Unprepared for Regret, Part X: Farewell, My Jillian

Fair warning: This will be a long post — as in, short story length. It’s the last in the tribute series to my late wife, Jill Rinehart, who died in the early morning on this date in 2019. All the entries (linked at the bottom, if you’re interested) form a record of my grief and my struggle through it, and though I know the struggle will continue, it’s time for this series of posts to end.

I wrote this in sections over a fairly long period of time. As a result, it may come across as a little disjointed….

My Jillian

I started calling Jill “Jillian” when we were in high school, and I was the only one to do so. She signed her name “Jill” to everyone but me, and once or twice when other people called her “Jillian” she either corrected them herself or asked me to do it. It was my special name for her, and no one else’s.

Yesterday: A Day of Remembrance

Yesterday, I relived parts of Jill’s last day, in an attempt to remember and honor her. That day in 2019 was difficult but not entirely bad … but then it gave onto the worst day ever.

Yesterday was a fine, beautiful, blue-sky day — much as it was last year. I walked the pup around the soccer fields, as I’d done that morning when Jill went to her doctor’s appointment (which I should have gone to with her, but she didn’t think she needed me to). In the afternoon, I took Twix with me to the NC Art Museum, since that’s where Jill had gone to relax after her appointment freaked her out, and we spent a little over an hour walking the grounds and chatting with Stephanie.

In the late afternoon, I went to the restaurant where the two of us had supper; I ate alone, with Jill’s picture on the table across from me. And as the sun was setting Twix and I walked the last walk the three of us had taken together at Bond Park. I recalled, as much as I could, what we talked about and how we joked and cut up and generally had fun, neither of us knowing that would be the last time we would ever walk together. Christopher met us at the end of the walk, and we talked a while about his mom and how much she meant to us.

Later in the evening, I went up to Jillian’s art studio, because that’s where she had gone that night a year ago. She had spent the remainder of that evening making example pieces for a Halloween-themed tic-tac-toe set (with its own little tin) that her class was going to make the next day. She had shown the pieces to me, including the little clay Jack-o-Lantern, before she baked them to set the clay, and put everything in the tin before she came to bed that night. It had sat on her studio desk ever since, but last night I finally opened the tin and played a game of tic-tac-toe with the set she had made.

When bedtime came, I laid on her side of the bed for the first time ever, just to feel a little bit closer to her. I prayed to sleep through midnight, which thankfully I did, and not to dream of her last gasp; and, truth to tell, I prayed a little bit that I might not wake up at all, just as I had done in the early days of her being gone. But wake up I did, to finish this tribute.

I wish I could have dreamed of her, looking back at me as she walked up the steps to the next world. I hope when my time does come that she will extend her hand back to welcome me.


(One of my favorite pictures of Jill, taken at Brookgreen Gardens in 1982 by her brother Jeff Briggs. She’s wearing her prom dress, and I love the playful way she’s looking back at the camera. I imagine her walking up those steps into Heaven, and looking back to say that everything’s okay.)

Where I Am Now

I am lost and I am found. Weak and weary. I tried to reach outward, failed, and have been collapsing inward.

On the advice of counsel — i.e., my therapist — for most of the past year I’ve tried to catalog pleasant memories of my time with Jill. Where I’ve succeeded, it’s because we had many good times together. Where I failed, it’s either because I’ve let some bad time overshadow the good or because (as I’ve mentioned in previous installments) my memory is not as reliable as my imagination.

I know it’s unrealistic to wish that I could recall every movie we saw together, every dinner we had, every time we hiked in the woods or walked on the beach or did anything where we talked and laughed and enjoyed one another’s company. I’m grateful that there were enough of those times that they begin to blend together and don’t stand out from one another.

Of course I’ve enjoyed looking at photographs she took when we were together, and even though my memory of the specifics may be faulty I can recall enough to know that we enjoyed those trips, those evenings in the park, those dessert treats, those simple pleasures. But I also know there were times I missed, and I hate having missed them. For instance, I look at the hundreds and hundreds of pictures she took when she went on outings by herself, on what the author of The Artist’s Way called “artist dates,” and while I know she enjoyed and was energized by those outings I find myself wishing that I could have gone on many (if not most) of them with her. And if I dwell on that kind of thing too long, regret piles on regret.

I just still miss her very much. I find it difficult to express how much I miss her — more on that later — and how badly I still wish she would be waiting for me when I get home, or how badly I wish I would look up to see her pulling up in the driveway, or how badly I would like to wake up in the morning and know she was there and have to sneak downstairs to let the dog out to avoid waking her up too early.

Memorable Moments

Where my memories have been weak, over the past few days I’ve tried to recharge them by re-watching some videos from when our children were young. Jill had done so last year in advance of working to make them into digital movies; she only ever completed one test movie, but it’s nice to think that a lot of her down time last year included revisiting those memories.

I’ve been a little bothered by watching segments in which Jill filmed the children while I wasn’t there. Some made sense — for instance, they spent the day at the beach at Vandenberg AFB while I was at work — but some hurt, like the Easter egg hunt I missed because the Air Force had sent me elsewhere for that weekend. I hate that I missed those moments, though I realize that it would have been impossible to be available for all of them. But I also miss the moments we did have together, and even more the moments we could have had.

Before I started the video watching (which I haven’t finished yet), I also read through the journals I kept for a few years. They weren’t diary entries — most of the notes were snippets of articles or stories I was trying to write — so I didn’t record very many details of the days, and when I did it was usually because something had gone wrong. Reading them was not altogether pleasant, then, but I did discover some entries that made me smile:

  • 3 December 1993: A note about walking down the street and having a streetlight go out reminded me of a specific memory of walking with Jill down the sidewalk at Clemson when we were students. We had been approaching Riggs Hall (with Tillman Hall at our backs), and I decided in a fit of exuberance to swing around one of the light poles in somewhat the same way Gene Kelly did in Singing in the Rain. But as soon as I did it, the light went out! That took us both by surprise, and we laughed together and ran down the sidewalk for fear of being caught. And from then on, from time to time we would walk past a light pole and the light would go out, and we would laugh together at the memory.
  • 22 July 1994: I wrote that Jill, who loved to build our fires when we went camping, “threw some old potato chips into our campfire and we watched them flame up from the oil they were fried in,” after which we discussed which brand of chips would work best if we needed to build a fire quickly.
  • 2 March 1995: “I am so happy, so pleased with the love and care Jill puts into our lives. For Stephanie’s birthday cake she used Lion King decorations; for Christopher’s she used miniature trucks and tractors. She is a wonderful wife, a great mom. I can’t do enough to show her how much she means to me.”
  • 13 March 1995: “I may not write many of the stories I’ve got rattling around in my skull, but I think afternoons like this one — playing Frisbee with Stephanie and Christopher and Jill — may make up for it.”
  • 20 March 1995, when I was traveling on temporary duty: “I do so enjoy the little notes Jill leaves for me in my luggage; if she traveled more I could return the favor more often.”
  • 3 August 1995: “Read an old letter Jill wrote to me — she found it today in her cleaning up for our move. I am still surprised that she fell in love with me.
    “I’m glad, but I’m still surprised.”
  • 19 August 1995, while I was in training for that next assignment: “Jill, Stephanie, and Christopher are safe in Colorado Springs — thank God for Alexander Graham Bell’s magic machine. If only I could send my arms with those electrons and give them a hug.
    “I can hardly keep my thoughts straight: I think of how loving Stephanie is, how much fun Christopher is, how beautiful and caring Jill is. I miss them so. I want to come home and have Steph and Chris run to hug me — I want them to seek me out wherever I might be to show me their latest creations or tell me about something that happened that day. I want to stop Jill on her way to do something and give her a hug — she complains when I do it that it’s just to annoy her, but I think she needs those hugs as much as I do. I like hugs.”
  • 22 March 1996: “Just back from comet gazing. Hyakutake looks pretty good, even through a pair of binoculars. I’m not sure if Stephanie and Christopher could really pick it out, or if they just said they could so they could get in the van. Jill enjoyed it though — I am very fortunate to have a wife who enjoys the same things I do — when we got back from our jaunt (we had driven eastward to get away from most of the city lights), she lay on the front lawn to look at it some more. (It was visible here at the house after all, but not as bright.)”
  • 9 June 1996: “I often wonder how I got where I am. How was I able to convince my Jillian to marry me, and how have we been able to build a (relatively) stable family? How have I been able to enjoy this level of success in (and out of) the Air Force? The short answer is, I don’t know.
    “I certainly feel blessed.”
  • 25 June 1996, after a couple of difficult days: “Our night on the beach was close to being perfect. The moon had set, and the only lights came from stars and beach houses — most of the houses were dark, and the brightest lights were diffused glows of condominiums to the north and south. Where we were and where we walked, we enjoyed the darkness; reflected glow from the shallow water framed our footsteps.”
  • 4 July 1996: “The four of us sat on the blanket, playing rock-paper-scissors while we waited for the fireworks to start. Fireworks and Frisbee, root beer and rice crispy treats, a blanket in the grass — in such moments, few and far between as they are, I can forget the rest of the world and allow myself to be happy.”
  • 15 June 1997: “So insignificant they may seem to an observer, they are priceless to me: the little touches, the holding hands, small expressions of intimacy, but vital and important to me.”
  • 16 January 2001: “I realized the other day that sometimes I’m afraid to admit how much I love her. Even to myself. The magnitude overwhelms me, and I’m afraid to think about it for too long.”

Some entries were not so sweet, though, and made her loss and my grief even more palpable:

  • 19 September 1995: “Why do I torture myself?
    “Why do I play these scenarios in my mind?
    “I should not ask why, the answer is too clear: fear. I am afraid of that which has always unnerved me, that thing that happened once, long ago, in another time, another place. I am afraid of losing her, of not getting her back. Maybe it is a function of missing her, wishing I could touch her, hug her, rub her feet, brush her hair. I force myself to take deep breaths to slow my heartbeat — my evil imagination is working overtime.
    “It doesn’t matter which scenario plays — they all leave me breathless, gasping, sweating, shaking. I swallow down the nausea; I wish my intestines would unravel. Sometimes it is death. In the course of hoping she is safe I encounter the fear that she is not, until that fear takes control and I hear the telephone ring, the voice on the other end with horrible news. The tears I fight are real enough. Sometimes it is my death — a near miss in an automobile or a news report or whatever, and suddenly I see her receiving the word and I want to hold her, tell her it’s not true, dry her tears and kiss her eyes and make it all right again. But I cannot, and again I fight my own tears. Sometimes they win.
    “In these imaginings I lose her forever — I feel as empty as a balloon….”
  • 19 November 1995: “What is it about a woman’s tears?
    “What is it in me that wants to conquer them, overthrow them? That wants to hold Jillian so tightly my arm starts to ache, that wants to wipe away or kiss away those tears — but that is not enough.
    “The tears are not the problem — the stress and pain pushing out the tears is the real problem. And unfortunately I am more part of the problem than the solution. I am caught in a bizarre and unintended hypocrisy: treating and causing the symptoms at the same time.
    “Would that I were wiser.”
  • 9 February 1996: “A photograph cannot hug you back. Pictures never call your name. They are mute, lifeless reminders, silently echoing empty promises.”
  • 19 June 1997: “Jill says she is getting tired of my insecurities. She has no idea the depth to which they run.”
  • 25 July 1997: “Lord, hear my prayers, see my tears.
    Do dreams really come true? I want to believe they do, they have — her love for me, my love for her, our love for each other seem too much like a dream that came true, too good to be true. Why can’t I accept it?
    “I want to trust you. I want to abandon myself, but I hold on to myself too hard. I want you to make me whole again.
    “Lord, please send this message to Jillian while she is away: please let her know how much, how fervently, how completely I love her. Please let her know I am still in love with her. Please let her know how much I miss her, how much I need her, how much of a blessing she is to me, how sorry I am for always hurting her, how badly I want to make things right again.
    “Thank you for listening. Lord, please fill me with your love, with your spirit, with your peace.”
  • 27 February 1998: “A thought occurred to me while driving into work this morning: how sad it would be to die at work. Sad to die anywhere, that is (I seem to be over my latest thoughts to the contrary), but especially sad to die, say, at one’s desk amid the day-to-day mix of tedium and stress that is the work world.
    “Better, it seems, to die at home amid the day-to-day mix of domestic tranquility and strife. Why? It seems better to die among those you truly love, to be able to have your last thoughts of them and maybe even tell them how much they mean to you, than to die miles away from them among people who are mostly only acquaintances rather than friends.
    “Maybe.”
  • 2 July 1999, when the family was on vacation while I was working, an entry that rings truer than ever in my grief: “This morning, in the all too brief moment before I woke fully, I could almost believe Jill was there with me. It seemed, for that instant, that I could have stretched out my arm and put my hand on her — but then I was awake, the moment passed, and I was alone. Maybe more alone than before.”
  • 29 August 2007: “Things keep happening so fast, it seems — days full of activity (which is good), but little time to reflect (not so good)….
    “Daily now I pray that my family will have good days at school — Jill teaching (that is, helping the teacher) at Chesterbrook, Steph at UNC-G, Chris at Green Hope — and I wonder if I’ll get to go back to school myself someday. I think I would like that, but it’s not going to happen anytime soon. Not with the budget so tight that I may have to borrow money to pay the tax bill next month.
    Things certainly haven’t worked out the way I thought they would since I retired. Maybe they never do, and maybe that’s okay.”

No, things haven’t worked out the way I thought they would. And I can say with certainty that it’s not okay for me.

How Much I Miss My Jillian

In truth, I cannot express how much I miss her. I don’t want to overstate the case, but the simple fact is that I do still miss Jill, and I suspect I always will to some degree. I know I want to always remember all the best things about her. I hope that makes sense.

I thought maybe I was getting better — “better” is not really the right word — over the summer, or that I was getting more used to things, because the periods of sadness had started coming less often and in many respects had been stinging less. It had become a simple fact, that I just missed her, rather than something that controlled my reactions or dominated my days.

The last two weeks gave the lie to that. Partly, that’s been because (as mentioned above) I’ve immersed myself in scouring old journals and watching old videotapes for any mention of good times we had. I’ve been able to laugh at things we said, and smile at the way she took care of the children, and let her voice wash over me and feel the love I had for her. What a marvelous experience! The still pictures we downloaded from her computer or I scanned in from old photographs, the artworks on the walls, the clothes in her closet or books on her shelves, lack that immediacy, that impact.

Instead of trying to quantify how much I missed Jill, early in 2020 I started making a list of things I missed about her. I added to it over time, until now it is quite lengthy. In general, I miss the things we did together, and the things she did for me and the things I did for her. I deeply miss the security of having a partner in life, or at least the feeling of security that I had because I had a partner.

Some of the many things I miss about my Jillian, in alphabetical order because I couldn’t figure out any better way to sort them:

  • Brushing her hair
  • Buying her flowers as a surprise, whether I put them in a vase or hid them in the refrigerator for her to find them, and hearing her reaction (usually something like, “Oh, pretty!”)
  • Going light-looking at Christmastime (from very early on, when we went to see the lights at the Hammock Shops in Pawleys Island), or going to any special holiday celebration — a play, a cantata, the “Lessons and Carols,” anything
  • Going out to breakfast with her on Saturday mornings — we had a rotation of local places, some of which she gave her own names to — or going out to eat with her anywhere, whether for a casual meal or a formal affair like an Air Force Dining Out
  • Helping her when I could, whether with her work or around the house or wherever (which I don’t feel I did often enough)
  • Holding her hand
  • Hugging her — including interrupting her when she was headed somewhere or in the middle of some chore (it irritated her some, as I noted in a journal entry, but I think she still appreciated it)
  • Kissing her hello or goodbye or for no reason whatsoever, and often with a double kiss for emphasis
  • Laughing with her, whether at a TV or improv show or at something one of us said — even when it was inappropriate, like during communion one Sunday morning at Springs Community Church in Colorado Springs: As we took the bread, we both sniffed at it a little bit and Jill leaned over and said it smelled like tuna, to which I replied, “Yeah, it’s the loaves and the fishes” … she sat there for a second or two, and then she started to chuckle, and then we both put our hands over our mouths to keep from laughing too loud … it was terribly irreverent, but it made for a memory we recalled several times in the years since
  • Listening to books on CD on long drives, or reading to each other — and when Steph and Chris were old enough, having them read to us
  • Listening to the ideas she had about her art classes, and her listening to any oddball suggestions I made
  • Looking at her artwork — for instance, having her come to the railing outside her studio and hold up something she’d just finished for me to see
  • Opening the car door for her, or opening doors for her when we went somewhere
  • Opening the front door for her to welcome her home, from school or work or the store — and telling the dog, “Mama’s home!”
  • Playing games — whether just games of Scrabble or Rummy between the two of us, or larger games with family and friends
  • Rubbing her feet
  • Saying “I love you,” and more than that, hearing her say it — something we did several times every day we were together
  • Sitting in the same area together, whether on the couch watching TV, or on the front porch enjoying the sunshine, or anywhere we could talk or laugh together
  • Smelling her cooking
  • Smelling her perfume (she never used much)
  • Talking about things we wanted to do or places we wanted to go
  • Talking about what we had read or seen or done that day
  • Telling her about my story ideas or letting her read my lyrics-in-progress, and hearing her feedback
  • Walking with her — with or without dogs, in the neighborhood, in the woods, on the beach, in the mountains — which may be why that last walk we took together became so important to me
  • Washing her back
  • Watching her bathe
  • Watching particular things with her on television — for instance,
    • The Big Bang Theory, and laughing at ourselves because the show makes fun of nerds and we were both nerds
    • The Amazing Race, and talking about the places we might visit and whether or not we would be able to complete the challenges … and whether or not we would still be together if we tried to do something like that, or if the pressure of it would tear us apart
    • House Hunters International, usually before we went to sleep, and talking about the places we might want to go (and the places we would never want to go), and which house we thought the people should choose — the DVR in the bedroom is full of over 200 episodes I haven’t been able to watch
    • and some additional shows that she liked more than I did, like Survivor or Dancing With the Stars — I didn’t watch them regularly with her, but I tried to catch them once in a while just to be close to her and talk about the things she liked

I suppose anyone who had a good, long-lasting marriage could make a similar list, and can relate to the sudden absence of things that might individually seem almost insignificant, but together were absolutely priceless.

That Regret for Which I Was Most Unprepared

In the first “Unprepared for Regret” installment, I included this in the list of regrets:

… things I’ve learned about that I didn’t know, that at times during our marriage she was unhappy or dissatisfied or depressed: specifically, for not having clearer vision and more wisdom to see what was wrong and know how to help; for being self-absorbed and ignorant … not uncaring or unconcerned, really, but stupidly blind to her needs

The more I’ve learned from letters she kept, the more I’ve come to realize that the regret for which I was most unprepared was her regret — that she at times regretted marrying me or being with me. Dwelling on that has come very close to destroying me over the past months. Every time I think about her being sad, or ever wishing she was somewhere else, I feel as if my heart is going to implode.

I have no way of knowing how many times over the thirty-four years of our marriage that Jill wished to leave, or how far she might have gone in planning to leave. I know that one time a friend wrote to warn her about the worst-case scenarios in divorce, and another time her parents wrote to her about going back to live with them when Jill felt I was smothering her. Why she didn’t leave, I’ll never know.

Fifteen years ago, for instance, Jill gave me a choice — an ultimatum — between her (and the family) and the Air Force.

That story starts with Jill calling me as I was getting ready to leave work. (I was working out near Dulles Airport that day, instead of in the Pentagon.) She said she was out in the area, and asked if I’d like to meet her for an early supper. When I got to the restaurant, she said she had an overnight bag in the car and reservations at a nearby hotel if I was interested — but that first we needed to talk.

And talk we did. She was tired of the strain the Pentagon assignment was putting on the family and our relationship, and told me very clearly that if something didn’t change I would come home one day and she and the children would be gone. My reply was simple: At the first opportunity, as soon as I was eligible to retire, I would put in my paperwork. Because she and the family were more important to me than my career.

But the point is that my Jillian thought about leaving me, thought her life would be better without me — or at least without that version of me.

Let me be clear that I have never thought of myself as perfect in any way. In the manner of all of us being our own worst critics, I probably magnify my faults in my own sight (I am very close to them, so they appear large, and I scrutinize them quite often), but I know my faults are legion. But facing my imperfections has been easy compared to facing what I now see as the abundantly clear imperfections in my marriage. I’m not sure if I thought our relationship was unassailable, or if I believed that her devotion matched mine, but to find that at any point she earnestly desired to leave — that she had any regrets about being with me — has been a heartbreak far beyond that of losing her.

I was utterly unprepared to learn that.

And, yet, despite whatever misgivings she had, she stayed with me. We worked out the things I knew about, and she somehow worked through things I didn’t. She remained my wife and my life partner, in the best sense, in the sense that she stuck around when she could have left.

And then suddenly, unexpectedly, a year ago she was gone, and I lost every chance to apologize or make amends for how I had hurt her.

All I Ever Wanted

It’s strange that I didn’t find the words to articulate this until yesterday.

You may think that I’m about to write that Jillian was “all I ever wanted” in a woman, or girlfriend, or wife, but that’s not exactly it. Who’s to say that someone else might have been just as good a partner, just as good a friend, just as good a mother? No, the thought I had yesterday had more to do with our relationship as a whole, than with her as a person.

So here’s the indivisible bit at the core of my relationship with Jill: All I ever wanted was for her to be proud to be my wife.

Not necessarily proud of me as a person — as an Air Force officer or writer or whatever, as a husband, as a man — though that might be part of it. Not necessarily proud of our children, though she had every reason to be (and was more responsible for their good qualities than I ever was). Not proud of what we had in terms of our house or material possessions, because while we did okay we remained contentedly middle class.

No, I wanted her to be proud to stand by my side. Proud to sign her name “Jill Rinehart.” Proud to introduce me as her husband, or for me to introduce her as my wife.

It was a crushing blow to learn, as I mentioned in the previous section, that she sometimes regretted being married to me. But I think at least sometimes — during our better days, and I hope particularly during our later days — she was able to be proud of our marriage.

I wish she were here, so I could ask her, but more so that I could do whatever it would take to make her proud.

I always said I would do anything for Jillian. And maybe what I’m doing now counts for that. Maybe trying to honor her by writing these words, or by posting our best memories on Facebook, count for that. Maybe my tears, maybe bearing the sadness and the pain and the grief, are part of what I pledged to do for her. But would they make a difference? I don’t know.

Better Life

I believe that my life was better because Jill was in it, and I hope that most of the time she thought hers was better with me. I think we made a good team, and I hope she would agree.

I believe my life would be better if she were still in it, but I don’t know if hers would be better if she were still here. She was very afraid something was going to happen during her surgery or her recovery — we talked about it the day before she died, but I only recently learned that she had also confided her fears in one of her best friends. Maybe the surgery would have gone well; I have no way of knowing. But even if it had, the recent virus hysteria would have been very difficult for her, and she might have been miserable for the past year — or even taken ill from it. It may well be that losing her a year ago meant that we didn’t have to see her suffer. That’s hard to accept, but I suppose it would be a fair trade.

I admit that I’ve wondered from time to time if everyone else’s life might have been better if I had died instead of Jillian. It would have been hard on her: she would have had to postpone her surgery from that Wednesday because she would have been making the kind of arrangements that we made for her. I’m sure she would have had good support, but I know that she was not confident in handling the household finances on her own. And then the virus scare still would have come along to take its toll. I suppose she would have had her own regrets to deal with, her own moments of doubt and distress. And while I think the children would probably do better with her than with me — a mother’s love is so much more enveloping and affirming than a father’s love — I would not wish for her to carry even a fraction of the grief that I’ve borne.

So here I am, trying to figure out how to go on with life. I’ve gone through with some of the home improvement projects Jill and I had planned to do — replaced the siding on the house, replaced the old back deck — but for the most part they only remind me that she’s gone. They look great, they’re very well done, and I loathe the thought of enjoying them without her.

I continue to miss her and to wish that she were here, not as a way of denying that she’s gone but simply because of how much I loved her and continue to love her. And in a very selfish way, I wish she were here so that I would never have learned that she had ever been so unhappy with me.

Farewell, my Jillian. I hope you are happy — happier — the happiest you have ever been, or could ever be. And I hope to see you again, and when I do to hear you say that you love me.

___

Previously in the series:
Unprepared for Regret
Unprepared for Regret, Part II: Valentine’s Day
Unprepared for Regret, Part III: Jill’s Last Day
Unprepared for Regret, Part IV: The Day Jill Died
Unprepared for Regret, Part V: Six Months Gone
Unprepared for Regret, Part VI: Our Anniversary
Unprepared for Regret, Part VII: Hollow Birthday to Me
Unprepared for Regret, Part VIII: Independence is Overrated
Unprepared for Regret, Part IX: Forever Autumn?

P.S. If you’ve never read it, you can read Jill’s obituary here.

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Unprepared for Regret, Part IX: Forever Autumn?

(This post should be the next-to-last in the tribute series to my late wife, Jill Rinehart. I plan to close this record of the grief I’ve struggled with, on the anniversary of her death: 19 October. All the entries so far are linked at the bottom, if you’d like to read through them.)

A year ago yesterday, I took the pup on a walk. Twix and I walked down part of the Cary greenway system I’d never been on before, and some possible song lyrics came to me. I remember crying a bit as I sang them, but by the time I fished my phone out of my pocket to record them I no longer had the words quite right. What I thought of as the chorus, pieced together from the snippets I recalled, went something like,

“And I apologize for every time I’ve hurt you or done you wrong
And I know I can’t make up for them in this simple song
Things I wish I’d done differently come upon me like a curse
All the times I hurt you, the embarrassments and worse”

Obviously it would need a lot of work to get it to scan better and take out the repetition, but as noted, I know it’s not what came to me at first. At the time, I actually dictated, “It is very difficult to remember what I said before, especially when the dog wants to keep walking.”

I don’t remember now what I was thinking about, and I never showed those notes to Jill. I don’t know which I regret more, but clearly even before she died I regretted having caused her any trouble.

But that was a year ago yesterday.

Today is the first day of autumn. The autumnal equinox. Daylight and night are equal, at the equator. Things are supposed to balanced.

But they’re not all that balanced for me. Not quite yet. As this graphic, shared by a friend on Facebook recently, shows, widowhood is not exactly known for inspiring balance in our lives:


(I’m not sure who made this “I’m a Widower” image, but it gets the point across even with the editorial mistakes.)

But I have hope that balance will be restored.

The title of this entry comes from my favorite song from Jeff Wayne’s musical version of The War of the Worlds. “Forever Autumn” was sung by Justin Hayward (of one of my favorite bands, The Moody Blues). And when Jill died last October, as autumn was reaching its crescendo here in North Carolina, I thought it was both poignant and fitting:

“The summer sun is fading as the year grows old,
And darker days are drawing near,
The winter winds will be much colder,
Now you’re not here.”

And many times in the past eleven months I thought it might even be prophetic:

“A gentle rain falls softly on my weary eyes
As if to hide a lonely tear
My life will be forever autumn,
‘Cause you’re not here”

If you had asked me in the early days after she died, I would have said my life truly would be forever autumn without Jill — or that if it ever proceeded into winter it would be “always winter but never Christmas” (as Narnia was for a time in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe).

I don’t feel that way so much anymore, and at times I regret it. At times I think I should carry that torch a little higher, for a little longer — but it’s a dreadful thing, and I’ve been grateful to be able to put it down, even for a little while.

In many ways I feel as if my heart and my life have been pieced back together haphazardly: the shape is about right, but there are gaps, missing pieces. Some of the pieces might be around here somewhere — in a drawer, in a coat pocket, in a long-unopened box — but I fear that some of them have been pounded to dust underfoot, or by the weight of failure, or in the grinding gears of doubt. Would that the cracks might be filled with gold, like Japanese “kintsugi” or “kintsukuroi” pottery, but I’ll be lucky to fill them with plain red clay.

I need the cracks in my heart to be filled, though, and I have begun to do so, which is why I put a question mark in the title of this entry. People like you have been instrumental in helping, with a piece here or a bit of filler there, including one special person who has helped me see that my broken-but-mending heart may be whole enough to love again. So I don’t feel quite so strongly anymore that “my life will be forever autumn” because Jill is gone.

I still have a ways to go (as we say in the South), and autumn will still turn into winter, but I have hope that winter will eventually turn to spring again — and that I will welcome it instead of regretting it.

Thank you for all you’ve done to help me along.
___

Previously in the series:
Unprepared for Regret
Unprepared for Regret, Part II: Valentine’s Day
Unprepared for Regret, Part III: Jill’s Last Day
Unprepared for Regret, Part IV: The Day Jill Died
Unprepared for Regret, Part V: Six Months Gone
Unprepared for Regret, Part VI: Our Anniversary
Unprepared for Regret, Part VII: Hollow Birthday to Me
Unprepared for Regret, Part VIII: Independence is Overrated

P.S. If you’re interested, you can read Jill’s obituary here.

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Unprepared for Regret, Part VIII: Independence is Overrated

Today we observe Independence Day — the day our Founders signed the Declaration they had voted approval of two days prior, claiming for themselves and for us “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

This year, however, I think perhaps independence (and particularly personal independence) is overrated. Not unimportant, certainly, but not all-important. So I will observe the day — put out the flag, sing some patriotic songs, fire up the grill — but I doubt that I will celebrate it as eagerly, as deeply, as I once did.

(Before we go further, a reminder: This post is another in a series that has been a tribute to my late wife, Jill Rinehart, and a record of the grief I’ve struggled with since she died last October. The previous installment was on my birthday. All the entries so far are linked below.)

In the spirit of the day, here’s a picture of Jill and me on the 4th of July in 2017, touring the Chickamauga Battlefield after a pleasant visit (and lunch!) at my boss’s house:


(With Jill at the Chickamauga Battlefield, 4 July 2017.)

Can you guess why I might think independence is overrated?

Because, having lost my life partner with whom I had spent over 34 years of marriage, I haven’t found my resultant “independence” to be all that enriching. As Scripture says,

And the Lord God said, “It is not good for the human to be alone. I shall make him a sustainer beside him.” (Genesis 2:18, translated by Robert Alter)

Better than independence, for me, was interdependence. Mutual support, mutual respect, individual freedom within the structure of our relationship. We were each independent to a certain degree: Jill had her teaching and her art and her plants, and I had my work and my writing and my music. But we also worked together as a team. We planned, set goals, and accomplished things together. And I miss our togetherness, our partnership.

As a result, finding myself personally independent has been a struggle. I suppose in some respect it’s been frightening, but in a much deeper respect it’s just been lonely. I’ve said before that I don’t always like who I am without her, because she made me a better person — or, if she didn’t exactly make me better, at least she inspired me to work to be better.

Speaking of being better: Before I close, will you permit me a brief digression in these politically tumultuous times? (If not, you can just skip the next paragraph.)

Our society is pretty fractured at the moment. I’m disappointed that we haven’t been able to develop and sustain the kind of friendly, supportive social interdependence that a strong political union should manifest. Some people seem to believe that’s become impossible. They may be right; but I hope for better. So with that in mind, let me say: Black lives do matter. If you are black, don’t ever let anyone tell you differently. But, more to the point of personal independence and interdependence: Your life matters. You, reading these words right now. Your life matters. Not because you may be black or white or some shade in between; not because you’re of the Zulu tribe or the Celtic tribe or the Navajo tribe; not because you are from the North or the South or the East or the West; but simply because you are unique in the world, a rarity in the boundless expanse of creation, made (so I believe) with the image of God stamped upon your soul. Your life matters — to me, at this moment. I wish that message would catch on, and that more people would feel comfortable sharing it.

In the end, I think it’s important to maintain a degree of independence, but more important to cultivate interdependence with those we love and trust. It may be hard if there is little (or no) love or trust, and maybe those three things — love and interdependence and trust — are related and build on one another. That’s probably a topic for another day.

For today, though, in keeping with the series theme, I regret any and every time that I have squandered love or trust — because they are difficult to regain.

And I wish you love and trust, and a high degree of interdependence that helps you be better than you might be otherwise. Because, I say again, your life matters.

___

Previously in the series:
Unprepared for Regret
Unprepared for Regret, Part II: Valentine’s Day
Unprepared for Regret, Part III: Jill’s Last Day
Unprepared for Regret, Part IV: The Day Jill Died
Unprepared for Regret, Part V: Six Months Gone
Unprepared for Regret, Part VI: Our Anniversary
Unprepared for Regret, Part VII: Hollow Birthday to Me

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Unprepared for Regret, Part VII: Hollow Birthday to Me

This series has been a tribute to my late wife, Jill Rinehart, and a record of the grief I’ve struggled with since she died last October. The last installment was three weeks ago, on our anniversary. All the entries so far are linked at the bottom.

Today, as noted in the title, is my birthday.

Truth to tell, and also as noted in the title, it feels a little empty. From what I’ve learned, that’s natural for those of us who are grieving.

With respect to this “Unprepared for Regret” series, I won’t go so far as to say that I regret being born. I will admit that quite a few times in the past eight months I’ve considered that I might like to die, myself — most recently, in fact, around 11:30 last night. Yet, here I am.

Then, as I walked the dog this morning, I thought that there’s nothing inherent in or special about my birthday that causes me much regret with respect to Jill.

Obviously, I regret that she’s not here to wish me a happy birthday, just as I regret that we weren’t able to go on another adventure together like the one we took between our anniversary and my birthday in 2010:


(With Jill on our 25th anniversary trip to Kauai, June 2010.)

Doesn’t she look happy? I believe that trip was one of the highlights of her life, and I’m thankful I was able to take her.

Over the past couple of days I’ve looked at birthday cards Jill gave me through the years, from funny ones to serious ones, some in which she wrote heartfelt notes and others in which she did little more than sign her name. I could trace some of the ups and downs of our marriage in the cards, and I regret that the collection seems to be incomplete. I don’t know if more cards are waiting to be discovered in a box somewhere, or if I failed to keep them. I don’t suppose it very much matters.

Then, this morning, I thought about the journals I kept from late 1993 through about 2008, and I decided to look at the entries around my past birthdays. That may have been a mistake, but what’s done is done.

I regret both that I didn’t start journaling earlier and that I eventually stopped making entries altogether. I was never that consistent about it — sometimes I made multiple entries a day, or wrote several pages at a sitting, and sometimes I went days without writing anything, or only wrote a sentence or two. Most of the entries I made on or around my birthdays are pretty mundane, though some are troubling and add to the hollowness of today.

  • 1994 (the day after I had written down what I said to Christopher, that if it didn’t get dark we wouldn’t be able to see the stars, which I later wrote into a song): “Today is supposed to be a milestone of sorts. It feels more like I’ve slipped or tripped and I’m being trampled by other runners in whatever race this is. My problem continues to be emotional altruism, in which I spend so much time and effort trying to keep others happy I end up neglecting my own happiness and forgetting the impossibility of pleasing everyone all the time.
    “I suppose this is one result of having never really grown up.”
  • 1995: “Jamie called to wish me a happy birthday, and asked me if I was invisible to young girls yet. I think I must be; I explained that when I’m in the airport I am much more the watcher than the watched….”
  • 1996 (an entry that seems contradictory): “Uneventful day — happy birthday to me, traveling across the state and visiting with everyone we know.”
  • 1997 (five separate entries that reflect my depression and the strain it was putting on our marriage):
    1. “She [Jill] avoided answering my question yesterday, which was itself an answer. She does not know — and, unknowing, drives another stake through my heart.”
    2. “I wish I could put my brain to sleep, so as not to think of these thoughts or dwell on these memories.”
    3. “I wonder sometimes what I can do to help her be happy.
    “I wonder if she has ever been happy, with me that is.”
    4. “If I think she sees the situation through rose-colored glasses (‘old news,’ to her) or by the light of the torch she carries for him (she, the decrier of women who continue to love men who are bad to them), then it is only because I see it through the black glasses of hatred and fear, by the light of the demons who torture me with the truth and whose voices of mistrust torment me incessantly.”
    5. “It was supposed to be a simple dinner – why must it remind me of another dinner so many years ago? Why did he insist on taking her out, and why did she agree to go? What did they talk about, reminisce about, laugh about? Was the conversation strained, and full of awkward silences, or light and ebullient and happy?
    “Did she kiss him goodnight, or more, or less, and did she wish the night had ended differently?
    God, you have damned me to remember things I would rather forget, and forget things I ought to remember.
    “I hate this.”
  • 1998, no entry.
  • 1999: “Today I am old enough to serve as president of the United States, half of my allotted to threescore-and-ten.
    “But it was a beautiful day, and I am sunburned and stuffed. A good day.”
  • 2000, no entry.
  • 2001 (about to return to the US from Thule Air Base to go house-hunting in Virginia): “And the adventure continues. Only about eight hours before I see the family! What a great birthday present.”
  • 2002: “What a contrast, between standing on the bow of the M/V SeaLaunch Commander this morning, watching the lights of Long Beach get bigger and brighter and closer, and sitting here on a 757 en route home. That was quiet (little wind since we’d slowed down) and peaceful as we slipped by the oil platforms — much different from the drone inside the plane, but different is not necessarily better.
    “I’m going home — happy birthday to me!”
  • 2003, no entry.
  • 2004, no entry. However, on the 25th of June, I wrote, “Probably should have recorded some insights on the milestone recently passed, except that I didn’t have any. It’s not insightful (or not in a good way) to forget that it’s your own birthday….

I certainly haven’t forgotten that it’s my birthday this year. I’m not sure I could, as pointed and painful as the days can be sometimes. I ache to hear what I will never hear again: Jill telling me happy birthday, or that she loves me. And reading through those journals, I regret all the times I made it hard for her to love me.

Nevertheless, I’m grateful to know that there are still a few people in the world who are glad that I was born, and if you are one of them please know how very much I appreciate you. In these days of near-constant social and political turmoil, I think it’s good to remember that our most meaningful interactions are singular, one-on-one, and that how we relate to the individuals we know means more than what we think about those we don’t know. As I was walking this morning, I remembered something that Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago, that made such an impact on me that I wrote it down in my collection of quotes: “Our envy of others devours us most of all. Rub your eyes and purify your heart — and prize above all else in the world those who love you and who wish you well.”

I’m going to put that into practice today. As much as I am missing my wife, I am still grateful: that my children will come over later for supper and maybe a game, that I will have a birthday greeting or two on social media, that I have a home and a dog and a job and wonderful friends and family.

Hopefully I can fill the hollow space inside me with gratitude.

___

Previously in the series:
Unprepared for Regret
Unprepared for Regret, Part II: Valentine’s Day
Unprepared for Regret, Part III: Jill’s Last Day
Unprepared for Regret, Part IV: The Day Jill Died
Unprepared for Regret, Part V: Six Months Gone
Unprepared for Regret, Part VI: Our Anniversary

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Unprepared for Regret, Part VI: Our Anniversary

This series has been both a tribute to my late wife, Jill Rinehart, and a record of the grief I’ve struggled with since she died this past October. The last installment was on the semi-anniversary of her death (all the entries so far are linked below), and while today’s post commemorates a much better day, it still has not been easy to write.

Thirty-five years ago today, I married my high school sweetheart, Jill Marie Briggs. Here’s my favorite picture from that day — I’ve kept it in the same frame for the last 35 years, and proudly displayed it in every office I ever occupied:


(Jill Briggs, shortly before she officially became Jill Rinehart.)

When Jill died last year, we hadn’t made up our minds about how to celebrate this anniversary. We’d talked about traveling, possibly visiting friends in Maine and seeing eastern Canada, possibly finding another tropical island to explore — but no doubt whatever plans we might have made would have been thwarted by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Of course, she didn’t make it this far.

We were married for thirty-four years, four months, and eighteen days. That sounds like a long time, and maybe it was, but to me it wasn’t long enough. Whether we measure it in years or some other way — 412-1/2 months; 1794 weeks; 12,558 days — it could never be enough.

I would like to be able to say that I remember our wedding day as if it were yesterday — Jill said so, in a Facebook comment just last year — but for me the cliché does not hold true. As I’ve noted in previous posts, I do not have very detailed memories of the events of my life. I have what I have come to think of as a “headline” memory, in which I remember that things happened but not necessarily very much about how they happened (or the conditions under which they happened).

And right now, today, I wish very strongly that my memory worked differently.

I have thumbed through our wedding book, as well as the additional photo album Jill put together of the rehearsal dinner and the ceremony and the reception, in hopes of stirring some fuller memories — but it hasn’t worked. When I was in Murrell’s Inlet a few weeks ago, I thought about stopping by the church to try to get an impression of what that Saturday afternoon was like. Perhaps I might then have been able to recall and recount more humorous details, or some sweet stories, but I’ve got next to nothing.

The night before, we rehearsed at the church and had supper at the Plantation House — one of my family’s favorite restaurants in Pawleys Island, that doesn’t even exist anymore. Afterward, Jill spent the rest of the evening with her friends — Evelyn Davis Booth, her matron of honor, and Mary Thompkins, who would sing a special song to open the ceremony — and I spent it with my friends: Jamie Brown, who would have been my best man except that I had asked my dad to do the honors, and Brad Rothell, who would also sing a favorite song. Neither Jill nor I wanted any kind of raucous bachelorette or bachelor parties; quiet evenings with friends were — and remained — more our style.

No wedding is without its problems, I guess, and I remember that Jill and my mom had a bit of a quarrel over how the flowers were going to be arranged at the front of the church. I don’t remember if Jill had already set them up and my mom moved some around, or if my mom took it upon herself to set them up without consulting Jill, but I know for sure that not long before the ceremony Jill came along behind my mom and moved the flowers the way she wanted them — which is as it should have been! It was a source of moderate friction, and something Jill brought up from time to time, but of course I sided with my wife-to-be in terms of making sure she got what she wanted.

Otherwise, the day — and especially the ceremony — is fuzzy in my memory. I know that I didn’t hear either Mary or Brad sing, because they were done before I entered the sanctuary. I wish I could call up a vision of Jill walking down the aisle, or standing by my side, but all I really remember is smiling a lot because I was marrying the girl of my dreams.


(Jill and Gray Rinehart.)

As with the ceremony, I don’t remember much about the reception, either. I have vague impressions of the room and the snacks and the people, but no clear recollections. I do know that Jill and I handed out the lyrics and played Michael W. Smith’s song, “Friends,” to thank everyone for coming. So much of that song is poignant to me now …

But we’ll keep you close as always
It won’t even seem you’ve gone
‘Cause our hearts in big and small ways
Will keep the love that keeps us strong

… Though it’s hard to let you go
In the Father’s hands we know
That a lifetime’s not too long to live as friends

Hard to let go? That doesn’t even come close.

After we left the reception, I remember that Jill and I stopped at a car wash and cleaned the “Just Married” shaving cream and soap off the car. And I recall that some of our friends — some of my Air Force ROTC fellows and their significant others — saw us and stopped to yell at us (playfully) for doing so.

But what I remember most about the entire day is being very happy. Insanely happy.

And what I regret, on this anniversary day, is that I rarely — and possibly never, adequately — told Jill just how insanely happy I was to have her as my wife.

___

Previously in the series:
Unprepared for Regret
Unprepared for Regret, Part II: Valentine’s Day
Unprepared for Regret, Part III: Jill’s Last Day
Unprepared for Regret, Part IV: The Day Jill Died
Unprepared for Regret, Part V: Six Months Gone

P.S. If you’re interested, you can read Jill’s obituary here.

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Unprepared for Regret, Part V: Six Months Gone

As the title suggests, six months ago today my wife of thirty-four-plus years, Jill Rinehart, died. Last month I wrote about the day she died, but for this semi-anniversary my thoughts have been more … general.

Thinking back, at first after Jill died so suddenly and unexpectedly, I didn’t imagine that I would be able to last six days. That week was a whirlwind of making arrangements for her memorial service and such, and sometimes I thought the grief would destroy me. Sometimes, I wanted it to.

Every night that week, as I remember, I thought perhaps that I would not wake up the next morning. For more than a month, there were many nights that I didn’t want to wake up. Once while walking the dog I even rewrote the old nursery rhyme, which Jill would have hated (because she hated the original version):

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray thee, Lord, to hear me weep
And let me die before I wake,
And my unworthy soul to take.

What amazes me right now, though, after first being uncertain of making it six days and then of making it six weeks, is that at this six-month point I don’t wish for my own demise anymore. (At least, I haven’t in the past few days.)

It’s fair to say that I was unprepared to wish so fervently for my own death during this season of grief. I suppose many people who have experienced a soul-rending loss can relate to the deep desire to fall asleep and never wake up, since waking up means having to go through another day without the person who was most important in your life.

Thankfully, friend after friend who had gone through the same kind of loss reached out to me, and offered me comfort and guidance but also a quantity of hope. In those early days I listened without fully understanding, and I’m still not quite sure I do understand, but I definitely appreciate what they said. I’m incredibly grateful to them and to God that I have now a fair amount of hope.

There are times when that measure of hope is incredibly small: a mustard seed of hope, like the mustard seed of faith that Jesus talked about. The mustard seed of faith is supposed to be enough for us to command mountains to move (not, I should note, for us to move mountains ourselves). Likewise, the mustard seed of hope seems to be enough for us — or has been enough for me — to make it from one day (and sometimes one moment) to the next, and the next, and the next.


(Jill Rinehart at Brookgreen Gardens, SC. Taken on this date in 2015.)

That’s how I made it to today: half a year gone by without seeing my beautiful bride’s smile except in pictures, without hearing her voice except in videos, without feeling her close except in my fading memory. Our lives were so intertwined that I believe she carried a bit of my spirit with her when she left. That wound has only begun to heal. But I think I carry a bit of her spirit with me, too, if I’ll just take the time to pay attention to it.

It’s fair to say that Jill, my beloved Jillian, is nearly ever present in my mind. I think of her most every time I see a flower or the sky, talk to our children or brush her puppy, drive her car or walk by the open door to the bedroom that was her art studio. I think of her so often that I sometimes hold my tongue when speaking with people, so as not to deluge them with my memories and thoughts of her. I avoid certain television shows because I watched them with her, and I watch others because she enjoyed them. Many’s the time I’ve sat alone on our couch, wishing that I could reach out and hold her hand, or have her recline while I rubbed lotion on her feet. When I stand at the top of the stairs, I hope to see her if I look over the railing. In the kitchen, I hope to find her getting a cup of coffee or fixing herself a snack, and I wish I could interrupt her routine just to give her a hug. I walk the dog — her dog, the puppy she insisted on getting only two months before she died — and along the way I ask Jill questions and point out things to her, or ask the puppy to help me remember to tell her when I get home. But she isn’t home anymore.

And yet it seems to be getting easier to maneuver my way through the hours and days.

I realized it was getting easier when the Moon was very full the other night. Full Moons were special to us, because we had so often enjoyed walking on the beach together under them. And every full Moon since Jill died I had cried thinking of her, because my memories battled my regret over not taking her to walk under the last full Moon we saw. I had counted on there being more time, on there being more nights of full Moons. But I counted wrong, because her time came to an end before we thought it would — and before it should have.

Yet this past full Moon was the first that did not dislodge an avalanche of regrets, and the feeling (or the lack of feeling) scared me a little. Under that Moon, I found I could begin to be thankful for all the ones we enjoyed together rather than regretful for the last one we missed. The notion hit me so suddenly, as I looked at the Moon without weeping, that it felt both good and wrong at the same time — but as I thought more about it, I began to accept that it was okay to feel good. That was a small breakthrough for me.

In a similar way, I’ve begun to be less regretful and more thankful. I’m still quite critical of myself and all too aware of my many, many failures, but I am not dwelling on them as much as I used to. I think I realize, or perhaps I admit (but have not wanted to accept) that each of those failures unfortunately represented the best I could do at the time. I suppose I will always believe that Jill deserved better.

That seems very much in keeping with the “unprepared for regret” theme of this series, as do these two observations:

  • I was unprepared for how much it would hurt to change things (e.g., in the house). I shifted some things around in the living room, but the result was that I could better see some pictures of her, so that was fine. But I can’t bring myself to change many other things: to move her purse, or her shoes from in front of the door, and so forth. I didn’t imagine it would be so hard.
  • I was also unprepared for how nonlinear the grief journey is. I had expected my grief to spike early on and then fall along a somewhat smooth curve, but it hasn’t done so. I’ve had a number of spikes, some nearly as high as the first, and been trapped on a couple of plateaus, but at the moment the grief is more of a persistent ache than an acute pain. It’s always there, but it doesn’t seem to be flaring up as often.

On my best days, the burden of grief is easy enough to bear. It feels lighter than it used to, and I feel happier. On my worst days, though, it’s a crushing load, and I’m nearly consumed with feeling lost, broken, and empty — but even on my worst days I hold on to one vital thing: love.

God, how I adored Jill. I was utterly in love with her, deeply happy with her nearly all the time — and even those infrequent, short-lived times I let myself get aggravated or exasperated with her had little effect on how much I loved her. I loved being associated with her, encouraging her, and pampering her. I could always count on her for several good, strong hugs every day we were together; we frequently held hands on afternoon or evening walks; and we usually snuggled together a little every night (even if it was just for a few moments before we went to sleep). I valued her more highly than anything. And what I regret most is not telling her or showing her more often — and more effectively — just how much love I had for her.

I think, in the end, what I would most like to be said about me is that I loved well. I’m not sure how best to characterize it — if I figure it out, maybe I’ll wrap the idea into a song — but I remember the story of Jesus weeping at the grave of Lazarus and how someone commented about how much he must have loved his friend. Likewise, if I accomplish nothing else in my life, I would wish people to say of me, Look how much he loved her.

So where do I go from here?

Forward. Onward. I don’t know quite how, and sometimes I don’t want to, but as difficult and devastating and heartbreaking as this is and has been, I have to find a path to follow, a direction to go. And while I hate stepping out — hate diverging from the path Jill and I were on together — for every step I take on this continuing journey, I’m very thankful for those who are willing to travel alongside me.

___

Previously in the series:
Unprepared for Regret
Unprepared for Regret, Part II: Valentine’s Day
Unprepared for Regret, Part III: Jill’s Last Day
Unprepared for Regret, Part IV: The Day Jill Died

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Unprepared for Regret, Part IV: The Day Jill Died

According to author Christina Rasmussen, “Healing only lives in celebrating the lives of the ones we have lost, not how they died.” That may be true, but this recollection is no celebration….

Five months ago today, my wife of thirty-four years, Jill Rinehart, died. A month ago, I wrote about her last day, which ended this way:

I climbed in bed after I brushed my teeth, and — as I did every night — snuggled up with her a little bit while she fast-forwarded through a [television] commercial. She told me that the medicine she’d gotten, which she’d applied around her nostrils as instructed, made her breath feel “hot.” It bothered her, but it was supposed to be important so she was enduring it.

When the show was over, she said she was a little bit hungry and wanted a snack. But the puppy was asleep on the floor on her side of the bed, so instead of getting out that way she rolled over top of me. She lay on top of me for a second, and we smiled at each other, gave each other a hug and a kiss, and said goodnight. She got out on my side and turned off the light as she left.

That was the last time I saw her alive.

The medicine Jill had applied to her nose was some sort of antibacterial treatment that she was supposed to use until her surgery (coming up in five days). As I understood, it was supposed to reduce the risk of her getting sick prior to the surgery and to reduce the risk of infection. Why it made her breath feel hot, I don’t know.

It was not unusual for me to fall asleep before her. It was unusual for her to still be up before I went to sleep. It turned out that in addition to getting a snack, she also cleaned up the sculpture project she was going to teach the next day, and put the examples she had made in her studio with her art bag, ready to go. Then she came back to bed, but I was already hooked up to my CPAP machine and sleeping soundly.

I woke up to her sniffling and snorting — or so it seemed; I remember only one big snort — as if she had bad postnasal drip. The clock showed that it was midnight. She settled back down, and I thought about the medicine and guessed that it had caused her nose to run.

But almost immediately the puppy came around to my side and started trying to jump up on the bed. I told him everything would be okay and to go back to his bed. He did.

I was perhaps half-awake at that point, and expected Jill to get up (or at least sit up) to blow her nose. When she didn’t, I lay there for a moment wondering if she was okay. I actually wondered briefly if she had just died: I hate to admit that, because in that instant I didn’t immediately reach out to check on her. Why? Because she hated to be awakened in the middle of the night. (She always had trouble getting back to sleep.) So I lay there for another moment — I don’t really know how long, it might have been five seconds or ten or twenty, I have no idea — trying to discern if she was okay.

Finally, I reached out and touched her shoulder. And she did not move.


(One of my favorite pictures of Jill, taken in 1982 at North Litchfield Beach, SC, when she was oh-so-alive.)

The next few minutes blur together in my memory. I shook her, I called out her name, she still didn’t move and she didn’t respond. I knew from CPR training years ago that the most important thing to do was to activate the emergency medical system, so I picked up the phone and turned on the light — but that handset had no power so I had to run into my office and grab another one. I called 911 and put the speaker on. Then, because I know you can’t do CPR on a soft surface, I pulled her onto the floor as expeditiously as I could without hurting her. But the way our bedroom is situated, there is hardly any space between the bed and the wall, so I had to pull her farther into the room. Finally I started CPR, hardly able to speak to the operator or to see what I was doing through my own tears.

A few minutes later (again, I don’t know how long), the dispatcher told me that the responders were approaching the house and asked if the front door was unlocked. It wasn’t, of course, so I had to run downstairs to unlock it. At that point I took notice of the puppy. He must have been pacing around in the room while I was moving Jill and starting CPR, but he had never gotten in the way. Now, he ran downstairs with me and I put him in his crate. I unlocked and opened the front door and ran back upstairs to keep doing CPR.

But it didn’t work.

The next thing I remember, EMTs were in the room, shoving the end of the bed out of the way and pulling me back so they could start trying to help her. I think one of them escorted me out and led me down the stairs and asked if there was anyone I needed to call. At least, I know I ended up downstairs, sitting on the floor in my underwear by the dog’s crate, with my cell phone.

Both of our children live near us, so I called them and they came to the house as quickly as they could. By the time they got there, between the EMTs and police there were probably six or eight or more people in the house. The police were very polite and professional, as were the medical technicians. Stephanie and Christopher helped me answer questions, and at one point I had to go upstairs to show the detective the medications that Jill had on hand. Several EMTs were surrounding her at the time, and I could not see — perhaps because I didn’t want to — what they were doing to her. The young-uns and I answered questions about her upcoming surgery, and probably other things that I don’t remember.

I spent most of my time sitting on the living room floor, petting the pup through the bars of the crate. I occasionally heard the whine of the defibrillator the EMTs had brought in. I couldn’t make out what they said to one another upstairs, and maybe I wouldn’t have wanted to. I guess it was around 1:30 in the morning when they gave up because they weren’t able to get Jill’s heart to restart and keep a steady beat. Since she was scheduled for heart surgery in a few days, they made the assumption that she had died of a heart attack. The police said there was probably no need to do an autopsy, and the children and I agreed.

Next thing, we were being asked what funeral home we wanted to use — a question I never envisioned being asked. We picked the only funeral home I had ever been to in Cary, where members of our church had been taken care of, and I think the police detective actually called them. I don’t remember. But some time later, though still in the early morning, two fellows from the funeral home showed up. After a little consultation, they took her away. Because of the difficult arrangement of the stairs in our house, it was not easy for them to bring her downstairs and get her ready to go. The children moved into the kitchen, so they wouldn’t have to see, and I can’t blame them. The only saving grace is that the same faulty memory that keeps me from being able to recall really good things in vivid detail, keeps me from being able to remember much of the details of watching them take her out.

The rest of the day passed in almost as much of a blur as the early morning hours. We called family and friends, church people came over to offer what help they could, Christopher and I went to the funeral home to make the initial arrangements, and my sister drove in from Southport to stay with me. Things were complicated a little bit by the fact that the furnace stopped working that night, and I had to call to have it fixed (which the company was only able to do temporarily).

Since this post is supposed to be about the day she died, and is already quite long, I won’t go into detail about all the activities that went on before Jill’s memorial service a week later. Again, they all blend together in my mind: asking friends to play music or to read Scripture, setting up the memorial fund at the South Carolina Botanical Garden, and so forth. But I need to record one key event from that week, because it was quite possibly the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

In the middle of the week — I don’t remember now which day it was — I had to identify Jill before she was cremated.

I had to go see her in the funeral home.

I went alone, so the children would not have to remember her that way.

The hardest thing I’d ever done was to walk into that room, knowing that she was in there. I don’t remember how long I stayed — an hour, I’d guess — talking to her, holding her far-too-cold hand, kissing her beautiful face and her lovely hands. But, as it turned out, in the end walking into that room was only the second hardest thing for me. Because even though I knew that it wasn’t really her; that she was gone; that her spirit, her soul, was far away; by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done was to walk out of that room again, to leave her alone there. It still breaks my heart to think of it.

___

In terms of being unprepared for regret, my biggest regret is my hesitation: my failure to act quickly enough to be able to help her. My doctor and friends in the medical field have told me that it probably wouldn’t have made a difference, but I carry a significant amount of guilt and in a very real way I hate myself for every second that I hesitated. My greatest fear is that she might have wondered, for even a fraction of an instant, why I wasn’t helping her.

Another thing I regret is that I did not remember that Jill was an organ donor, so the technicians could take that into account. I also didn’t remember that both she and I have living wills and she didn’t wish to be resuscitated, but in that moment I could do nothing but try — even though I was too late.

I also regret now not having an autopsy performed, because according to Jill’s cardiologist she could not have had a heart attack. She had gone through an echocardiogram and had a complete workup in order to verify that she was a good candidate for the mitral valve repair surgery, and the surgeon told me that she had no coronary artery disease. Aside from the one problematic valve, her heart was completely healthy. As a result, we believe she had a seizure, brought on by the stress she was under of the upcoming surgery and recovery. (She had had a seizure four years prior when she was under some stress, so it’s at least possible.) I understand that an autopsy would not have conclusively proven a seizure, and may not have told us what happened. Some things, perhaps, we can never know.

One final note: After her first seizure — which was almost four years to the day before she died — Jill told me that as she lost consciousness she thought she was about to die. She said she thought something like, “If this is my time, and this is how I’m supposed to go, I’m okay with that.” As difficult as it was to lose her the way we did, I know that falling asleep in our bed and not waking up was a far better way to go than many other ways she might have died. I can only hope — and, oh God, how fervently I hope, I hope, I hope — that her last thought, in her last moment, was peaceful and that she was okay.

___

Previously in the series:
Unprepared for Regret
Unprepared for Regret, Part II: Valentine’s Day
Unprepared for Regret, Part III: Jill’s Last Day

P.S. If you’re interested, you can read Jill’s obituary here.

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Unprepared for Regret, Part III: Jill’s Last Day

Neither my wife nor I knew, four months ago today, that it would be the last day she would live.

By way of background, Jill was in decent physical shape — she was not ill or disabled or under long-term care for any protracted sickness — except for the effects of a leaky mitral valve in her heart. She had been diagnosed with mitral valve prolapse when she was twenty, and had been under the care of various cardiologists as we moved around as part of the Air Force. They had occasionally recommended having the valve replaced, but she had opted to monitor her condition in hopes that surgical techniques would improve over time. In fact, the latest surgical procedure would repair her valve rather than replacing it, and her cardiologist and the cardiac surgeon both agreed she was a good candidate. In the last few weeks before she died, Jill had had an echocardiogram and other tests to make sure that her heart was healthy enough to endure the surgery and recover from it. All indications were good.

On her last day — Friday, 18 October 2019 — Jill had her pre-surgery appointment. Her surgery was supposed to be on the following Wednesday (the 23rd), having been pushed back one day because of a higher priority case. Her pre-surgery workup had always been scheduled for the eighteenth.

I had gone with her to some of her prior appointments, like the echocardiogram, but she thought this one would be routine so instead I took care of our new puppy, Twix. She called me mid-morning, later sent me a text while she was waiting for her x-ray, and shortly thereafter sent, “I think I need to relax a little so I’m gonna take just a few minutes to walk at the art museum before heading home. I won’t be too long.”


(Jill’s last selfie, taken at the NC Art Museum on 18 October 2019.)

“If Anything Happens”

Jill got home about thirty minutes before we expected visitors from the church we were slated to join. She told me that she wished I had gone with her to the appointment because some of the things they said had frightened her — she might have said that they freaked her out, but I don’t remember her exact words.

Our visitors were two gentlemen who came as more or less a formality before the Elders voted to accept us officially as members. Most of the interview went unremarkably, as we explained how each of us had come to faith and the degrees to which we’d been involved in previous churches — until Jill said something that arrested my attention.

She was sitting to my right on the couch, looking at one of the visitors to her right, so I couldn’t see her face as she said, “The reason I want to do this now is so that if anything happens my obituary will say I was a member of the church. Because right now it wouldn’t say that, and that’s not me.”

I had never heard her say anything like that before. I was too stupefied to question it.

Our Last Meal Together

The visit ended, and she and I decided to go out for an early supper — not only because neither of us felt like cooking but to see how well the puppy would do in the crate for an hour or so. We ended up at an “Asian fusion” restaurant that we had frequented for years, partly because it was close to the pharmacy where she would pick up the prescription she’d been given.

During dinner, she told me a little more about her appointment: the instructions she’d gotten, the briefings she had had about what it would be like to come out of anesthesia and wake up in ICU, etc. She was very nervous about the prospect of waking up with a breathing tube in her throat, and being hooked up to so many machines, and said that all she could picture in her mind was her mom a couple of years ago when she came out of surgery.

As we talked, Jill thanked me for not questioning her about her obituary comment while the church men were in the house. She said the thought had just come to her that day. Her mood shifted from time to time, from serious when talking about the procedure or the recovery to playful when she asked me if I was eyeballing her dumplings that she was going to take home as leftovers.

After supper, we walked over to the pharmacy and picked up her prescription and a couple of other things. At one point, as we walked around one of the endcaps, she reached out and tapped a deck of cards, looked behind her at me, and said with a grin, “We’ll have to remember to take some cards to the hospital, so we can play something.”

I agreed that we would certainly do that.

Our Last Walk in the Park

We went home, got the dog out of the crate and put him in the car, and drove over to Bond Park — one of our favorite places in the Town of Cary. We discussed briefly whether we would take the pup with us to breakfast the next day (we almost always went out for breakfast together on Saturdays) or try leaving him in the crate again.

Once we got to the park, we walked a path through the woods from the Boathouse, up past one of the shelters and around to the Community Center. We passed a few pieces of exercise equipment, and at one point came upon a balancing platform: a round disk held up by a sturdy spring. I held her hand as she stepped up on it, and she balanced there for a brief moment and then hopped off, laughing. Then, just to show off, I stepped up without reaching out for her. She chided me for that, but we laughed together as I struggled to step up and then step off without hurting myself.

From the Community Center, we walked parallel to the big field by the levee and then down toward the baseball fields. We stopped at one and watched part of an inning of a youth league game, and Jill wondered when our friend’s son’s next game would be, for us to go to it.

As we walked on, twilight was fading and we entered a more woodsy area. Jill asked me to shine the flashlight from my phone on the path in front of us. I made some remark about being able to see fine and she scolded me again, with something like, “Okay, if you want to step on a snake, go ahead.” We laughed, but I did turn on the flashlight until the woods thinned out again.

The path took us to the base of the levee, and we walked up the steps until we could look at the lake. At the top, she asked if we could pause for a moment and slow down, because the steps always made her out of breath. I said of course we could, and we did — and I made some remark about how nice it would be once she had her surgery and wouldn’t get out of breath when she was walking.

We eventually made our way down the length of the levee, back to the Boathouse, and home.

Our Last Evening

There wasn’t much on television that Friday night, and Jill had an art class to teach the next day, so she went upstairs to her studio to work on example sculptures to show the children. When she was done, she took her bath and started getting ready for bed.

After I shut off everything downstairs, I went up to my office to check my email and found one from the assistant pastor saying the Elders had met and we were officially accepted as members. We would go through the formality of joining the church in the Sunday service. By then, Jill was finished with her bath and, as she did most every night, was watching a recorded episode of House Hunters International. I told her about the message, and we agreed that we would have to figure out how we were going to handle the pup Sunday morning.

I climbed in bed after I brushed my teeth, and — as I did every night — snuggled up with her a little bit while she fast-forwarded through a commercial. She told me that the medicine she’d gotten, which she’d applied around her nostrils as instructed, made her breath feel “hot.” It bothered her, but it was supposed to be important so she was enduring it.

When the show was over, she said she was a little bit hungry and wanted a snack. But the puppy was asleep on the floor on her side of the bed, so instead of getting out that way she rolled over top of me. She lay on top of me for a second, and we smiled at each other, gave each other a hug and a kiss, and said goodnight. She got out on my side and turned off the light as she left.

That was the last time I saw her alive.

___

What regrets was I unprepared for about that day? First and foremost, that I didn’t go to Jill’s pre-surgery appointment with her. Yes, it would have required us to put the pup in “doggie daycare,” but I wish I could have been there to hold her hand, to comfort her, as she listened to the doctors and nurses explaining what was in store.

Beyond that, I regret not having the presence of mind to suggest that we postpone the surgery, since she was so scared. Even if she refused the suggestion — and she probably would have, because she had been dealing with the effects of her condition for so long — I wish I had thought to make it.

But more than anything else, I regret not holding her closer and kissing her longer. We had no way of knowing, of course, that those would be our last hugs and kisses. We thought we would see each other in the morning, that we would go to breakfast, that she would teach her class, and that we would have more opportunities to talk and laugh and show each other that we cared. But we were wrong. We had probably said “I love you” two or three times that day — it was, thankfully, a common refrain in our lives — but I wish I had said it ten times as much, and hugged her tight every time.

___

P.S. If you’re interested, you can read Jill’s obituary here.

Previously in the Series:
Unprepared for Regret
Unprepared for Regret, Part II: Valentine’s Day

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Unprepared for Regret, Part II: Valentine’s Day

(To read the first entry in this occasional series, see Unprepared for Regret.)

Valentine’s Day is special for many couples, but for my wife Jill and me it was particularly noteworthy because it marked the beginning of our serious relationship.

We had met in the Fall of 1979, when I was a sophomore and she was a freshman at Winyah High School in Georgetown, SC. She and her friend Evelyn were equipment managers for the football team, and I first met them when I stood at the counter to get my shoulder pads and helmet. It was the closest I’ve come to “love at first sight,” but she didn’t have quite the same reaction.

In the Spring of 1980, we ran track together. I first held her hand on one of the bus rides home from a meet, and I used to stand on the infield and “catch” her when she finished her races. I came to like her very much — truth to tell, I fell in love with her very quickly — and she liked me, too … but not too much later she told me she only wanted to be friends.


With Jill on the front steps of Winyah High School in the Spring of 1980 — before she told me she just wanted to be friends.

By the Fall of 1981, we were still friends. We had both had other relationships that hadn’t worked out, and I had seen her once over the summer and jokingly told her that if five years went by and neither of us married anyone then we should just marry each other. I think she laughed at the idea … but I don’t have much memory for the details of events in my life, so I can’t be sure. Anyway, that Fall Jill agreed to let me sponsor her for Homecoming, and to take her to a Halloween party and a football awards banquet, but we were not “dating” in any serious sense.

And then came Valentine’s Day of 1982.

We both went separately to the dance in the high school gymnasium, and late in the evening I asked her to dance a slow dance with me. I was never a very good dancer, but Jill was — I was always intimidated when dancing with her, and might not have had the courage to ask her if I hadn’t been just a little bit drunk (and, yes, I admit that I was a few months shy of the then-legal age of 18).

During that slow dance, possibly fueled by that same liquid courage, I said something along the lines of, “I know you don’t want to hear this, but I think I will always love you.”

And, to my surprise and delight, Jill said she loved me, too.

I feel certain that we kissed, and I wish I could remember it. A short time later, she had to catch a ride with her friends back to her house, and I recall being a bit unsure that she had really said she loved me. I had wanted to hear her say it for so long, I couldn’t quite believe it was real. But it was.

Ten weeks later we went to my Senior Prom together.


With Jill at my Senior Prom in May 1982.

We were married three years after that. We had some ups and downs, before and during, but our marriage lasted 34 years and change — and every Valentine’s Day was special because they marked the first time we both admitted (or, agreed) that we loved one another.

___

Postscript:

About two months after Jill died, I went home to Georgetown and walked our puppy around some of our old haunts. At one point I stood in front of the old, run-down, tawdry gym and thought about that Valentine’s dance. I wished for a clearer memory of that night — of the song we danced to, of what she wore, of the smell of her perfume, of her face in the low light — but my brain is built to remember what happened more than how it happened.

That defect in my memory — that it is “declarative” rather than “episodic” — is something I deeply regret, something I was unprepared to deal with in terms of grief, and something I dearly wish I could overcome — because I want to remember Jill more clearly, and to recall more vividly the good times we had. But I can’t … and as a result my life without her is sadder and more empty than it might otherwise be.

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Grief Condition Three (GRIEFCON 3)

The U.S. military uses the “Defense Condition” graduated scale to describe our readiness to fight a nuclear war. The DEFCON scale became an integral part of my everyday life when I was an Emergency Actions officer at U.S. Strategic Command, as part of the 55th Mobile Command and Control Squadron at Offutt AFB, Nebraska.

Yesterday, I wondered whether a “Grief Condition” — GRIEFCON — graduated scale might serve to describe the state of my grief on a day-to-day basis.

The DEFCON scale is a five-point scale as follows (from Wikipedia):

  • DEFCON 5: Normal readiness (lowest state)
  • DEFCON 4: Above normal readiness (increased intelligence & security)
  • DEFCON 3: Air Force ready to mobilize in 15 minutes (increased force readiness)
  • DEFCON 2: Armed forces ready to deploy & engage in < 6 hours (next step to nuclear war)
  • DEFCON 1: Maximum readiness (nuclear war is imminent) or immediate response (nuclear war has already started)


Our family posing with the kind of truck I drove as part of the 55 MCCS, where the DEFCON scale was a critical part of my work. (Offutt AFB, 1994)

My GRIEFCON scale would run in a similar fashion. Here’s my first cut:

  • GRIEFCON 5: “Normal” life, with grief (rare tears, prompted by especially poignant reminders or memories)
  • GRIEFCON 4: “Normal” grief, with life (unexpected tears, at ordinarily benign reminders)
  • GRIEFCON 3: Significant grief (occasional tears, at even happy reminders)
  • GRIEFCON 2: Overwhelming grief (frequent tears, with little prompting)
  • GRIEFCON 1: Maximum grief (nearly constant tears, brought on by nothing)

And at the last, beyond GRIEFCON 1, would be nuclear grief: total war with myself, characterized by constant tears with crushing sadness.

It’s not a perfect model, of course, and it could bear some adjustment — but it’s a starting point.

And, as the title says, today I’m in GRIEFCON 3. And I’m just taking it day-by-day.

___
Related post: “Unprepared for Regret”

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