I Want To See Jesus

Libby had very definitive plans for her memorial service and those plans extended beyond her desire to have some funny stories told about our life together; she wanted her best friend Helen Hawkins to sing, “……..if Miss Helen thinks she can make it through the song without crying”.  In addition, Libby wanted me to ask our friend Doug Richesin to sing as well,  “That way,” Libby continued, “If Miss Helen doesn’t make it through her song, Doug will still be able to provide some music.”

In the days leading up to Libby’s Memorial service I talked to Doug and he said, “Barry, when I heard the news about Libby, I thought of the perfect song and I hoped you would call and ask me to sing. You see I believe that as soon as Libby got to heaven she greeted her friends and family, then said, ‘This is all great, but I want to see Jesus’, so I would like to sing  I Bowed on My Knees and Cried Holy.”

I told Doug ” I do love that song, but I’m just not sure it is appropriate for a funeral.”  Doug reminded me that Libby didn’t want a funeral or “funeral songs”, but he give me a couple of other options to consider as I thought about his original recommendation.  “While you are thinking about it,” he said, “listen to the words again, then let me know.”

The reason I hesitated to have Doug sing that particular song was because both the song and Doug’s voice are both so powerful I was afraid of the awkward moment at the end of the song when those in attendance would very likely feel the need to applaud, but like me, they had never been to a funeral where people applauded……….. for any reason.

I took Doug’s advice and began searching for his recording of the song but after looking in all of the obvious places I was about to give up, then I remembered that Libby kept some CD’s in the console of her car which had not been driven since she went into the hospital three months earlier.

I searched Libby’s car without any luck and then as a last resort I turned on the car’s ignition to eject whatever CD was still in the player.  Although some may find it hard to believe, Libby often listened to her “getting happy” gospel music at full volume, often rattling the windows, so it wasn’t complete surprise when music blasted from the speakers as I turned the key.  The surprise for me was that the song was “I Bowed on My Knees and Cried Holy” as Doug’s voice was belting it out in full volume from the car’s CD.

I am typically skeptical when someone says to me that some particular event was , ” a sign from God” because too many people use the term flippantly and many people bend the facts to fit their own personal agenda, but as I sat in Libby’s car on that March afternoon listening to that song repeatedly (still at full volume) I was confident which song I wanted for Libby’s Memorial Service.

In the end, I should not have worried about people clapping for a performance; oh, there was a lot of clapping and even some shouting, but there was no awkward moment as every one in attendance that day saw heaven through Libby’s eyes and the applause was for a life well lived not merely a song well sung.

 

The Last Great Day

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There is a common term within the cancer community or more specifically, within the terminal cancer community, often called the last great day. The problem is (or maybe it is a blessing) that by definition neither the patient nor their caregiver know that they are experiencing the last great day while it is happening:

Because of Libby’s declining health by end of her first week in the hospital we called all of Libby’s sisters and asked them to come in Saturday for what we thought might be their last opportunity see their sister but by the time they arrived things had changed.

When Libby woke up on Saturday morning she was not the same person that she had been the day before, she was alert and free of any pain or nausea. I explained to Libby that her mom and all of her sisters would be there soon which buoyed her spirits even more and she said, “If everyone is coming I need to wash my hair and get a shower”. I cautioned her about doing too much too soon but she was already out of bed and towing her IV pole toward the bathroom.

Now, to put things into perspective, Libby had barely put three words together in a sentence since she was admitted to the hospital seven days earlier.  The pain was such that she spent most of the time with a damp rag covering her face and the total extent of our conversations consisted of whispered two-word sentences such as “Morphine please” or “Bathroom, please”.

But on that Saturday it was as if Libby had awakened in a new body, she was giving me instructions on which set of pajamas to get out and how she wanted her mom to fix her hair and makeup.  In addition Libby said she was tired of being in a hospital bed, she wanted to sit in a chair and she was ready to have the IV taken out of her arm because she didn’t need anymore pain or nausea drugs.

Libby’s headaches and five seizures made Friday one of worst days that I had ever experienced, but Saturday, she was having a great day. Then, in the middle of getting ready, Libby looked up at me with a quizzical look and I was sure that she was feeling the effects of all the day’s vertical activity, instead she said “How long has it been since I’ve eaten?  I’m starving!” I told her it had been almost a week since she had any food but I would check with the nurse immediately to see if they could bring up some soup or dry toast.  Libby turned up her nose at my offer saying, “Toast? I want some real food”.  I made a few other suggestions such as a Subway, although I really thought that even a plain turkey sandwich would be pushing our luck.

Her mom and sister had arrived by now and Libby was being tended to as if she were a movie star about to be called out on set. The pampering may have brought out Libby’s inner Diva because she turned up her nose at the Subway sandwich suggestion and said, “You know what I really want?” I was so happy to have my wife back I said, “You name it and I’ll get it.”  Libby said, “I want some Champy’s chicken.”

In theory I was willing to get Libby anything she wanted but I had cleaned up enough vomit in the past week to know this was a bad idea so I gently questioned the wisdom of introducing fried chicken to a stomach that had not seen anything other than ice chips for a week. Once again Libby frowned and said, “Barry, you asked me what I wanted…you said name it… and what I really want is some Champy’s chicken.”

I left the oncology floor of the hospital to get Libby some chicken but not before she shouted, “And don’t forget the spicy dipping sauce”.  “Yes, dear” I said out loud, then under my breath, “I am going to have a real mess to clean up…”

I bought enough chicken to feed our family, the nurses on the oncology floor, the doctors, assorted residents and most of the patients (or at least the ones who could keep it down). Our family sat around most of the afternoon telling jokes, reminiscing, and eating way too much fried chicken (with spicy dipping sauce).  Libby never did get sick as she sat in a chair the entire day while we feasted and used the hospital bed for our dinning room table.

As it turned out I was felling a little guilty for “calling the family in” because when the doctor made his rounds that afternoon he said, “Wow! You look great today! It looks like that experimental drug finally got out of your system.  If things continue like this, you are definitely going home in the morning, little girl”, Then the doctor looked over at the bed he asked, ” Is that Champy’s chicken?” Libby handed him a cup of dipping sauce as he joined our party and we all celebrated this new answer to prayer during our incredibly awesome, really good, very great day!

 

 

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An ambulance ride on New Years Day landed Libby in Erlanger Hospital, but her stay lasted much longer than any of us expected. It took some time but the doctors were able to control the nausea, however they could not stop the crushing headaches which caused Libby to spend a lot of time with a damp rag draped over her eyes in an attempt to block out all light and stimuli.

The oscillation between good news and bad news increased in frequency and amplitude beginning that first day of 2014.  One of Libby’s doctors told us that the new experimental drug that she had recently started was likely the reason for her headache and nausea, “Therefore,” he said with medical confidence, “As soon as the side effects from the drug wear off, this little girl will be going home… probably tomorrow”; fantastic news that I relayed to friends and family as soon as the doctor left the room.

Before that good news got three “likes” on Facebook things changed. Helen, Jerod and I were all in the hospital room as Libby rested beneath her rag in an attempt to fight off yet another headache.  A nurse was in the room taking vitals when Libby began jerking violently, her eyes fluttered and rolled back in her head and then her body went limp. The nurse fumbled nervously for the call button and reported a code blue.

I felt useless as the room quickly filled with medical staff coming from every direction, a doctor began barking orders to the Rapid Response Team while we shrunk into a corner unable to see Libby. I remember thinking to myself, “Surely it’s not going to end like this, I haven’t even said goodbye!”

Following the initial flurry of activity, the team seemed to be doing very little to actually help Libby until one of the nurses asked, “Mrs. Gilley can you hear me? Mrs. Gilley do you know where you are?” Silence.  Seconds later she asked again, “Mrs. Gilley can you hear me?  Do you know where you are?” Then a very small, sweet voice from within the circle of white coats and blue scrubs said,  ” I know that I’m in my hospital room…but I don’t think I have met any of you.”  After some nervous laughter from the medical team Libby, a little stronger now, continued, “Why are all of you in my room?  Did I do something wrong?”

Over the next few days the seizures increased until Libby was having as many as five a day and the Rapid Response Team responded so many times that they were soon on a first name basis with us all.  Then as the seizures became almost routine we stopped calling the team or even the nurse and I eventually learned to handled the seizures myself.

At the time I could not have imagined anything worse than watching Libby have a seizure and pass out but then toward the end of the week Libby seized while her mom and sister were visiting and although I had done my best to prepare them both, it was difficult to look in her mother’s eyes while trying to coax her daughter back to consciousness.

Later that night Libby’s sister, her mom and I made the decision to call in all of the family in on the next day to see Libby, for what we all believed would be the last time.

“I think you’d better call that ambulance”

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Following a rough New Year’s Eve when Libby began vomiting uncontrollably, she actually slept well during the night and woke up feeling great on the first day of 2014.  We were confident that the suspected stomach bug had run its course, but then after getting dressed Libby developed a knee-buckling headache.

For the past 24 hours, Libby’s constant companion was a small pink plastic bowl that hospitals “give” to nauseous patients. Immediately following the crushing headache Libby was once again sick at her stomach.  I carried Libby, her pillow, her blanket and her pink bowl to the couch so she could lie flat.

The doctor had called in some anti-nausea drugs which Libby tried to keep down and I kept encouraged her to drink water and Gatorade so she wouldn’t become dehydrated.  By noon I had made the decision to take Libby to the hospital but she still couldn’t sit up, much less stand up and walk outside to the car.  Libby’s biggest concern was, of all things, her fear that she would ruin the seats and the upholstery in the car on the way to the hospital.

Lying perfectly flat on the couch and staring up at the ceiling, Libby was attempting some measure of control over the situation as she declared, “Call Miss Helen and see if she can help me get to the hospital.” Libby’s best friend, Helen Hawkins, had been  “Miss Helen” to our young boys and although they were grown, the habit remained.

To be honest I was a little hurt by Libby’s desire to have someone else help get her to the hospital so I asked a little too defensively, “What can Helen do that I can’t do?” Libby answered graciously, “Miss Helen will be able to hold my head in her lap on way to the hospital and I need you to drive us there…besides I want be as nervous if she is with me”.  I picked up the phone and began dialing, as Libby added “Oh yes, and tell her to bring some plastic Wal-Mart sacks and a change of clothes… this may get messy.”

Helen agreed to help but I was still wondering how we were going to get to the hospital, but Libby was still planning and she said, “Go into the basement and get that red ‘thingy’ that you use to roll under cars;  you can roll me off of the couch , onto the red thingy and then push me out to the car.  Then get your brothers to help lift me into the backseat like I’m on a backboard.”

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I stopped laughing when I looked down at Libby’s face and realized that she was completely serious. I told her, “I am not about to carry you to the hospital on a mechanic’s creeper (red thingy) and the last thing you should be worried about is messing up the upholstery”. I was only half-way bluffing when I added, “If you can’t sit up in a car long enough to get to the hospital then I am just going to call an ambulance!”

Another 5 minutes passed as Libby tried, unsuccessfully, to sit upright on the couch and said “Barry I think you better call that ambulance…”

Because of some close calls while pulling out of our driveway over the years, I relocated our driveway to the top of the hill for better visibility, which caused me to have to move our mailbox. Moving our mailbox, in turn, resulted in a call to to an E-911 official who suggested that we should change our address because we were told that it could be difficult for anyone to find our house if we needed emergency responders (something I never thought I would need).

On New Year’s Day 2014 Libby and I both heard the faint sounds of the ambulance’s sirens within just of few minutes of my first ever 911 call.  I was in the bedroom packing a small bag “just in case” we had to spend the night in the hospital and Libby, who always looked to find the good in every situation (and in every person) called out to me from the couch,  “Now see, aren’t you glad we changed our address…everything is going to be alright…”

 

 

 

Life’s Milestones And Wigs

The life that Libby and I shared together had some pretty major milestones during our courtship and marriage including our first date when Helen Hawkins (aka Hamburger Helper) hit a cow on the road in front of us, then there was our wedding on June 9, 1979, the purchase of our first house which cost $14,000 but took $10,000 to repair, the birth of each one of our two boys and then there was Cancer.

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Cancer so changed our lives that we would sometimes categorized past events using the abbreviations BC (Before Cancer) or AC (After Cancer). Like it or not, Libby’s cancer diagnosis was a watershed moment in our lives and it was as much a part of us as our wedding and our children.  For fifty years (BC) Libby had been known as a beloved daughter, a sweet sister and a role model for others, then as an adult she was known as a gorgeous bride, an excellent teacher and a loyal friend.  But then (AC) Libby’s identity changed to cancer patient who constantly amazed others by making the best of a bad situation.

Libby’s particular type of breast cancer needed estrogen to survive and grow, so to slow the cancer’s progress her oncologist immediately prescribed an estrogen suppressant which had it’s own unique set of problems, most notable were the intense hot flashes which happened several times every hour.  It didn’t take a keen awareness to determine the moment when one of Libby’s hot flashes started because, if we were alone at the house, her the wig would suddenly fly across the room followed by her jacket which she couldn’t seem to get off fast enough. Throwing her wig across the room became much less common after one particularly high arching toss resulted in an unfortunate encounter with the living room ceiling fan.

Some of the nicer wigs that Libby bought were Raquel Welch brand wigs, one of which had become her favorite until the day that she was cooking supper at my dad’s house.  While trying to determine if the cornbread was brown on the bottom Libby opened the lower oven door and leaned over to inspect the cornbread as 450 degrees air wafted up out of the oven and quickly “baked” her synthetic wig melting the individual hairs together as they shrank and retreated away from her face.   Libby was unfazed by the heat but her favorite red wig cooled quickly into a cohesive permanent wave on top of her head.

The thought came to me so quickly that I really didn’t have time to apply a filter, and besides I thought a humorous comment by me could relieve some of the awkward tension in the kitchen, but I have to admit that it sounded a lot funnier in head than it did when I said, “Your Raquel Welch wig looks a lot like a Donald Trump hairpiece.”

The synthetic wigs were very durable (well, except for the one she baked) easy to care for and easy to style, but one particular evening I discovered a completely unexpected benefit of having a large collection of wigs.

Libby and I were getting ready to go out and meet another couple for dinner and as Libby stood in front of the full length mirror she asked, “How does this outfit look?”  Now, in times past I had fallen into that sticky trap of answering that question incorrectly so I said, “That looks great!”  I wasn’t lying to her because I thought she looked good in nearly everything she wore.  However, I must have lacked sufficient enthusiasm in my comment because she responded, “You’re right, the colors are all wrong”.

Wait, what?

This is where years of husbandly experience came in handy and although I knew that we would be late, I knew too that it would be unwise to ask Libby to hurry up. I did, however, know exactly what to do in this situation; I went to the living room, located my TV remote, sat down in my recliner and turned on the football game as I prepared for the fashion show that would soon start in our living room as Libby went through several combinations of outfits.

I knew also that I had to be mentally prepared to give a much more enthusiastic reply when Libby modeled the next outfit if we had any hope of making our dinner reservations.  I rotated the side arm on my recliner to extend the footrest just as Libby stepped into the living room to model her outfit.  I was about to tell her how good she looked, but then I stopped myself when I realized that this must be some kind of test because she hadn’t changed clothes.

That’s when I noticed her hair, because instead of changing pants, top, shoes, pocketbook etc. she changed wigs, throwing off her brunette wig in favor of a silver one. I was genuinely impressed (by the speed of the newly coordinated colors not necessarily the colors themselves) and we were ready for our night out.  We were not late, Libby felt good about the way she looked and I was finally beginning to see the benefits of owning a large supply of wigs.

A Moment Frozen in Time

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“Hey, baby…(long pause)…where are you?”  It was Libby’s voice on the other end of our cell phone conversation on a fall morning in 2008; now, nearly six years later, every word and every awkward pause of the conversation is frozen in my mind.

I’m certainly not alone here, we all have them, those indelible moments from our past when it seemed as if time stood still, those events in our memories which are separated from the ordinary days by the preface, “I can tell you exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard about ________________.  For me, the big three were the Kennedy assassination, the space shuttle disaster and the twin tower attacks on 9/11; or at least they were before I received that call from Libby.

September 2, 2008 was a very ordinary Tuesday morning as I left my office on a short two-day sales trip with planned stops in Athens, Maryville and Sevierville, TN,; along the way I would be seeing some of my existing bank customers and calling on some new ones.  As I exited off of Interstate 75  toward Athens I was thinking about the fact that, for me at least, selling was more like getting paid to visit with friends than actual work.

Libby called my cell phone that morning and there was a strange timbre in her voice that I will always remember as she said, “Hey baby…………where are you?”  An odd question, I thought, since I had told her where I was going just a few hours ago while packing my bag.  As I began telling her again where I was going it seemed as though she wasn’t listening this time either because she said, “Oh… OK…. well that’s nice”.  After just a moment of silence, it was evident that her mind was somewhere else when she added, “Oh yea, that’s right, didn’t you tell me that already?”

Libby normally went with me on these trips but she wanted to work on her children’s program at church and besides she had scheduled her mammogram for the first thing that morning.  Libby always dreaded her mammograms which seemed to become more painful every year because of the increasing number of fibrous cysts that she developed in her breasts, in addition, the cysts made it more difficult for the radiologists to read the results, causing more than one cancer scare in the past.

As our phone conversation continued, my stomach was suddenly in knots and I still can’t fully explain what I was feeling, but the strange tone of Libby’s voice made me uncharacteristically pull off of the road so I could concentrate on the conversation, that’s when I asked, “What’s wrong Libby?”

After a brief moment of silence, Libby began, “I’m sure its nothing, I probably shouldn’t have bothered you with this but…” .  Libby then went on to explain that a new radiologists had read the mammogram and even though she explained her history of fibrous cysts he wanted her to see a surgeon for a sonogram as soon as possible, in fact, they had set up an appointment for the following day at 4:00 PM. Then in typical Libby fashion she told me, “Barry, you go ahead and keep your appointments, I’ll get Miss Helen to go with me because I am sure its just the cysts like every time before”, but I could tell from her shaky voice that she had not convinced herself of that fact.

At about the same time that Libby was saying, “Barry, you go ahead and keep your appointments…” I had already turned toward home, accelerating up the I-75 South on-ramp while Libby continued to fill me in on exactly what the doctor had said.

When it comes to the complicated science of modern medicine, most of us want instant answers and instant cures, so we often become frustrated with medical professionals when they seem rushed and even disinterested during a routine office visit but then later when you are waiting on test results, they appear to be slow and methodical. Having been on both ends of the spectrum, I can tell you that in most cases they move as fast as they need to, besides too much attention from a doctor is usually not a good thing, such as when they set up your appointment at the end of the day so that,  “…the doctor will have more time to talk to you.”, or when they personally call to arrange for additional testing and consultations setting up appointments one after the other.

Our next set of appointments came the next day (one after another) as we met the radiologist, ultrasound technician and then by 4:00 PM on Wednesday afternoon we were sitting in a surgeon’s office (his last appointment of the day) reviewing all of Libby’s charts and test results.  As we both prepared for the worst, Dr. Burns looked up from the charts and shocked us both, “Mrs. Gilley, I agree with you, the lump appears to be one of many fibrous cysts, I have seen a lot of these and I am confident that yours is not cancerous, I suggest you have another mammogram in 6 months and lets just watch it.  You are free to get dressed and leave and I would like to see you again in February.

Wasting no time in leaving, Libby and I were giddy with excitement as we went out through the deserted waiting area littered with 2-year-old magazines.  We knew that we had just dodged a bullet and our emotions were trying to recover some equilibrium after our 24 hour roller coaster ride.

Our biggest decision now was whether we should split the 8 ounce or the 11 ounce Renegade Sirloin from the Longhorn Steakhouse to celebrate. The sides would be a loaded baked potato and Caesar salad, but now Libby was holding out for the smaller 8 ounce steak so she could more easily justify the Chocolate Stampede for desert as she joked, “I have no intention splitting that with anyone!”

Holding hands like two school kids, Libby and I were in the hallway outside of the doctor’s office and I was reaching for the “down” button to call the elevator just as Dr. Burns opened his office door and joined us in the hallway. I just assumed he was heading to his car as well, but then he said, almost as an afterthought, “You know Mrs. Gilley, just to be on the safe side, step back into my office with me for just one more quick test before you leave, since you are already here”.

I am sure readers of this blog never hear voices in their head (or at least none that they admit to) but the voices in my head were screaming when Dr. Burns asked us to go back into his office, “……Push the elevator button…..He has no jurisdiction in the hallway………..He’s not the boss o’ you“.

Before either one of us fully realized what was happening, Libby was once again holding my hand, but this time with a death grip as Dr. Burns performed a biopsy with little warning and no anesthesia.  I was sick to my stomach with sympathy pains as I kept wiping away Libby’s tears with my free hand saying, “I’m so sorry Baby, I wish I could make it stop”, a statement that I would find myself repeating many times over during the next 5 years.

The Wedding

It was the summer of 1979 and my new mustard yellow Sony Walkman wasn’t much larger than the Doobie Brothers cassette tape it played. Three Mile Island was a hot topic in the newspapers, an upstart cable network company called The Entertainment and Sports Network was about to start broadcasting sports 24 hours a day, Ford Pintos seemed to be blowing up everywhere, and every red-blooded American boy had a Farrah Fawcett poster in his room (until they got married and their wife made them get rid of it).  But, if not for Google Search, I would not have been able to recall any of those memorable events that summer because they were all background clutter compared to our wedding in June of 1979.  OK, if am being honest here, I will admit that I was able to remember that poster.

Libby was the first of the Willis girls to get married and this wedding was going to be a big deal, but at that time, I had no idea what it meant to Libby or the others who would help with the planning and to the many who would witness the ceremony that day.  I was clueless about the amount of preparation involved leading up to the wedding day and only later did I realize what it meant to Libby to have her mom and sisters work so closely with her on those preparations.  I don’t think I am the least bit out of line when I say to you that no matter how stressful the time was before the ceremony and no matter how tired she must have been when the wedding day finally arrived, Libby was stunningly gorgeous on her wedding day and by far the most beautiful bride ever (hey, it is my blog, after all ).

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Libby’s family of five sisters viewed weddings completely different than did my family with it’s four boys, and like my brothers (and most other guys I knew) I did everything I could to avoid weddings, mainly because they could ruin a good day of hiking or fishing since they normally happened right in the middle of an otherwise, perfectly good Saturday, not to mention that you would have to stop what you were doing, take a shower and get dressed up right in the middle of the day.  It was hard for my male brain to understand why people planned weddings during the day, it seemed to me that if you planned a wedding for either 8:00 in the morning or 9:00 in the evening then it would allow all of your potential guest the time to enjoy their Saturday and yet, still attend the wedding.

My job during the weekend of the wedding was to make sure I was at the rehearsal on Friday night before the wedding and then, on Saturday, get my tux, my car and me, to the wedding on time.  Now, I certainly wouldn’t want to leave the reader with the impression that all I did was show up, because there was a whole lot more to my part in this wedding than that; I had to say “yes ma’am” often during the rehearsal when I was told what to do by Libby, her mom, her sisters or any other female with the authority to do so, which, in effect, was every female over the age of twelve.  In addition to saying “yes mam” at the rehearsal, ,I had to say “I do” and “I will” at several different times the next day during the ceremony itself, no easy task since the two phrases were not interchangeable (something I learned the hard way during rehearsal).  So the groom (me in this case) had to listen intently to the preacher’s questions and be prepared to give the appropriate response at the appropriate time during the ceremony.

Libby and I had built our friendship on planning events together throughout high school but I learned that I was a lost ball in high weeds when it came to wedding planning, so very quickly I took my place in the matrimonial pecking order.  After all, this was Libby’s day and I came to realize that everyone came to see her, not me.

Now, if Libby were looking over my shoulder as I typed this, which she often did, she would say something like, “Now Barry you shouldn’t write that, the wedding was not about me, it was about the vows we made before God in front of our friends and family”, but lets face facts here, this was Libby’s day.

On Saturday June 9th 1979, right in the middle of an otherwise perfectly good Saturday, Libby and I were married in front of several hundred people packed into the pews of Flintstone Baptist Church .  Among those witnesses in attendance were friends and family from both the Willis and Gilley families, our respective churches, Flintstone Baptist Church and Chattanooga Valley Church of the Nazarene, Olan Mills Studios, Red Food Store, Chattanooga Valley High School and Mercer University.  Libby had so many friends and family in the wedding party that I told her if the number of bridesmaids grew any more I would be forced to go out and make new friends in order to have an equal number of guys on my side of the church just to balance out the number of girls in the bride’s entourage.  There was, however, one obvious omission from Libby’s bridesmaids lineup, Helen Buckner (soon to be Helen Hawkins) was not among the ladies in blue (see A First Date for that explanation).

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There was a tremendous amount of preparation that went on during the months, weeks and days before the wedding and I was, of course, oblivious to most of it. With a very limited budget to decorate, plan for and accommodate the 400 or so guests, the Willis family and their friends either made or borrowed nearly everything for the wedding to decorate the church in what had to be the social event of 1979 in Flintstone, GA.

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Libby was calm, confident and radiant in her long flowing white lace dress as her dad prepared to walk his girl down the center isle of the church.  For the moment, I too was calm and confident as I stood in a small room behind the organ waiting to enter the church, but then, my pastor mentioned to me that he saw a funny thing happen to a groom once during a wedding when someone painted the words “Help Me” on the bottom of his shoes to be seen by everyone as he knelt for the prayer during the ceremony.  I nervously laughed about the poor guy’s misfortune, but then, out of curiosity, I looked at the bottom of my black shoes and saw the words, “Help Me”.  Suddenly, the musicians began playing the song which was my queue to make my entrance but I was sitting on the steps to the choir loft nervously pulling the white athletic tape off of the bottom of my rented shoes.  I was late walking in (so I already messed up on one of the things I was supposed to do) and my once calm mind was reeling with thoughts of, “I wonder what else they did…”  I eyed my groomsmen as I walked by to see which one was responsible, only to conclude that they all looked guilty.  Libby told me later that my hands were shaking as I held hers during the vows, but I said everything I was supposed to say when I was supposed to say it.

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Although my role was limited during the wedding preparation I distinctly remember a conversation Libby and I had about a current trend in weddings to change a lot of the traditional vows, modifying or even eliminating parts that many viewed as “too restrictive” or “rigid”.  Libby and I both wanted the traditional language in the vows and ironically, during our discussion of those vows she laughed and said, “Barry, you had better be sure about this ” til death do us part”  thing because I plan on living a very a long time”.

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I only had a couple of things to do during the wedding, one of which I messed up, but for more than a year I had been planning a month long honeymoon, promising Libby that it would be unlike any other, and I planned to keep that promise.

A First Date

Libby and I would meet, date, marry and raise a family in the small community of Chattanooga Valley tucked into the mountains of Northwest Georgia.  During the 60’s and 70’s most everyone in our valley knew one another or at least they knew one another’s families, often attending church and school together, or at the very least, catching up on things during the annual Chattanooga Valley Kiwanis Club Bar B Q, a summer tradition held in giant circus tents on the front lawn of the elementary school.  Although not native to the area, Libby would call the Valley home for the rest of her life after her family moved here from LaGrange, GA when her dad, Jimmie Willis, accepted the call to pastor Flintstone Baptist Church in that summer of 1971.

Even though I was slow to pick up on Libby’s ulterior motives when she brought back that ratty old jersey after collecting dust in her closet for several years,  I did eventually “get a clue” and I asked her out for our first date.   Now, I had put a lot of thought into this and decided that the “cool” factor of driving my sporty blue ’72 Chevrolet Camaro was outweighed by the fact that it had bucket seats and a center console.  I never really dated a lot in high school, it seems like I was always busy shooting pictures for the school annual, planning events and going out with a bunch of people (what our kids now call group dating).  I did, however, know enough to realize that when going on a date with just one person it was generally expected that your date would eventually sit next to you in the seat.   I wasn’t sure if Libby would decide to sit next to me on our first date or not, but at least in my mom’s ’74 Chrysler I could fold up the arm rests and make the front seat one very long bench seat, just in case she decided to slide over.

I had made reservations at a new restaurant on Brainerd Road called the Sailmaker where each table had a different movie or TV show theme and the wait staff dressed up in character.  I left my parent’s house in plenty of time even after spending most of the day washing my mom’s car and vacuuming out the interior.  Throughout high school I never really had a “girlfriend” but I did have several “girl” “friends”, but now, I had just asked Libby Willis out on a date and we didn’t have an upcoming Physics test to talk about, so it goes without saying that I was nervous and anxious about this date.

I arrived at Libby’s house a little early, fidgeting nervously as I watched Libby come down the stairs while her younger sisters, her mom, and I all looked on.  Libby’s head dropped forward-looking down at the floor, genuinely  embarrassed by all of the attention, but her sisters and her mom were all smiles, rotating their heads almost in unison back and forth, as if in a tennis match, looking at Libby and then back at me to gauge my reaction.  I could tell by the wry smiles and glances between each of them that I had been the focus of the conversation just a few minutes earlier.  But now, with the “presentation” completed and with her younger sisters holding their hands over their mouths to suppress giggles, we were finally headed out the door on our date.

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Libby and I had been friends ever since her family first moved to Chattanooga Valley six years earlier, and during all of time we were able to talk about any number of current events, plan school functions, laugh and study together for hours at a time, but now that I was about to go out on a date with her, and I silently wondered what we would talk about during dinner.  It had been less than 48 hours since Libby had shown up at my house using some flimsy excuse and my whole world was turned upside down, because now, things were different.

Looking back on it now, it’s interesting to me that when we started dating, friends from school would ask, “Hey, I heard you and Libby Willis are dating now, how’s that going?”  I would answer, trying to explain the change that I felt as I was falling in love, “It’s going good, but things are different now”.  The real irony is that I often used that statement during the time when our relationship was just getting started, and now 37 years later people will say to me, “I heard that Libby died, I am so sorry.   How are you doing?”  I normally respond, “I’m doing okay, but things are different now”.  The term, “things are different now” became the bookends of our life together marking both, the beginning of our relationship when I was falling in love, and again now as our relationship has ended and I adjust to a life without her.

As we left the Flintstone Baptist Church parsonage on our date, Libby slid just a little closer to me in the seat about the time we passed the Ace Hardware (quite possibly because we were now out of sight of her sisters, who were all looking out the window).  My worries about having nothing to talk about were short-lived as we stopped within a mile of her parent’s house because of a wreck in the “S” curve between the two bridges on Happy Valley Road.  We sat discussing the option of turning around and going through Chattanooga toward Brainerd, when I looked up and noticed that I knew the person that had just wrecked.  I turned to Libby and said, “That’s Helen Buckner, a friend of mine.  I need to go see if she is okay.”

While Libby waited in the car, I went to see if I could help and as I walked toward the wreck I noticed Helen was very animated and understandably upset having just wrecked her 1973 white Dodge Challenger .  As I walked toward the accident, Helen saw me coming and, recognizing a friendly face in the chaos, ran and put her arms around my neck and began to cry while trying to explain what had happened in between sobs and sniffles.  I was trying to understand her muffled explanation while at the same time reconciling the things she was telling me with the things happening around me, but since I couldn’t see another car I was having trouble understanding how this wreck had happened.  That’s about the time I saw the “victim” lying next to Helen’s car, a black and white, 1600 pound Holstein and according to Helen, “That heifer stepped right out in the road when I rounded the curve, and that’s when I hit her.”  The damage to Helen’s Challenger was significant, but as it turned out, the cow got the worst end of the deal.  As I was absorbing everything, Helen went on to tell me how that this was the second time she had wrecked a car by hitting a cow, which explains her apprehension in calling her dad to tell him she hit a cow and wrecked her car, again.  Soon though, Helen’s dad arrived on the scene about the same time as the farmer who owned the cow (actually steaks and hamburger now).  So with things getting back to normal and one lane of traffic open,  I told Helen that I really needed to get back to my date and she thanked me again for stopping to help, hugging my neck once more before leaving.

Pleased at myself for my good Samaritan deed, I climbed back into the car to continue our date, but now Libby seemed cold and distant and I was clueless as to why (the first of many times).  I thought if I used my reasoning skills I should be able to figure this out, so I asked, “Is there anything wrong?”  Libby said, “No, nothing”.

My first instinct was to take her word for it and just drop the subject, but her body language was telling me that things had changed since I had left the car a few minutes earlier.  Libby had moved to the other side of the car where she was looking out of the window, staring at nothing in particular and all conversation had stopped.  As we drove toward our destination I was still wondering what had happened and against my better judgment I asked nervously, “I know you said nothing was wrong earlier, but it seems like you are upset, am I missing something?  Did I do something wrong?.”  That’s when she turned completely in her seat to face me, her  head was tilted back and her arms were folded across her chest (I couldn’t help but think to myself at this point that the bucket seats may have been the better option).

“Who was that girl?” she finally asked.   Now, at last, I was starting to understand the problem.   I said haltingly, “Who…Oh you mean that girl….. Helen?    She’s nobody……She means nothing to me… We’re just friends.”  (Now, looking back, that was probably not the best way to phrase my response).  Libby had leveled a look at me (repeated often over the next 37 years) which let me know I had made a mistake and I had better figure out what I had done, fix it and not ever do it again.  The only problem was,  I didn’t think I had done anything wrong, in fact, in my mind I was showing sympathy for someone in distress and Libby should have been able to see that I was compassionate and considerate, or at the very least, chivalrous.

That night was our first of many lessons in relationships and communication and it took us both a while figure it out our responses, because we would continue to misunderstand, apologize and forgive from that day on, never mastering those lessons completely.  Today,with the advantage of hind site, I have often thought that if I knew on that first date, what I know now, I would have responded differently to Libby’s question,”Who was that girl?” I would have taken Libby Willis (Gilley) by the hand and walked with her over to Helen Buckner (Hawkins) and said, “Libby, I want to introduce you to Helen; she will be your best friend for life.”