Memorial Day Remembrances – 2019

“Memorial Day, or Decoration Day, is a federal holiday for remembering people who died while serving in the country’s armed forces.” Wikipedia

I originally wrote this back in November 2015. I think it’s worth a repeat, especially today, May 27, 2019…Memorial Day…because there were more who died serving in this country’s armed forces who did not die in battle, but whose names should be remembered. Though I have made some corrections, and an addition to this version, the story remains unchanged:

Friday, November 6, 2015, was an important day for me because  I discovered the name of the nineteen-year-old young man who died in my room at Elmendorf Air Force Base hospital from burns over 95% of his body the night of November 27, 1970, the day our plane crashed on take-off from Anchorage International Airport and killed forty-seven people. For some reason, I decided to try to find more information on that ill-fated Capitol International Airways (Capitol Airlines) flight C2C3/26 that took off from McChord AFB, Tacoma, Washington, with scheduled fuel stops in Anchorage, Alaska and Yokota, Japan, before reaching its destination at Cam Ranh Bay, South Vietnam. For many, it was their first trip there. I was returning for another tour.

Why is this important to me? It is important to me because within the space of eight hours, that young man’s life and my life touched three times and left an indelible memory. I just couldn’t remember his name for all these years, though I’ve thought of him so often.

How did this begin?

After my mom and dad dropped me off at the McChord AFB terminal in the early afternoon of November 27, 1970, the Friday after Thanksgiving, I walked into the terminal carrying my duffle bag. I never expected that I would see either of them again. I was going back to Vietnam to probably die there. I felt that I had little left to lose at that point in my life. I heard some scuffling, name-calling and taunting to my left after I walked through the double glass doors and saw three guys in fatigues pushing and poking at a larger young man, making fun of his weight and his Number 1 haircut, a buzz-cut. I saw no insignia on his fatigues, so I assumed they were ganging up on a Private. I was correct. One of the bullies took his cap and threw it on the floor and said to him, “What are you gonna do about that, Fat Boy?” He backed up against the wall with his hands in front of him as though he was trying to keep them at arm’s length and said, “C’mon, guys. You don’t have to be this way.” They laughed at him and began to move toward him again.

I walked to their right, dropped my duffle bag against the wall to the young man’s left, turned and slid in front of him. He was at least half a head taller than I, but a large, gentle soul. I stood between him and the three approaching bullies and conversationally said, “Why don’t you pick on someone your own size…like me?” And then I smiled at them. They stopped, rather startled. I looked them over, looked directly at the biggest of them, and said, “You first.” He was about the same height as the young man behind me with his back to the wall, but more slender. I said to him, “C’mon. You’re first before I start on the other two. Unless either of you two,” I nodded to them, “want to jump right in.” I was standing with my legs slightly apart and with my arms at my sides. They all took a step back, and the tall one said, “We didn’t mean anything by it. We were just teasing him.” I said, “I’m not teasing you. Now pick up his cap and hand it to me nicely…and apologize to this young man. Now.”

The tall one picked up his cap and handed it to me. “Apologize,” I said staring at him. With mumbled apologies they backed away, picked up their duffle bags and walked away. I turned to the young man, handed him his cap and asked if he was okay. He said he was and said I didn’t have to do that. I told him that I did because no one deserved to be picked on like that. He thanked me. We picked up our duffle bags and began walking to the seating area to await our flight. I asked him his name and he told me, and we talked. He said he was nineteen years-old and was from Houston, Texas. He said that the first time he’d really ever been away from home was when he went to Basic Training, and this was the farthest he’d ever been away from home. He was a nice kid, polite, gentle, and wide-eyed at being somewhere he’d never been before. Though I’d heard the three bullies swearing at this young man and calling him names, he never once swore back or called them names. He had tried to talk his way out of the bullying. That’s when I arrived. We didn’t have long to talk because the PA system crackled to life as we were headed for the seating area and the voice told us to begin boarding. I wished him good luck and promptly forgot his name.

DC-8-63F Super -Stretch- 8The flight to Anchorage was sort of uneventful, though it took most of the runway at McChord to get that plane off the ground. It was not a confidence-builder. The McChord runway, as I remember it, was about 10,000 feet long. Somewhere close to the 8,000-foot marker was a rise in the runway, a small hill. As we cleared the hill, the plane actually dipped below the top of the hill before we felt it ‘catch’ and begin to gain altitude. The wheels were pulled up almost immediately. I heard someone say that these DC ‘Stretch’ 8s were notoriously underpowered. Yes, a real confidence-builder. Somewhere close to a couple of hours into the flight, the far-left engine (number 1?) began to smoke, and I had thought it was shut down. I could be mistaken, though.

Regardless, we arrived safely in Anchorage and deplaned while it was being fueled and one of the engines was inspected after the cowling was removed. I suspected it was that far left engine. It was cold and ice covered the runway. I thought I heard we had taken on 69,000 lbs of fuel, but later found out we took on over 117,000 lbs of fuel. When we boarded, once again I boarded late and noticed there were women and children…dependents…on board, possibly going to Yokota, Japan to be with their husbands and fathers. I found a seat in the tail section of the plane, about three or four rows from the back, on the starboard side by the aisle. I noticed that the young soldier I’d met in the McChord terminal was seated in the same row, but across the aisle in the center seat. We nodded a greeting to each other as I took my seat. Though we left the terminal and sped down the runway, the plane never left the ground.

1Minutes later, after the plane had skidded 3,400 feet past the end of the runway and was in flames with the tail section torn off, we crossed paths once again. After we were either ejected from the plane or crawled out of the wreckage, several of us were on the ‘wrong’ side of the plane, near the still-intact right wing with fire burning all around it. Someone on the other side of the wreckage shouted, “Hey! Over here! This way!” I could see him between the tail section and main fuselage of the plane. They were thirty or so feet apart and a fire had bridged the gap. I could hear him yelling and waving his arms, so I turned around and spotted about five or six others milling around in a daze, so I yelled at them to follow me. I made sure I had their attention before I turned, ran toward the gap and dove through the flames to the other side. I rolled to my feet and began to yell, “Come on! This way! Run!” and they did.

Two or three made it through the flames unscathed, but the next one didn’t. As he ran through the fire, he burst into flames and kept running. Several of us chased him down, tackled him and smothered the fire with our bodies. The remaining soldiers made it through the fire. We were the fortunate ones. We helped him up, and I was appalled because he was totally blackened from head to foot. It was that Private that I’d stepped in front of at the McChord AFB terminal. Behind us, across the (estimated) twelve-foot-deep by about twenty-five-foot-wide drainage ditch, trucks, cars, buses and ambulances began to arrive. Just then, I heard a loud “whump” behind us and turned to see a geyser of flame erupt from the right wing, over 100 feet high, close to where we were milling around just minutes before. We turned and made our way into the ditch and across it to the transportation. I made sure he got into a vehicle and then got into a pickup that had just pulled up. I realized my feet were cold because I wasn’t wearing my shoes and socks. Most of the plane was now fully engulfed in flames.

Many of us ended up at one of the airport fire stations before we were loaded onto hospital buses to be taken to the hospital. By that time, I knew my hair had been burned off, my face had been beaten to a pulp, I had been ripped out of my shoes and socks by the impact when my seat tore out of the floor of the plane, three toes on my right foot and two toes on my left foot were frostbitten, and both of my hands were burned bad enough to have shreds of skin hanging off them. I was also soaked to the skin in jet fuel. It was about an hour later that I was on a gurney in one of the corridors of Community Hospital. My uniform was cut off me, I was completely washed down with saline solution, given a shot of morphine and dressed in a hospital gown. I lay there for about half an hour before I was loaded onto a stretcher, strapped down, and loaded onto a hospital bus with others to be taken to Elmendorf AFB hospital.

I eventually ended up in a room with three or four others, was drugged again, the excess skin cut off my raw and burned hands, my hands were bandaged, and I was given an IV drip. Across the room, perpendicular to my bed, was a bed with a person with the most severe third degree burns I’d ever seen. His face, his neck, his arms, torso and legs were blackened. In my drug-induced stupor, I could still see it was that young Private. He was soon surrounded by a team of doctors and nurses and they tried to work on him. I could hear them talking, saying that his jungle fatigues had caught fire, melted, and stuck to his body and fused to his skin. They removed his boots and his belt by cutting them off and began to peel the melted clothing from him. He began to gasp and they tried to give him an emergency tracheotomy so they could force oxygen into his lungs. They worked frantically on him until I heard one person say, “He’s gone.” They took off their masks, and slowly began to put their instruments in a pan on a side table. Just then, someone came to my bed and gave me another shot. Everything dimmed to nothing.

I’m not certain how long I was unconscious, but when I awoke the young Private was gone. His bed was unoccupied and freshly made. Someone, a nurse or a medic perhaps, showed up with a drink of water, another syringe full of something more to knock me out, and a phone. Since my hands were now bandaged, I had to dictate my parents’ phone number to him. He punched in the numbers and laid the phone on my shoulder and began to prep me for another shot. It rang once and my dad picked up the phone. I told him I was alive and in the hospital. I could hear him tell mom it was me and I was alive. I felt the shot in my arm and the room started to spin again. I was trying to tell them I was okay, but I began slurring my words and the nurse took the phone and I could hear her telling them I was going to be air-evacuated to the Brook Army Medical Center burn ward at Ft. Sam Houston, Texas before everything faded out again.

When I awoke, I was aboard a hospital C-141 on the way to the burn ward at Brook Army Medical Center. I spent four months there before I was healed enough to be discharged from the hospital, and from the Army. I spent the next thirty years wondering why he died from the effects of that crash and I didn’t until one Sunday, after listening to a sermon at church, I suddenly understood. It was so simple. It had to be the only answer. What was it? Only God knows the number of a man’s days. It just wasn’t my time. It was his time instead. But it bothered me that I still couldn’t remember his name.

It took three weeks short of forty-five years later, and after much internet research, I found his name on the list of casualties released by the Alaskan Air Command. His was the only name from Houston, Texas, and he was a U.S. Army Private. His name was Charles Echols…Army Private Charles Echols from Houston, Texas. Your family members and friends aren’t the only ones who remembered you. Finally, after all these years I can say, Rest in Peace, Charles Echols. Though your parents may have passed away by now, your name will live through me until my time comes.

Another Name

 I had been home for about two weeks following my discharge from the hospital and the Army when the phone rang. I answered it and a woman’s soft, quavering voice asked to speak with Robert W. Ellison. I said that I was him. She asked if I was the Specialist Fourth Class Robert W. Ellison who survived the plane crash in Anchorage just after Thanksgiving. I said that I was. To the best of my memory, this is what she said in her quiet, quavering voice: “Did you know a Robert W. Dooley from Seattle?” When I answered that I was sorry but I didn’t, she continued, “He was my son. He died in that crash and I miss him so much. I just wanted to call you and tell you I’m so glad that you survived and your parents don’t have to go through what I am.”

That dropped me to my knees, and I began to cry. I sobbed. I told how sorry I was that she lost her son, and she cried with me. She thanked me for talking with her and thanked God that I survived. All I could do was tell her thank you and God bless you, and we hung up. And yes, after all these years, that selfless act of her calling me and thanking God I was alive in the midst of her loss still brings me to tears. I will never forget her either.

An Acquaintance, A Friend

Reid Ernest Grayson, JrReid Ernest Grayson, Jr. He was a casualty of the Vietnam War on December 28, 1968. He is honored and remembered by the people of Montana, and by me.

From HonorStates.org:

ORIGINS and HISTORY

Reid Ernest Grayson Jr was born on May 5, 1948. According to our records Montana was his home or enlistment state. Furthermore, we have Scobey listed as the city and Daniels County included within the archival record.

SERVICE DETAILS

He was drafted into the Army. Entered via Selective Service. Served during the Vietnam War. He began his tour on December 13, 1968. He had the rank of Private First Class. Occupation or specialty was Radio Teletypewriter Operator. Service number was 56639052. Served with 25th Infantry Division, 50th Infantry LRRP, Company F.

CASUALTY CIRCUMSTANCES

Grayson experienced a traumatic event which resulted in loss of life on December 28, 1968. Recorded circumstances attributed to: “Died through hostile action, small arms fire”. Incident location: South Vietnam, Binh Duong province.

REMEMBERED and MEMORIALS

Reid is honored on the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington DC. Name inscribed at VVM Wall, Panel 36w, Line 84.

AWARDS and COMMENDATIONS

Listed below are some of the awards, medals and commendations that Reid Ernest Grayson Jr either received or may have been qualified for.

★ Purple Heart

★ Combat Infantryman Badge

★ National Defense Service Medal

★ Vietnam Campaign Medal

★ Vietnam Service Medal

★ Distinguished Unit Citation

★ Vietnam Gallantry Cross Unit Citation

★ Good Conduct Medal

I am honored to have known him as a friend when we met in Radio Teletype School at The United States Army Southeastern Signal School (USASESS) at Ft. Gordon, Georgia, in August of 1968. We used to run around together in his old 1958 Chevy with bad wipers. We talked, we traded stories about our childhood, we laughed a lot, we graduated together, and we had many beers together. After graduation, he received orders for Vietnam, and I remained at Ft. Gordon, first as an instructor at the Signal School, then as an Operations Sergeant at our old training company.

We lost touch, and I was not aware that he had been killed just after Christmas of 1968, when I was home celebrating Christmas with my family. I was also not aware that he was a member of the 25th Infantry Division in Cu Chi, Republic of Vietnam where, two years later, I was assigned.

Rest in Peace, Reid. I will never forget.

Set It Down

lous-memorial-2010-12-11 - CopyWhen my wife died in late 2010, and after taking care of all the legal matters, paying the bills, arranging for her cremation, notifying Social Security, trying to exist through Thanksgiving and her memorial service that provided closure for almost everyone but me, and barely tolerating the loneliness and heartache through the Christmas and New Year holidays, the reality of her death and my new and different life crashed down upon me…and the weight was staggering.

I wasn’t sure I’d be able to survive it, nor did I want to. Each passing day proved to be just a little worse than the previous day. The weight of bearing the grief, the sudden aloneness, and the guilt that I might done more for her, grew each day. I wasn’t bearing the weight of the world on my shoulders. The world was going on around me…and without me. The weight of my grief, loneliness and guilt was bringing me to my knees where I’d weep uncontrollably in the privacy of my home several times a day. I began to pray that I’d simply die in my sleep so it would end.

For weeks I did nothing except exist, disappointed that I awoke in my bed day after day. The only thing that kept me going was a routine that I could follow without thinking. Late at night, just after I’d set up the coffee-maker to brew a pot of coffee at 6:00 a.m., I’d fall into bed between 1:00 a.m. and 2:00 a.m. physically and emotionally exhausted. I thought of nothing as I laid in bed and suddenly it was four hours later. I’d get up, make my bed, use the bathroom, put on my sweats and head for the kitchen to pour myself a just-brewed cup of coffee. I’d open the blinds in the living room and sit staring out the window, waiting for the first light of day. Just to break the monotony, I’d shower every other morning just after my first cup of coffee. On the day I didn’t shower, I’d head to the home office, turn on my PC, open the blinds, and scroll through my emails. I’d hit Facebook, play a few games, have another cup of coffee, and fix my breakfast. After breakfast, I’d clean up the kitchen, do my dishes, pour myself another cup of coffee and sit in the living room again. On those days I showered, I’d get dressed in a fresh pair of sweats, pour myself another cup of coffee, and head for the office to my regular thing. In between coffee, my shower, breakfast and my computer, I had grief attacks that would leave me weak and drained.

The rest of the day was spent watching TV, weeping, staring at the walls, sitting at my computer, writing in my journal, fixing dinner, cleaning up after myself, and falling into bed exhausted. The following day way similar, as was the following week. It was like the movie, Groundhog Day. I’d change my sheets and do all the wash every other Saturday for something different to do. The only time I’d leave the house was to goTablet and Pen - Cropped grocery shopping, maybe fill up the gas tank on the car or truck and pick up my meds from the pharmacy. I hated leaving the safety of my house. I felt raw, as though people could tell by looking at me that I was only half of what I used to be. I wanted to be invisible so people couldn’t and wouldn’t see me because I thought they could see the jagged hole in my chest where my heart and soul were ripped from me. I felt vulnerable. I felt that people would look into my eyes and see the sad eyes bloodshot from crying and wonder what my problem was or think I was a wuss or some sort of weakling for not manning-up to my problems and carrying on.

DSCN8128The burden began to lighten somewhat when I began attending my bereavement group sessions. They started in February, a little over nine weeks after Lou died, and it helped immensely to be among others who were experiencing the same emotions as I, especially since two other men were in the group. I was not the lone male. Because the bereavement group sessions were once a week for two hours, I used that day, Tuesday, to run my errands. I drew strength from the group, and they helped to make it easier to face other people, and for me to “fake-it-until-you-make-it.” Though I still felt as though I was missing my soul, I began to simply smile at people in the store. I didn’t have to talk with them, I could simply smile at them. Most of them smiled back at me, especially innocent children. They couldn’t tell I was trying to cope with the loss of my wife. They couldn’t see the hole through me because my smile drew the attention away from it. It helped me hold up long enough in public to not have a personal melt-down. Baby steps, but steps none-the-less.

As time passed and the ‘official’ sessions ended, most of us decided that we weren’t readyIMAG0597 to face the world alone after only eight weeks, so we continued to meet. For two weeks we met in a basement conference room of the St. Francis Hospital, then for two more weeks in the nearby Federal Way Library, but we couldn’t take food or drink there, so we decided to meet in a small restaurant for brunch. By that time, eight of us remained of the original twelve in the bereavement group. After twelve weeks, we were now meeting in public. One more small step.

By my birthday in April, I was beginning to feel good about myself. I could think about Lou and not cry. I could think about her and have good memories of things we did, the way she looked, our vacations, and the time we spent together. I missed her terribly, but I felt as though I was beginning to live again, and this time, I was living for myself. The burden of grief was getting lighter. There was a small down-side to this, though. There were times I felt guilty when I became conscious of having some fun and enjoying myself, even if it was something small like going to a movie with a friend. This guilt took the place of grief in that burden I was carrying, even though Lou had given me ‘permission’ to live without her. One of those memories was a conversation we had before her brain tumors began to steal her memories and motor skills. She told me that, if she should die, that she wanted me to go on living, to find someone new to love because I had too much love left in me to go to waste. I even felt guilty for remembering that conversation.

By the middle of May, a year after her tumors were discovered during a routine PET scan that caused us to cancel our vacation, I decided to go on that vacation we had planned. It was a rather bold step, I thought, but I felt the need to get away, to see new things, to go somewhere I’d not been before, and do it by myself. So I made my plans, let people know, packed my truck, and in June was on my way. The first day on the road was the worst. It was my first vacation in twenty-eight years without Lou beside me. It rained for much of that first day on the road, but I saw the most beautiful rainbow as I was coming out of the Siskiyou Mountains. I turned to Lou to comment, and all I saw was a vacant seat. She wasn’t there. I wept for the next fifty miles. By the time I reached Medford, the sun was out. I missed the exit to the Holiday Inn Express but took the next one and began to double back, but I saw a Day’s Inn near the freeway on-ramp and a classic car show in their parking lot. I stopped there and they had one room left, a suite on the top floor, so I took it. They not only gave me a discount for being a ‘single,’ I got to see a classic car show in their parking lot. The day ended well, and the trip only got better from there.

DSC_0985I was on the road for two weeks, making stops in Paradise, California South Lake Tahoe, California/Stateline, Nevada, through the Gold Country to San Jose, visiting with my niece and her family, my nephew and his family, and then my sister-in-law (Lou’s sister) and her family. We took side trips to Carmel and Monterey, and then I drove home. I drove 2,000 miles and took 1,400 photos on that trip. By the time I returned home, I felt like a new man, my own person, and at ease with myself. I had become confident in myself again. I didn’t have to force myself to smile at or talk to people…total strangers…anymore. My friends welcomed me back. Though I was alone, I no longer felt lonely. I no longer ached for Lou, though I missed her. I was happy for her because she was no longer in pain, and I was happy for me for the same reason!

After two weeks at home, washing the truck and my clothes, mowing the lawn, doing some weeding and tree- and shrub-trimming, and cleaning the house, I was on the road again for another two weeks. This time I went to Lakeside, Montana on Flathead Lake for Lou’s family reunion. I had not planned on going, but Lou’s two sisters had called me and urged me to go because I was the family’s ‘last link’ to her. They welcomed me as part of the family and told me they weren’t going to let me out of the family. They are my family, and I love them all! After the reunion, I had no firm plans, so I decided to poke around the area. I drove into the hills above Lakeside and saw stunning and expansive views of Flathead Lake. On a whim, and since I was so close, I drove to Kalispell and on to Glaciera-IMAG0157a National Park because I’d never been there. I entered the park and decided to drive the Going to the Sun Road to Logan Pass, then continued east down to Sunrise, across the highway from St. Mary Lake. I stopped for dinner there, and on a whim, inquired about lodging at the hotel there. All their rooms were full, but the young man at the front desk checked the park’s hotels via the internet and found a vacancy at the Lake McDonald Lodge, either by good fortune or perhaps Lou had something to do with it? Regardless, I took it! I paid for it at Sunrise and then drove back across the Going to the Sun Road to Lake McDonald. When I checked in at the lodge, I found my room was in one of the Lake McDonald Lodge cabins facing the lake. It was a very good day.

DSC_0217_01The next day I had breakfast at the lodge, checked out, and decided to hike up to Avalanche Lake, then back down to Avalanche Creek before driving to and walking around Apgar Village. From there, I drove back to Lakeside on Flathead Lake. It took another week for me to get back home from there because I spent a couple of more days at Lakeside driving and hiking around the hills above Flathead Lake, then stopping in Coeur D’Alene to drive down the east side of Lake Coeur D’Alene. After entering Washington, I stopped in Moses Lake before finally driving home. Once again, I had been to places I’d never been to see things I’d never seen, and all because I wanted to. This time it was a 1,400-mile road trip with another 1,400 photos taken. I finally felt complete again.

I’d been home for a few days getting clothes and truck washed, the lawn mowed and the house vacuumed, when I realized I was living in a museum…a memorial to Lou where I was a familiar guest. It was not my house, it was our house but she wasn’t with me anymore. I wanted to make some changes to make the house mine, yet I felt guilty about it because I was somehow betraying her memory. I began small…I started on one dresser. To make it easier, I went through both her things and my things. I sorted them into three piles…keep, donate, and throw out. I kept none of her things and less than half of mine. It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. I went through a smaller dresser of hers and did the same thing, and then the last dresser. The closet was next. I did the same thing there. I went to the guest bedroom and went through the closet, an armoire, and her make-up table. I filled up the bed of my pickup to the top of the canopy five times with clothing and other possessions I didn’t need five times, and took all those things to the Federal Way Multi Service Center. They didn’t sell those things, they gave them to battered women, to both men and women who had been out of the job market for one reason or another, who had been retrained in different fields, who needed nice clothing for job interviews so they could once again fend for themselves. I was glad Lou’s and my things could be used in this manner.

At first, I felt guilty that I might betray her memory. I thought I might lose part of her byIMAG0913 giving her things away, by not holding them sacred. But what would I do with them? I couldn’t use them. They’d be going to waste, they’d be a constant reminder of what was and would never be again. I didn’t want to carry that the rest of my life. I began small, with her clothes, the clothes she loved, the clothes I remembered. It took some time, but after they were gone, I could still remember her in them, how she looked. The clothes were gone, but not the memories. The clothes didn’t make those memories, her stuff didn’t make those memories, we did and I didn’t lose them. It was reassuring, and that made going forward easier. It made giving up my own things easier, too. If I hadn’t used them or worn them in several months, they went.

Adding to some of the guilt about wanting to let Lou’s things go, I ‘met’ someone online at that time. Her name was Debbie and she responded to something I wrote in a bio that I posted on a dating website because I simply wanted some female contact. I commented back. We began to email each other, sometimes three times a day. I enjoyed receiving her emails, reading her descriptions of her family, what she liked, and how real she sounded. I wondered what it would be like to meet her in person. I was reticent about mentioning it because what would have been Lou’s and my twenty-ninth anniversary was rapidly approaching. I wondered how I would fare on that day.

Our anniversary fell on a Sunday in the middle of August, and I decided that I would stay home from church on that day because I didn’t know how I would feel or react. It took some of the pressure off me. When I awoke that Sunday morning, I laid in bed and waited to see how I felt. Aloud, I wished Lou a Happy Anniversary and waited for the sadness to wash over me. I was puzzled when it didn’t, even though I missed her. I got up, put on my sweats and went to the kitchen to brew my coffee. I spent the day remembering her and us, reminiscing about all we did together from the beginning to the very end, and thinking of all I learned from her. I was glad I decided to stay home alone that day, but that day turned out to be a celebration of remembrance instead of a day of mourning. I realized that I looked forward to each new day. I wanted to feel the wind in my face and experience my new and different life with my eyes wide open. I felt new, I still felt young, I still had things I want to do, places I wanted to go, things I wanted to see and experiences I wanted to live and feel. I knew I could…and wanted to…love again.  I was finally setting the load of grief and guilt over what was, down. I was beginning to live my life, my new and different life, as only I could, as Lou would have would have wished for me. Life was getting better every day.

DSC_0446-1The following day, Monday, after three weeks of corresponding by email, I asked Debbie if she would meet me for coffee in a safe and public place. I wasn’t sure if she would accept, but she did! It began as coffee (and tea for her) at 11:00 a.m. on Wednesday, turned into dinner at 7:00 p.m. two doors down, and then the restaurant was closing too soon. We spent the following Saturday together hiking around Paradise at Mt. Rainier photographing the scenery, followed by dinner at a small restaurant just outside the park entrance, and it closed too soon, also. We met for dinner the following Monday, and by Wednesday we decided that we were a couple.

Seven years later, I am so grateful for my new and different life, and my life with Debbie. I am in love for the last time in my life, and that love continues to grow daily. None of this could or would have happened had I not acknowledged my loss, accepted the invitation to my bereavement group, taken the time to grieve, to get it out, and to finallyIMAG0362 - Copy stop carrying the grief and the accompanying guilt with me without losing my memories of Lou and our twenty-eight years together. It sure didn’t hurt to have Debbie accept my invitation to meet for coffee, either!

It took a while, but I was finally able to set the grief and guilt down, walk away from it with a clear conscience and a light heart, and begin a new and wonderful life without it. I am truly blessed.

The Gift

Eight years ago today, though I didn’t know it at the time, I received a gift. It was an expensive and unwanted gift. The cost was extreme and, at the time, I didn’t look upon it as a gift at all, though I prayed for it. It even arrived on what would have been my father’s 93rd birthday. What was that gift? It was a new and different life. It was a life without my wife of twenty-eight years. She died and left me alone.

Yes, I prayed for it. No, it wasn’t for me that I prayed, it was for my wife. I prayed to God to take her home to Him, to end her suffering. She had four inoperable brain tumors that were stealing her motor skills and memories a little more every day. She had numerous tumors in her bones and organs. She had already been through radiation treatments and chemotherapy that proved to be ineffectual and left her weak and sick. She was in pain, and she was bed-ridden. She had been in hospice care for fifty-four days, and I was her primary caregiver.

Yes, she had visits from the hospice staff for two hours, three times a week, but I was with her for the rest of the time, day and night. I slept in a recliner next to her hospital bed in our guest bedroom because I didn’t want to miss anything. The hospice workers had taught me how to bathe her in bed, how to clean her up, how to empty her catheter bag, how to change the sheets beneath her, how to administer her medications. They taught me everything so I could give her the best possible care. And I did it all with love and devotion. She had taken good care of me all the years we were married, and now it was my turn to take good care of her. I did my very best.

Sunday, November 21, was a particularly good day for Lou. Though she had been sleeping more as the days passed and hadn’t been very communicative, she spent more of that Sunday awake and more lucid than any of the days in the previous week. We had three very good conversations that day that lasted about ten minutes each. After our last conversation, I could see she was getting tired, so I gave her a sip of water and administered her pain med. She closed her eyes and I kissed her good-night. As she was falling asleep, I saw her wince in pain, then relax. I watched her for several minutes, but it appeared she had fallen asleep. I cleaned up, brushed my teeth and went to bed in the recliner beside her.

I awoke several times during the night, checked on her, but she was sleeping peacefully. When I awoke in the morning, she was still asleep in the same position she fell asleep the night before. I checked her breathing, and she was breathing slowly and regularly. I had a cup of coffee, then tried to wake her, but she didn’t move. I went ahead and cleaned her up and changed her, then fixed and ate my breakfast. I spent the day with her, but she never woke up. As the day passed, I began to wonder if the wince I saw was her having a stroke.

That night, as I laid in the recliner next to her hospital bed, it dawned on me that she was still ‘with’ me because I didn’t want her to leave me. My tears began to flow and I couldn’t stop them when I realized how selfish I was. She was still hanging on because of me. I didn’t know if she could hear me, but somehow I thought she could. I told her how sorry I was for being so selfish. I told her that I loved her so much that I would let her go so she wouldn’t suffer any more. I told her it was okay to go, that I understood. It was then that I prayed to God that He would take her home, that her pain and sickness would end, and she would be whole again, that I would bear her pain. I prayed until I fell asleep.

The next morning, I awoke with a start and sat up to check on Lou. She was still with me, still breathing slowly and regularly, not having moved from the position she was in the night before. I wondered why. I got up, had a cup of coffee, then went back to the room. I opened the blinds to fresh snow…The First Snow of the winter of 2010, on November 23rd. It would have been my dad’s ninety-third birthday. I talked to Lou, describing the day as I cleaned her up and changed her, putting her favorite nightie on her. She hadn’t opened her eyes for two days. I covered her up, kissed her, and then…with just a soft sigh…she left me. For the first time in my life, God answered my prayer exactly as I had prayed it. He took Lou home, and I began to bear all her pain.

Lou's Memorial--2010-12-11It didn’t happen all at once. After she died, I was in shock. I went through the motions of arranging for her cremation, writing her obituary, writing a eulogy that I would read at her memorial service, taking care of all the legal matters, being around when the hospice people showed up to remove the hospital bed and the oxygen machine, and preparing for the memorial service. The pain, the loneliness, and the emptiness was building throughout all the preparations, right up to the memorial service. It was a wonderful service and there were over two hundred who came to pay their respects and show their support. And then it was over. That memorial service provided closure for everyone…but not for me, and to a lesser extent, not for our sons. After the memorial service, everyone went home and went on with life, even the boys because they had families and jobs to return to. I went home to an empty house, and my life stood still. The pain, the loneliness, the emptiness began to hit me like an avalanche. It buried me. It was worse than the movie Groundhog Day, reliving an empty life day after day…after day. I began to pray every night I would die in my sleep to end it.

During the worst of times, I don’t believe that many of us realize the little things that occur around us are very subtle answers to prayers, are gifts from God that are usually delivered in ways so unobtrusive by people you don’t know. For instance, the first small ‘gift’ I received following Lou’s death and memorial service was a packet sent by Franciscan Hospice Bereavement Care. In that large envelope was a card that suggested that I call then to reserve a place in a small eight-week group bereavement session that would gently teach us coping skills and guide us toward a path of healing. I cast it aside but didn’t throw it away. I kept it on the coffee table to remind me it was still available, like a crutch.

Grief Spiral with commentsI had tried to cope with her loss by myself and found all I wanted to do was die to end the continuous pain and loneliness. I could have fought anything else, but I couldn’t fight my feelings, I couldn’t fight my grief. I found little respite in anything, except my worst moments when I was on my knees in the hall, not being able to breathe because I was weeping uncontrollably. I would beg God to help me, and He did…every time…several times a day. It didn’t last, so I had to do something. It took just a bit over two weeks after her memorial service that I called and reserved my place in that group session. Though I was relieved I called, I was ashamed I couldn’t carry this burden by myself…after all, I had prayed for God to take her home and that I would take on her pain. I didn’t realize that the weight of my own pain combined with hers was too heavy for me to carry alone.

 

DSCN8136I awaited the day the sessions would begin…February 1, 2011…with both hope and some reticence. I wondered if I would be the only male there. I told myself I could always attend the first session and simply not return for the rest of them if I felt ‘funny’ about it. It gave me something different to look forward to than just another day of the same grief. I felt this way even on the morning of that first session. I continued to debate whether I would attend as I had my first cup of coffee, took my shower, dressed, fixed and ate my breakfast and had my second cup of coffee. And then I went. After seeing two other men there, I decided to stay. I found it comforting to know others felt as I did. We all found it comforting to know we were among other who understood us.

Every night, though, I still prayed that I would not awaken the following morning through the first two weeks of the sessions. Then a couple of days before the third session, I received another small gift…I awoke in the middle of the night with my heart pounding, sweating profusely, and shaking. I was having a hypoglycemic event. I realized it was my ticket to final peace. I could lie there, sweating and shaking, until my blood sugar level dropped so low I would lapse into a coma. I laid there and awaited it. I don’t know exactly why, but suddenly I threw off the covers, stumbled to the vanity and took my blood sugar reading. It was 43. Normal is 70 to 120. Again, I don’t know why, I put on my robe and made it to the kitchen and had some ice cream, a bowl of cereal, and something else before wobbling out to the living room to sit in the darkness and wait for my blood sugar to return to normal. I wondered why I fought so hard to live instead of letting myself go. It was then I realized that the ‘gift’ was not a chance to die, but a chance to choose to live, and to choose to live for me. There were still things I wanted to do, places I wanted to go, sights I wanted to see, and songs I wanted to play and sing.

I also realized it was what Lou would have wanted me to do because while she could, before the brain tumors stole her motor skills and memories, she told me that, should she die, she wanted me to go on living, she wanted me to find someone and love them because I still had too much love left in me to let it go to waste. I didn’t want to hear that at the time, but it was just another gift that was given to me. She didn’t have to, but she gave me permission to go on, to move on. It was a late-blooming gift. After that night, on February 19, 2011, I never again prayed that I would die in my sleep.

IMAG0597Eight weeks after our sessions began, they ended. We all were not ready, so we all decided that we would continue to meet at the same time on the same day every week. After a month of meeting in two different places, we settled on a little restaurant and eight of continued to meet and have brunch together. After seven years and nine months, four of us are still meeting for brunch every Tuesday at 11:00 a.m. We now call ourselves a “friendship group,” but we’re more like family now…another gift.

In April of 2011, when I awoke on my birthday, I was given another gift. For the first time since Lou died, I did not awaken feeling lonely. I felt…good. I was amazed. I must admit that I tested myself by purposely thinking of Lou. It amazed me even more that, while I felt a touch of sadness that she was gone from me, I felt hopeful and even light-hearted. The heartache had been lifted from me.

Things only got better from there. I decided that I would like some female companionship, so I wrote a short biography and put it on a few dating websites. I began to meet some ladies in ‘safe,’ public places over coffee, and began to correspond with several others. I was quite surprised to find that many had time lines and agendas that I was not willing to fulfill. Some were quite needy, and others were just not ‘my type.’ It was then I decided to back off those websites and planned my first road trip to get away. It was a big step. I decided to go on the road trip that Lou and I had planned prior to us finding out about her brain tumors.

DSC_0804That first day on the road was the most difficult. It was the first road trip in twenty-eight years that Lou wasn’t with me. I cried the first time I saw a beautiful rainbow and turned to comment and saw the vacant seat next me. I wept for almost fifty miles. But that day ended with a beautiful sunset and a classic car show in Medford, Oregon. It only got better from there. I drove through Chico to Paradise, CA to visit my niece and her family, then to South Lake Tahoe, CA to visit my nephew and his family. I even took the tram up to Heavenly Valley and got to see most of Lake Tahoe. From there, I went to San Jose to visit my sister-in-law and her family and took side trips to Carmel and Monterey. Two weeks and about 2,000 miles later, I was home and I felt like a new person. I no longer felt as though I was missing half of me. I had discovered my whole self again! That was a gift within itself. Yet, another gift I received was the realization that even in discovering my whole self again, I didn’t forget Lou. I would always have the memories of her, our life together, what she taught me and what we learned together in our twenty-eight years.

DSC_0115_01Two weeks later, I went on my second road trip. This time it was to her family reunion at Flathead Lake in Montana. I had doubts about going to her family reunion, but was welcomed with open arms and told that, though I was an “outlaw” (married into the family), I would always be part of the family and they wouldn’t let me out. That’s how families grow, they said, and no matter if I found someone else and remarried, she would also become part of the family, too. I love this family. I love my family.

DSC_0217_01Since I had driven directly to Lakeside, Montana for the family reunion, I decided I was going to do some sight-seeing and exploring of the area. I wandered the hills to the west of the lake, then decided…on a whim…to visit Glacier Park. I drove to Glacier Park, drove the Going to the Sun Road to Rising Sun on Ste. Marys Lake and back, lucked out and got a room at the Lake McDonald Lodge on a cancellation. Another gift. I hiked up Avalanche Creek to Avalanche Lake. I drove to Apgar Village and explored the area. I returned to Lakeside for three more days so I could drive and hike the hills above Flathead Lake. On the way home, I drove around the north and east side of Lake Coeur D’Alene and stayed in Coeur D’Alene. I stopped above the Columbia River just before Vantage to really look at part of the Columbia River Gorge before I drove home. I took over 1,400 photographs on my road trip, about one photograph for every mile I drove. I was refreshed. I felt new and confident. I felt grateful I was alive. I also felt as though I would never be alone because I had my memories, and I had God with me always.

DSC_0446-1A month after I returned home, just three days after what would have been Lou’s and my twenty-ninth wedding anniversary and about nine months after Lou passed away, I met Debbie. She and I had been corresponding by email for three weeks after we ‘met’ on the last dating site I was still on. We liked how the other wrote…straightforward, descriptive, and about family…and after three weeks, she consented to meet me for coffee (and tea) 😉. What began with some trepidation on a Wednesday at 11:00 a.m. at the Sumner, WA Starbucks, turned out to last beyond coffee and tea. Since each thought the other lived up to the way we wrote and described ourselves, and because we enjoyed each other’s company, it turned into dinner at Farrelli’s two doors down. That led to an outing to Paradise at Mt. Rainer for some hiking and photographing the sites the following Saturday, dinner again on the following Monday, and a day together Wednesday…and we decided that we wanted a relationship.

IMAG0362 - CopySo here I am today, exactly eight years later, living a new, different, and wonderfully loving life. I am thankful that Lou is not in pain and is whole again in a different place. I am thankful and blessed for the gift of a new life for me, and all the gifts I have received along the way, but especially for my Debbie. I never thought I would love again, but I am! Every night now, when we turn off the lights to go to sleep, we hold hands for a while, and I give thanks to God that I got to spend the gift of that day with Debbie and, if it is His Will, I will awaken to the gift of a brand-new day that I will get to share my love with her again! I couldn’t have done it without Him.

Oh! And Happy Birthday, dad! I’m doing very well. Hugs to you and mom!

Seasons Change; So Did I

Seasons change. A month-and-a-half ago it was Summer. Now it is Fall. As Fall progressed, the leaves turned bright shades of yellows, oranges, and reds. Now, in mid-Fall, they have turned brown and fallen off the trees. The bright greens and dark reds of the deciduous trees are gone and we’re left with the darker greens of the evergreens. The frequency of blue skies with no clouds or the puffy cumulus clouds have been gradually replaced with an overcast of various shades of gray, and the rains are coming more frequently here in the Pacific Northwest. From now through winter, other than the occasion break in the clouds showing patches of blue, it becomes rather monochromatic here in Washington. It’s the price we pay for a beautiful,IMAG1681 green late spring when the deciduous trees sprout their lighter, brighter green leaves and the flowers begin to bloom again.

The seasons change as the year progresses, and no matter which season we are experiencing, there are sure to be weather changes within each season. Superficially, our lives seem to parallel nature this way. The difference is that when we are confronted with change, it alters us emotionally. Sometimes that emotional change is temporary, sometimes it is truly life-changing. Everyone who has experienced change knows it can be good or bad. Good experiences leave us feeling satisfied, happy, sometimes even euphoric. Sometimes the good experiences can change us for life. Bad or unhappy experiences take all the good feelings away and leave us hurt, wanting, sad, unhappy, afraid, angry, or a confusing combination of all those emotions. They, too, can change us for life. I think most of us have had both good and bad experiences that have profoundly changed us and our outlooks on the way we view life. Have you ever tried to remember what you were really like as a child and then compare that to what you’re like as an adult, and then wonder why you changed, and what made you change? Well, buckle up! This is going to be a long one.

Personally, bad or unhappy physical and emotional experiences seem to have had a more profound and permanent effect on my emotions a bit more than good experiences. Both good and bad experiences have affected the way I think, the way I act, the way I emote, the choices I’ve made, my outlook on life…and death…but I believe the bad experiences have made me more of what I am today. Only lately have I begun to wonder about this, and the three things that have had the most effect on me, the three things that have elicited the biggest changes in me, have been music, anger and death. I learned about them all at a fairly young age. I would add that I have believed in God since I can remember. Even after being confronted by Catholic summer school and atheists, I still chose to believe in God because for me to only believe in Man and Mankind, and even myself, they and I will usually let me down. For me, it’s a matter of faith. At one time, however, I wondered if He believed in me. I felt abandoned for a while, until I turned and sought Him…but that’s a different story.

Top-4 - CroppedAs a child, I was happy, friendly, curious, adventurous, and even-tempered. I had no reason to be afraid of very much because my world was full of love, gentleness, fun, and a developing sense of adventure. One of my first real memories, however, involved music. My mother was a classical pianist, and I was brought up on Rachmaninoff, Bach, Beethoven, and Debussy. When my dad was working, building his fishing resort, mom and I would be home. She would fix me breakfast, tidy up the house and I would help her, and she’d play with me for a while before she’d sit down at the piano, a beautiful little spinet, and play.

Bob and the Bass Guitar - CroppedOne day, for some unknown reason, I dragged a cushion off the couch, placed it at the end of the piano, and sat on it to listen to her. I leaned back on the side of the piano and suddenly, I could not only hear what she played, I could feel the music and the emotion through the wood, through the back of my head to my teeth, and through my back all the way to my breastbone. It felt as though I was part of the music…and I was hooked. I was three years old. To this day, sixty-eight years later, I can still lose myself in music, even when I sing and play my guitar at home, or in church with our praise team. This is one of the good experiences that has changed my life and helped me cope with life’s twists and turns as I got older.

Where did the anger originate? In retrospect, I believe my anger was born out of fear and dread, and that began shortly after I started school. I was smaller than most of my classmates and a bit more ‘brown,’ too. I guess that made me a good target. I got picked on by a few of the bigger kids, two of which turned out to be my nemeses. It seemed that I got pushed around at least three or four times a week beginning in the second grade. By the time I was in third grade, I dreaded going to school because I knew I was going to be picked on, shoved around, knocked down, and my shirt pockets torn off because the worst one was finally in my classroom. He made me afraid to go to school until my mother taught me how to fight. She also taught me, because I was smaller than my bullies, to turn my fear into anger and use my anger to my advantage. She told me that I would have to get mad, to get very angry…not the shouting and yelling angry, but quietly angry inside and look for the bully’s weak spots, and then use my anger to find a way to hurt him back. When my dad found out she taught me how to fight, he took me aside and had a little talk with me. He told me it was good that mom taught me how to fight, but that I should never start one…or he would be the one to end it. It was better to not fight, to try to walk away from it, but if there was no alternative, if I was cornered, then I should fight. I should fight to win, not only that fight, that battle, but fight to win the war for all time so I’d not ever have to fight that person again. If someone else started it, I should finish it any way I could. There were no rules, it was just a fight to win forever.

The day did come where the bully came after me, and I fought him to a draw. He hurt me, but I really hurt him back. He never touched me again. That gave me the courage to step between other bullies and those they were pushing around, the rest of the way through school. But it was while I was in the Army that I learned hand-to-hand combat and how to harness my anger and turn it to rage. Not a ranting, screaming, uncontrolled rage, but a cold, calculating, seething, hateful rage that I could control until I needed it. Then I would use it to physically punish whoever wanted a piece of me. It eventually got me demoted and sent to Vietnam. Only after the Star Wars movie premiered in 1977, and the series that followed, that I could describe it in just a few words: There is power in the Dark Side. I may have learned too well because, even today, and depending on my surroundings, it is never too far from the surface.

Throughout the years, though, it has been death that affected me the most. After losing my best friend, Pam, when I was six, I was sad for a while, but life went on. When I lost my Grandpa Ellison when I was eleven, I was sad and angry that my mom and dad wouldn’t let me go to his funeral. I had to stay home and look after my little brother. I was in shock when my first fiancée was killed in a one-car accident on White Pass during Christmas break. Her car skidded off the icy road on her way to the lodge to call me. I was twenty-years-old. We were both in college and my grief was too hard to handle at the same time I was going to school. I opted for a ‘geographical cure’ and I dropped out of school to enlist in the Army to get away.

1While in the Army, I saw and did a lot of things that can’t be unseen or undone no matter how hard I tried, especially in Vietnam. One thing that cut me to the heart, though, was when I watched a young Army Private die in my hospital room from burns that covered 95% of his body after our charter plane crashed on take-off in Anchorage, Alaska after a refueling stop. I had met him just a few hours earlier. He was a nice, polite young man and it was the first time he’d ever been away from his home in Houston, Texas, except for Basic Training and Advanced Infantry Training at Ft. Bliss. We were on our way to Vietnam, and I was going back for my second tour and to reenlist once I got back there. I had protected him from three other soldiers who were bullying him in the McChord Air Force Base Terminal just prior to take-off. We ended up sitting in the same row during the flight to Anchorage, so we chatted. I marveled at his innocence, his naivete, and his love for his family. He made me wonder where and when my innocence left me. I was twenty-two. He had just turned nineteen when I watched him take his last breath. Even under heavy anesthesia, I watched as a doctor and nurses tried to revive him, tried to give him an emergency tracheotomy, and finally stopped and hung their heads. I heard the doctor say, “He’s gone,” just before I faded out. When I awoke, his bed was vacant, freshly made. He still had some innocence left, he was a nice guy, and it left me sad, angry and confused that he should die instead of me. Of the two hundred thirty-nine military and dependents aboard that plane, forty-seven died in the crash. Forty-five were military. He was the last to die. I was haunted by that for forty years.

Two days later, when the weather cleared, I was air-evacuated out of Alaska with a dozen other burned soldiers and flown non-stop to the Burn Ward at Brook Army Medical Center (BAMC), San Antonio, Texas in a C-141 hospital plane. My four months in that hospital with others that were burned worse than I, with others who were not only burned but had lost limbs and parts of their faces, taught me courage and to look past injuries to see the real people behind them, and to understand that they wanted no more than to heal and to be accepted for the people they were.

Burns just plain hurt like no other physical pain. I watched others, mostly military,Burn Ward, BAMC 13-D sit silently, with clenched teeth and tears running down their faces from the pain as dead, charred skin was removed, as bandages were being changed, from scrubbing their own eschar from their burns because it hurt just a little less than if someone else did it. I began realize how special my fellow patients were. There were very few who felt sorry for themselves. Over half of them had more injuries and were burned worse than I. They wanted no special treatment above what anyone else had, no matter what rank they held or how badly they were hurt. They wanted to be looked at and treated like normal people instead of burn victims. They worked hard at their physical therapy to regain strength and flexibility. It was slow and painful, and I saw a lot of tears roll down burned faces, but nobody cried out, and no one complained. I respected them immensely. I admired them. I understood them, I empathized with them, and being with them, healing with them, changed me forever in both positive and negative ways.

You see, I learned to tolerate physical pain and keep going despite it, and keep my complaints to a minimum. I learned to look past burns and scars and deformities and missing limbs, and see those men as they wanted to be seen, as I wanted to be seen…as human beings with souls who wanted to live and love and walk again. At the same time, I developed an intolerance for those who whined, for those who wanted pity, for those who quit trying because something was too hard, for those who needed drama in their lives, for those whose lives were governed only by emotion instead of reason, for those who cried over anything and everything, and for those whose feelings were too easily hurt. Little did I know what awaited me years later.

Seven years after I was discharged from the hospital and the Army, my dad passed away suddenly when I was thirty. I didn’t get a chance to grieve because my brother and I were taking care of my mother while she grieved, as well as all the legal matters and dad’s funeral, and then I went home to my wife and two children. We divorced about three years later, and I remarried two years after that. I lost my mother when I was forty, and once again I did not have a chance to grieve the way I needed to because my brother and I took care of the legal matters and funeral before returning home to our families and to work.

Then, in November of 2010, after two previous bouts of cancer, lymph nodes in 2005 and triple negative breast cancer in 2008 that were ‘cured,’ my wife of twenty-eight years, Lou, died from the effects of brain tumors that metastasized from her breast cancer when I was sixty-three. I was her primary caregiver until she passed away at home, on my watch. I knew it was inevitable, but I didn’t want to acknowledge it. I held on to the smallest chance for a miracle, but when it didn’t happen I was crushed. One is never ready to lose a loved one, though it is imminent. I was in shock for days and went Lou's Memorial--2010-12-11through all the motions of taking care of legal matters, writing an obituary, and taking care of her cremation as she wanted. After her memorial service, closure was there for everyone else, but not for me. After twenty-eight years, I was alone with nothing to do and I began to grieve. I holed up in the house, going out only for groceries and my prescriptions because I didn’t want to be seen. I only communicated by email because I couldn’t bear to see anyone or talk with anyone. I didn’t know what to do except weep shamefully in the privacy of my home. I had become one of those weaklings, one of those criers that I could not tolerate.

How does a man cope with the loss of his wife? I had no idea. I was a fighter but there was nothing for me to fight except myself. I tried to fight back the tears and the heartache, but it was impossible. I wasn’t strong enough to do that. What made it worse was that I finally realized how my mother felt after dad died, how dad felt when grandpa died, how lonely I was when Grandpa Ellison died, how I felt and how my first fiancée’s family felt when she died, how I felt when I watched Private Charles Echols breathe his last breath in my hospital room and how his parents would have felt, how I bottled up my grief over the loss of my dad and then my mom because I didn’t have the time to grieve, and now it was all coming down on me. I not only grieved over the loss of my wife, I was grieving the deaths of all who touched me. It was almost too much for me to take.

I had no idea how to deal with such deep emotions, especially my own. I looked for some thing to fight, but there was only me and my grief to fight. But how was I supposed to do that? In a sudden flash of awareness, I understood why men would suddenly die after the loss of their wives, or why a man would commit suicide after the loss of his wife. Yes, I understood now what being this alone could do to one. I wasn’t about to take my own life, but I did pray every night…just before I fell asleep from exhaustion…that I would die in my sleep. I also remember how disappointed I felt when I’d awaken four hours later to the same old ceiling. I began to spend a lot of time on the computer, trying to find out how men coped with the loss of their wives. Very little was written about the depth and breadth of emotion or how to cope with it. The only comments I could find were (paraphrased), “It’s normal to feel that way after the loss of a spouse.” Normal? So what? How do I cope with it? What can I do? One thing I did get from my internet journeys was that it was helpful to write about how one felt. I had been doing that since my wife was placed in hospice care at home. I had decided to keep a journal so our sons would know how much I loved their mother, and the things she and I went through as I cared for her and watched her fade a little more every day until she finally died. I wanted them to see us as real people, not just mom and dad. I had continued that after she passed away, but there had to be more.

It was just after Lou’s memorial service that I received an envelope from Franciscan Hospice Bereavement Services. In the envelope, I found a card that offered bereavement counseling in a group setting that was limited to twelve. The head of the bereavement services name and phone number were on the card, along a message to please call soon to reserve a place in the eight, weekly two-hour group sessions that were to begin on February 1, 2011. I stared at that card for a couple of minutes before I tossed it onto the coffee table and sat down. I thought about it for a few minutes before I got up to go back into the office to write in my journal. I remember staring at the computer screen and thinking it might be helpful to attend that bereavement group, but I would be admitting that I was weak, that I couldn’t go through this by myself. I felt ashamed I even thought of it. Thankfully, I spent Christmas with my sons and grandchildren in Olympia. It was a welcomed break, something different to look forward to for a day.

After Christmas, the days passed with the sameness of the previous day until it was New Year’s Eve. I had been invited to a get-together by friends of ours, and there would be three couples and me. I didn’t want to be the ‘odd man out,’ so I declined. I spent New Year’s Eve finishing up my journal, then I sat down and watched movies on HBO. I could hardly wait for 2011, just to get out of the year that Lou died. Just before midnight, I turned the channel to watch the New Year’s festivities and the countdown. When the clock struck midnight and ushered in 2011, I couldn’t help but break down and cry. It was my first New Year’s Eve/Day without my wife in twenty-eight years. I guess it was around 1:00 a.m. before I went to bed, but I reminded myself it was now 2011, and 2010 was now a memory…albeit a sad one.

When I awoke late in the morning, I made my way to the kitchen to turn on the coffee pot and TV to college football bowl games, I saw the card from Franciscan Hospice Bereavement Services still lying on the coffee table. I left it there, got my coffee and sat down to watch football. I went through the motions of living through that day, much the same as every other day before since Lou died, until I went to bed. It was like living through the movie, Groundhog Day. January 2 was the same as January 1. I awoke to the same old ceiling realizing that I didn’t die in my sleep once again, dragged myself out of bed and went to the kitchen to make my coffee…again. I sat down in the living room with my freshly brewed coffee and saw the card on the coffee table…again. I stared at it and drank my coffee. How weak was I that I couldn’t get through this by myself? How did other men do it? I’d have taken a bullet for Lou, I’d have taken her cancer from her if I could have and would have died in her place, but I had no idea how to cope with the overwhelming heartache and loneliness that seemed to wash continuously over me and through me. I picked up the card and reached for the phone. I made the call, feeling like a weakling, like I betrayed whatever Man Code there was about sucking it up and moving on. After talking with the head of the bereavement services and securing a place in the group sessions, I cried once again. It felt a little different this time because there was almost a sense of relief. However, the guilt from being weak did not leave.DSCN8131

As February 1 approached, I began to have doubts about going to the group sessions. I wondered how many men would be there, and would I be the only one? I began to try to talk myself out of going, including the morning of February 1 when I awoke. I laid in bed, not wanting to go, not wanting to show my weakness. Nevertheless, I got up, showered, got dressed, made myself some breakfast, took a deep breath, and left the house. I told myself I could always sit in on the first session and then just not return. I got to the building, parked the car, and walked into the office. I was greeted warmly by the receptionist and she showed me the way to the conference room where the session was to be. On the way, I was greeted by the hospice people who had taken care of Lou and showed me how to in their absence. I took a deep breath…again…and walked in. I saw mostly women, and then saw two other men. I breathed a sigh of relief and joined them. The facilitator came into the room, closed the door and introduced herself. She was younger than all of us, but she told us her story. She had lost her husband three years ago and decided to join a bereavement group because none of her friends understood what it was like to lose a spouse. It made no difference how old we were, whether we were male or female, what race or creed we were, whether we were rich, poor or in-between, or what the age differences in the room were, we were united by one common thing: Someone we loved very much and dedicated our lives to had died, and now we were grieving our loss.

We all sat there with tears in our eyes. She sat down and had us go around the table introducing ourselves and telling the others who we had lost and why we decided to attend these sessions. When it got to me, I introduced myself, and through a veil of tears that rolled down my cheeks, told everyone how long my wife and I were married, when she passed away and from what, and that I felt weak for having to come to the sessions because I didn’t know how to handle my grief. I didn’t know how to fight it. There was a moment of silence, and then she told me that I wasn’t weak, that it took a great deal of courage to come forward, to decide to make the call and attend the sessions instead of holing up at home with the grief eating my insides out until I got sick. She said there was no right or wrong way to grieve, there was simply grief, and it was an individual thing unique to each of us that we should acknowledge. She said there was no time limit on grief and it would take as long as it took, and we should let it. She told me that the room we were in was a safe place for all of us to talk about how we felt because we all were suffering from loss, and that we were not alone in our grief. After we had all finished introducing ourselves and telling everyone why we were there, we took a ten-minute break.

Most of us stood, visited the restrooms, or got a drink of water. Of all the people in the room, two of the women didn’t lose their husbands. The youngest, who was somewhere in her mid-to late thirties, had lost her father. The other, who was in her mid-fifties, had lost her mother. The rest of us had lost our spouses. The three of us men found ourselves talking with each other. I was the youngest of them by two years. One was sixty-five and had been married for thirty-four years, and the other was eighty-two and had been married for fifty-eight years. He wanted to leave the group as I had thought I would, but the other gentleman and I had decided to stay because we felt we couldn’t do this by ourselves. The older gentleman thought about it, and said he’d stay if we did. I believe it was the best decision I could have made at that point in my life. I believe it saved my life.

IMAG0597Our group bonded as the sessions progressed. It didn’t take long to realize that we were in a safe place because we were with others who suffered a similar loss and felt the same pain, the same loneliness, the same emptiness, the same fear of not knowing how to cope, and the same fear of being among those who didn’t understand. We drew strength from each other because we understood each other, we listened to each other without judgement, we talked and bared our souls to each other, we cried in front of each other, and no one judged another because we knew how they felt because it was how we felt. Even after the eight sessions ended, we, as a group, did not think we were quite ready to be without each other. We found two different places to meet in the four weeks that followed, then decided to meet at a local restaurant for brunch on the same day at the same time as our previous group sessions. By this time, our original group of twelve was down to eight. In the last five years, the youngest woman who lost her father moved to a different area, another lady lost her only daughter a year after she lost her husband and she joined another group, the oldest gentleman passed away two years ago, and the oldest lady moved to an assisted living facility last year. Now, over seven-and-a-half years after that first session, there are four of us who still meet every Tuesday at 11:00am for brunch. We have become like an extended family to each other.

So how has all this changed me? First, I must admit that my stay in the Burn Ward of Brook Army Medical Center, hardened me to the point that I had little sympathy for people with ‘small’ injuries, including my own. To even see pro football players take a hit and lie writhing about on the ground, then being attended to by the trainers, and finally rolling over and getting to their feet to run off the field for one play, was hard for me to stomach, especially after seeing helicopter pilots and co-pilots get shot more than once and still be able to fly their choppers back to base, bouncing a landing sideways and smoking and crawl away from the wreckage, or seeing the other door-gunner get shot and return fire using only one arm. It took me a few years to realize that those chopper pilots, co-pilots and door gunners were a cut or two above most civilians I knew, and I should not have bothered to compare them. I had to relearn or reawaken compassion for people who had no idea what I saw military personnel and veterans go through. I am still a work in progress.

DSCN1173 - CopyAfter my wife died, I became one of those weaklings that I had become intolerant of. For the first time in decades, I cried. I wept. My heart ached, I wanted to give up and die because I could not handle my emotions. It would have been easier had I shut down like I did when my first fiancée died and I joined the Army. Yes, I did have other relationships afterward, but when I felt that I was getting too close and could get hurt, I’d distance myself a bit and then tell whoever I was with, “Well, I guess I’d best be movin’ right along,” and then I’d leave. It took a long time to recover my feelings, and it was difficult feel vulnerable again, but I did it. I had to if I wanted to have any kind of a meaningful relationship, if I really wanted to fall in love with someone. And I did!

When my wife died, there was a point that I could have ‘turned it off’ and gone on, but I made a choice not to. I made a choice that I would never again shut down, that I would feel every nuance of my loss, as hard as it was for as long as it took. I hurt so badly I wanted to die, I prayed that I’d die. I had never felt that way before…ever! And then I was in it and had no idea how to handle it. It has been said that God only gives a person what he or she can handle. I used to believe that, but I don’t believe that anymore. I believe that things happen and God is just there waiting to be turned to, waiting to be asked for love, for support, for strength, for comfort. I don’t believe that God is like a spiritual ATM that will give you money or make you rich if you pray for it. He has told us, through His Son, Jesus Christ, that His Kingdom is not of this world. After what I’ve seen and experienced, I believe that. I also believe that my faith in Him has provided the support I’ve needed to make it through some tough times. Even though I was angry at God for letting my wife die, I realized I still believed in Him because I was angry at Him. There were so many times I would rail at Him, ask Him why, even though I knew the answer. He lets things happen and life on earth goes on with or without one, yet He is always there for us. When the weight of my grief would drop me to my knees and I could barely breathe because of the ache in my chest, I would ask Him for respite and He would grant it. Every time. It’s a matter of Faith. I have a relationship with God.

Matthew 5-4 Group PhotoI also believe that the amount of grief one feels is directly proportional to how much he or she loved. Grief is the price of Love. I was beginning to understand, and I was grateful for that. With the understanding, came the empathy, being able to understand what others were going through when they lost a spouse or loved one. It’s difficult enough to lose family members, especially one’s own children because they are the flesh and blood of a union between a husband and wife who chose to love each other, and that is what makes losing a spouse to death so hard. A spouse is not family until he or she is chosen by the other to love and cherish, and they choose you back. Once I learned all this, I wanted to pay it forward, to give what I learned to those who need it, to those who want it. I will always be a work-in-progress. Someday, I hope to be the person God wants me to be. This is what I hope.

imag1432Oh! And yes, though I experienced such crushing grief, not shutting down emotionally turned out to be a most wonderful thing! I have found love again, with my Debbie.

Life can be…and is…good! Keep the Faith!

This is how I’ve changed.

A Memorial Day Remembrance

“Memorial Day, or Decoration Day, is a federal holiday for remembering people who died while serving in the country’s armed forces.” Wikipedia

I originally wrote this back in November 2015. I think it’s worth a repeat, especially today, May 28, 2018…Memorial Day…because there were more who died serving in this country’s armed forces who did not die in battle, but whose names should be remembered.

I wrote this on November 9, 2015 and have made some corrections to this version. The story remains unchanged:

Friday, November 6, 2015, was an important day for me because I believe I discovered the name of the nineteen-year-old young man who died in my room at Elmendorf Air Force Base hospital from burns over 95% of his body the night of November 27, 1970, the day our plane crashed on take-off from Anchorage International Airport and killed forty-seven people. For some reason, I decided to try to find more information on that ill-fated Capitol International Airways (Capitol Airlines) flight C2C3/26 that took off from McChord AFB, Tacoma, Washington, with scheduled fuel stops in Anchorage, Alaska and Yokota, Japan, before reaching its destination at Cam Ranh Bay, South Vietnam. For many, it was their first trip there. I was returning for another tour.

Why is this important to me? It is important to me because within the space of eight hours, that young man’s life and my life touched three times and left an indelible memory. I just couldn’t remember his name for all these years, though I’ve thought of him so often.

How did this begin? After my mom and dad dropped me off at the McChord AFB terminal in the early afternoon of November 27, 1970, the Friday after Thanksgiving, I walked into the terminal carrying my duffle bag. I never expected that I would see either of them again. I was going back to Vietnam to probably die there. I felt that I had little left to lose at that point in my life. I heard some scuffling, name-calling and taunting to my left after I walked through the double glass doors and saw three guys in fatigues pushing and poking at a larger young man, making fun of his weight and his Number 1 haircut, a buzz-cut. I saw no insignia on his fatigues, so I assumed they were ganging up on a Private. I was correct. One of the bullies took his cap and threw it on the floor and said to him, “What are you gonna do about that, Fat Boy?” He backed up against the wall with his hands in front of him as though he was trying to keep them at arm’s length and said, “C’mon, guys. You don’t have to be this way.” They laughed at him and began to move toward him again.

I walked to their right, dropped my duffle bag against the wall to the young man’s left, turned and slid in front of him. He was at least half a head taller than I, but a large, gentle soul. I stood between him and the three approaching bullies and conversationally said, “Why don’t you pick on someone your own size…like me?” And then I smiled at them. They stopped, rather startled. I looked them over, looked directly at the biggest of them, and said, “You first.” He was about the same height as the young man behind me with his back to the wall, but more slender. I said to him, “C’mon. You’re first before I start on the other two. Unless either of you two,” I nodded to them, “want to jump right in.” I was standing with my legs slightly apart and with my arms at my sides. They all took a step back, and the tall one said, “We didn’t mean anything by it. We were just teasing him.” I said, “I’m not teasing you. Now pick up his cap and hand it to me nicely…and apologize to this young man. Now.”

The tall one picked up his cap and handed it to me. “Apologize,” I said staring at him. With mumbled apologies they backed away, picked up their duffle bags and walked away. I turned to the young man, handed him his cap and asked if he was okay. He said he was and said I didn’t have to do that. I told him that I did because no one deserved to be picked on like that. He thanked me. We picked up our duffle bags and began walking to the seating area to await our flight. I asked him his name and he told me, and we talked. He said he was nineteen years-old and was from Houston, Texas. He said that the first time he’d really ever been away from home was when he went to Basic Training, and this was the farthest he’d ever been away from home. He was a nice kid, polite, gentle, and wide-eyed at being somewhere he’d never been before. Though I’d heard the three bullies swearing at this young man and calling him names, he never once swore back or called them names. He had tried to talk his way out of the bullying. That’s when I arrived. We didn’t have long to talk because the PA system crackled to life as we were headed for the seating area and the voice told us to begin boarding. I wished him good luck and promptly forgot his name.

The flight to Anchorage was sort of uneventful, though it took most of the runway at McChord to get that plane off the ground. It was not a confidence-builder. The McChord runway, as I remember it, was about 10,000 feet long. Somewhere close to the 8,000-foot marker was a rise in the runway, a small hill. As we cleared the hill, the plane actually dipped below the top of the hill before we felt it ‘catch’ and begin to gain altitude. The wheels were pulled up almost immediately. I heard someone say that these DC ‘Stretch’ 8s were notoriously underpowered. Yes, a real confidence-builder. Somewhere close to a couple of hours into the flight, the far-left engine (number 1?) began to smoke, and I had thought it was shut down. I could be mistaken, though.

DC-8-63F Super -Stretch- 8Regardless, we arrived safely in Anchorage and deplaned while it was being fueled and one of the engines was inspected after the cowling was removed. I suspected it was that far left engine. It was cold and ice covered the runway. I thought I heard we had taken on 69,000 lbs of fuel, but later found out we took on over 117,000 lbs of fuel. When we boarded, once again I boarded late and noticed there were women and children…dependents…on board, possibly going to Yokota, Japan to be with their husbands and fathers. I found a seat in the tail section of the plane, about three or four rows from the back, on the starboard side by the aisle. I noticed that the young soldier I’d met in the McChord terminal was seated in the same row, but across the aisle in the center seat. We nodded a greeting to each other as I took my seat. Though we left the terminal and sped down the runway, the plane never left the ground.

Minutes later, after the plane had skidded 3,400 feet past the end of the runway and was in flames with the tail section torn off, we crossed paths once again. After we were either ejected from the plane or crawled out of the wreckage, several of us were on the ‘wrong’ side of the plane, near the still-intact right wing with fire burning all around it. Someone on the other side of the wreckage shouted, “Hey! Over here! This way!” I could see him between the tail section and main fuselage of the plane. They were thirty or so feet apart and a fire had bridged the gap. I could hear him yelling and waving his arms, so I turned around and spotted about five or six others milling around in a daze, so I yelled at them to follow me. I made sure I had their attention before I turned, ran toward the gap and dove through the flames to the other side. I rolled to my feet and began to yell, “Come on! This way! Run!” and they did.

1Two or three made it through the flames unscathed, but the next one didn’t. As he ran through the fire, he burst into flames and kept running. Several of us chased him down, tackled him and smothered the fire with our bodies. The remaining soldiers made it through the fire. We were the fortunate ones. We helped him up, and I was appalled because he was totally blackened from head to foot. It was that Private that I’d stepped in front of at the McChord AFB terminal. Behind us, across the (estimated) twelve-foot-deep by about twenty-five-foot-wide drainage ditch, trucks, cars, buses and ambulances began to arrive. Just then, I heard a loud “whump” behind us and turned to see a geyser of flame erupt from the right wing, over 100 feet high, close to where we were milling around just minutes before. We turned and made our way into the ditch and across it to the transportation. I made sure he got into a vehicle and then got into a pickup that had just pulled up. I realized my feet were cold because I wasn’t wearing my shoes and socks. Most of the plane was now fully engulfed in flames.

Many of us ended up at one of the airport fire stations before we were loaded onto hospital buses to be taken to the hospital. By that time, I knew my hair had been burned off, my face had been beaten to a pulp, I had been ripped out of my shoes and socks by the impact when my seat tore out of the floor of the plane, three toes on my right foot and two toes on my left foot were frostbitten, and both of my hands were burned bad enough to have shreds of skin hanging off them. I was also soaked to the skin in jet fuel. It was about an hour later that I was on a gurney in one of the corridors of Community Hospital. My uniform was cut off me, I was completely washed down with saline solution, given a shot of morphine and dressed in a hospital gown. I lay there for about half an hour before I was loaded onto a stretcher, strapped down, and loaded onto a hospital bus with others to be taken to Elmendorf AFB hospital.

I eventually ended up in a room with three or four others, was drugged again, the excess skin cut off my raw and burned hands, my hands were bandaged, and I was given an IV drip. Across the room, perpendicular to my bed, was a bed with a person with the most severe third degree burns I’d ever seen. His face, his neck, his arms, torso and legs were blackened. In my drug-induced stupor, I could still see it was that young Private. He was soon surrounded by a team of doctors and nurses and they tried to work on him. I could hear them talking, saying that his jungle fatigues had caught fire, melted, and stuck to his body and fused to his skin. They removed his boots and his belt by cutting them off and began to peel the melted clothing from him. He began to gasp and they tried to give him an emergency tracheotomy so they could force oxygen into his lungs. They worked frantically on him until I heard one person say, “He’s gone.” They took off their masks, and slowly began to put their instruments in a pan on a side table. Just then, someone came to my bed and gave me another shot. Everything dimmed to nothing.

I’m not certain how long I was unconscious, but when I awoke the young Private was gone. His bed was unoccupied and freshly made. Someone, a nurse or a medic perhaps, showed up with a drink of water, another syringe full of something more to knock me out, and a phone. Since my hands were now bandaged, I had to dictate my parents’ phone number to him. He punched in the numbers and laid the phone on my shoulder and began to prep me for another shot. It rang once and my dad picked up the phone. I told him I was alive and in the hospital. I could hear him tell mom it was me and I was alive. I felt the shot in my arm and the room started to spin again. I was trying to tell them I was okay, but I began slurring my words and the nurse took the phone and I could hear her telling them I was going to be air-evac’d to the Brook Army Medical Center burn ward at Ft. Sam Houston, Texas before everything faded out again.

When I awoke again, I was being strapped onto a stretcher by three aides. I asked them what they were doing and they told me I was being prepped to fly directly to Texas. I sat up and hit the closest aid in the face with a bandage-wrapped right hook and screamed, “NO!” I was swarmed by the remaining two aides, pinned to the stretcher and administered a shot in each arm. It only took a couple of minutes and I was out again.

I awoke as we were taking off in a C-141 hospital plane for a direct flight to San Antonio. I was strapped to my stretcher. I had three canvas straps holding me down, one across my chest, one across my stomach, and one across my legs at the knees. My hands were at my side under the blankets and were throbbing. When we were safely in the air, I called out to see if anyone was around. Someone was. It was the aide I hit. He was an Air Force medic. My heart sank. He stood over me, rubbed his jaw and told me I had quite a punch. He asked what he could do for me. I apologized for hitting him, then promised I wouldn’t do it again if he’d loosen the strap around my chest to let me free my hands. I told him they were throbbing and wanted to get them out from under the blanket. He laughed and loosened the strap and helped me free my hands. He looked at the bandages and saw they were blood-soaked, so he changed them. I asked how many others were on the flight, and he told me there were twelve of us, the Dirty Dozen. He got a small smile out of me. I thanked him for changing my bandages.

Burn Ward, BAMC 13-D

Yes, I’m the one with the guitar and ‘headband.’

Some hours later we either landed at Lackland or Randolph AFB, were loaded on a hospital bus, taken directly to the Brook Army Medical Center burn ward and were checked into the ICU. I spent a month in the ICU and three months in the recovery ward. I had metal fragments dug out of my head, back and legs, skin taken from my upper back and grafted to my forehead and my right ear, I was able to regrow my hair, I scrubbed eschar off my hands every day and watched the skin grow back slowly (until I could bend my fingers enough to play a guitar for therapy), the fuel burns on my chest, lower back, and legs healed, the blood clot in my left leg finally dissolved and I learned how to walk again. During that whole time, I tried so hard to remember what that young Private’s name was. There I was, alive, in a hospital in his home state, and he didn’t make it. I only knew him well enough to know he was a nice kid and he was my younger brother’s age. If only I could remember his name.

After four months, I was healed enough to be discharged from the hospital. I was assigned to a free-style barracks and my job was to reconstruct my personnel file so I could be discharged from the Army, since I had less than 180 days left of my enlistment and my last active duty station was Vietnam. It took me two additional weeks to do that, and I finally went back home to figure out what I was going to do with my life. I couldn’t get that young man out of my thoughts.

I spent thirty years wondering why he died from the effects of that crash and I didn’t. I was going back to Vietnam because I felt more at home there than I did here in the states. I was going back there to die. My life felt as though it was in a downward spiral and I had nothing more to lose except my life. I never made it back. Why didn’t I die in that crash instead of that young man? He was young, he was a good person, and his whole life was ahead of him. I didn’t understand. It took thirty years before one Sunday, after listening to a sermon at church, I suddenly understood. It was so simple and in front of me the whole time. It had to be the only answer. What was that answer? Only God knows the number of a man’s days. It just wasn’t my time. It was his time instead. But I still couldn’t remember his name.

Now, all these years later, just three weeks short of forty-five years later, and after several tries at internet research I believe I found his name on the list of casualties released by the Alaskan Air Command. His was the only name from Houston, Texas, and he was a U.S. Army Private. His name was Charles Echols…Army Private Charles Echols from Houston, Texas. Your family members and friends aren’t the only ones who remembered you. Finally, after all these years I can say, Rest in Peace, Charles Echols.

Afterward:

I had been home for about two weeks following my discharge from the hospital and the Army when the phone rang. I answered it and a woman’s soft, quavering voice asked to speak with Robert W. Ellison. I said that I was him. She asked if I was the Specialist Fourth Class Robert W. Ellison who survived the plane crash in Anchorage just after Thanksgiving. I said that I was. To the best of my memory, this is what she said in her quiet, quavering voice: “Did you know a Robert W. Dooley from Seattle?” When I answered that I was sorry but I didn’t, she continued, “He was my son. He died in that crash and I miss him so much. I just wanted to call you and tell you I’m so glad that you survived and your parents don’t have to go through what I am.”

That dropped me to my knees, and I began to cry. I sobbed. I told how sorry I was that she lost her son, and she cried with me. She thanked me for talking with her and thanked God that I survived. All I could do was tell her thank you and God bless you, and we hung up. And yes, after all these years, that selfless act of her calling me and thanking God I was alive in the midst of her loss still brings me to tears. I will never forget her either.

In Memoriam

This is also for the following soldiers who died on their way to Yokota Air Force Base, Japan, and then to Vietnam while in the service of our country, yet whose names will never appear anywhere else but on plaques or headstones provided by their families.

“Anchorage (AP) — The Alaskan Air Command has released the names of 40 Army and Air Force personnel killed in Friday’s crash of a military chartered DC-8 jet.

Air Force dead:
Airman 1C JAMES R. KOHLES, JR., Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho.
Airman 2C EUGENE D. HARKER, JR., Camden, N.J.
Sgt. JIMMY J. BOYLES, Royse City, Tex.
T.Sgt. DONALD G. PEDERSON, Portland, Ore.
Sgt. GRADY DENBY, Sweetwater, Tex.
Airman 1C ROBERT W. DOOLEY, Seattle.
Airman 1C KENNETH E. FULLER, Ulster, Pa.
T.Sgt. JAMES H. GILMORE, JR., Biloxi, Miss.
T.Sgt. EARL HALLEY, St. Vienna, W. Va.
S.Sgt. LINWOOD E. BRANCH, Greenville, S.C.
Sgt. VINCENT V. HENDRIK, Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
Airman 1C JAMES W. PATTERSON, JR., Rocky Mount, N.C.
Airman 1C JAMES W. ________, Tampa, Fla.
Sgt. HERBERT L. JONES, Ethelsville, Ala.
Airman 1C DAVID L. MALLERY, Waco, Tex.
S.Sgt. LUIS C. MENDEZ, Fresno, Calif.
Airman 1C JOSEPH S. MIKA, Chicago.
Airman 1C DENNIS M. MOORE, Boston.
Airman 1C STEVE S. POGATICH, East Chicago, Ill
Airman 1C GEORGE REYES, Santa Clara, Calif.
Airman 1C JERRY C. SHORES, Camdenton, Mo.
Sgt. FRANCIS J. TURNEY, Sharon Hill, Pa.
Airman 1C JOHN S. VETTERS, Corpus Christi, Tex.
Airman 1C PAUL J. WOLFE, San Diego, Calif.
Airman 1C MAURICE H. BRIGGS, San Jose, Calif.

Army dead:
Spec. 4 JOSE BAUTISTA, El Paso, Tex.
S. Sgt. CHRISTOPHER HALL, Sylvester, Ga.
S. Sgt. JAMES A. SANDERS, Tucson, Ariz.
Pvt. CHARLES ECHOLS, Houston, Tex.
Spec. 4 ELBERT BENTON, Goldsberg. (?)
Pvt. WILLIAM J. CARTER, Niagara Falls, N.Y.
Spec. 4 MICHAEL KENNY, Billings, Mont.
Pvt. TIMOTHY RICHARD MAY, Carnegie, Pa.
Spec. 5 JAMES W. PITTS, Mineral Wells, Tex.
Spec. 4 WILLIAM W. RIEBE, White Bear, Minn.
Pvt. GERALD TURNER, Sunnyvale, Calif.
S.Sgt. HENRY DRIVER, Ft. Rucker, Ala.
Pfc. CONNIE EDWARDS, Holcomb, Mo.
S.Sgt. JAMES L. TANNER, St. Petersburg, Fla.
S.Sgt. ROBERT PENN, Pacific Grove, Calif.
S.Sgt. BENJAMIN WASHINGTON, Mount Pleasant, S.C.
Pfc. TERRY L. JOHNSTON, St. Charles, Mo.
S.Sgt. JERRY JONES, Merritt Island, Fla.

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner Alaska 1970-11-30”

You are not forgotten. Rest in Peace.

Stories of Hope and Renewal

Buckle up. . .this is a long one.

Jerry-Yvonne-Bob-DebbieI love this photo! Debbie and I are the couple on the right, and Jerry and Yvonne are the couple on the left. The real story, however, is the couple in the middle. That’s Yvonne Broady, author of Brave in a New World: A Guide to Grieving the Loss of a Spouse, and me, Bob Ellison, author of The First Snow: A Journal about a Man’s Faith-based Journey through Grief. The occasion is our first face-to-face meeting after knowing each other for three years via long distance through emails, Facebook, and then via Skype (with me in Washington state and Yvonne in New York), as we co-facilitate a grief and comfort group, Matthew 5:4, hosted by the Reverend Debra Northern of The Riverside Church of New York since May 2016.Bob's & Yvonne's Books

We both lost our spouses to cancer, she in January of 2009, and me in November of 2010. We both turned to writing as a form of healing from our losses. In Yvonne’s book, she writes about her grief experiences to help others know what to expect on their grieving journeys as they try to recreate a new and vastly different life without their spouse. My book is a journal…a diary…I kept as my wife’s primary caregiver after she was placed in hospice care at our home. I originally began the journal so our sons could see how much we loved each other, how I cared for their mother, and so they would also know us as people, not just as Mom and Dad. The journal also shows how I began to grieve for the loss of my wife before she passed away, as her brain tumors eroded her motor skills and memories, how I was losing her more every day, and how desperate I was for a miracle that never happened. I also put those feelings into emails to our friends because they wanted me to keep them updated on Lou’s deteriorating condition. I kept writing, both in the journal and emails to our friends, through her memorial service in December, and then made a conscious decision to end my journal on New Year’s Eve of 2010.

We both attended bereavement groups in our respective cities, and we both sought to receive solace through our writings, first by ‘getting it down on paper’ to get it out, and then by “passing it forward,” by sharing our experiences as we traveled the path through the pains of our losses and the overwhelming grief. Though I had not written much before, I became somewhat adept at putting my feelings of loss into emails that found their way farther across the United States than I would have dreamed. The responses I received from former high school classmates and from people with whom my wife and I used to work were gratifying because many told me they had no idea how their surviving parents felt after they lost their spouses. My emails had described the pain, the longing, and the loneliness they realized their surviving parents must have felt. Some told me my emails changed the way they saw and treated their fathers or mothers because they were now aware of what they had gone through. I kept all of their emails out of gratitude because they took the time to write back to me.

It was some time, though, before I began considering assembling and publishing my journal because I was still grieving. When I was my wife’s caregiver, I was getting about four hours of sleep every night. After she passed away, and even through my bereavement group sessions that began nine weeks later, I was still getting four hours of sleep every night no matter what time I went to bed. Every night I prayed to God that I would die in my sleep to simply end the pain of her loss. About three weeks into those group sessions, I almost got my wish because of a severe hypoglycemic event one night that awakened me. I knew this was my ticket out. I could let my blood-sugar level fall farther until I lapsed into a diabetic coma, but for whatever reason, I got up and made it to the kitchen to get something to eat. As I sat in my dark living room recovering, I realized that I wanted to live just a little more than I wanted to die…and I wanted to live for me. Though I never again prayed that I would die in my sleep, it took some months before I was comfortable enough to go anywhere except to my bereavement group sessions or grocery shopping.

As a result of my bereavement group sessions and the group leaders who encouraged us to keep a journal, I began to incorporate the emails I sent to friends and their email responses into my journal. I wanted to show our sons how much their mother and stepmother meant to our friends, and to me. I also began to venture out more. I was getting used to being alone, I was getting to know myself better, and I was becoming more self-confident. I was beginning to feel better, to sleep better and longer, and I was beginning to have good memories of our life together. I was beginning to remember her as she would have wanted. I began to appreciate being alive. Though I had ended my journal on New Year’s Eve of 2010, I continued to write a series of “Random Thoughts” and post them on Facebook as most of whatever thoughts I had were totally random, and I continued to send and receive emails from friends. The writing helped me to vent, to continue to put my feelings into print, and to let people know what I was thinking and how I was coping. Several of my friends, including some church members, urged me to save all my emails and put them into a book because it would help people understand they weren’t alone in the way they felt after losing a spouse. They said I had managed to put their emotions into words, and they thanked me. They told me I could help so many people. They were the ones who really planted the seeds for me to get my journal published.

I’ve written about this before, but during this time I also remembered one conversation my wife and I had before the brain tumors began to steal her memories and motor skills, a conversation I didn’t want to hear at the time. She told me that if she died, she wanted me to find someone new and love them the way I loved her because I had too much love left in me to go to waste. For a while, I felt guilty for remembering that conversation, but by the end of April, just over five months after she passed away, I posted a short bio on some dating websites explaining I was a recent widower and wanted no more than coffee and light conversation. Most of my outings were a “one-and-done” thing, and some of them didn’t end well because I found out several ladies had time lines and agendas for finding a man. I was not that guy.

Within the next four months, I had dropped off all but one of the dating websites, taken two two-week vacations including the California vacation that Lou and I had planned to visit her niece, nephews, and oldest sister just before she was diagnosed with brain tumors, and a vacation to Montana for her (and now my…) family reunion, a trip to Glacier National Park, and then down the east side of Lake Coeur D’Alene on the way home. Between the two vacations I took just two weeks apart, I had driven about 4,000 DSCN8834 - Copymiles, I had been to places I’d never been before to see things I’d never seen and had taken over 2,500 photographs. I had even played my guitar and sang in an impromptu one-man ‘show’ at a hotel in Cottage Grove, Oregon one evening at the request of the hotel staff, as well as sat alone on the shore of Flathead Lake in Montana one evening and played my guitar and sang to the moon. I missed Lou so much, but I felt whole again and renewed. I also felt that she was with me on my travels, watching me grow and heal emotionally and getting used to being without her. Toward the end of that four-month period, I had begun cleaning out my house. It was nine months since Lou had passed away. During this time, too, Debbie and I were falling in love.

Since I wasn’t traveling anymore, I had more time to assemble my emails and their responses and incorporate them into my journal. On a whim, I went online and found a Christian publisher and contacted them out of curiosity about what it would take to find out if my journal was worth publishing. I was asked to send my manuscript to them for review, so I did. Less than a week later, they called me and signed me up. Over the next three months, did some editing, I added a Forward, an Afterward that included a couple of my Facebook “Random Thoughts” and included responses, provided photos for the front and back covers, developed a title, a short biography, some information about “the author,” and why I wrote my journal the way I did.

You see, in all my readings, in all my efforts to find out how men grieved, I found nothing written about the depths of emotion that a man could experience…that I had experienced. Everything I read was so clinical, so ‘proper,’ such as: You may have feelings of anger, at God or at your spouse for leaving you, feelings of loneliness, abandonment, guilt or despair. These feelings are normal. As it states on the back cover of my book under A Note About the Author: Bob Ellison is new to writing but felt compelled to put his words and feelings on paper, because in all the readings he found n grief, he found nothing that showed the emotion men felt when they lost their wives to death. It was all so clinical. This is not. This explains how and why my book…my journal…was written and published. I did read one criticism of my book, and it mentioned that it got a bit repetitious. Yes, I must agree that it was, but that’s what happened when I became my wife’s primary caregiver and watched her die a little every day. After all, it’s a journal…a diary, and caring for a person…my spouse…during her final days was very repetitious. I wasn’t spinning an action-packed story, I simply wrote it the way it was.

As I understood it, Yvonne had become curious as to how men felt when they grieved because not much was ever written about how we really felt when we lost our spouses. I think my journal may have changed that. Because of this, Yvonne contacted me through my publisher, and we began to email each other. Over a period of a few months, we became like brother and sister on our grief and healing journeys. We both wrote blogs (and still do) so others may know that the struggles, the loneliness, the pain, and that life, in general, can get better with time. We try show them the small realizations that they are beginning to cope with a new and very different life, that they are slowly growing and healing, that they are becoming, and can be, whole people once again, and that there is hope they can be happy again.

Matthew 5-4 Group PhotoThen, in early 2016, she asked me if I would consider helping her co facilitate a grief and comfort group hosted by The Reverend Debra Northern of The Riverside Church of New York. They would set up a meeting room, and I would Skype in once a week, every Tuesday at 5:00pm EDT. I accepted, and we began meeting in May of 2016. Debra, Yvonne and I wanted to make that room, that meeting, a safe place for them emotionally. We wanted them to know that there was no right way or wrong way to grieve, there was just grief. We also wanted them to know that there was no time limit to grief, that it was their grief and it was going to take as long as it took. For over a year we met every week at the same time. We shared our stories, our grief, our tears, our setbacks, our little victories, and our hopes. Around August or September of 2017, we began to meet every two weeks.

At first it was difficult because the meeting had become an emotional ‘safety net’ for everyone, a Safe Room where they could share their hardships, their health issues, their lives. We had all bonded because we had one huge thing in common…we had all lost our spouses, and they felt comfortable with each other and with us. It was a struggle for some because they had to wait two weeks between meetings, but soon they were getting used to it. I continued to Skype in every two weeks from Washington state, and they began to meet socially for lunches and dinners during the “off” week. That helped ease the ‘withdrawal’ from the meetings. After a couple of months, I could tell by our conversations they were beginning to heal.

During our meetings, there were times we discussed individual’s travel plans, weekend getaways, and vacations, and sometimes the talk was about when were they going to get to meet me in person. Truthfully, I had begun to think about it after the first year, but my Debbie was still working. Occasionally, Debbie would ask me if I thought about it, and I would say yes, but she was still working, and I wanted her to be able to come with me. To make a long story shorter, she had decided that she was going to retire in 2018 and worked it out with her boss that she would retire around February 1. Little did I know that she began to plan our trip to New York for my birthday in April. It was because of her that we went. When she told me about it, we both began to plan the trip and I finally told the group that Debbie and I were coming to New York to meet them and to do a bit of sight-seeing in the city. I couldn’t believe how excited they got. I know I was! We decided that we were going April 11th through the 18th, and I’d be celebrating my birthday in New York!

Yvonne planned a welcome dinner for us on Thursday evening, we would all meet again Sunday for lunch at the Landmarc Restaurant at the Time-Warner Building on Columbia Circle, Debra would guide us on a tour of The Riverside Church Tuesday afternoon, and Cecelia planned a dinner meeting for us at her home on Tuesday evening, April 17. The rest of the time was ours to see some of the sights of New York. We had booked a flight out of Sea-Tac Airport at 6:30 a.m. on Wednesday the 11th, so we spent Monday doing laundry and trying to figure out what to pack. On Tuesday, we finally finished packing around midnight and went to bed for two-and-a-half hours before getting up at 2:30 a.m. Wednesday, having a cup of coffee and tea, getting dressed, and heading for the airport parking and shuttle. We arrived in New York around 5:30 p.m. after a two-hour layover in Detroit and checked into our apartment in the Murray Hill area. That night, we walked around Murray Hill, saw the Empire State Building lit up, and found a take-out Chinese food restaurant with excellent food about five blocks from our apartment.

Thursday morning, after we walked to Times Square and got our hop-on/hop-off tour bus tickets and tickets for the Empire State Building tour, and after taking a lot of photos, we walked back to our apartment and got ready to meet the group. That evening, April 12 at 7:00 p.m., we all finally got to meet face-to-face at Yvonne’s home in New York. For the first time, I got to hug them all, and introduce them to Debbie. There were tears of joy all 20180417_195210around, laughter, and disbelief that we were finally meeting face-to-face. Debbie and I got to meet Yvonne’s son and mother, too! It was a most special evening, filled with welcome, with joy, with more laughter, with more hugs, good food, and with love. The time flew by too quickly, but it was so good to be able to finally see everyone in person and see what beautiful people they all are and, at long last, to talk with them all face-to-face. It was such a gift to see them, especially my dear sister, Yvonne, who opened her home and her heart to us.

Debbie and I spent Friday taking the Hop-on/Hop-off Bus Tour, with seats on the open-air upper deck, through the downtown/Times Square area and then south to Battery Park for a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty through the trees along the shoreline before turning north and dropping us off near the United Nations Headquarters. Saturday, we took the walking tour of Central Park followed by another bus tour that headed north past Columbia University, through Harlem, around the northern border of Central Park, then down the east side of the park along the “Museum Mile” to Times Square. We walked back to our apartment from there. I’ll write about our New York sights and impressions in a later blog. I will say, though, that the bus tours around Manhattan give one a better overview of the area, complete with a running commentary of the area’s history. The tours are worth taking.

20180415_162332Sunday, we all met for Lunch at The Landmarc Restaurant at the Time-Warner Building on Columbia Circle. It was another special day, sitting in the restaurant and talking around a large, round table, sharing stories, sharing and acknowledging the progress and growth all had realized since their first meeting with the group. The food was good, but the company and camaraderie were even better. All too soon, we said our good-byes and went our separate ways. We would meet again on Tuesday at Cecelia’s home for a dinner and our meeting.

On Monday, Debbie and I walked to the Empire State Building and went to the 86th floor observation deck to view the city. It was a bit hazy but did not disappoint. The views were incredible! After that, we walked to Grand Central Station. That, too, did not disappoint. It was even more grand than what I saw in the movies that were filmed there. Again, more about this in a later blog.

20180417_160200.jpgOn Tuesday afternoon, we met Debra at The Riverside20180417_161610 Church. It is one of the most impressive and detailed cathedrals I’ve ever seen, and its history is just as impressive. It was patterned after the cathedral at Chartres in France. But I must admit I looked forward to seeing Debra’s office because that is where the Matthew 5:4 meetings are held every other Tuesday. I got to see the table where everyone sits, and I got20180417_161644 to see the ‘big screen’ at the other end of the table where I ‘sit.’ Debra is an amazing lady, and I am thankful that she hosts this group. She is thoughtful, kind, and compassionate, and I don’t think there could be a better person to help guide those who have lost a spouse than she. I am grateful and honored to be part of this ministry. I had Debbie take a photo of me standing in front of 20180417_161905the TV to show everyone that I was “out of the box” for once.

After we finished, Debra drove us to Cecelia’s for dinner and our meeting. Cecelia has a wonderful view of the Hudson River and the George Washington Bridge from her apartment. New Jersey is just across the river from her home. I had a chance to meet her daughter and her grandson and talk with them. Cecelia showed me some of her husband’s photographs and photographic equipment, and we had a chance to talk a bit more. She is a warm and beautiful lady, and I’m honored to have met her. We had a wonderful dinner that included a birthday cake for me, and I got a chance to talk with Sammie, John, Charlene, Debra, Yvonne D (yes, there are two Yvonnes!), and her daughter, Missy. I also talked with Jerry briefly, but not long enough. He’s a good man and I’m so happy that he and Yvonne have found each other.

There are many stories here, but they are all linked by a single event: the loss of a spouse. All of us began with crushed hearts and felt as though we carried the burden of grief for the world when our spouses passed away. We did…our worlds, as we knew them, had ended. Both Yvonne and I had a head start because our spouses passed away in 2009 and 2010. With the help of our respective bereavement groups and our writing, we were gradually able to accept our grief, survive through the unending cycle of our pain and longing until, one day, we realized it wasn’t as intense as it once was. One day, we smiled at a remembrance instead of bursting into tears of pain, longing, and regret. One day, it all got just a little better and we became a little stronger, and we realized it. One day we ventured out and felt as though we no longer wore the “Big W” (Widow, Widower) because we realized others just saw us as ‘regular’ people. Yes, we still had our bad days, but they became fewer until one day, we began to give thanks for every day we awoke, even the occasional bad day. Did we do this in the same time frame? Probably not. Grief is an individual thing, so personal it depends only on the singular person who is grieving. There is no time limit as to how long one grieves. There is also no right or wrong way to grieve because it is simply grief.

Grief Spiral with commentsGrief has been broken down into various cycles of emotions so it can be explained, as in “The Grief Spiral” diagram here. It is true that all of these feelings occur, and the diagram presents an oversimplified outline of the process. However, the grief process is never so orderly as any diagram, as Ginny Tesik, MA explains. It’s more like a messy scribble that covers an entire page. Any one, any combination, or all of those emotions can happen at any given moment, including such inopportune times and in no particular order throughout the grieving period, even to that day one awakens and realizes that most of those emotions have eased. One emotion has been omitted, I believe, and that emotion is sadness. To me, its connotation is different than despair, depression and resignation. Though it probably contains some resignation, to me it’s closer to a remembrance of what no longer is, and never will be again. If dwelled upon, it certainly can bring depression and even anger again. But for me, it didn’t. I didn’t let it. I let the memories of better times in, and that helped me realize I wanted to be happy again as my own person. None of this is easy. It took me nine months to reach that point. For some, it takes longer. Sometimes it takes a year or two…or more. For a few it will never happen, but I believe that becomes a choice as time passes.

I believe that every person in Matthew 5:4 that I met and talked with has made more progress than they realize. I believe that they are all stronger than they realize, and they are happier than they’ve been in a long time. Do they still have days where they feel lonely and sad? Yes, they probably do. Do they have more days where they feel they are whole people? Yes, I’m sure they do. Do they feel they’re stronger, that they are beginning to live their own lives now? Yes, I believe they do. I also believe that they have more of a relationship with God now than they may have had before, though they all have believed in Him for a long time. Will they find someone new to love? Some may, some may choose not to. That’s an individual thing, but it’s something that has happened to Yvonne and me. We have found new love, she with Jerry, me with Debbie, and we are delighted in the other’s happiness! She is, after all, my sister at heart, my dear friend, and I do love her. For that matter, I do feel that way about everyone in the group, as does Yvonne. They have become family to me, to us, and we love them all dearly and pray for their health, well-being and happiness.

We were all brought together because of great personal losses. Doors close, new doors open; a former way of life ends but is never forgotten, new and different lives begin with new and different friendships and new hopes for happiness. I have been blessed to have them all in my life. I hope they feel the same way.

Healing and Rebuilding Doesn’t Mean Forgetting

When my wife passed away in November of 2010, I was heartbroken. I knew she really was in that “better place,” but I hated that she was gone from me. Despite all the prayers I desperately prayed for her healing, I knew it wasn’t going to happen. She hung on for a long time because I didn’t want to let her go. When I realized how selfish I was, I felt so badly for her lying in her hospital bed at home under my care, unresponsive because of her brain tumors and a probable stroke. The night before she passed away, I cried and prayed to God to end her suffering and take her home to Him, that I would bear all her pain for her, and then I told her I was sorry for keeping her with me and it was okay to go home to God.

She was still with me the following morning. I got up, made myself a cup of coffee, opened the blinds to her room, and described the day to her as I began to clean her up. It was my father’s birthday…he’d have been ninety-three…and there were four inches of fresh snow on the ground, glistening in the sunshine of a beautiful morning. I had just finished giving her a sponge bath and putting her favorite nightie on her when, with just a quiet exhale, she left me. It was about 11:00 a.m. In a panic, I checked for a heartbeat, I checked to see if she was still breathing. Nothing. She was gone. I sat down beside her and wept, I stroked her face and her head and wept. I told her I would love her forever and I wept. Even when we expect that moment may be near, we are never ready when it happens. My final prayer had been answered. God had taken her home to Him, and I was bearing all her pain…as well as my own. We had been married just over twenty-eight years.

There was so much to do following her death, and I managed to wade through it numbly. There were the legal matters, insurance matters, her cremation as her final wish, and preparing for her memorial service. I wrote a eulogy and her obituary, the boys…our sons…helped with the service, and the church and our pastor were simply amazing. So many people stepped up to help make it a real celebration of her life, as it should have been. I will be forever grateful to…and for…our sons and my church family. Thank you again, and again!

And then it was over. The memorial service provided closure for everyone…except me, and to a slightly lesser extent, for our sons. Fortunately, for Craig and Blake, they had families to return home to, and I know that home life helped them go on as it did me when my own mother passed away so many years ago. But now, only a silent house awaited my return. It was then that the numbness began to wear off and the ache of loneliness and loss arrived with a rush. It was crushing. There were times I could barely breathe, I hurt so badly. Every night when I fell into bed, physically and emotionally exhausted, I prayed that I would not awaken in the morning. It was the only way the pain would end. Yet morning after morning following about four hours of sleep, I was so disappointed to open my eyes and see the same, familiar ceiling. Another day would begin, just like the day before and the day before that. It was only at this time did I realize the depth of the pain and loneliness my mother felt when my father passed away suddenly some thirty-three years before Lou. I wept for my mother. I had no idea my ignorance could cause such regret.

A Lifesaver. . .The Beginning of The Healing

DSCN8128I endured my “Groundhog Day” (like the movie starring Bill Murray) for just over two-and-a-half months before I began attending my bereavement group sessions the following February 1. I do believe that making the call to attend those sessions was one of the better things I’ve done for myself. I needed to learn how to cope with Lou’s death. I was a fighter, not a griever, and I was at a total loss as to how to deal with my grief. I thought I was weak for wanting to go, for having to go. I’d rather have wrestled with God and lost, I’d rather have taken a bullet for her, I’d rather have taken her cancer for her and died in her place, but it was not to be. I had to stay and live with the emptiness, with the pain, and with the horrible loneliness without her. I thought I was alone in the way I felt, but found I was not. The group showed me that. I was among others who were experiencing the same emotions, the same guilt, the same anger, the same regrets, and the same thoughts as I, and I began to feel safe among those kindred spirits. I also began to learn that there is really strength in numbers and we formed some friendships that have survived to this day. And we learned how to cope, albeit slowly.

One incident occurred as we were approaching our third session and I still prayed that I wouldn’t awaken in the mornings. One night, I awoke because of a hypoglycemic event. I’m a diabetic and I awoke sweating profusely and shaking, and I remember thinking that this was my ticket out. If I laid there long enough, my blood-sugar levels would drop until I became comatose, and I would simply, finally die. I laid there, sweating and shaking, my heart pounding in my chest as the adrenalin worked to try to get my blood-sugar levels to rise. I tried closing my eyes, but I couldn’t. And finally, for whatever reason, I threw off the covers and stumbled to the vanity where I tested my blood-sugar. It was down to 43. Normal is between 70 and 120. I made it to the kitchen where I ate some ice cream, a bowl of cereal, a candy bar, some peanut butter, drank about three glasses of water, put on my robe, and then went to sit in my dark living room to let my blood-glucose level normalize.

After about ten minutes, I could feel the fogginess lifting and my heartbeat was beginning to slow. I had stopped sweating. I was going to live. It was that singular moment that I realized that I had wanted to live just a bit more than I wanted to die, and I wanted to live for…me! I realized that there were still things that I wanted to do, places I wanted to go, sights that I wanted to see, and songs that I wanted sing. I began to remember some of the things that Lou had told me while she still could, before the brain tumors stole her memories and motor skills. One of the first things she told me was that she had wanted to die before I did because she knew she couldn’t go on without me. She got her wish, but she didn’t know that I was a mess because of it. She also told me that, should she die, she wanted me to find someone else and fall in love again because I had too much love left in me to go to waste. In the dark of my living room, I wept. This time, it was different. It was cleansing, it was hopeful, and it was sad because it was the beginning of my really saying good-bye to her. I knew she would always be with me, but she was gone from me. I went back to bed about an hour later, and finally slept for six straight hours. When I awoke, I opened my eyes and felt different. For the first time since Lou died, I knew I wanted to live. I never again prayed that I would die in my sleep.

watch-2It still wasn’t easy, and it certainly didn’t get better right away. Grief has a certain inertia about it that seems to be overcome only in small bits and pieces, and Time is one of the more important factors and forces that help nudge healing along. The interesting and sometimes maddening thing about Time is that there is no set amount of it that will help healing along. Time is a personal thing. It stands still, especially when one is grieving a loss. In grief, passing time can be more painful than passing a kidney stone because the pain of grief cuts through one’s heart and soul and there’s only one thing a person can take to ease that pain, though it’s something that the deceased would never want the survivor to take…one’s own life. I can say that, amid my pain and grieving, I began to understand why some surviving spouses, especially men, take their own lives. They couldn’t stand the pain and the loneliness and didn’t know how to cope with it. I am not ‘wired’ that way, though I prayed to God that he would take me in my sleep. I also began to understand why some survivors passed away within months of losing their spouses, whether men or women. One can die from loneliness and a broken heart. I wondered why I didn’t.

In my grief, in my loneliness, and even in my anger, I finally turned to God for respite when I hurt so badly I could barely breathe and the weight of my loss would drop me to the floor. Every time I asked Him, He granted it to me, if only for a short time. At first, I had to beg Him for relief several times a day, and He always granted it to me. I was amazed, and my faith was strengthened.

That first year without Lou, my Year of Firsts, was painful. After twenty-eight years of marriage, it was the first time I celebrated Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve without Lou. It was torture, though my sons took good care of me and made sure I was with family. I celebrated Valentine’s Day, her birthday, Easter, my birthday, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Memorial Day without her. Of that stretch, her birthday was the most difficult day for me. I was so glad to see midnight come and go that day because it meant that I had survived her birthday.

A Change in Time

DSC_0599On my birthday in April, almost five months after Lou died and about a month after her birthday, I awoke and felt different. I laid there in wonder, because for the first time since she died, I felt good. I purposely thought about her, and I purposely formed the words, “She died, and she’s no longer with me,” and then I waited for the grief to flood through me. It didn’t. Only sadness did. I threw off the covers and sat on the edge of the bed. No crushing grief, no heartache, no pain. Only sadness. I got dressed, made the bed and went to the kitchen to make my coffee. I sat in the living room with my cup of coffee and wondered how, after almost five months, I could go to bed with a heartful of grief and awake feeling as though someone flipped a switch and turned it off. The first thing that popped into my head after that thought was, Happy Birthday to me. The pain was still a fresh memory. I still had the same thoughts, the same sadness, the same memories, but no more pain. I thanked God and Lou for this incredible gift. I felt I was on the verge of a new and different life now, and I began to feel hopeful for this new beginning.

There were still some stumbling blocks during that Year of Firsts, but almost day-by-day, I could feel myself healing, becoming happier, becoming a whole person once again, in my own right. I began to see everyday things differently, with more appreciation. A month later, I wrote a short biography and posted it on a couple of dating sites because I began to want some female contact. I just wanted to be able to have a cup of coffee and talk with a woman. All it took was a few cups of coffee and a few emails to realize that it didn’t make any difference if I wanted to go slow, many of the ladies I met most definitely had time lines and agendas, and I was not ready! I began to back away from those websites. I decided I needed to get away and put some physical distance between all of us, so I DSC_0904decided to take the vacation that Lou and I planned before she was diagnosed with brain tumors. We had abandoned that vacation in favor of beginning radiation and chemotherapy treatments to stop the tumors. Sadly, none of it worked. I took my first road trip in twenty-eight years by myself in honor of her. I drove to places I’d never been to see things I’d never seen. The first day was the most difficult, but things only got better after that. I didn’t feel conspicuously alone. I began to enjoy my own company and be confident in it. I looked directly at strangers and smiled, and they smiled back! I drove almost 2,000 miles and took 1,400 photos. I was gone for two weeks. I love digital cameras!

I took my second road trip two weeks after I returned home. This time I went to her family’s reunion. I wasn’t going to go, but both of her sisters called me and asked me to consider going because I was the family’s last link to Lou because I was her husband. I decided to go. I had never felt so welcomed! I was told that I would always be a member of the family, and should I ever find someone else and marry her, she would be a member of the family, too, because that’s the way families go on. Her family is now my family! I love them all! That road trip lasted almost two weeks, too. I drove 1,600 miles this time and still took about 1,400 photos. I was whole again.

The Rebuilding Process

IMAG0913It was just three days after what would have been Lou’s and my twenty-ninth wedding anniversary, and about nine months after she died that I met Debbie, and my life changed once again. She and I fell in love. Upon returning to my home one day after visiting Debbie, I looked around the house and was stunned. I walked through every room and looked at it closely. I realized nothing had changed since Lou had passed away. I had been existing in a museum. I sat down and wondered where I was going to begin. I needed to make some changes in my new life. The following morning, I began in the master bedroom. I went through the large dresser and sorted Lou’s clothing into two bags…one for give-away, the other for throw-away. I kept nothing. Then I went through my clothing and sorted it into three piles…give-away, throw-away, and keep. The stuff I kept I put back in the drawers. I did the same thing with the other two dressers before I started on the closet. From there, I went to the guest bedroom that she used as her dressing room and went through the armoire, the closet and a small desk. I filled my truck five times with Lou’s clothing and took it to the Federal Way Multi Service Center, so they could give it all away to battered women who had nothing and needed to start over again. I thought it was the highest and best use for the clothing she loved. I took my unused clothing there, too, because they also gave it away to men’s shelters.

A few months later, I remodeled the master bedroom by tearing out the old carpet and wood trim and replacing it with laminate flooring and new trim, repainting it, and had the bath redone by removing the old tub and replacing it with a shower and additional storage. I had the vanity and medicine cabinet replaced, I designed and had built another storage unit, and replaced the lighting. I’ve repainted the dining room and kitchen and replaced the lighting. I’ve taken down a lot of the artwork on the walls and have replaced it with canvas prints of photos I’ve taken.

As time passed (yes, Time!), I have healed. Debbie moved in with me. She is helping me go through the rest of the house, doing much the same thing I began. We are boxing things to be donated, deciding what to keep, deciding what things go to which family members, and deciding what we are going to sell at our ‘driveway sale’ when the weather gets better. Our goal is to get the house cleaned out so I can sell it and we can buy our home together, have the house and shop that we want, and just the possessions that we want in our life together…our stuff!

IMAG0362 - CopyI am rebuilding my life with Debbie now, and it feels good and right. Does that mean I have forgotten Lou? No. I never will. How could I? We spent more than twenty-eight years together and I learned so much from her and our marriage. That chapter in my life ended on November 23, 2010. A new chapter began the next day, and it began badly. Though it lingered in grief for a while, it has only gotten better by the day since then. Before Lou died, and before her brain tumors took her motor skills and memories from her, she gave me the most selfless gift ever. I didn’t remember it until months after she had passed away. She felt that she needed to give me permission to move on, should she die. She told me that she wanted me to find someone new and love them because I had too much love left in me to go to waste. Can you imagine that? How can I ever forget her?

I have been truly blessed in my life. I have found someone and I love her so much. She’s my Debbie!

After The Holidays

A very belated Happy New Year to you all! The big “holiday stretch” …Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and the New Year…are done, and a new year has begun. To some, it brings a bit of a let-down, to others a sense of relief. Halloween is the beginning of the holiday stretch, even though most stores begin marketing Thanksgiving even before Halloween. Kids begin ramping up for the coming holidays and they drag their parents with them. After all, beginning with Halloween in October, there are holidays every month for the following three months. Anymore, stores don’t honor each holiday as it comes. They go for the jugular…Christmas…and begin marketing, “planting seeds” in kids’ minds, even before Halloween with the latest and greatest toys, games and electronics so they’ll begin hounding their parents. Then they begin advertising pre-Christmas sales, pre-Black Friday sales, post-Black Friday sales, last minute Christmas Eve sales, in efforts to sell it all. Whatever is left goes on sale after Christmas. Then there’s the “bring-in-the-New-Year-with-this-big-screen-TV” sale. They never miss a marketing opportunity.

The let-down feeling can stem from many things. The sales are over (though they are never over). The Christmas decorations come down and get packed away for another eleven months. The house is back to ‘normal.’ The kids go back to school. Parents start a new year by going back to the same old grind. Life goes back to ‘normal.’ The sense of relief can also stem from many things, even the same things that give people the let-down feelings. The Christmas decorations come down, are packed away for another eleven months, and the house returns to normal. The kids go back to school. Parents go back to a ‘normal’ schedule of work. With a sigh of relief, life settles down and returns to ‘normal.’

IMAG0597Then there are a very special group of people who feel relief because they managed to survive the ‘holiday stretch.’ They began the stretch with trepidation. They went through each holiday remembering it the way it used to be: Halloween with their children, and grandchildren, passing out candy together and marveling at the Trick-or-Treaters in their costumes, preparing for and celebrating Thanksgiving together and with family, and preparing for, decorating for and celebrating Christmas together and with family, and finally, bringing in the New Year together. They remember the things that were so “special” to them…the sounds, the scents, the songs, the ‘new’ traditions they began as newlyweds, the moments of quiet spent together…that they no longer share. So, who are these people? They are widows and widowers who are going it alone. They are people who have lost their life partners, people who have lost theMatthew 5-4 Group Photo loves of their lives, to death. Yes, most have loving families with whom they spend the holidays, but it’s not the same without that lifetime partner, that spouse, that special one that they chose to love, and who chose to love them back. That is a most special and cherished bond, a special love because each chose the other. Unless one has lost a spouse or mate to death, I believe it’s almost impossible for anyone else to fully understand that feeling of loss. Only then can a child, no matter the age, understand the loss a surviving parent feels when his or her spouse passes away.

Dad and me, April 1951

At the resort

When my father died, my brother and I were ‘there’ for mom. We took a leave from our respective jobs and went to Whidbey Island to be with her. We handled everything except her grief; we took care of all the legal and financial matters, and we took care of all the arrangements. We let her grieve and were there to sit with her, to let her cry on our shoulders, and listen to her as she begged God to tell her why He took her husband, our father, and listen to her sob as she asked, “Why did you leave me, Kermit?” Speaking only for myself, I set aside my grief over the loss of dad until I went to bed, and only then allowed myself to feel the emptiness before I fell into an exhausted, dreamless sleep. What compounded the difficulty was that I was married to the mother of my two sons, and they were almost four- and one-year old at DSCN1313the time. I know she had a difficult time trying to care for both, because I heard it every day when I took the time to call her. All I can remember her asking is when I was going to come home. I know that she had no idea how I felt trying to take care of my mom and grieve for my dad, my mentor. I don’t believe she ever understood how I felt until her own father passed away years later, and I finally understood what my mother felt when I lost my wife to cancer in 2010.

But now the “holiday stretch” is over, the New Year has begun, and that brings the special days anew, like Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Independence Day, various birthdays and anniversaries, until the next “holiday stretch” begins once more. All those special days will be faced alone or with other family members or friends, but they will never be the same because life has changed for the surviving spouse. It is a different life now. Each of those days, each of those remembrances, may bring waves of loneliness or melancholy, and that is part of the new life. The first year, that Year of Firsts (the First Valentine’s Day, the First Easter, the First Mother’s Day, the First Father’s Day, the first birthday, the first special day without a spouse or a life partner), is the most difficult. For some, it truly does get easier as time passes. For others, I believe time and life will help ease the pain, though I don’t believe anyone ever forgets.

I have witnessed (and have personally experienced) confusion, sadness, aversion to personal contact, loneliness, tenseness, and anger among those experiencing their first holiday season without their spouses. It is all natural to have those feelings. When the holidays pass, there is a natural let-down, a relief that they have survived the holidays, and with that comes a tiredness and sense of wistfulness and melancholy. To those experiencing this, let it happen…go with it. Let it wash over you and through you and follow its path as it leaves you. You will feel a sense of calm and you will realize that you feel just a little stronger. Be aware, too, that it will take as long it does because it is personal. There is no set amount of time in which this will happen, but it will happen in its own time. Please believe me when I say that life gets better, you will get stronger, you will become the person you want to be, and discover new things that you like to do, if you take the time to let it happen. Be patient with yourself and seek out others…even a group…who have lost a spouse or life partner. There is strength in numbers, and you will feel safe with them. Through it all, if you have faith in God and pray for strength and peace, please don’t stop. It helped me to know I wasn’t totally alone.

DSC_0398bFor those who have friends who have lost a spouse or life partner but have not personally experienced that loss, I would ask of you to not try to push your friends back into “life,” or try to make them feel better. This will happen only when your friends are ready. You can’t fully understand what they’re going through or the emotions they’re feeling. The only thing you can do is to try to include them, “be there” for them, be patient, and let them talk if they feel like it. Above all, if they are friends, treat them that way. They are trying to figure out who they are all over again, they are trying to understand and get used to their new life as one, and these things are only going to happen on their time, not yours.

IMAG1785To A New Year! May it become better as the days pass. Some people make resolutions for the New Year…and they are mostly forgotten by the end of January. I think a good resolution to make would be to begin to appreciate the “little things,” like the smell of a rose, the taste of a great cup of coffee or tea, how beautiful a sunset can be, a moon-rise over the water, the smile of a child, the sound of a bird singing, or the look on a friend’s face when you tell them they are appreciated and loved. Life really is all about these “little things.”

‘Tis the Season…Random Thoughts on Christmas Eve

It’s the Holiday Season once again, from Thanksgiving through Christmas and the New Year. It’s the time for mass marketing through newspaper, magazine, internet, and television ads, pre-Black Friday sales, Black Friday sales, post-Black Friday sales, and continuing Black Friday sales, the Twelve-Days-of-Christmas sales, and on and on and on. Traffic sucks, store parking lots and mall parking lots are jammed. Mass marketing and capitalism is at its best during this holiday season.

Christmas Village 2017Christmas lights are up and burning brightly in almost all neighborhoods, Christmas trees are up and decorated, cards are signed and sent, and presents are being wrapped and hidden until Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Children are filled with excitement, parents are filled with worry that they didn’t find what their children wanted, and almost everyone is stressed and tired from not being able to find what they’re looking for, including me. Though I found what I was looking for, I had to order it online and, of course, I received a notice that it was out-of-stock and would ship as soon as it arrived at the store…sometime in January. That will have to do. Yet, the season is upon us now, and tonight and tomorrow, Christian churches all over the world will be celebrating that Reason for the Season, the birth of Jesus. My hope is that this is not lost in the Christmas rush.

There are other things…and people…I hope are not lost in the Christmas rush. The Holiday Season is especially brutal for those who have lost loved ones. Children who have lost a parent or parents, parents who have lost a child, brothers and sisters who have lost a sibling, people who have lost a parent or parents, and surviving spouses who have lost a husband, a wife, or those who have lost a life partner may find the holiday season particularly difficult to navigate. If you know someone who has lost a loved one and you know they’re having a difficult time, be gentle, be kind, and be inclusive. I hope they can spend the holidays with family or with close friends to ease the pain of loss and loneliness. There are also many homeless on the streets, and I hope that we all can be gentle and kind with them, too, and pray they can find warmth, camaraderie, and a hot meal on these cold nights.

imag1525I have been truly blessed in my life and that holds true today, though I saw little in my future except grief and a horrible, aching loneliness when Lou passed away seven years ago. That chapter of my life closed horribly with her passing, and a new chapter without her began badly. It was filled with grief, anger, loneliness and wanting to die. It took several months before I realized that I really didn’t want to die because I had things I wanted to do, places I wanted to visit, and things I wanted to see…for me. And my life began anew then. In retrospect, I never expected that I would write a book, The First Snow: A Journal of a Man’s Faith-Based Journey through Grief, be published, and find a second…and final…great love. But I did in Debbie, and I am so happy! And because of that book, I met a wonderful friend who has become a sister to me in Yvonne Broady, who also authored a book, Brave in a New World: A Guide to Grieving the Loss of a Spouse, as she lost her husband a year before I lost Lou. Thanks to Yvonne, I am able to “pay-it-forward” by co-facilitating a grief and comfort group named Matthew 5:4 at The Riverside Church of New York via Skype every other week, and have been doing so since May of 2016. This new chapter in my life, though it began badly, is getting better every day, and I do thank God for the gifts I have received along the way.

Debbie and I have finished our Christmas Eve dinner and now we’re about to get ready to go to church so I can sing and play the Christmas version of Hallelujah (lyrics by Cloverton), and sing O Holy Night (I know…it’s a reach for me…I can only pray I can sing to His Glory). I wish you ALL a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year…and a truly Joyous Holiday Season!

Facing Aging and a Shorter Future

I’ve never hidden the fact that I’m getting older, and sometimes I do feel it. I am now seventy years old, but I don’t feel that old. Dang. To me, that sounds old. I know that lots of people have lived to seventy years old and beyond, but I didn’t expect I would. I’ve said it to myself repeatedly while looking in the mirror, ”I’m seventy years old. What the…? Wow.” Somehow, I don’t think I really look as though I’m seventy, but that’s just me. I probably do. With some luck and by the Grace of God, I have lived through rheumatic fever as an early teen, various auto mishaps, swimming a reservoir spillway on a dare and other bad decisions, a tour in Vietnam, a charter plane crash that killed forty-seven people, mostly soldiers, on my way back to Vietnam, and so far, I’ve survived my diabetes. I’ve outlived my parents, both grandfathers, and a wife of twenty-eight years. I’ve a bit to go before I make it to the age of my grandmothers. Though I’m in better shape now than I was in my fifties and sixties (round is a shape, but I’m no longer as round as I was then), I know my time here grows shorter. And since I am now aware that I’m not bulletproof and don’t bounce as well as I once did, I have begun to think about my mortality. It’s about time that I start to plan ahead, if only a little.

I’ve been getting mail from AARP for about fifteen years, and have begun to get more mail from various life insurance companies prompting me to think about my “final expenses” so I don’t burden my loved ones with “unexpected funeral costs.” It rather struck me as “you’re gonna die someday soon, so buy life insurance now so your kids will have something to inherit,” but that’s just my interpretation. I’ve also been getting a lot of mail from The Neptune Society about prepaying for my cremation. I saved one of their return-for-information cards, but have done nothing about it yet because I can’t remember where I put it. A couple of months ago, I received my monthly envelope with discount coupons for local businesses, and rummaged through it. Nothing much interested me, so I left it on the kitchen counter for Debbie to look at. She found a coupon for an ‘informational luncheon’ where “nothing would be sold,” but rather information about cremation services from a relatively new company in this area would be imparted to the attendees, and the luncheon would be free. Hmmm. Food…and food for thought, and competition for The Neptune Society.

Debbie is more of a planner than I am, and since she’s about to retire at the end of the year, she decided it would a good idea to attend just to get some information. She asked me if I was interested, and I said yes because I’d been putting off returning the information card from The Neptune Society. We made our reservations, went, got the information, and had a good lunch at the Longhorn Barbecue in Auburn. After returning home, we talked and decided that it would be a good idea to purchase a cremation plan, whether it was from this company or not, because it would take that decision away from our surviving family members, it would “set” the cost, and there wouldn’t be any squabbles about what they thought we wanted them to do with our remains. Personally, I don’t think either one of us would care since we’d be dead, but it would be one less thing for our families, and whoever survived the other, to worry about. Also, since I don’t own forty acres of land and a backhoe, this is probably the next best thing to do with my remains.

I used to kid around saying that when I died, “I want to be sliding sideways, dirty, naked and broke, all used up, right into the hole, and have a couple of guys standing there with shovels to throw dirt on me and call it good.” I guess now I’ll have to change that to “sliding sideways, dirty, naked and broke, all used up, into the furnace just before they light it.” I also guess I’m not really kidding. I want to be a vital person right to my last minute, God willing. Ultimately, it’s up to Him how and when I go. In the meantime, I’ll do the best I can with what I’ve got left.

Mom and DadI’m not trying to be morbid or too funny here, but rather thoughtful of whoever survives me. You see, I’ve had to make funeral arrangements, with the help of my brother, for my father, who died suddenly at the age of fifty-nine, and then for my mother ten years later when she died from a massive heart attack at the age of sixty-six. I also had to make funeral arrangements for Lou, my wife of twenty-eight years after she died from cancer when she was sixty-five. When my dad died, my brother and I made the funeral arrangements and chose the casket, took care of the legal matters, paid the bills, contacted the church, talked with the priest, scheduled the service, and tried to let mom grieve and be there for her. Our grief for dad was set aside. Ten years later when mom died, my brother and I, once again, made the funeral arrangements and selected the casket, paid the bills, took care of the legal matters, called the church, talked with the priest, scheduled the service, and set our grief aside until all was done. But after it was done, I had to return to my family and my work, and put my grief aside again until so many years later, when Lou died.

Lou's Memorial--2010-12-11 - CopyOnce more, I had to make arrangements, this time for my wife. She wanted to be cremated, so I had to make those arrangements, choose a container, take care of the legal matters, contact Social Security, pay the bills, contact the church, talk with the pastor, schedule the service, write an obituary, and grieve. Amid my grief, I had to visit our attorney and the Social Security office and show them all her death certificate and review and sign so much paperwork. These things were not fun at any time, let alone when it was my own wife who died. At the same time, memories of making final preparations for my dad and mom came flooding back and added to my grief. It was almost unbearable. That was seven years ago.

Now, I will make my own cremation plans so no one will have to. I’m also going to visit my attorney and update my will. I want everything spelled out so there are no questions, hassles, or various interpretations about who gets what, or what anyone thinks I would like done with my remains, what kind of funeral I want, who gets access to my checking and savings accounts and whatever stuff I leave behind. I’m not sure that anyone really cares about what they’re going to get, and they can do what they will with whatever they do get because I won’t be around anyway. I’m going to try to make a complete list of things to do and people and agencies to call, to ease the burden on whoever survives me, and I suspect it will be Debbie and my boys. I’ll rearrange my files so all this information will be easy to find. I’m still in the process of cleaning out my house so none of them will have to go through all the stuff their mother and I have amassed over the years, because I don’t think there’s much they’d want. I can do them this small favor. Whatever I do now, I want to make it as easy as I can for those who will survive me because I don’t want them to have to go through what I did, especially for me. Maybe I’ll even write my own obituary. Who knows? One day they may even thank me for this because, someday, they will have to go through their own personal grief. It’s the not-fun part of living and life.

Over the course of my years, I’ve known people my parents’ age who, when the time was right for them, wanted their children to care for them in their old age. That may be acceptable to many, and I’ve no quarrel with that. It’s an individual thing. It’s just not for me. My parents raised me to be independent. I tried to raise my sons the same way, and I believe they are. I don’t want them to take care of me in my old age, and I don’t think they’d want to. They’ve got their own lives to live, and their kids, my grandchildren, to think about. They’ve never, ever heard me sing or play guitar in church, either, and I’m supposing they never will. If I live to be old enough and must move to an assisted living facility, I would like it if they’d visit me occasionally, and maybe even take me out for a drive when I can’t drive anymore, whenever and wherever that will be. I suspect that’s not going to happen, though, because I don’t anticipate living to be that old. But who knows?

In tying up some loose ends, a friend and I, on a whim, decided to go to the V.A. (Veterans Administration) in Tacoma at American Lake and sign up just after the cremation luncheon. I now have an ‘official’ V.A. I.D card, and have an appointment at the Federal Way V.A. medical facility to find a primary care physician. I do have one right now, but she’s been on maternity leave for a couple of months so I haven’t been able to see her. I have been surprised since I was accepted into the V.A. system to receive four phone calls asking if there was anything they could do for me. This is quite a turn-around to experience since the first time I called and wrote to the V.A. after I was diagnosed with diabetes in 1994. I was rejected then because they didn’t consider me to be in an area where Agent Orange was sprayed when I was in Vietnam, even though I flew over those areas in helicopters that were. Now they’re telling me I should contact an advocate–and gave me his name and phone number–to call to see if it can be determined what my percentage of disability is to help with medical expenses. I am amazed…and grateful for this opportunity.

That’s about it. Sometimes I wonder why I have certain thoughts. Sometimes, I find it interesting what pops into my mind as I get older. I still have a lot of things I want to do. There are still a lot of places I want to visit, and road trips I want to take. There are still a lot of things I want to build, music I want play, songs I want to sing, a car I’d love to restore, sunsets I want to watch, gardens I want to plant, and love I have to give. So I will! In the meantime, I need to take care of some future business while I still can. As C. S. Lewis once said, “You are never too old to set another goal or dream a new dream.” I’ve made a list.