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Forever and Ever, Amen

I was so young and naïve back in the fall of 1990. I had just suffered what I believed to be a fatal heart break and I was not looking to fill in the cracks of my life with someone new. Back then, it was just me and my little boy against the world, waking up in a different town, breathing in the fresh country air, and making memories for our new life. And that is when love walked in. It might sound an awful lot like that same old story of meeting a friend through a friend… and then there’s sparks. Neither of us were really looking for love—we mostly were just looking for the feel goods of attraction, first dates, and first kisses. Looking back today, thirty-one years later, I honestly believe Jim’s initial attraction to me was my shy quirkiness and how I would climb into the cab of his Chevy Cheyenne, going on our first dates no less, and I would be hugged up as tight as I could get against the passenger’s side door. By the time our third date rolled around, and I had once again buckled myself into the passenger’s seat smiling over at him that I was ready to go, he chuckled out loud and asked, “Is there a reason that you are sitting all the way over there? You can slide over here and sit next to me in the middle”. And with a shy giggle of embarrassment, I did. From that moment forward, time (and life) just sped by. It wasn’t long before we were loaded into that same Chevy Cheyenne headed to our new home in a different city. It wasn’t long after that when he dropped to one knee in a Chinese restaurant in Corvallis, pulled a ring out of his pocket, and asked me to be his wife. September to December was all the time it took before the ring. January to August was all the time it took before we said, ‘I do’s’. August to January was all the time it took before we welcomed our daughter. That September 1990 until June 2002 was all the time it took before our divorce finalized. All that time spent in the middle, over eleven years’ worth of days, were spent making memories.

It's funny how the heart just unravels all those twisted and tight knots of emotional pain in a good and healing way when given time. Today, if you asked me what my very favorite memory in all those years spent with Jim was, I would honestly have to say when he danced me around our kitchen singing ‘Forever and Ever, Amen’ (Jim loved Randy Travis). This tradition started in a tiny 5thwheel trailer we rented out in the mountains off McKay Creek Rd. when our son was not yet 2, and this tradition continued as we moved through life into our duplex on Del Norte and then later into our big blue house on Williamson Drive. Through the good times, the bad times, the exciting times, and the sad times… Jim would always choose to take me into his arms and dance with me to that song. Over the years, as the kids grew older, they became part of that dance. Jim would lift both kids, one into each arm, grab me with whatever was left of his free hands, and we would all just dance around the kitchen together. He had such a wonderful voice and to this day, the smiles that brought to our kids’ faces hearing him sing and watching us dance together—them becoming part of that dance, has never left my memory storehouse.

With the news of Jim’s passing, I was asked to go back through old photos and to pick out the ones that reflected Jim and the life that he lived—at least the years that we had shared with him as a family. You must bear in mind that our years together happened long before social media came into the picture. As I found myself sorting through picture box after picture box, a story began to unfold. In the pictures that were taken in the beginning, Jim looked so full of life. He was so young and always had a smile. He liked to goof around, and you could see he was filled with pride… the pictures even reflected how he looked so in love with me, with his family, and with his life. As the years passed and as he began to age, his smiles became fewer, pictures with us as a family became rarer, and it became more evident that addiction had stepped in and taken over. Anyone who knew Jim is aware and has in some way been affected, either directly or indirectly, by his addiction and the power it held over his life—for so much of his life. Sadly, his addiction always came first. Addiction came first before his marriages, his children, his family, his jobs, his pets, his friendships, and even his grandchildren. Addiction kept Jim locked inside of himself and caused him to hate or reject those who tried to get him help. There was a moment in time that I spent with Jim that God brought back to my mind as I sifted through those old pictures—a time that was shared, just the two of us. He had taken leave from his new life to come back to me. We spent time talking, being intimate, holding each other… he even asked me if I loved him enough to forgive him and to let him come back home so that we could be a family again. He started to sob, begging me to let him bring his alcohol with him. He told me that he loved me, that he had always loved me, and that he didn’t want to lose his family, he just didn’t think he could come back without alcohol. With tears streaming down his face, gripping my hands a little too tightly in his, he pleaded, ‘Will you allow me back home with a six pack under my arm?’. In those moments, it felt as if my heart was being ripped right from my chest. I saw a grown man standing before me, his soul in agony over such a tormenting decision. He could choose to put down the alcohol for good to keep his marriage and his family—or he could give up his marriage and family just to keep alcohol. When I told him through my tears ‘No alcohol—only you’, his body went instantly limp against mine, his head falling against my chest as he sobbed while he crumpled to the floor on his knees. He continued to cry, pleading with God to let him keep drinking and pleading with me, admitting he couldn’t make it without the alcohol. He kept clinging to me while at the same time shoving me away from him. He shared through his sobs that he loved alcohol more than anything or anyone in his whole life, that alcohol was making it easy for him to hurt us—that he hated himself, how he kept hurting us over and over again every time he drank. As he struggled to get to his feet, pushing me away to keep me from helping him get up, he told me that he loved me forever and ever, just like our song… but that he was going to do whatever it took to stop hurting us. His eyes took on a hardness which, with our history, caused me to shrink back out of his reach. He bit angrily at me that this was the last time that he would let me love him, that he wouldn’t be coming back… that next would come the hating. He swore that night that he would do whatever it took to make me hate him and then to make me keep hating him. And that is exactly what he did. And hating him is exactly what I did. He made it so easy to break my own heart.

Those who know the story of Jim and Patty only really know bits and pieces of that story. I, myself, can honestly say that there are pieces of our story I would never want to relive if given the opportunity. I imagine Jim might feel the same. We had many years together that were quite painful. But… we also had many years when we made some damn great memories. Together, we shared two beautiful children who often-times got caught in the tentacles of addiction and abuse. But other times… even if rare, they got to experience life with Jim in full color. Jim loved (loved) to go camping. He loved to hook a fish on his line. He loved to shoot guns. He loved to go on Christmas tree picnics. He loved to ski. He loved to go sledding in the snow. He loved to take the backroads (always). He loved running a chainsaw. He loved classic country music. He loved expensive pickup trucks. He loved Crown Royal. He loved a good rodeo. He loved to get carted out of bull bashes by the ‘po-po’. He loved to go dancing. He loved Copenhagen with a chilled Coors Light or two—or six. He loved when he got his hair cut just right. He loved his Justin cowboy boots. He loved fancy belt buckles. He loved his black Stetson cowboy hat. He loved to shoot a good game of pool. He loved women. He loved to tell stories. He loved to be called ‘Blackie’ by his stepdad. He loved to sing. He loved to work on the road living out of a 5th wheel trailer. He loved to be surrounded by good friends and good food. He loved to be center stage. He loved to drive fast (really fast). He loved to get lost for the day up in the mountains. He loved to hear his kids giggle. He loved to wear Wranglers. He loved to fry up backstrap and eggs with country gravy. He loved to dream dreams of us moving to Montana, running a bull farm, and having the bulls become my babies. He loved homemade spicy enchiladas and homemade lasagna. He loved to be on the lake in his float tube, fishing pole in hand, with nothin’ but time to kill. He loved to surprise people. He loved to call me Nookems.

Jim was the first person to ever take me night fishing. He was the first person to teach me to not fear shooting guns. He once brought me home a little black kitten so teenie-tiny it fit in his Henley work shirt pocket. He is the one who started our family camping traditions. He took me to my first rodeo and to my first bull bash. He was with me when I shot my first cow Elk. He is the one who taught our son to ride a bike without training wheels and how to use a lawn mower. He also taught him how to drive a pickup truck, how to use tools, and how to shoot a gun. He taught our daughter how to flip the perfect fried egg, how to cast a fishing pole, and how to roast a marshmallow just-right over a campfire in her pj’s. Whenever Strawberry Wine would come on the radio, he would turn it up real loud and belt out the lyrics right alongside her. Jim loved nothing more than to spend time out at the lake as a family and to let the kids get good and dirty with nature while he shamelessly flirted with me on the bank.

Going through those old pictures has brought some healing to my tattered soul. When I married Jim and as we built a life together, I believed we would be together for forever and ever, Amen. But life happened, addiction and abuse took over, and divorce stepped in. Looking back now, it’s hard to believe all those memories happened over twenty-one years ago. The last time I saw Jim was on August 7th of this year at the Crook County Fair. I do not know if he noticed me, but I honestly don’t know how he could have not, we were walking almost straight toward one another less than 6 feet apart. As I looked on at him sitting at a table not far in front of mine, familiar beer in his hand, I realized that somewhere along the way I had stopped hating him. I no longer grieved for the life we once had, I no longer felt regret for not fighting harder to keep our family together. He had somehow just become a man I once was married to, a man who was the father of our children, a man who chose to live a different life than the one we had vowed to share together. I once believed whole-heartedly that it would not phase me if I received news of Jim passing. Not because I still held hatred toward him, but because all the care and love that I had once felt had just somehow dried up through the pain and the passing of years. When I received the call of his passing, I cried. My heart hurt for my kids. My heart hurt for the loss of a man that I once loved. I cried from the pain of addiction and all that it had stolen from him—and from us. Jim was only 51 years old. He probably believed he had many (many) years left ahead of him. Fifty-one is too young to have your life end. I hope Jim is looking down today and can smile as he watches his granddaughters race their bikes and scooters around their cul-de-sac. I hope his heart feels full as he sees them draw and color pictures and write their own names. I hope he can see his reflection in their faces because even though they never got the chance to really know him, he is a part of them. I hope he can look down and see his daughter who has grown into a beautiful woman, wife and mother. I hope he can see his reflection in her smile and recognize the seeds of strength that he planted in her from the time she was small, when she was still just his lil punkinhead. I hope he can look down and see his son who has grown into an independent man filled with wisdom beyond his years. I hope he can see his reflection in how his son approaches life and the love he holds for the people he calls his family. I hope he can see how his son mirrors his love for nature and the peace it brings when his soul feels weighed down by life. I hope Jim can look down and see that his kids always loved him and never stopped rooting for him to beat addiction… even when he stopped rooting for himself. I have always believed that God caused our paths to cross that day so many years ago, that God knew we would create a family, and that our days together would be numbered. Today, as I reflect and remember the man that Jim once was—or tried to be, I can be thankful for the good memories that we made. I hope that Jim can look down today and that he can remember (and see) that he was a big part of those. I hope he can look down and rest in peace knowing that we loved the man he was apart from the man that became so enslaved to addiction.

Grief in losing Jim didn’t begin the day he left this earth… the grieving started that very first day we met, and it just continued its cycles through the passing years. I have experienced stages of denial, bargaining, depression, anger, acceptance—most definitely not always in that order. And I imagine I (and anyone who loved Jim) always will.

Grief never ends. But it changes.

It’s a passage, not a place to stay.

Grief is not a sign of weakness, nor a lack of faith.

It is the price of love. [Author unknown]

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