The Second Year Journey

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.” 

Mar. 30, 2017

Little Brother

Butch was the big brother in my family.  He was the baby brother in his.  His oldest sister is 9 years older.  He and his other two sisters were all born in 4 years.  Both Butch and the sister just before him were born with the roof of their mouth split. She required surgery because hers was so severe.  His healed on its own.  This meant that their mom had her hands very full.  Both of his parents worked full time and his parents were separated for a period while the kids were young. 

With everything that was going on, Butch’s oldest sister, like so many first daughters, found herself carrying a lot of the parenting load.  He always saw her as more like a mother than just a big sister.  She is definitely a safe harbor for me.  When Butch was stationed at Fort Ord in Monterey and we were driving home from a camping trip while he was on leave, we broke down in Vallejo late at night.  She and her husband drove to get us and helped us figure out what to do next.  They even survived two of us girls, delirious with exhaustion, repeatedly singing , “Oh Lord, stuck in Vallejo again.” When Butch and I were hit by a drunk driver in Oakland while I was with him in the diesel and I was seriously injured, she and her husband again drove to get us.  When we had problems in our marriage and were briefly separated she managed to hold a neutral position, supporting him as his big sister and supporting me as if she was mine.  She is a wonderful artist, sharing her talents in patient lessons and amazing gifts.  Our granddaughters receive beautiful hand-made heirlooms for birthdays and Christmas.  We each knew that no matter what we needed, if it was humanly possible for her to meet that need, she would be there. He worked hard to reciprocate that whenever he could. He grew closer to her over the last ten years.  He loved her very much and treasured the friendship they developed.  She dropped everything after his heart attack and spent every minute she could with all of us until his death.  Her lovely daughter and son-in-law have been there in big and small ways when I needed them every time I asked.

His second sister was sort of Margaret to his Dennis the Menace.  They had a love-hate relationship as children.  He told the story of running over her feet with his bicycle one summer day.  She swiftly whacked him in the back of the head with her coke bottle, dropping him to the street.  She casually strolled into the house and announced “I just killed Butch”. Another time they were bickering and torturing one another and she threw her fork at him.  It stuck in the wall next to his head.  He was a very sound sleeper and could get up to do things quite well without ever waking up.  On at least one occasion, he made a wrong turn on the way to the bathroom and mistook her head for the toilet.  She agreed to be an attendant in our wedding.  With only three weeks advanced notice, she took the maid of honor’s dress home and made a matching dress for herself with no pattern.  They, too developed a more amicable relationship over the years.  She and sister number three participated on a team in the Eppie’s Great Race alongside Butch in the Iron Man Division.  She was generous with both of us and would cheerfully do what she could if we needed her.  She always wanted to go white water rafting on the Colorado River so she gave him a gift certificate for a rafting trip with her for his birthday one year.  He took me along and we had a wonderful adventure together.  Despite having serious back problems, she, too, suspended her life and stayed with us for the nearly three weeks keeping vigil between his heart attack and his death. 

His youngest sister, just eighteen months his senior, was his co-conspirator when they were young.  She called him “little brother” all his life.  At one point, Butch, his father, and this sister lived in Auburn with their paternal grandparents while his mom and the older girls lived in San Diego.  One afternoon the two kids were “helping” their grandfather clean out the barn.  During lunch, he announced that the barn was so much work, he should just skip the cleanup and burn the thing to the ground.  Butch and his sister happily granted him his wish, lighting the barn on fire while he finished lunch. Not long after getting her driver’s license, she let Butch drive one night.  He lost control and went into someone’s yard, taking out a large section of fence.  Not only did she cover for him (and herself), but she paid for the fence. She let us live with her when we returned from Texas and he was not yet employed. When she turned 50 he rode his bicycle to Bakersfield to surprise her for her birthday.  Sister number one and her daughter met him on the outskirts of town with a banner to ride through to celebrate his long journey.  Whenever he was recuperating from one of his injuries or surgeries he would spend part of the down time visiting her.  She is one of the most generous people you could ever meet. Her home is always open, including a fabulous beach house that looks like a spread for Sunset Magazine.  After his heart attack, she put all of us up in the Holiday Inn Express across the street from the hospital, saving us a short but perilous commute over the pass between North Carson City and South Reno where we were staying with my brother and his family.  She contributed substantially to my financial stability until the life insurance money kicked in.  I will always be in her debt.

As we were all meeting together to make decisions, my oldest son said, “I just have one request, mom.  We are already losing dad.  Please don’t do anything that will cause me to lose my aunts and my grandmother too.” That would have been a terrible loss for all of us. 

Becoming us without them means finding our place in our second family on our own. It means continuing family traditions and holiday celebrations that were important to us while they were alive despite the empty chair at those tables too.  This second family is potentially one of the best sources of support for us after they are gone.  These are people who hold the story of us in their hearts because they are part of that story.  They genuinely share our pain.  It is their loss too.  They will not be among those who will hurry us along in our mourning.  Rather, they can walk beside us in a way that few others can. Losing them would be like having another piece of our loved one taken from us.  Maintaining those relationships allows us to remember them through the eyes of others who loved them as much as we did.  People who knew and loved them all their lives help us remember who they really were instead of an idealized version that ceases to be truly them over time.  They can also help us find ourselves again because they know us so well.

When I get lost in feeling like I am invisible now without him, I remember that I was adopted into his family when I was 17 years old and I have a place there for as long as I live.