Lessons Learned (or not)

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When Jerod and Nathan were toddlers their great grandmother (Libby’s mom’s mother) died during the spring of 1989 following a brief illness. While we were on our way back home from the funeral in Greensboro, Alabama Jerod wanted to know where Nonnie was now.  Libby and I tried to explain to our young boys in very simple terms some complex ideas that, frankly, we had trouble understanding ourselves.  It was difficult at best explaining the death of a loved one to the two restless, short attention spanned boys in the backseat of a moving car and as usual you never know how much information is actually sinking into their little brains especially when the conversation proceeds something like this, “…but dad…… why can’t we just drive over to her house and see Nonnie?”  as the younger Nathan chimes in with, “Yes daddy….please!!”  Trying to select my words carefully now I say, “Nonnie is not at her house, she is heaven with Jesus.”  Both boys appeared to be in deep thought and I was sure my bright children were considering their own mortality.  Jerod quickly broke the silence when he said,  “Ok, then can we stop for ice cream?” and Nathan followed with, “Yes daddy…….please!!”

Later that evening when we were back home, Libby was in the kitchen cooking supper and I was playing with the boys in the living room when we heard a scream coming from the kitchen; Libby had just seen a bug crawl across the floor.  Now Libby was deathly afraid of bugs and she definitely did not want to get close enough to kill one, so she called to me over her shoulder as she ran out of the room, “Barry, come kill this bug!”. As I got up to perform my manly duty Jerod quickly jumped to his feet and said, “Let me do it dad.”  I looked at Libby and shrugged my shoulders as our four year old walked into the kitchen, assessed the situation and then turned back toward his mom and me as he lifted up his cowboy boot preparing to step on the bug.  “Watch this,” he said, “I’m going to send him to see Jesus!”  I looked over at Libby and whispered, “We may need to have that heaven discussion one more time, I’m not sure that the right message got through.”

Nonnie’s was the first death in our family that our boys would experience and as it turned out, it would be the last time they experienced that kind of loss for a very long time; in fact 21 years would pass between the death of their Nonnie and the next death in our family.  When the boys were both in college Libby and I had a conversation which began with Libby saying, “I’m really worried about our boys, they have lived a charmed life”.   Not really sure where all of this was going I asked what she meant by “charmed life”.  Libby said, “Well, except when they were toddlers, they have never experienced the loss of a loved one.”  Libby went on to explain how she was afraid that because our boys had been spared that particular agony they never developed the skills to deal with the loss of someone that they love.  I told Libby that they were smart boys and we would just have to pray that we had laid enough groundwork in other areas of their lives to carry over, because they would certainly have their share of grief sooner or later,besides there was nothing that either one of us could do that would delay or speed up that experience for them.

Sadly, beginning a few months after that conversation, our boys would get multiple opportunities to develop grieving skills as their cousin Samantha Gilley, grandmother Joyce Gilley, grandfather Jimmy Willis, uncle Michael Gilley and then finally, their mom Libby Gilley all “went to see Jesus”.

“We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9 NIV).

Libby’s Admission of Guilt

A few years after Libby and I were married the radio offered two primary music genres, either “pop” music which, at the time, featured the Bee Gees and Elton John or country music which was highlighting a new band on the rise named Alabama. Libby and I enjoyed many of the songs of that Fort Payne band, so when it was announced that Alabama would be playing a concert in Chattanooga I decided to surprise Libby with two tickets so that she and one of her friends could have “a girls night out”.

Now Libby was quick to explain to friends that, at the time, she had a schoolgirl crush on Randy Owen, the bearded lead singer for Alabama, so after enjoying the concert, the girls decided to stay and try to get some autographs.  When they finally got to the front of the line for their autographs Randy asked Libby if she would like to have her picture made with him. The star struck Libby thought it would a great way to cap off a fun evening so she said yes.  That’s when things got interesting; as Libby posed shoulder to shoulder with her new best friend Randy Owen, she soon became uncomfortable when he put his arm around her for the picture, but that was nothing compared to what happened next.

With several, young girls screaming and yelling in the line behind Libby, the volume of noise was pretty high as they posed for pictures, so it was understandable that Libby had a hard time hearing Randy when he asked her if she wanted a kiss.  It was unclear from the explanation of the events whether it was Randy Owen’s boldness, Libby’s naïveté or the groupie noise from the line behind them, or all three, that combined to make communication difficult, but all Libby heard was a garbled sentence. Libby said that she knew Randy had asked her a question so she turned to face him, leaning in closer so she could hear him above the screams and asked, “What did you say …?.”   But, just as Libby turned her head toward him, Randy interpreted her movements as consent and proceeded to kiss a very flabbergasted Libby on the mouth with his arm still around her shoulder so she was unable to move.

Later that evening when Libby got home I asked her how she enjoyed the concert and I remember a very strange look on her face.  Libby said to me,  “Barry we need to talk….”, five words that, from Libby, almost always prefaced a long unpleasant conversation. For those who knew Libby’s personal code of ethics and the high moral standard that guided her decisions, you will understand more than most people, how foolish and guilty Libby felt after what had happened following the concert.  Libby’s guilt was magnified since she joked with me before the concert saying, “Are you sure you trust me to go to the concert without you knowing Randy Owen will be there?”

I knew without even hearing the details that Libby had done nothing wrong, but she insisted on explaining what happened and telling me how embarrassed she felt for letting herself get caught up in the moment and acting like a silly school girl.  I kept trying to tell her that there was nothing to be ashamed of and that she was not at fault, but it seemed that no amount apologies or discussions relieved the guilt in her mind.  I would like to be able to report that I cupped her hands in mine, looked deep into her eyes and reassured her that my love was forever and I was not worried about silly circumstance at a concert….

The truth of what happened next was nothing like the tender romantic interlude that I just described.  I said to Libby a little too enthusiastically, “You know, if you feel that guilty about kissing Randy Owen”  (this is the point at which Libby reminded me quiet forcibly that she didn’t kiss Randy, Randy kissed her). “Okay sorry” I said, starting over, “You know if you feel that guilty about Randy Owen kissing you , maybe I could kiss Christie Brinkley and we could call it even”?

Looking back now, I probably could have handled that differently, although my off-the-cuff remark stopped Libby from talking about the concert since she elected not to talk to me at all for long time, but it didn’t do a lot to help build our relationship.

The irony here is that two years ago Libby was invited to attend a pink gala celebrity concert complete with limo ride and a pink carpet entrance to benefit the MaryEllen Locher Foundation and honoring cancer survivors. The celebrity that was giving the concert was Randy Owen and Libby and I were invited back stage for a private reception before the concert but when given the chance to talk to Randy this time she refused, keeping an arms length away from him all evening.  I couldn’t help but tease her just a little and say, “Libby, just say hi to him, he probably remembers you.”   I detected a slight blush in Libby’s face just before I had to avert my eyes because I was getting “the look”.

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