lay on their backs contentedly purring away. I was such a wreck when we married, it seems like I was one of those feral cats he taught to purr. I was recently reminded of our history with cats as I took my granddaughter for an adventure to the animal shelter and watched her hold a kitten for the very first time.

The first cat we shared he brought from home to live with my family. Having had a huge disagreement with his mother, Butch was dramatically living in a tent in the field across the street from our house and eating dinner with us every night. So, his cat moved in with my family. His name was Jeff. Jeff appeared to be making friends with our parakeet, frequently lying next to the cage without bothering the bird at all. Apparently, Jeff was just casing the joint, like Sylvester, waiting until the coast was clear. The first time all of us left home at the same time, Jeff knocked over the cage and had the parakeet for dinner. We came home to find the cage on the floor, birdseed soaking in spilled water, and feathers everywhere. All other evidence had been disposed of completely.

When we bought our first home, we got a little black kitten for our oldest son. One day I opened the back door to let the kitten from outside and found two little black kittens. We never found out where the second one came from, but we kept them both. Butch had been on the road for a few days when the second cat arrived. When he came home, the kitten was meowing to go outside so Butch let him out. He then turned around and found the kitten he didn’t know about sitting in the middle of the room. The boys laughed hysterically at the look on Butch’s face wondering how a cat he just let outside had beamed himself back into the room. Those cats became bosom buddies. They developed a system of hunting birds that was infallible. One of them would act like he was trying to jump up and get a bird off the branch of our tree. The second one would quietly come up the backside of the tree, out onto the branch, and grab the bird while it was looking down at the idiot cat trying to jump up 10 feet to grab him. Then they would share in the bounty.

Despite complaining that he did not like cats, it was Butch’s lap they would sit in. Whenever the boys and I would be gone visiting family we would return to find that the cats now expected to sleep in the bed with Butch. They were very unfriendly when I tried to reclaim my space. Butch would get up in the morning and stir the food in the bowl so there was fresh stuff at the top. Whenever Butch tried to sleep in, rather than stirring the food on schedule, one of the cats would sit on his dresser and push things off onto the floor one by one until Butch got up to stir the food. The cat we owned when Butch died was beside herself missing him. She finally began sitting on the arm of the couch next to me but never on my lap like she did his. Whenever someone would spend the night she would mark all the furniture. I finally had to get rid of her because she became more and more neurotic as time went by. I felt the same way.

Mourning the loss of a loved one is a multi-dimensional experience. First, there is the shock and numbness that is an all-encompassing mass consuming everything in its path. Over time, the layers of the loss become more distinct. The practical, financial, and functional losses are more obvious and are clear early on. We can be so afraid that we won’t be able to fill the gap. Yet somehow, we do, either alone or with help. But the emotional and relational losses unfold slowly and appear to be endless. Holidays, birthdays, seasons, and traditions, each unveil a new dimension of the loss. Becoming us without them is like watching a movie in reverse. One layer at a time, the “us” with them is painfully unraveled to create the “us” without them. Unexpectedly, one more piece of them comes into focus and must be grieved. Others can warn us of what to expect, but no one can predict what our particular journey will include. No one can know what will reveal itself next or how we will respond. As we imagine years ahead, filled with their absence, and the load seems too heavy, only our grieving companions can help us believe there is something more in store for us. Watching them, loving and laughing again, can give us the strength to go through the motions no matter how we feel right now. We could never have imagined how hard this would be until it happened. And now, we can barely imagine a version of us without them that will be tolerable. Our support system is the most important weapon in our arsenal as we battle against what seems like unending pain. Like a life vest, they are often all that keeps us from drowning in a sea of misery.

Even we can learn to purr again in the not so far distant future if we just hang on.

Apr. 2, 2017

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In the movie, Collateral Beauty, we meet Howard Inlet (Will Smith) on top of the world.  He if full of life, passion, and the oblivious certainty that life lies ahead down a golden path strewn with all things bright and beautiful.  In the very next scene we see him three years later, drowning in misery after the death of his 6-year-old daughter.  He is trapped in the grief and is on the verge of losing everything.  No one who is grieving the loss of someone they love can watch this movie without being touched.  Howard meets Madeline (Naomie Harris) at a support group meeting.  Madeline has also lost her daughter.  She tells Howard about a brief encounter she had with a stranger as she sat in the hallway outside her daughter’s room.  She was waiting for the staff to prepare her daughter for the removal of life support. Madeline’s husband was in the parking lot comforting her mother, who had fallen apart.  The stranger asked Madeline who she was losing.  She told the woman she was losing her daughter.  The woman told Madeline, “Don’t forget to look for the collateral beauty.”  Despite Madeline’s assurance that she could now see the collateral beauty, Howard wasn’t having it. 

I realized as I watched that movie, that Butch and I had an opportunity to see some of that collateral beauty even before his death in 2016.  He could have died in 2007 or 2008.  He was dead on the sidewalk in Davis in 2010.  Had he not been so close to emergency services, that would have been it.  I was granted the miracle of borrowed time, three times. After each incident, anytime he apologized for anything at all, I would say, “It doesn’t matter.  Just don’t die.”  Somehow, everything fell into perspective relative to his being gone from my life. Without idealizing things, I can truthfully say that our level of connection was deeper and more tangible after 2010 than at any point in the past.

Butch had consistently become a better and better husband every day we were married.  After 2010, he kicked it up to a new level.  He made every birthday, anniversary, Valentine’s day and Mother’s day memorable.  He looked for opportunities to develop his relationship with our sons any way he could.  He was visibly committed to building friendships with his sisters and being a great son to his mother.  He seemed to savor his friendship with his bicycle buddy much more mindfully. He spent more time with my family, going out of his way to be the cool uncle.  Only in retrospect can I see how intentional all of that was. He was already looking for the collateral beauty. He was living on borrowed time a purposefully as he could.

Shadowlands is a movie about the death of C.S. Lewis’s wife.  He spent most of his life in his head as a scholar and theologian.  He credits his wife with teaching him to live out of his heart.  There is a scene where they are picnicking in a meadow when it begins to rain and they make a run for a cow shed.  She was in remission at that point but there was no guarantee of how much time she had left.  In the middle of their laughter and joy, he breaks down.  He tells her that he doesn’t think he can take it—letting himself love her and their life with such passion when it could all end at any moment.  She tells him, “Don’t you see that the pain now is part of the joy later?”  She, too, seemed to be pointing into the future and promising him that there would be collateral beauty.  The final scene of the movie shows him sending her son, who he is now raising on his own after her death, off to school.  They appear to have a very close and loving connection.  As he watches the boy ride away, his voice is heard saying, “In this world, we can choose suffering or safety.  When my mother died when I was a boy, I chose safety.  Today, I choose suffering.” Like Madeline, C.S. Lewis was experiencing the collateral beauty foretold by his wife by staying in his heart rather than running away.

Becoming us without them takes a huge leap of faith.  It can feel like we are clinging desperately to the pain as if it is a rope, dangling over a cliff, with them at the other end.  Everything in us tells us that clinging to the pain like won’t do any good.  They are not actually at the other end of the rope.  Nothing, including clutching that rope, will bring them back.  It’s exhausting and futile.  But what will really happen if we let go?  Will they and everything they were to us disappear into the abyss?  And who will we be without that rope in our hands?  What if there is no version of us without them that is worth bothering to find?    Our companions on the journey of grief give us the courage and faith to release them from our grip.  They promise us that when we let go, our love ones soar rather than crashing.  The dark veil of hopelessness is torn and the light breaks through.  The love they poured into us slowly fills the empty spaces that were festering with pain and sadness.  We finally see that what feels like a life without them is really a life overflowing with them.  We can begin to live intentionally, savoring each moment, treasuring each relationship, living each day as the gift it really is, filled with the most amazing collateral beauty. 

And in the meantime, as we fight our way out of the darkness, God sends us angels who gently tell us, “Don’t forget to look for the collateral beauty.”