Photos from Libby's camera unloaded Feb2008 057

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.

Things change.

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”.

A Tribute to My Dad

Pinkie Around Christmas 2010 183

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.

“I think you’d better call that ambulance”


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.”

mechanic creeper

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…”




I Love You

picnic furniture

Although I try not to dwell on them too much, its hard not to have some regrets when I think back over my actions, words and priorities during my 35 year of marriage to Libby.  One of my big regrets is the fact that I didn’t say “I Love You” nearly enough, or at least, not nearly as much as Libby would have like for me to say it.

Now in my defense, there were some extenuating circumstances because as a child growing up in the 60’s, the term “I love you” was used only sparingly in my home. Now don’t get the wrong idea here, I had a great childhood and a very loving home but that love was demonstrated and not necessarily verbalized.

As my parents were raising me and my 3 brothers, work was valued above words and that same mentality was reinforced by our friends and our extended family, most of whom were fiercely loyal, hard-working, stoic individuals. When a friend needed help tuning up a car or even roofing a house, it was an unspoken love that was demonstrated by volunteering time to help out and a steadfast refusal to be paid for that help. As a child we were reminded by our elders, “Those who know how to do something, do it, those who don’t know how to something, talk about doing it”.

After Libby and I got married and especially after we had children, I eventually became better at telling Libby that I loved her (without being prompted) but I was always fared better expressing my feelings by writing her notes, sappy love poems and cards always ending them with “I love you”.  But try as I might, I never really got over that early influence in my life and I was most happy when I could do things for Libby, whether it was building something, planning surprise getaway trips or delivering small gifts on days when she wasn’t expecting anything.


Shortly after Libby found out that she had breast cancer, a good friend of ours from Athens, Tennessee found out that his wife had ovarian cancer and although Jack and Connie had been friends of ours for many years, the four of us were drawn closer by bond we now shared. In an odd twist of events Libby and Connie’s struggles paralleled one another, both began their fight against cancer just three months apart, both lived 5 years with cancer and then both lost their battles, once again, three months apart.

Since our wives’ deaths Jack and I still get together occasionally as charter members of a morbid fraternity which no one wants to join. We usually discuss things that we can’t talk about with “normal people”, such as the silly things that some people say to you to “comfort” you or the envy we both feel when we see an elderly couple walking hand in hand and the strange and awkward (for us at least) conversations we each seem to get into with single ladies.  (Note to self:  there are several topics for future blogs within that last sentence alone).

Now Jack, appears to me at least, to suffer from adult ADD, bouncing happily between ten topics during a five minute conversation. As Jack and I ate dinner together last weekend we discussed some of the funny conversations we have had with others and some of our regrets. I wasn’t sure Jack was even listening to me as he continued to look around during our discussion but then he suddenly surprised us both,  “You know, Barry”, he said, his eyes still darting around the restaurant as he attempted to focus his attention deficit ” There are a lot of men who say, “I love you” to their wives everyday of their married life, some mean it, some don’t; then there are the lucky ones, like you and me, who for five years were able to show our wives everyday just how much we really did love them.”