Oddly a few weeks before he died, Bruce told me that I rescued him. “Wait a minute,” I said. “I rescued you? You were the one who rescued me.”
He laughed and we realized that ours had been an amazing relationship, not in spite of, but maybe even because of the traumas and the strange events we had dealt with over the years.
Now I am beginning a new journey. It is not one I expected nor wanted. I am angry, I’m sad, I’m confused, and I’m numb. Before Bruce died, he told me that he would be there with me. He said he would be the warmth on my back. He would always be with me.
I do feel his presence, but I want to hold his hand. I do feel his warmth, but I want to be held by his arms. I know I am me and I like who I am, but so much of what I have done over the last 37 years and who I have become has been interwoven with who Bruce was and what we have done together.
Now he has died. Now I am living a life of “after" and I don't know how to do this.
to be continued
next chapter.. Heading east through the Columbia Gorge, a conch shell by my side.
The word “dating” doesn’t seem to exactly fit our relationship back then. There were some traditional outings to dinner, movies and concerts, but most of the time we hung out at his apartment. The word “apartment” doesn’t quite fit either. Bruce and his friend Danny lived in a converted garage at the back of someone’s house.
The place was typical 1960’s.
Two mattresses covered with Indian print throws lay on the floor in the back bedroom. The living room had a stand-up counter that looked like it had been used as a bar years before, and really no other furniture. The kitchen had few appliances or pots and pans. If you did have the courage to look in some of the frying pans you might find something vaguely resembling meat, but you wouldn’t want to ask exactly what it was.
But to our teenage eyes it was a perfect place, decorated with posters and beer cans, psychedelic symbols and beads. It had that aura of freedom and decadence that attracted me and my girlfriends . . . as well as a number of other people it seemed. Bruce's easy manner and his hippy pad were a meeting place for folks.
I looked at her and then at Bruce and never imagined that 38 years later I would be holding Bruce’s body as he died. I never imagined that I would bear his children, or live in the forest with him, or stand side‑by‑side with him as our house burned to the ground. I never imagined that I would caress his head that had been shot by a bullet. I never imagined that I would be his widow. All I could think of that day was that this college man had a beautiful girl named Bridget, and Linda and Barb were paired with Steve and Steve. I was definitely the fifth wheel.
Bruce asked, “Where are you from?”
"We're from West Covina," I told him." We're seniors in high school." That was all I could think of to say. I was tongue-tied and infected with teenage shyness.
I recently read a diary entry I had written at that time and I wasn’t terribly impressed with Bruce, at first. I suppose that could be a case of “sour grapes.” But soon my diary entries were filled with comments about how much I loved this guy and how wonderful he was.
The second time Bruce and I met was at a New Years party at his place. Linda, Barb and I went with Steve and Steve. There were more people there than the first time, including unattached males. Maybe I would not be a fifth wheel, I thought.
Looking back to that night though, all I can remember clearly is Bruce. He told me later that he had talked to a friend of his, Danny, when he saw me walking in the door that evening. He had told Danny “that’s the woman I’m going to marry.”
My reaction to him was not so definite. I didn’t have an instant attraction to him. I certainly didn’t think about marriage that first night, but I was in awe of the fact that this handsome, 20‑year‑old college guy would talk with me. I just felt comfortable with him, as if I had come home.
There were a couple of other guys there, including one fellow who smelled of spilled beer and who kept hanging on me.
"Go talk to Shaun," Bruce had told him, much to my disappointment. Bruce was with Bridget but I had hoped he might sit with me a while, not just talk from across the room. Several months later Bruce confessed he had sent the drunk over because he knew the guy "was no competition."
To my complete surprise within three weeks Bruce broke
up with Bridget and we started dating.
The guys hopped in right next to Barb and Linda with me driving, just as I expected. We talked, flirted and tried to be cool as we drove aimlessly.
"What shall we do?"
Steve and Steve had heard of a college party up at Altadena. That sounded wild so of course we decided to check out the action. Unfortunately, the Steve duo got the dates mixed up. When we got there the owner of the apartment was sitting on the bed with his girlfriend and no one else was there. The owner saw our embarrassment and invited us in, motioning us to find a seat on the floor. He said he was Bruce and introduced his girlfriend Bridget.
Bridget … her name told it all. She was a beautiful Norwegian girl, classic blonde, slim, fair skinned andperfect like a rose blooming in the first light of day. You couldn'thelp but be enchanted by her freshness.
There were three of us girls and only two of them. I knew what
would happen next. I was the tall one
and not your classic “Twiggy” body shape.
I was a smiler but so very teenage and always on a diet.
Linda and Barb were petite and bubbly.
Steve and Steve would be looking at them and not me.
Even now those feelings of teenage awkwardness
still make me shudder.
I have been thinking about Bruce while I drive and about the first time we met. It was Christmas vacation in 1967. I was 17 and a senior in high school. Looking back it seemed like a time suspended. The war in Vietnam was a storm at the edges of my teenage world - the Tet Offensive weeks away, the protests rumbling but distant. Bruce was waiting too. At age 20, he was in college and college draft deferments still were in place.
Winter nights in L.A. meant 70 degrees and smoggy dusk. The night I met Bruce, I and two girlfriends, Barb and Linda, were cruising to meet guys. Our car window was down and we imagined the wind blowing in our hair made us look bitchen, boss, out of sight. In reality I think the wind just shook our hairsprayed flips and surfer do's but we were young and hopeful..
We drove and drove and ended up in Pasadena.
The Pasadena streets were mostly empty but after awhile we saw a possibility. . . two cute guys walking along Lake Boulevard. We slowed, all the windows down now, music louder. We stopped, pretending to ask directions. (This was the ‘60s and thoughts of dangerous guys were far from our minds.)
"Hi! We're Steve and Steve," they said, leaning closer to our car when we stopped. We giggled. Steve and Steve; that sound silly like some comedy routine.
"Want a ride?" Linda asked them.
Yet I knew staying home was not the answer either. My soul would be weary just turning on the kitchen tap. I would go. I needed to go.
I have been on the road now two hours. It is odd to be here in the car, driving down a freeway that I have driven many times in the last two years.
I see places and trees that Bruce and I watched change and grow. Yet this time is the first time for me. Everything about it, every tree, and every step of the way is a first. Bruce died three weeks ago and at that moment everything around me and who I was changed. The world became strange and alien. My eyes see what should be familiar, but my brain and my emotions do not understand.
We married 11 months after we first met and were married 36 years.
Bruce changed my life
We do not have any pictures from that time, they burned in the house fire in 2004. This picture was taken two years later....and while my hair color changed more than once the gentleness of Bruce never changed from the first day we met until he died.
I used to look across the car at Bruce as we drove this rode. Now I am the driver and he is a memory.
Looking back I think my life began when I met Bruce. He was my rescuer, my prince valiant, my savior. Bruce didn’t realize until 36 years later that he also rescued me from some sad and unkind abuse by my parents.
It's not that I lied to Bruce or deliberately kept it from him. When we met that first time, it was if a door closed behind me. The memories of the sad parts of my childhood became tucked away in a safe place in my mind. I did not want to think about anything except Bruce and school and life outside the home.
One day I would remember and deal with the childhood hurts, but back then I was neither ready, nor strong enough to face what had occurred in our family. I needed to find who I was separate from what happened to me. I needed to discover that I was beautiful inside and I needed to gain the skills to be able to deal with what occurred. I needed Bruce.
Bruce offered me a hand in 1968 that stayed with me throughout my whole life journey. He helped me to find the light inside of me and to believe that I could be beautiful inside. He showed me a world that was filled with curiosity and natural wonders and love.
April 21 2005 marked a day when our lives changed forever. Before and After were words we had used in the past. We had talked about "before our children were born" or "after they graduated from high school." April 21st was a starkly different kind of turning point. That was the day my husband Bruce died from a brain tumor. All that "was" forever changed.
Three weeks after Bruce died in my arms I drove across the U.S. on a solo journey, trying to find the new me, but mostly experiencing the ruggedness of the land. I wanted to feel alive and being out in the mountains or by frozen streams or in desert heat was a link back to life.
During that trip I wrote Journey to the Land of the After. The book chronicled the unexpected lessons and people I encountered as I traveled the western United States adjusting to life after loss and trauma.
Azalea to Portland Oregon May 2005
This trip today is a practice run; I almost didn’t make it to the car this afternoon. Last night I had wanted to die. The thought of driving anywhere, of packing clothes and of even seeing my children, seemed more effort than my body and my soul could ever imagine.
rediscovering life after trauma and loss
artist, author, consultant