Mar. 5, 2017

Butch’s dad never took him fishing.  He figured most of it out by himself before making some friends who really knew what they were doing.  He was a very unlucky fisherman. 

There was a lake near our first apartment in Copperas Cove, Texas.  A dock ran from shore out to the middle of the lake where there was a building with two fishing holes inside.  Old theater chairs were arranged around a large rectangle that was cut out to expose the lake. There were rails all the way around to prevent falling in. Bright lights shone on the water.  This attracted bugs, which attracted fish.  You could sit in the somewhat comfy chair with your feet propped up on the railing and fish.  People all around us were catching fish.  Butch was doing what they did but catching nothing.  He handed me a pole.  The minute my line passed over a specific spot, I caught a fish.  This happened three times in rapid succession.  But when Butch passed his line over that same spot, nothing happened.  Having caught my limit in 10 minutes, I sat next to him until I could not stay awake any longer.  I headed back to our campsite with him promising he would be along shortly.  I woke up at dawn alone.  Very frustrated, I threw everything in the car and drove to the dock prepared to chew him out for staying out all night.  But when I got there, I found him sitting on the bank of the lake trying to fish with barely alive worms.  It was so sad.  He fished for hours beside people like me, who caught all the fish in the world and never got a bite.

Another time he caught a huge fish while boat camping with a friend.  He couldn’t wait to get home and show it off.  They stopped at a marina on the way back to Sacramento, dropping the line of fish in the water while they went inside to keep it in better shape.  Unfortunately, they forgot to pull them back up when they returned to the boat.  Butch started the engine and pulled away from the dock. The fish went into the propeller.  He realized what had happened before the fish was completely destroyed.  Wanting to document that he really did catch a big old fish, he brought it home anyway.  We have the most heartbreaking picture of him proudly holding his catch.  The top half looks great.  The bottom half is the completely bare skeleton that was left after the propeller stripped all the tissue off the bones. 

One of his coworkers took him fishing once, promising that everyone who fished with him caught fish.  To keep that promise, his friend hooked the fish himself, and had Butch reel it in.  He once fished for a week with my dad in Minnesota and never caught one fish they could bring home. 

He fished in oceans, rivers, lakes, and streams.  If you calculated the amount of money he spent fishing against the weight of the fish he caught over his lifetime, it would come out to about $200 per pound.  He had the same luck with hunting.

He loved to fish and hunt because it was outside and he just loved to be outside.  He loved hiking through the forest, rough camping, and the adventure of it all.  He was the kind of guy who could easily lead a wagon train across the plains and deliver you all safely to California (if you weren’t counting on fish or deer for part of your diet).  He was the living personification of what Hannibal Hayes used to say at the end of “The A Team” on TV.  “I love it when a plan comes together. 

He was bigger than life. And he was the wind beneath my wings.  All the courage I had, to go bravely out and change the world, came from having him in my life.  When he died, I wasn’t sure I had any of my own courage at all.  Worse than the sadness in facing life without him was the terror that there was no version of me that could face life without him.  I am amazed every day that I pull it off.  As it turns out, I was paying attention all those years.  I was learning from him every day.  Day by day, project by project, I reach into my “What would Butch do?” bag of tricks and find answers to the question.  And when I can’t do something on my own, I am even more surprised that I can reach out and ask for help from the many people who have made themselves available to support me.

One of the complications of the mourning process is that sense of having lost our backup and feeling adrift. It can seem like every day we find a new part of our lives that was bolstered by their love for us, another way they quietly contributed to our sense of well-being, and the sense of having our safety net torn to shreds. Becoming us without them means pulling courage from the depths of ourselves that we may not have known we even possessed.  It means facing hard things alone sometimes so we know what we are really made of ourselves.  More importantly, it means accepting our limitations and reaching out for help and information when we hit a wall.  Even though the best version of us appears to have been built on the rock of their presence in our lives, there is an even better version of us that can be built on the love and support of multiple others who are very happy to have tangible ways to help us if we just ask. 

This process will be greatly complicated by the fact that we don’t want to find a substitute for them.  We want them.  If we succeed without them, are we devaluing what we thought only they could be in our lives?  Are we losing them again in a new way?  Opening a door, we have never gone through alone, brings first, the pain of standing on that threshold without them.  It can seem easier not to open new doors at all.  Gradually, though, we learn that best version of us can only be found on the other side of the pain.  Like the butterfly, that can only gain the strength to fly by fighting its way out of the cocoon, we, too, are learning to fly.

Best of all, it is a pretty cool place once you arrive…………. 

Share this page

The Ocean

Mar. 4, 2017

Living on the west coast meant lots of time at the ocean between Washington state and Baja, Mexico.  It included air travel, road trips, and a cruise.  Always, those trips were together.

Butch did basic training for the Army at Ford Ord, in Monterey, CA.  Going to visit him was the farthest I had ever driven at 18.  The first time I went by myself, I was so eager to get there, I got a speeding ticket on the way.  I picked him up at the base and we went to the Boardwalk Amusement Park on the beach in Santa Cruz.  We were standing in front of the huge, wooden rollercoaster.  Later in life we learned that Butch had an inner ear condition which caused him to become very nauseous on such rides.  He already knew the nauseous part just not the reason.  So, he had virtually no intention of riding that monster.  Just then, he looked over his shoulder and saw his drill instructor coming in our direction.  I can’t remember which of the many rules he was breaking.  It might have had to do with what he was wearing.  Thinking we could duck into the crowd of people standing in line for the rollercoaster until the coast was clear, we got in line.  Unfortunately, the drill instructor got in line as well.  There was no way to leave the line without being seen, so he was stuck riding the roller coaster to avoid discovery. He was indeed, nauseous for hours. Each visit to Ford Ord meant spending time at the beach.  We walked on the beach, ate at the beach, even spent several very cold hours trying to share a sleeping bag on the beach one evening. 

One year we decided to spend our week vacation meandering up through Oregon and Washington to Canada.  We took his pickup, a borrowed tent trailer, and his kayak.  It was the last week of January.  Unbeknownst to us, it was the most stormy time of year up there.  People who loved storms actually planned their vacations to go up there at that exact time of year.  We spent a night at our timeshare on Discovery Bay where he was able to kayak about an hour before a storm started blowing in and threatened to swamp him.  That was the first and only time it was even remotely possible to kayak.  We spent the next night in a campground where we learned that the tent trailer leaked.  Butch used all his trickiness to create a warm, dry, little nest for us in the non-leaky part of the trailer while we fitfully slept through a storm that rocked the trailer like a sapling. Thank God for our timeshare, because that was the first and only night we were able to use the tent trailer.  When we arrived at the north most part of Washington to take the ferry to Canada, we discovered that we had arrived during the one week of the year when the ferries were down for maintenance.  Perfect.  We stayed in a beautiful unit of the timeshare where I promptly missed a step, fell, and severely bruised my knee and shin.  The next day it was clear enough to hike out to the most north west point in the United States and enjoy the incredibly beautiful but freezing view of the ocean.  Heading homeward on what looked like a clear afternoon, we stopped at a great campground.  We were just backing in to set up the tent trailer when a retiree came bounding out of his motorhome to notify us that hurricane force winds were due in an hour and we needed to get ourselves, our kayak, and that aluminum tent trailer under cover or something really bad was going to happen.  By a miracle, one of our timeshare units was nearby and someone had just cancelled their reservation.  We got ourselves, the kayak, and the tent trailer into the underground garage barely in time to keep them from blowing away.  As we stood at our window on the sixth floor, you could feel the building swaying with the wind.  We were watching the storm chasers, sitting in the outdoor hot tub, enjoying the howling wind as the waves crashed against the sea wall 10 feet away from them.  They did not get out of the hot tub until the storm took out the power and the bubbles stopped.  Apparently the generators didn't power the hot tub!!  The next day we headed inland toward I5, which would take us home. Butch had to drag our gypsy wagon through snow over the coastal range to the next unit of our timeshare.  We awakened to six inches of snow covering our barely used kayak and tent trailer in the parking lot.  But through all that, we laughed like crazy and just enjoyed being together on an adventure. 

My choices now seem to be avoiding the entire west coast of the United States and Mexico, or building new memories.  Fortunately, I have begun that process in lovely ways.  My first excursions were trips to an amazing beach house owned by Butch’s very generous sister.  While Butch and I stayed there together in the past, it had been years, and not very often.  My son and daughter-in-law vacationed there the summer after Butch’s death and invited me to join them.  I got to spend quality time with them, rediscovering the house, the ocean and the nearby park and beach through the eyes of nearly two-year-old Schuyler.  Two of my good friends and I spent a long weekend there not long afterwards, relaxing in the wonderful house, creating new memories of the ocean, and shopping in the nearby town.  My brother and his family took me with them to San Diego the week before Christmas to help me get through my first Christmas without Butch.  As we drove north on I5 returning to Sacramento, I realized I had never driven that stretch of California except with Butch.  As I began to cry quietly, my eight-year-old nephew took my hand and sweetly said, “You still have us Aunt Barb, and we love you.”  He then patted my hand for awhile before returning to his video game. 

Becoming us without them means going back out into a world that has been defined by our relationship with them rather than trying to avoid the pain altogether.  It means opening ourselves up the possibility of rewriting the script for the ocean, and the rest of the world.  We add a second act to the play that does not include them.  By revisiting old haunts with new people, we wrap ourselves in a protective coating of love and support that eases the pain.  When we look at the ocean, we remember all of them there.  We hear multiple voices mixed with the sound of the wind and the waves and not just theirs.  Very gradually, the meaning of those places changes so that the second act of the play feels worth writing.  We heal. 

Just try not to focus on the great white sharks that frequent the Pacific Coast and you’ll eventually enjoy your swim………..

Bon Appetite

Mar. 2, 2017

Our families were polar opposites in terms of dinnertime rules. 

Butch’s family ate promptly at 6 pm every night just as the evening news came on TV.  They were required to eat quietly so their father could hear the news.  Imagine four kids, three of them girls, eating in silence.  They have lots of stories about violations of the silent dinner rule.  The sister just older than Buth was his big-time buddy.  She liked to get him to laugh during dinner.  If he made too much noise he would be sent away from the table.  Her favorite ploy would be to chew up her food and then, sitting across from him at the table, open her mouth and show him her chewed up food.  He would lose it and be sent away from the table every time.  She would occasionally do that when they were adults and he would still lose it.  We just didn’t send him away from the table anymore.  He was often sent away from the table to get a shirt because he would try to show up at the table on hot summer evenings without one.  To show who was the boss, he ate without a shirt for weeks after we were married and moved to Texas.  His dad never knew, but it was still satisfying. 

When I was young and we lived in Albuquerque, dinner was a great time in my family.  We talked about school and our friends and enjoyed one another. We had a large, circular lazy-Susan in the middle of the table that spun constantly as all of us shared its contents.  We ate at a restaurant regularly and were required to behave like ladies and gentlemen.  As my parent’s marriage disintegrated and my father became more discontented, dinner at our house more resembled a war zone.  He would pick someone each night to be the recipient of a hateful verbal assault.  It was a bit like Russian Roulette waiting to see who would be that night’s target.  Eventually, we stopped eating together.  My parents would serve themselves and eat in front of the TV while the kids would have a free-for-all at the table.  I remember the first time Butch came to dinner.  He was wearing slacks and a tie.  He assumed that just because we lived in a nice neighborhood we were civilized.  After my parents (who didn’t bother to eat with us even though I had a guest) got their food and left the table, the bedlam ensued.  Butch just sat there staring at us.  One of my brothers finally told him that if he wanted anything to eat he had better get some before it was gone. 

When we were still in high school, he was unloading trucks a couple of days per week.  He was slated to graduate early but stuck around after we started dating to graduate in June with me.  It didn’t really matter if he missed a couple days of his all-electives last semester.  It seemed very romantic to have him come by for breakfast at 2 in the morning.  I would make his lunch too.  This consisted of dumping a loaf of bread out on the counter, putting jelly on half and peanut butter on the other half and sticking it all back in the bread bag.  He would eat all that during the day plus four oranges and an entire package of Oreos.  And he never gained an ounce.  After we were married, we tried to have dinner at the table together every night we could. Manners were required, but not silence.  Sports and jobs interrupted that schedule over the years, but it was still our goal that our family would dine together.  We had breakfast in bed for birthdays, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.  I looked forward to cooking a yummy breakfast on weekends when we were both off or had late starts. For months after he died, I lived on protein bars and shakes and pre-packaged salads.  If I had something hot, it was leftovers someone sent home with me.  My daughter-in-law was especially worried that I would not eat so they invited me over all the time and sent me home with food.  I have yet to eat at the table unless I have guests. 

The dining table immediately becomes a minefield after the loss.  Every meal is a reminder that they are gone.  While the kitchen eventually empties of their favorites and things we would never eat ourselves, nothing will fill the empty chair.  There will inevitably be lots of eating alone.  Why did we cook before?  Did we cook for them and just eat because it was there?  Did we cook together?  Did they cook for us, leaving us adrift without them?  The pleasure of breaking bread together is gone.  Now there is just the requirement to eat to stay alive.  How do you even shop and cook for one, and why?  What do we like now that there is no one else to consider?  The fun of trying new restaurants on date night is replaced with takeout and the drive thru.  Eating alone in a restaurant sets us up for watching others enjoying one another’s company and a reminder that we are now alone. Our couple’s social network develops gaping holes if we even had one before.  How do we find single and widowed companions to share restaurant dining later in life?  Where is the balance between assuming a more active role in the lives of our children and turning into a burden?

Becoming us without them around meals is a huge project.  We are forced to answer these and many other logistical questions while riding an emotional roller coaster. There is no escape.  The decision to enter a relationship with any other person means that one of us will be left to grieve the loss of the other.  Everyone who is left behind must still eat. 

So buckle up, keep your hands and feet inside the car at all times and remain seated until the ride comes to a complete stop….


Mar. 1, 2017

I never heard of soccer before I met Butch.  And, despite being very involved in things in high school, I had no idea our high school even had a soccer team.  Nor did anyone I knew.  They were not much more than a rag tag bunch of guys.  The coach was from South America somewhere and taught them to play dirty to make up for their complete lack of experience and limited talent.  There wasn’t much budget available so they barely had uniforms.  For shin guards, most of them stuck cardboard in their socks.  Our field went partially under water in the rain.  Being very accustomed to playing in a swamp, they did their best work on cold and rainy days.  I was the only fan.  After high school, he played what could be called semi-pro for a team in Dixon.  He was much taller than the rest of the team, who primarily came from Mexico and South America. He only had to lift his foot thigh high and he would be called for a dangerous kick because his thigh was nearly chest level to his teammates.  No one spoke English so it was very lonely on the sidelines.  I did learn many colorful words in Spanish! I remember one game when I was thrilled to see the other team coming to the field and they were all blonde.  I thought I would finally have people to communicate with on the sidelines.  They were German and I understood them even less than the Spanish speaking fans. 

Not wanting to force the boys to play soccer just because he loved it, we waited until our oldest son brought a flyer home from school about sign-ups for soccer and insisted that I drive him to the home of the director of the league that very day.  He became a great soccer player and now makes his living in a job that is all about soccer.  Butch coached his first team, with me for very shaky backup.  The team signed up to participate in a fun tournament on a day that Butch was hunting.  I will never forget how embarrassed I was when I made an illegal substitution of half the team on the other team’s throw in.  Everyone had to wait while my players who had been taken off the field were retrieved from the playground. 

Noticing the sidelines coaching and referee harassment from the parents in our small club, Butch decided to put together a men’s team.  His theory was that if the coaches and rowdy parents had to see what it was really like for the kids on the field, they would stop nagging.  They called themselves the BenGay Express because they used massive amounts of the stuff before and after the games.  They looked really good in their matching uniforms.  Their combined years of experience playing soccer was a very small number.  They improved over the years and recruited some talent.  They had a great time.  But they were never more than a rag tag bunch of guys like his first team.  At least they had real shin guards. 

So much of our lives together involved soccer.  He actually built a full-sized soccer goal in our back yard so our boys could practice and spent hours out there with them.  He taught them the importance of polishing their shoes after each game to keep them in good shape.  We drove miles for State Team practice.  To pass the time, I would read books out loud in the car.  We didn’t go to many of the away games because we were home working two jobs to pay for soccer and Jesuit High School.  Extend that to college, professional outdoor and indoor teams, and supporting the Sacramento Republic and you have more hours on the side of a soccer field together than most people spend watching TV as a family.  Our granddaughter, at age 2, just began attending “Kids Soccer” on Friday mornings.  She is generally not doing what she is supposed to be doing and greatly prefers chasing dogs and squirrels, but she does it with tremendous enthusiasm.  He would have loved that so much.  I will now spend the rest of my life doing soccer without him. 

Nothing is untouched in the process of mourning this loss.  Even fun has to be redefined.  We don’t have to do things just because they loved them anymore.   We have an opportunity to try new things we didn’t do before because they would not have enjoyed them or because we didn’t want to take the time away from being together. But we can’t necessarily walk away from everything we ever did together and develop all new interests.  Life isn’t that simple.  Becoming us without them will require us to figure out what we love to do for fun.  If that involves things we previously shared with them, then continuing to do them will include managing the pain and sadness that comes with knowing we can never share that with them again.  As with everything about this time in our lives, we will need support to avoid throwing out the baby with the bathwater just to avoid pain.

Soccer without Butch is like Christmas without Santa Claus or 4th of July without fireworks.  But being a member of this family means lots of soccer.  And I love soccer too.  I especially look forward to watching my granddaughters play.  I just have to believe he is watching them from where he is now.

If nothing else, I can teach them how to make shin guards out of cardboard and the importance of shining your shoes after each game……….

Being Seen

Feb. 27, 2017

I have always had what you might call the absent-minded professor syndrome.  Combine that with being pretty pampered growing up and you end up with a very smart ding dong.  I think what most impressed me about Butch when we were first dating was that he could fix anything and make something out of nothing.  Those go especially well together in that he could fix almost anything I could break. I was married to MacGyver!! 

Our first dinner guests were my cousin Carolyn and her husband, Gary.  They popped in (from two hours away) for a visit three weeks after we were married and took up residence in Texas.  This was nothing less than a miracle.  With more than a week left in the month and virtually no income other than Butch’s monthly check from the Army, we had a dime, a few redeemable soda bottles, and practically no food in the refrigerator.  They took us to the grocery store and saved us from a very long week of rice and pancakes.  I did have a frozen casserole.  This was the second half of a meal I prepared the first week in Texas.  I only knew how to cook for my family of seven, so we always had extra.  Since my brothers devoured the food, I had never seen a frozen casserole, much less cooked one.  I simply put it in the oven for the time indicated in the original recipe with no adjustment for its being frozen.  In the meantime, I attempted to make Italian salad dressing from an envelope.  We did not have oil to mix with the vinegar.  No problem.  I cleverly melted some Crisco and combined it according to the recipe on the envelope.  As you have already guessed, when the Crisco hit the cold lettuce, it solidified.  Not yummy.  After dinner, when we were alone, Butch told me that was the last time he would cover for me and eat frozen food for dinner so I better learn some new stuff.  This was in the dark ages before there were microwave ovens.  He had politely served the hot part of the casserole to our guests, served the warm part to me, and quietly eaten the semi-frozen part himself.  On our 30th wedding anniversary we were talking about what had changed over the years.  I asked him what had improved the most.  He said it was my cooking.  Incensed, I asked him what I made in the beginning that was so much better.  He said, “Dinner.”  I think that was as much my learning to cook like his mom as it was learning to cook for less than seven people and how to deliver warm food.  With rare exception, after each of my ding dong moments over the years I looked into his face and saw genuine love and enjoyment.  While he believed me to be very smart, he was also amazed by the ways that my brain could wander off and end up in the strangest places.  Even when I managed to set the water bed on fire!!  

I have heard it said that the greatest need of any person is to be fully known and yet fully loved.  My father was very grouchy.  Yet my stepmother loved him anyway.  You could not spend any time at all with them without hearing her say, “Now Don…..” My Aunt Juanell died just last month.  The woman in that hospital bed looked nothing like the beautiful woman I knew as a small child and who loved me like her own.  Yet my uncle, leaning near her to the very end, still looked at her as if she was the most beautiful and precious woman in the world.  I remember Butch’s mom keeping vigil in the hospital in the last few days before his dad died of lung cancer.  I watched her rubbing his thumb by the hour.  When she saw I was watching her, she said, “It’s just occurring to me that very soon, I will never see this thumb again.”  As Butch lay dying at Kaiser and I stood next to his bed with my hand on his cheek, the nurse asked me if I wouldn’t rather sit down.  I told her I was memorizing him.  It occurred to me that very soon, I too would never touch that cheek again.  I couldn’t let go and sit down. 

One of the hardest parts of becoming us without them is the belief that no one will ever know us like that.  The history is long and intricate.  The shared experiences run deep and wide.  How can that be recreated?  Surely no one will ever look at us with such love again. During the first year, it is hard to remember life before them and impossible to imagine life without them.  In the second year, we realize that an entire year has gone by without them and there will likely be many more.  Unbelievably, we have survived.  There are still days when we wonder if it is worth the energy it takes to get up and face another day without them.  It all seems hard and sometimes too hard.  But life does not wait for us to volunteer to move forward; it just drags us along. A new version of us is emerging, possibly wiser, probably stronger, and certainly more resilient.  We have accomplished things we would never have tried when they were alive. We are no longer stuck in the familiarity of our comfort zone because there is no comfort zone.  It’s all new.  Like it or not, we have been launched. 

Slowly we remember that they were not actually the source of our value and worth.  We are a reflection of God, not of them.  We need only look into God’s eyes to find our true identity.  Even now, my world is filled with people who do look into my eyes to see how I am doing.  They show me in many ways that I am seen and loved and enjoyed.  And because some of them have known me for a very long time, I am, in many ways, still fully known and yet fully loved. 

And some of them know all about the water bed fire……………..