The Bad News is the Good News

Feb. 26, 2017

I was teaching Chemical Dependency Studies at night at a small technical school not far from home. Butch asked me what time I would have my twenty-minute dinner break, saying that he might drop by. A few minutes before break time, the students in the class at the front of the building interrupted my class at the back of the building demanding that I come and see what was happening in the parking lot. There was no dissuading them, so I let my class go early and followed them to see what had them so excited.

I found my darling husband with his pickup parked across several spaces outside the school. He had come to serve a "seven course dinner" as a surprise. I climbed the step stool he placed near the tailgate and we sat on the walls of the truck at the table he had prepared with candles and a table cloth.  He served sparkling cider, squeeze cheese and crackers, canned soup from a thermos, packaged salad, a main course from a frozen dinner heated and insulated for the journey, jello pudding cups for desert, and gourmet coffee in a portable mug to take back to class with me. He whisked me off to class after precisely eighteen minutes, stating that I needed to be on time so I could continue to support him in the manner to which he had become accustomed. The students were busily uploading photos to their social media sites. This is such a lovely example of who he was and what it was like to be loved by him.

What makes memories like this one bitter sweet is that they remind us of what we loved most about them. At the same time, they remind us of how terrible it is that they are gone.

There is an expectation that healing from a loss will be like healing a physical wound. It begins with the initial trauma and is followed by the pain and potential infection, the gradual healing, and then scar tissue that makes the wound site stronger than the skin that was there before the physical trauma. In reality, it is more like a toggle switch between two distinct ways of being. Over time, the switch is flipped more often and for longer periods of time toward the present joy, and the hope for a new life that has meaning. However, when the switch flips toward the pain, it seems just as intense as it did initially. It is like being thrown into a time machine to the moment that the life we knew and enjoyed was torn from our hands. During the first year of mourning the loss we came to understand that the switch will inevitably flip back out of the pain. This makes the agony more and more tolerable, but not less painful. It also accounts for what CS Lewis says makes grief feel so much like fear. Knowing that there is no way to predict when the switch be flipped and what will trigger it creates a vague sense of dread, wondering when the next blow will come.

The movie Shadowlands, tells the story of CS Lewis and the death of his wife, who he attributed with teaching him how to live out of his heart instead of his head.  There is a scene in which, he tells her that he cannot tolerate the pain of knowing that he is going to lose her.  She tells him that the pain now is part of the joy later.  He is not convinced. The last scene of the movie takes place after she is dead and he is raising the children without her.  We watch Lewis warmly embrace her son as he rides off for school.  The voice over says, “In this life, we can choose either suffering or safety.  When my mother died when I was a boy, I chose safety. Now I choose suffering.”

That is the choice for us as well. To become the best version of us without them we must walk through the suffering involved in deeply mourning our loss as the surest way of experiencing deep joy again. The good news is that we will find both them and God waiting for us.  The bad news is, we will find them only in the depths of the very suffering we would like most to avoid.

­­­­­And worse, the fast forward function is completely disabled…………….

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Feb. 25, 2017

I had the advantage of being married to someone with three olders sisters and a mom who was an event planner.  He knew all about the giving of flowers.  He always brought lovely corsages for the dances in high school.  We had a tradition of breakfast in bed for birthdays and I could be sure that there would be something blooming on the tray.  Even when there was nothing available but a few dandelions, he could figure out how to deliver them with the meal.  When he got his first well-paying job as a truck driver, he would always bring me flowers when he delivered in San Francisco because there were street vendors selling flowers on the corners at red lights.  He loved to send me flowers at work for anniversaries and hear the stories of my jealous coworkers who rarely, if ever, received flowers themselves.  I once had flowers delivered to the dispatch office of the trucking company where he worked.  I knew that he was not going to be there all day, but the dispatchers and other drivers coming and going would see them and he would hear over the CB radio that he had flowers in the office.  I had them leave the card out of the envelope so all the guys could see that it said, “You’re Still the One.”  He loved their snarky remarks and the fact that none of them had every received such a gesture.  We did not have sidewalks where we lived, so he planted wildflowers at the front of the yard that would come up each year and look beautiful.  Then he would pick some and put them in a vase in the house. The flowers always smelled so great.  Flowers became synonymous with Butch and his thoughtfulness.  They were one of the many ways he showed me that he loved me and thought about me when I was not there. 

Fortunately, new chapters of the story of me and flowers were written immediately after his death.  Since he died February 13th, Valentines Day was the first land mine I had to face.  My oldest son (who is the living personification of someone who will never be described as a morning person) got up early and left a bouquet of flowers and a romantic card he signed for his father on the seat of my car.  My daughter-in-law regularly brings home a bouquet of flowers for me when she shops.  Between them, there have been fresh flowers for mother’s day, my birthday, major holidays, and Valentine’s Day this year.  When I made the decision to invite people to dinner at my new home to celebrate my birthday in a new way, three different people brought flowers.  Some of them lasted for weeks. 

Flowers, once so simple and easy, have been complicated by his death.  They are a great example of the multitude of the small and large parts of life that are now complicated in this way.  The sadness of knowing I will never again receive flowers from him attaches itself to even the dandelions.  But the new traditions being started by others that I love force me to redefine what flowers mean in my life and what they represent in terms of love and thoughtfulness.

Becoming us without them will offer each of us an unlimited number of opportunities to mourn our loved one as we discover yet another layer of ourselves that has been interwoven with them and must now be redefined.  Holidays and anniversaries loom large on the horizon and we can develop resources and strategies for lessening the blow.  It will take far longer than anyone can predict for these unpredictable triggers to unfold.  Regardless of how long it has been, we need to give ourselves permission to feel the pain, mourn this aspect of the loss, and get the help we need to move forward in a healthy way.  The surest way to make it worse is to avoid it or try to manage the pain alone.  If we are honest with ourselves and those who love and support us, we will change what we can, accept what we can’t, and have the help we need to figure out which is which. These painful processes will become the source of strength we draw on to help others in the way that we have been helped.  And all the while we will struggle with the fact that if they were not gone, we wouldn’t have to do any of this. 

Ah, for the good old days…………

Cute Little Old Couples

Feb. 23, 2017

Butch talked a lot about our growing old together.  We always observed rickety old couples and imagined ourselves in their place.  We once dressed as an old couple for Halloween.  We had big plans for our 50th anniversary celebration, which we missed by just 6 years.  ­­­­We started dating at 17 and we expected to celebrate 80 together. 

His favorite joke was about a little old couple who went to a restaurant for their 75th anniversary.  Their meals were served but only the husband began eating his.  The wife waited patiently, watching her husband eat his meal while hers grew cold.  The waitress was incensed that the wife would be required to wait and eat after her husband.  She went to the table and asked if the wife needed anything else or if there was a problem with the food.  The wife assured her that everything was fine but did not begin eating.  The waitress went back to the table and told the woman that it was terrible that she was required to wait like that.  These were enlightened times and she should not be treated that way.  The wife smiled sweetly and said, “Oh Honey, it’s not like that.  It’s just that it is his turn to use the teeth first.” 

Butch was always a jock and an outdoorsman.  He hiked miles when he hunted, more for the adventure than anything else.  He rode his bike 50 miles without breaking a sweat.  He walked 20,000 paces per day at work. Just months before his fatal heart attack, he had his semi-annual stress test.  After 15 minutes on the machine, without even reaching a stressful heart rate, they told him, “That’s enough, Mr. Field, you can get off now.”  He rarely drank and stopped smoking after only a few years of the habit when he was young.  I, on the other hand, could best be described as support staff.  I bought gadets and gear for him to support all his activities.  I drove him and his equipment around for miles.  I waited on the beach at Fort Funston, watching the sunrise, while he and 10,000 others rode from the Presidio to Golden Gate Park on their bicycles. 

Yet he was the one with heart disease while the women in my family typically live into their 80s and 90s.  His having survived the three previous heart attacks contributed to the notion that he could outrun such a life-threatening condition.  All of us expected him to come back from this.  And all of that has made it so hard to accept that he is really gone.  We had plans.  He was Hercules and surely invincible.  He could do anything.  I feel so cheated when see sweet little old couples together.  I was so sure we would be one of them.  But the heart disease didn’t care.

Becoming us without them means first letting go of the story we thought we would be writing with them beside us.  It means not only dealing with this day without them here, but erasing all the videos we had in our mind about how tomorrow was going to unfold for us.  It doesn’t feel like a blank canvas that we must now design from scratch.  It is like a beautiful landscape that graced a prominent wall in our home that now has large gaping holes torn from it where once there were flowers and cool water and verdant meadows.  It’s hard to imagine something lovely will ever hang in its place. Each of us has a different landscape on our wall and will do different work to see beauty again.  But what we have in common will be far greater that our differences.  We will need a great deal of support and a steady supply of love to get through the process.  We can do this in the company of others, but never alone. 

At least, I won’t have to take turns with the teeth………

Rainy Days

Feb. 22, 2017

Early in the mourning process, we try to avoid things that can trigger painful memories. But after being together since 1969, I found that nothing is predictably safe.  Even the weather is a minefield.  Rainy weather is the worst.

Our first date was November 5, 1969.  It was raining.  After a football game and pizza with our friends, we sat in his car and talked.  I remember watching the raindrops hitting the windshield and the sound of the rain on the roof of the car.  That being a cheap date and a way to have privacy, we spent a lot of time on rainy nights that fall in the car, often in front of my house. We would sit out there as long as possible.  I remember my dad flashing the porch light to let me know I needed to come in before he came out to get me.

Our first camping trip we experienced a Texas deluge.  Our tent was an old parachute with a long pole in the middle, staked down tightly all around.  It was perfect in Texas because it was tall and light, allowing lots of air while keeping out the insects and snakes.  The last day, the rain came gushing down.  We hoped it would blow over quickly so we could load the car, but it only got worse.  The weight of the rain caused the parachute to slowly collapse around us until we were huddled near the center pole with the fabric closing in on us.  Butch drove the VW Beetle into the tent so we could pack the equipment and then shoved the wet parachute into the compartment above the engine in the back.  As we drove toward home, the engine reached temperature.  There appeared to be smoke coming from the back and it looked like the car was on fire.  We jumped out and ran back there to save what we could and found ourselves laughing hysterically as we stood in the pouring rain watching steam coming off the parachute. 

The stories of us and the rain go on and on.  In the last years, we were only off work together every other Sunday.  Rainy Sundays prevented us from doing yard work so we would snuggle on the double recliner, watch movies and take naps. It was raining the day of the celebration of life when we all said our last goodbyes.

I notice rainy Sundays are very melancholy days for me now.  Recently, I awoke to the sound of the rain falling outside.  As I opened my eyes they fell on a great photograph of him that his niece enlarged for the foyer of the church that now hangs in my room.  He is laughing and looks so happy and contented.  The memories flooded in, with the sadness and sweetness all jumbled together.  All at once I heard him, or God, or some combination of them say, “The love is under the pain.”  The sadness lifted slightly so that the memories felt more like being with him that a reminder of being without him.

Our loving feelings for them, and everyone else, lie deep within us.  When we try to skim along the surface to avoid the sadness, we lose the love, too.  We lose the best part of them and of ourselves.  There will never again be a version of us that does not include the pain.  Our work is like that of the oyster. The pain is an irritant that is permanently located at the center of our being.  Layer by layer, day by day, something beautiful is created. We are promised by those who have gone before us that there is a shiny version of us waiting in the future.  As we become us without them, we are transformed into that pearl of great value so that we can light the way for others.

It’s just hard to believe in the pearl, when all we feel is the painful grain of sand wedged in our hearts……………..

I Don't Want to Grow Up!

Feb. 21, 2017

In the musical version of Peter Pan, the lost boys sing: We won't grow up! We will never grow a day. And if someone tries to make it. We will simply run away. I won't grow up! No, I promise that I won't. I will stay a boy forever. And be banished if I don't! And Never Land will always be. The home of youth and joy. And neverty. I'll never grow up, never grow up, never grow up.

There are moments when it would be so lovely if there was a place called Never Land.  Then I could run back to the day before Butch died, and remain there, frozen in time.  It would be like that country western song where you get everything back, including your dog. Those are the days when I wake up and the sadness washes over me like a tidal wave.  All I want to do is pull the covers over my head and stay there.  On those days, there is the faintest glimmer of hope that when I emerge from my hiding place, it will all be a dream. I will be in Never Land; he will be here with me; all will be right with the world.  I am amazed that even after all this time there is a part of me that still entertains that fantasy.

The downside of Never Land is that in order to escape and live there forever, I would lose the rest of my world.  All the things in my life now that bring me joy and give my life meaning would be sacrificed.  I would miss the miracle of watching my granddaughters, nieces and nephews grow up.  I would lose the relationships that I am developing with my sons and daughters-in-law as they step up to fill the gap.  I would not have the opportunity to pursue my career as a therapist which feels so much like a calling from God.  I would miss out on the wonderful peers, friends, and family members who have shown me so much love and support in this desperate time of need. Not to mention calling Butch back from heaven and requiring him to die again someday. 

The good news is that we will never have to resolve that dilemma because there is no Never Land, no way to turn back the clock, and we can’t call someone back from death.  The bad news is that it is still possible to escape.  If we get stuck in denial and focus only on the past, we will lose out on the rest of our world.  We can do whatever it takes to move slowly and painfully through the mourning process.  Or we can deaden ourselves to the agony and guarantee that we will never find ecstasy again.  We can define ourselves by what has been taken from us, missing out on the miracles happening all around us.  And that is like escaping to Never Land but being frozen in time at the moment after the loss. 

Becoming us without them means leaving Never Land and moving forward.  We can remain in neither the moment before nor the moment after the loss.  Before there was us with them, there was us with God.  He promises that he has not come to harm us, but to bless us and to give us hope and a future. The people we allow to help us will look hopefully into the future with and for us until the fog clears and we can believe again.  Its what they would have wanted for us.  Now we just have to want it for ourselves.  

­­­We can’t have our loved ones back.  But we can get us back……………