[Lay hands on infant and mother] Naked we come from our mothers’ womb And naked we will depart; Blessed be the name of the Lord, The Lord, who with this mother, and through this labor, has brought forth this miracle of life; Blessed be the name of the Lord, [Make the sign of the cross […]
Believe it or not it’s been four and a half years since Libby died, at times it seems like yesterday, at other times it seems like a lifetime has passed. Perspective is everything because as I am writing this I realize that for my oldest granddaughter Elizabeth, it has been a lifetime.
My perspective on a lot of things has changed and when I think about the times when I received devastating news I consider my reactions in a different light. Maybe it is a symptom of shock or maybe my mind has trouble processing that news whether it’s a cancer diagnosis or the death of a loved one, but I was always amazed when I walked out the door into the “real world” and I saw people who were going on with their lives as if nothing had even happened. I guess I expected that the news that I had just been given should have affected others. At the very least, the passersby should have supernaturally known that my world had just collapsed and they should have at least paused and offered a knowing look of sympathy.
The truth is that before, during, and after receiving devastating life-altering news everyone else on earth goes on as before, the mortgage still has to be paid, the lawn has to be mowed and kids grow up because tempus fugit (time flies) and life goes on.
Life has gone on in the Gilley family.
After the recent birth of their third daughter, my youngest son Nathan and his wife Bethany are in Murfreesboro, TN making preparations to accept a call to the mission field. Nathan is finishing his final year of residency at St. Thomas Hospital and Bethany has her hands full with the girls. Nathan and Bethany have been accepted into the Samaritan’s Purse medical missionary program and they are in the process of making a final decisions about their destination.
Nathan and Bethany have started a blog on WordPress to keep family and friends posted as they make final preparations to relocate their family to the mission field.
Please use the link below to read his initial post and make sure you follow them so they can update you in the future:
Please join Jane and I as we pray for Nathan, Bethany, Elizabeth, Lydia and Ruth.
Thank you for loving our family!
It has been a while since I’ve posted anything on the Libby’s Living Legacy WordPress site, yet I am still amazed with the number of visitors that it receives in spite of the inactivity. I posted my first story to https://libbyslivinglegacy.com/ a few months after Libby died in 2014 and I averaged one story per week for nearly three years as I reconnected with the past.
Lately I have been thinking that an update might be in order.
Ecclesiastes 3 New International Version (NIV)
A Time for Everything
3 There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
4 a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance…
A Time to Mourn
For the past several years, March has been a challenging month because March 3rd is Libby’s birthday and March 25th is the anniversary of her death so every year it seemed as if a flood of memories welled up between those two bookends. Grieving is hard enough for the hapless widow or widower but anniversaries and other constant reminders seem determined to keep us grieving, or so it seems.
The real issue for widowers and widows is that we allow ignoble thoughts of grief to displace logic. Our piteous condition isn’t helped when social media celebrates an 80-year-old widower who “dies of a broken heart” just days after his wife passes away, proving, somehow, that he really loved her. I understand the sentiment but, come on now, that is an unbelievably high standard, one that I was (thankfully) unable to achieve.
Helping a friend stumble through grief is a messy business and requires wisdom and patience; partly because too many people have a distorted view of widowhood (or is it widowdom?) and divorce seems to be one of the reasons. That’s right, divorce. Too often when a couple divorces it is a bitter affair (no pun intended) and in some cases each person tries to erase the memory of their former spouse by destroying photos and eliminating social media posts, never to speak their name again.
In widowdom (this is my story so I get to use my made-up words) friends are hesitant to bring up the name of a former spouse for fear of opening old wounds and somehow causing even more grief, but the irony here is that, unlike some divorcees, most widows and widowers are hopelessly in love with their spouse prior to, during, and following their death. That love does not die when our spouse does, in fact, in our minds we are probably more in love after their death than ever before, partly due to a phenomenon where many of us conveniently forget the worst parts of our marriage and romanticize the rest, as the memories of our loved one evolves into a pseudo reality.
Although I doubt that I ever exhibited such a distorted view of reality (once again, my story, my facts) I have witnessed it in other members of my family. After my mom died I remember listening to dad reminisce about their marriage saying that one of the things he missed most about our mom was her excitement over the miniature lighthouses that she loved to collect. I would nod sympathetically as my dad fought back tears while describing a trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina where mom added to her already large collection of lighthouses, proudly displaying them atop every shelf, table and nightstand in their Winchester, TN home.
But wait, What? —–The way I remembered the lighthouse story was that my Dad complained for a solid month following the North Carolina trip because mom ‘wasted good, hard-earned money’, He said, “Joyce you have enough lighthouses to give one to everyone in the county without even making a dent in your collection so why in the world did you buy more?” and that sparked an intense argument. Ok, scratch that— it was a fight, not an argument. Then weeks later, when Dad couldn’t find a place to set his glass of sweet tea because of all of the lighthouses, the argument fight started up again!
Selective memory aside, it sometimes takes time for reality to break through the emotion and depression when you lose a spouse and I contend that most of us never “get over it”, we do, however, grieve less and less. Eventually, life creeps back into our world slowly, like a green vine’s slow growth which slowly overtakes the stone wall of an old country estate. The ivy’s growth can’t be observed by the occupant of the home because she sees it every day, but compared to the reality of an old photograph it is easy see the how much change has taken place.
“Don’t feel sorry for me”
In March of 2014 a few weeks before Libby died, I told her how very sorry I was that she was so sick and how helpless I felt, “What do you mean?” she said, “Don’t feel sorry for me, I’ve got the easy job because all I have to do is lie here and let you take care of me for a little while longer, then I’ll be with Jesus. You, on the other hand, have to stay here and find a way to live without me.”
Finding A Way
In the intervening years I dealt with grief and depression although, in retrospect, I can now see where God used the birth of two granddaughters, the support of my friends, family and my church to nurture that slow vine growth. Then, out of the blue, three years and four months after Libby died, a friend asked if he could introduce me to an attractive, talented lady named Cynthia Jane Simmons. Although I was reluctant to date at all, my matchmaking friend listed the things we had in common such as: two kids each, active in church, athletic, and both widowed (no thanks to cancer). Then he closed the deal with something like, “You don’t even have go on a date, just meet her for lunch and talk, I think it would be good for you both—-you both have been through so much…”
As uncomfortable as it was for me to consider dating, I was a sucker for trying to help someone who was going through a similar experience. I would eventually learn that it had taken 6 months for our mutual friend to get Jane to the point of meeting this country boy from High Point, but after some mutual Facebook stalking, instant messaging and more stalking, Jane agreed to my request to meet for coffee. But then I had to quickly confess that I didn’t even like coffee, so basically, our relationship began with a lie. In my defense however, I used the phrase “meeting for coffee” in the general sense, I didn’t think I would actually be required to drink the stuff.
My first date in 37 years, sans coffee, began as Jane Simmons and I nervously picked over at a plate of Fusilli from Tony’s Pasta & Trattoria and it ended some four hours later as we sat together on a bench in Coolidge Park discussing those numerous common bonds. Bonds that made our initial conversation come easily while drawing the two of us together after just a few hours.
In spite of the fact that Jane made me cry on that first date (another story for another time?) we shared many more dates and meals but here is the irony; although we both really enjoyed our time together, it was dampened by a sadness that, looking back now, we can only describe as feelings of betrayal. You see, Jane and I both had amazing marriages to wonderful people and during those marriages we were both very deliberate in keeping our marriage vows. Consequently, after just one date and without so much as a kiss or even a held hand, we both felt as if we had somehow cheated on our spouse by enjoying ourselves.
Many of you are thinking to yourselves, “It wasn’t cheating!” (see the second sentence of paragraph four about still being in love) but those dark emotions were real and it has taken time for Jane and I both to work through those feelings of disloyalty. The good news about a relationship with someone who has been through a similar life-altering event is that we each have an intimate understanding of what the other person is feeling when there is a big family event and the absence of that first spouse is palpable, such as family member weddings, funerals or grandchildren’s’ birthdays. Other smaller, more personal events where that first spouse is missed include: stumbling upon a sentimental keepsake from a trip, wedding anniversaries, special photographs and the month of May.
Rather than avoiding the subject of our past marriages, Jane and I discussed our marriages and former spouses with one another from the beginning including that first date, in fact, after we had been dating about two months Jane commented one evening that we had reached a milestone in our dating life, saying, “Tonight was the first time since we started dating that neither one of us mentioned Libby or Lebron the whole evening…that’s a first for us”. Of course, I felt like it was my duty to point out that since she had just mentioned them both, our record would remain intact.
The Next Chapter
Jane and I celebrated our one-year wedding anniversary this past Christmas with a ski trip to Breckenridge, Colorado and, to the casual observer, I have finally gotten over Libby and Jane has finally gotten over Lebron, but nothing could be further from the truth. We are learning how to celebrate each other’s entire lives, the history that we have with our former spouses and those special anniversary days; sometimes by crying with them or sometimes by leaving them alone with their thoughts. For the most part Jane and I have stopped feeling guilty for enjoying one another’s company and I realize that life didn’t stop for me on March 25, 2014, neither did it stop for her on July 19, 2011 but life certainly DID change for us both.
A Challenge and a Prayer
During my 35 years of marriage to Libby Willis Gilley in Flintstone and Jane’s 24 years of marriage to Lebron Simmons in Ringgold, friends were made, babies were born, birthdays were celebrated, graduation speeches endured, and college tuition was paid. The challenge that we both face now is learning how to weave that rich history of families, friends, blessings and sorrows from the Gilley and Simmons families into new experiences, new traditions and new milestones. With 59 years of marriage experience between us, our hope and our prayer is that we have learned how to be better spouses as we start the next 59 years together (my story, my numbers).
According to the metrics from the WordPress website which hosts all of the Libby’s Living Legacy stories, most people who read these posts only see the current issue but the following link will give you access to every post, that is, if you care to scroll down through the long list: https://libbyslivinglegacy.com/.
Soon after Libby’s memorial service I began writing about our relationship, beginning with our first date. The process of writing and the resulting stories served dual purposes: altruistically, as a gift to our grandchildren and selfishly, for their therapeutic value to me; both purposes have been accomplished and I really appreciate the encouragement, notes and letters.
Libby was always a sucker for a Hallmark love story movie, so as recompense for watching sports with me, I suffered through more than my fair share of the one and a half hour, happily-ever-after, chick flicks.
One movie in that genre was entitled Love Comes Softly which was released in 2003 based on the book by the same name from author Janette Oke. The Christian themed movie quickly became Libby’s favorite and the release of each new movie sequel (and few prequels) was an event not to be missed in our home. Set in the 19th century as the West was being homesteaded, the original movie had a predictable plot centered around a widow and a widower whose relationship begins to develop because of their common loss and their need for survival. During one memorable part of the movie, the widower’s 5-year-old daughter notices that her dad’s grief has slowly subsided and as he begins to enjoy life with his new family she comments, “My Daddy got his laugh back”.
Every couple, I am sure has them, those quirky sayings shared with one another which make absolutely no sense to others because they weren’t privy to the back-story. I am confident the same thing happens in many relationships just like it did between Libby and I because after watching a movie together, one of us would repeat a line from the movie, so many times in fact, over the next few weeks, that it became woven into a our daily vocabulary. For instance, Libby would often talk about a friend who had been mourning and say, ” I sure hope she gets her laugh back”.
Thirty five years of marriage changes a person, for better or worse (pun intended). Each person’s individual beliefs, goals, temperament and even personality are melded together and both parties eventually assume different (hopefully better) beliefs, goals, temperament and personality. Those quirky little sayings shared by a couple are as much a part of this new life as the first day of school or the first time you sang in front of the church. Some of us who “married up” as they say, were blessed to be in a relationship in which the benefits received from the relationship far outweighed the benefits given and the subsequent changes are monumental.
Several weeks before Libby died we were discussing how much we both have grown and changed in our relationship with each other, she was thinking more and more about her future, our boy’s future and my future. Libby worried about our boys and how they were they going to be able to handle the loss of their mother; that’s when Libby looked at me and said, “I’m sorry that I will not be around for our boys, but I am also sorry that I will not be around to grow old with you……”
My response to her melancholy dialogue was to try to get her to talk about something else, so I jumped in with, “Now, Libby, don’t be talking like that….you’re not going anywhere for a long time….” . But this time Libby stopped me in mid sentence and continued her thought by asking, “……I wonder how long it will take……..after I am gone……..before you to get your laugh back…….?”
Its been two and half years since you left this earth and during that time I have fought through many emotions: disappointment, loneliness and depression, each interspersed with excitement, happiness and elation at the births of our two beautiful grandchildren. Relating those emotions in this blog has been cathartic and the resulting stories will remind our grandchildren of your legacy of love and caring.
We often talked about how our love for one another changed over the course of our marriage and about how our understanding of love evolved even more over the course of our lives. If you remember, we even discussed the many times we each thought that we were in love before we were married.
Just for the record, my first love was during Mr. Rice’s 6th grade homeroom class when I sat across from a certain blonde who I was sure would be my wife some day; then there was the girl in Jr. High that I believed was definitely “the one” until I found out that I was “the one” of three that she “loved”. Of course there were several girls in high school that I was definitely in love with, some knew it, some didn’t.
I still remember all of my “girlfriends” with fondness (even the red head in Mrs Walker’s first grade that I failed to list in the previous paragraph) but as I matured I realized that there is a huge difference between the love that you and I shared for 35 years and what I felt during those prepubescent and adolescent crushes.
I have given a lot of thought to the different degrees of love we experienced on earth compared to what you must be experiencing now. That perfected love that you have inherited as a citizen of heaven has to be light-years removed from the love that we shared here on this earth.
9 But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. 1 Cornithains 2:9 (KJV)
I’m hoping that in heaven you are able to remember our marriage with fondness and affection but it must surely pale in comparison to the love you are now experiencing in the very presence of God. Although the analogy falls woefully short, I equate it to the mature love we experienced after more than 50 years of living versus the puppy love of a 6th grade boy. This theory about love helps me make sense of things down here, although the multiplied difference between depth of love on earth and the depth of love in heaven is probably a factor of seventy times seven.
When I began writing these stories, the goal was to put down into words the story of our courtship and marriage so that our grandchildren could read about you and better understand your personality and character. The process of writing our story has been healing for me and I hope our grandchildren will understand their grandmother’s legacy through these stories.
Having chronicled our history together and accomplished even more than I intended by reminiscing about our life together, this will be my last letter. Even though the resulting love story will certainly never be considered a literary work of art, I hope it is an honest account our courtship, marriage, struggles and tragic ending.
Until I see you in heaven, just remember, I always loved you…
Well, I guess you know by now that your mom is no longer down here on earth, she was ready to leave but she is really going to be missed. I am assuming that death looks completely different from your perspective than it does from here; you guys were probably eating and rejoicing at a banquet while were crying at a funeral.
Meanwhile, back here on earth (more specifically Flintstone) one of our cats (Gato) ran away and so now I’m down to just one cat (Ring). You know that I never really wanted a cat anyway and its obvious that Ring doesn’t really like me either, but our two granddaughters are fascinated by “Kitty Kitty” so I keep buying cat food and putting up with the dead critters that she and brings up on the porch.
Speaking of things that smell, how old is that cereal in the bottom of the pantry?
As you can see by the picture (unless photos get blocked up there) we had some fun with your car, actually it was Jerod’s idea to lift it, put on big tires, a winch, a luggage rack and some cool pink graphics so we could raffle it off to help build the playground that we had talked about.
Between raffling your car, donations, chili suppers, bracelet sales and corporate sponsors we raised over $80,000 for the playground. Maybe you’ve seen it just south of the church? Wait, I forgot, you never liked for me to give you directions that involved North, South, East or West…… just look between the gym and ball field where the gravel parking lot used to be, you can’t miss it.
Although many of the children who play on the Libby’s Living Legacy playground never met you and can’t fully comprehend the amount of work involved, they do know two things, it’s Miss Libby’s Playground and it is there because “Miss Libby loved children”.
I told you in my last letter about our 40th reunion of Chattanooga Valley High School (GO Eagles) coming up soon. The organizing committee for our reunion will hold a silent auction and donate the proceeds to your playground but its been a struggle getting everything together especially since you were the one that organized all of the reunions in the past. Do you have a file somewhere with all of that stuff in it?
As I mentioned above Nathan and Bethany have given us two two gorgeous granddaughters, Elizabeth Joy and Lydia Grace. I often daydream about you interacting with them and how many kisses you would have given them by now. The problem is, I’m loosing my ability to imagine your reactions when I see the girls do something new and different. That could be good, I guess, if it means that I am progressing further through the grieving process or it could be bad if it’s just old age.
Elizabeth was two years old in June and her mom and dad have been showing her your picture and telling her about her grandmother “Gibby” (That’s my name for you, again from one of my blog posts, maybe you saw it?). The girls will know what their grandmother Gibby looks like from all of the pictures and when they are old enough to read some of these stories, they will learn about their grandmother’s character, beliefs and love of others.
You would be very proud of our boys, they are doing great and both have been very supportive as I have struggled to regain my equilibrium for the past two and a half years. Jerod took over a lot of responsibility in the company which helped to keep me out of the mental hospital (so far). Nathan has started his residency in Murfreesboro and for the first time since kindergarten at CCS there is no more TUITION!
Did you ever write down your beef stroganoff recipe? Not that I would cook it because except for some fried bologna for a sandwich and scrambled eggs for Elizabeth, I haven’t used the stove. Don’t even ask about the oven, it’s as clean as it was the last time you saw it.
Everyone here misses you terribly, although they don’t come right out and say it to me. I’m sure its because they are concerned that if they bring your name up it will upset me or maybe “set me back”. Who knows, maybe they are right, besides no one wants to see a grown man cry.
Speaking of crying, are there really, “no more tears” in heaven and are the streets really made of gold or is that just a metaphor?
I guess my dad has had time to fill you in on the recent happenings in our little circle of friends and family. But then, again, you should know that dad had Alzheimer’s during his last two years here on earth so you may want to double check his facts since he was known to say some outrageous things just before he left here and most of them only happened in his head.
I’ll say bye for now.
Love you more….
Second letter to Libby:
Its confession time; now it may come as a surprise to you but during our marriage when we were sitting around the house and you were talking to me, I wasn’t always listening intently to every single word that you were saying especially if there was a football game on TV.
Shocking, I know.
Case in point; I vaguely remember remarks about colors – whites- bleach – temperature and other things about laundry that you thought I should know. Well shortly after you left, although its not really my fault (blame it on ESPN) I somehow ended up with pink underwear, tie-dyed dress slacks and a very large iron shaped logo melted into the lapel of my synthetic, wicking “no iron” shirt.
Although my laundering skills might be suspect, on the bright side I have lots of new clothes and more grease rags than I will ever use. Now, obviously there is no reason to cry over “spilt” milk, besides if I used these letters to try and make amends for all of the foolish things I have done there wouldn’t be room for me to write about the things that have been happening.
Speaking of current events, do you remember what we were doing at this time four years ago? (Of course, you probably posses total recall) but in case you don’t, we were watching the 2012 London Summer Olympics. I can’t help but think of those times when we sat on the couch with a bowl of popcorn between us watching gymnastics, swimming and track and field. Spoiler alert, the US girls gymnastic team is stronger than ever and Micheal Phelps has more gold than the Aztecs.
In the normal letter writing process this is where I would say, “Well, I’m sure you already read my first letter” but the truth is I have no clue if you even received my first letter. It gives me a headache when I try to understand the relationship between heaven and earth. For all I know, you may have seen this letter as I typed it and maybe you witnessed the Olympics and my laundry debacle? Hey, can you see the winning lottery numbers?
Speaking of writing letters, I now have blog! Again, shocking news I know. Of course, being the author of a blog isn’t exactly a great accomplishment because if you have the ability to launch Windows Explorer, you can start a blog. But can you believe it? Me, the guy who hated English Composition class in college is now writing without being forced to do so.
I mentioned the blog because I often look back through old pictures and letters to reminisce about our life together and sometimes post stories about you. OK, that’s not totally true, because every story I post in my blog is about you.
A few months ago I told the story about the rainy Sunday afternoon during that time when we were remodeling the master bath. I told my blog readers how we sat together on our couch and you began crying. If you remember, I asked why you were crying and you said, “I’m afraid the last scan is going to show that the cancer is back and I’m never going to get to sit in my new tub!” I tried consoling but you recoiled from my hug, shook your finger in my face and said, “…and if you think that SOME WOMAN is going to sit in MY TUB, you’ve got another think coming mister”.
Well, since its confession time, some “woman” has been in your tub several times:
In other news, we are planning our 40th high school reunion, can you believe it? We have been passing around yearbooks and old photos at our planning sessions and telling stories about dances, homecoming and our favorite teachers. I really feel old when the conversation turns to kids, grand kids and even great grand kids. That got me to thinking, are you getting older in heaven or will you be 56 when I get there? Again, I am struggling with the whole dynamic of time and space between heaven and earth.
But wait, what if you are not aging and what if I don’t die until I’m 95?
How do you feel about older men?
Libby battled breast cancer for five relatively healthy years but her health declined rapidly in the last three months of her life. During those final months it was painfully obvious to both of us that although she won a few battles she was not going to win the war. Because of the time we had together toward the end everything that needed to said between us was said, but that hasn’t stopped me from dreaming about spending just one more day with her.
Now, I’m not delusional enough to believe that God will give me a day with Libby; I am, however, sufficiently deluded enough to write a few letters to her:
There are so many questions that I need to ask, but I fear that this communication method is going to be a little one-sided, if in fact you even get to read this. It may be like that marriage conference that we attended where we were asked to write out our concerns and exchange letters instead of talking to each other. That’s where we learned that the very act of writing things out often helps the writer more than they help the reader. Could that be the case here?
Things have been really busy around here since you’ve been gone and I wanted to fill you in on some of the happenings. I’m sure you have missed me but I’m going to predict that you have not finished talking to everyone in heaven that you wanted to talk with, even after 28 months, in fact you may not have even finished talking with your dad yet.
After you left in the early morning hours of March 25th, two years ago, everything changed for me down here (and by “down here” I mean of course, down here on earth… not …. well… you get the idea). I’ve had the normal depression, loneliness, anger and jealously of other couples (maybe I still do ) but the most difficult thing that I have had to overcome is the urgent need to call you immediately following an exciting event that I hear or see. It took months before I stopped reaching for my cell phone to call you when I heard something that I knew you would enjoy hearing. I miss that child-like excitement and pure joy that you always showed when good things happened for your friends or family.
Since I can’t pick up that cell phone and call, I decided to write a letter and well, I guess I just need to start at the beginning:
That Celebration of Life service that you requested was a tremendous success. It was standing room only in the sanctuary and we added video screens in the gym so those in the overflow area could watch the service. I may have been experiencing some shock during the visitation portion of the service because with each new face that I saw I thought, “I need to tell Libby that they are here, she will want to talk to them”.
After the service I began looking through old pictures and letters that we wrote to one another. That’s when I decided that our grandchildren should know their grandmother and “our story” so I began writing about how we met, our first date, etc. which eventually led to a blog. Maybe you’ve even read the blog? See, once again, I’m not sure what you guys can see and what you can’t see.
I was writing in my blog the other day about the arguments we used to have, some petty and some were serious. Although we both matured a lot in our 35 years of marriage, in the beginning, at least, we both insisted on getting the last word in and always being “right”. In one of our “discussions” when you thought I was taking you for granted, you made the comment, “If anything ever happens to me you will be find someone else, forget about me, and be remarried within six months!”. At the risk of once again sounding petty and immature I have to say: ” You were wrong…I won that one! ”
Since we are keeping score (or at least I am keeping score) I also remember a discussion we had one night just before you left when I said, “Libby, I’m so sorry that this is happening to you, I wish there was something more I could do.” I’ll never forget your reply: “Are you kidding me?” you said, ” I have the easy part. I just have to lie here and let you take care of me for a little while longer and then I’ll be in heaven, but you have to stay here and live without me”.
OK, I’ll have to give you that one, you were right. Although I’m not sure how hard it was to die, living without you has been harder than I ever thought it could be.
You also used to tell me that I was way too independent and that I really didn’t even need a wife. Well, you were wrong on both points becasue I can tell you from experience, independence is not what its cracked up to be and although I didn’t always say it, I always needed you.
Now (and this is totally off of the subject) speaking of needing things, where did you put the vacuum cleaner bags? I’ve looked in all of the obvious places.
There are so many things that I would like to talk to you about, some are monumental things like two of the most gorgeous granddaughters in the world who have their “PaPa Bear” wrapped around their fingers. Then there are the not-so-monumental things that I need help with, such as: Is there some kind of code to match up the right Tupperware top with the bowl or do I have to try every single, stupid, plastic top in the stupid Tupperware drawer?
Can you see us down here? I’m not sure if you guys can see us moving about on this earth? There are versus in the Bible that are very likely meant to be a mystery, but I have read about “a great cloud of witnesses” so there is definitely something is going on up there. Anyway, if your can see us, I’m sure you noticed that the wedding ring which you put on my finger, is now gone. But wait, there is a story: You see, Nathan put his wedding ring into the pocket of his surgical scrubs and then forgot about it when he threw them out, so I thought you would approve if I gave him my wedding band. It still feels awkward and many times I feel guilty not wearing a ring but I guess I’m slowly getting used to it. Sorry.
A lot has happened in 28 months and I have a lot more questions and things to tell you, including updates on our church, our friends and even politics ( You will not believe who is running for president! ). I’ll write again soon.
I love you more,
Grief “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride
I used to hate funerals, I never knew what to say to the family of the deceased because every pithy phrase that I rehearsed in the parking lot sounded trite as soon as I took my spot in the receiving line, so I usually ended up just saying “I’m so sorry”. In addition to my ineptness with those elusive comforting phrases I always felt hypocritical trying to comfort the family since (at that time) I never really experienced grief.
In 2010 I lost my niece Samantha to cancer, followed in quick succession by the death of my mom, my father in law, my brother, my wife and my dad. Today, I feel confident that I have gained enough grief experience to offer an observation or two on this thing we call grief:
If there is one constant in grief it is this: every person and every experience is different. I have known people who found great comfort in a single quote or a scripture uttered at just the right time during their grief, but for me at least, a dear friend’s handshake or hug meant more than anything they could have said. In my experiences, being a friend before, during and after a loss is much more valuable than saying the right words.
At the risk of fueling the politically correct speech movement and being mindful of different grief experiences, the following is an attempt to explain how “words of encouragement” can sometimes be interpreted by our grief-stricken brain.
I know what you mean when you say, “She is better off now” or “She’s in a better place” and on some level I agree with both of those statements. Sometimes though, a grieving heart (especially after an extended caretaker situation) translates that statement to mean, “You did the best you could, but your efforts fell short”. The rational part of my brain is telling me that you meant, “She is in heaven and she has been made whole”, but in general it’s never easy for a grieving person to hear that their spouse, whom they loved more than life itself, is somehow happier and ” better off” now that they are no longer with you.
I know what you mean when you ask, “How old was she?” I know that it often used as a filler question in a funeral home and maybe its the smell of gardenias that triggers the question, but the devil voice in my head is saying, “What is that magic number of birthdays that satisfies the full life requirement?” The little pity party happening in my head often includes a quick calculation as I plot my own age on a bell curve to see if I fall within the standard deviation.
I know what you mean when you say, “You’re young or you’re attractive”…(awkward pause)…, “You’ll find someone else”. No, on second thought, I really don’t know what you mean when you say that, because the only time you should say, “You’ll find another” is when you are trying to comfort a five-year-old child after their puppy gets hit by an SUV.
And finally, I know what you mean when you say, “You were so lucky to have found your ‘true love’and experience a ‘storybook marriage’.” What I hear is, “You lucky dog, you happened to find your ‘soulmate’ and because of that you had a ‘perfect marriage'”.
The truth is Libby and I were blessed, not lucky, to have found one another, but we didn’t simply stumble into a great relationship, we fought for it, and when I say “we fought for it”, I mean that we literally argued and fought over a variety of meaningful core beliefs and embarrassingly trivial differences, but we also worked very hard to resolve those issues and keep our disagreements to ourselves as we worked through them.
The relationship between Libby and I took 37 years to develop and was not “a match made in heaven” as has been suggested. It was, however, a match made at the dinning room table where we each apologized after an intense argument and joking around during our meal on date night and taking long rides to discuss a major decision.
Ours was a relationship between two flawed people, both of whom often insisted on getting their own way and both of whom had to learn to give up some independence, pride and stubbornness, over and over again. Libby and I both jealousy guarded our time, our minds and our hearts to preserve and grow our terribly imperfect “perfect marriage”.
My dad, Maurice Gilley, began having health issues about the same time as Libby’s cancer returned, in fact, Libby and I were visiting the assisted living facility with my dad on the day before Libby was admitted to the hospital. My dad’s Alzheimer’s took his mind away from us over the next two years while Libby’s cancer took her away from us over the next three months. The following is the tribute that I delivered during my dad’s funeral:
I met an old man in 1985 who, as a young man, knew my dad’s dad in the early 1900’s and he told me about a time when my Granddad (L.H. Gilley) was building houses in Chattanooga and St. Elmo, then selling them to war veterans returning home from Europe. My Granddad eventually became a one-stop-shop for the first-time home buyer, personally financing dozens of houses so the buyers didn’t have to go to the bank for a loan.
My friend also said that by the 1920’s L.H. Gilley, had become one of the wealthiest men in Chattanooga; at least until early September of 1929 when he was warned by his banker to gather as much cash as possible because something “bad” was about to happen. As the Great Depression swept the country, the housing market crashed and Granddad lost his fortune, one house at a time, becasue tenants were unable to repay their home loans.
With a few hundred dollars to his name, my Granddad left Chattanooga and moved his family fifteen miles South to High Point, GA where he bought a farm and few animals, just to feed his family. That depression left an indelible mark on my Granddad, changing him from a freewheeling confident businessman to a cautious, somewhat cynical man, who believed everyone was one bad decision away from poverty.
I had heard bits and pieces of that legacy growing up and I remember telling my Granddad with a childish whine in my voice, “You should have made those people pay you back for those houses”. It was difficult to get him to talk about it but I kept pushing the issue until he answered, “You don’t understand, no one had any money, no one. What I had was eight children to feed, I needed beans, corn and milk, not money, besides those poor people living in my houses needed their money to feed their kids. We were all just trying to survive.”
My dad, Maurice Paul Gilley was born into this, hardworking, strictly disciplined, but ironically compassionate family in December of 1928 just as The Great Depression was ending; its influence, however, would continue to shape him and our family, for generations.
Libby used to tell a story about how resourceful my mom and dad were and how cautious they were with their money; my parents had just moved into their new house in Winchester and decided that the seven tall windows facing the lake needed window blinds. Walmart had some blinds on sale for $9 each, but they were six inches too short. Custom blinds would have cost $45 each so my mom and dad bought the cheap blinds along with one extra blind, then they took out enough string and slats from the extra blind and lengthened each of the other blinds by sewing the ends of the strings together and adding slats.
My dad hated spending money but he was always very generous with his time. I can remember as a teenager, my dad would gather the older boys and put us in the back of his pickup truck after school to work on a side job. Dad would say, “Our neighbor needs a new roof but he can’t afford to pay someone to put it on, so we are going to help out and you boys will get to learn a new trade.”
It could be a neighbor, a family member or even a stranger who needed our help, but we knew we would be working until dark every night, we also knew that there was going to be a serious argument when we finished. That argument always started the same way when our neighbor would say, “Mr. Gilley, how much do we owe you for the help?” “Nothing” my dad would mumble gruffly (as if he was offended by the offer) as he headed toward his old blue pickup. Our neighbor would shout, “Mr. Gilley I will not take charity, please take something for your trouble.”
My brothers and I would load up the tools and settle down in the back of the truck, because we already knew how this was going to end, our neighbor never had a chance of giving anything to my dad “for his trouble”, because the more he insisted on paying my dad the more stubborn my dad became.”
We always perked up a little when our neighbor would say something like, “If you want take my money, at least let me take your boys down to Pace’s Grocery so I can buy them a Coke and some candy”. But when my dad shot us a stern look we repeated the stock Gilley answer, “No, sir we couldn’t accept anything for our work, besides we may need your help some day and then you can pay us back”.
Those who knew may dad well understood that he didn’t want to be paid back for helping, others had to learn the hard way. Dad’s neighbor from Winchester called me yesterday with condolences and told me how dad helped him complete a botched deck project and managed to get it ready just in time for his daughter’s wedding, but then he said that he made the mistake of mailing a check to dad for his labor. “Oh no” I said, “What happened?”. “Well “, dad’s neighbor said, “He brought the check back over here, stood in my doorway, tore up the check and threw it on the floor, then he didn’t speak to me for the next two weeks.”
My mom and dad started their second life when they retired and moved into the last house that my dad ever built on Tim’s Ford Lake in Winchester, TN. Daddy called me one night from the lake and said, “I think I may have to get Joyce to take me to the hospital.” “Why” I said. “Well my right arm hurts and the pain goes across into my chest”. “What?” I said, “Why are calling me? You need to get to the hospital now. That sounds like a heart attack.” “No,” my dad said, “ I’m pretty sure it’s just a pulled muscle”. “Dad, you are not a doctor, besides what makes you think it’s a pulled muscle?” “Well…….” he said, drawing out each word for maximum dramatic effect, “ I was out in the boat…………The rockfish got into the ‘jumps’………….I started catching fish, one after another until I had 25 fish in the boat………… each one 18 to 20 pounds. My arm is so sore I may have to fish left handed tomorrow.
Dad enjoyed his retirement and his fishing. He LOVED fishing, he loved talking about fishing, preparing to fish, cleaning up from fishing and woodworking, when the fish weren’t biting. But it wasn’t hard too hard to convince him to come out of retirement for a year to build a new sanctuary for the church where four generations of Gilley’s had worshiped (Chattanooga Valley Church of the Nazarene).
We had one particularly interesting conversation one day soon after Dad started the church project, he called and asked if I had ordered a portable toilet for the job and I told him that I had. He asked, “How much is it?” “Seventy-Five dollars a month”, I said, “Why do you ask?” “Cancel it” he said” I’ll do something different” and he hung up his flip phone. Now, I wasn’t sure what he could do IN LIEU OF a toilet (pun intended).
By the time I got to the job site that afternoon my dad had built an outhouse from scrap plywood, sat it on top of a plumbing clean-out and ran water to it. We had the only flushing outhouse I have ever seen. I said, “Dad, the rental is only $75 per month for a portable toilet” . “That’s right”, he said, “And $75 per month might be all that some little old lady is able to pledge toward the building fund. Now, do you want to the be one who tells her we are taking her life savings and literally throwing it down a toilet……… and a rented toilet at that”
The Winchester house lost most of its luster when my mom died. We eventually had to move my dad back to the Valley when his Alzheimer’s progressed to the point that he got lost going to Walmart and Hardee’s, two life sustaining essentials for my dad.
Not long after we moved dad into his new home in Flintstone, GA, dad started getting lost in his subdivision with its four parallel roads so he made the decision to try an assisted living arrangement, but he couldn’t remember the name of the local assisted living center so he referred to it as the place that Libby said he would like.
Dad’s Alzheimer’s continued to progress over the next several months and although he couldn’t remember what he had for breakfast that morning he could often remember his childhood in vivid detail. I picked him up from Rosewood a few months ago and drove him by the old home place in High Point, just to see if he would recognize anything. Dad sat in the passenger seat of my truck and it appeared that he didn’t even glanced at his old house as we passed by. Another minute or so passed and he said, to no one in particular, “TEN IS DEAD”. I thought at first it was the dementia talking, so I waited another minute to see if he was going to elaborate, then I asked, “TEN is dead???”………”What does that mean?”
In a rare moment of clarity, my dad explained, “Your Granddad had a strict rule for his daughters and their dates, the girls had to be home no later than 10:00, so my sister took a pocket knife and carved the number 9 into the cedar tree on the left side of our driveway then she carved the number 10 into the tree on the right side of the driveway. The next morning”, my dad explained, “When your Granddad asked what time my sister got home from her date she would always respond, ‘Daddy, I came in between 9 and 10 last night’.”
Finally, my dad’s comment made sense to me. There, next to the driveway, was a rotten stump where a large ancient cedar had once stood.
Ten was dead.