Bob and Judy shortly before his crash
"Death ends a life, not a relationship." Robert Benchley
Our society is obsessed with pigeonholing people. Who are you? What do you do? Where do you live? Are you married or single? Do you have kids? Where'd you go to school? What's your sign? (blech) We imbue ourselves and each other with labels.
Some labels are inspiring tributes: Iraq war veteran. Pulitzer Prize winner. Presidential Candidate. Others are more mundane titles or descriptions: Doctor. Writer. Uncle. Teacher. Mr. Reverend. Artist.
Whether earned or not, most labels are worn without much thought. Others are thrust upon us, often in the worst possible way.
I've already talked about my niece Karen's heroic battle with Melanoma. And her son Alex's struggle with a rare cancer called VHL. They both have a label we hope they'll keep for a long time: cancer survivor.
My sister Judy is Karen's mother, Alex's grandmother. Just for the record, Judy's a cancer survivor too, a trifecta -- kidney, mastoid and uterine in the 70's -- but cancer-free ever since.
Two years ago today, on July 16, 2006, Judy--mother, sister, aunt, Grammy, nurse, pilot, hiker, skier, wife, cancer survivor--gained a new label. One that will haunt her forever.
Unexpectedly, literally out of the blue, her husband was killed in a private plane crash. The plane hit a house and exploded on impact. No one was home. No one was killed. Except the pilot. Gone in an instant.
It was so ordinary, in a way. Small details make it even more tragic.
Judy and Bob always went to air shows together. But no matter where they were--even if she knew he was at his LA law office or in court--whenever a small plane crash made the news, she'd call him on his cell phone to confirm he was safe. It was their private little husband-wife ritual.
This time she'd taken a visiting cousin to San Francisco instead of joining Bob in Oregon. A news blurb on the car radio mentioned a plane crash in Hillsboro. Without any sense of foreboding she called his cell and left her typical message, "I just heard about a plane crash there. Call me back so I know it wasn't you."
Tragically, horribly, that call was never received. And would never be returned.
Coverage of the crash blanketed Northwest TV and newspapers, was on CNN, even appeared on AOL's Welcome Screen. And of course on LA TV and in the LA Times. They all identified Bob before we did.
Adding insult to injury, we were forced to wait over a month for Bob's remains because the NTSB and FAA have specific air disaster protocols. We had to submit DNA samples because, well, they were working with a big pile of ashes and documentation was required for a death certificate.
Forget CSI, this was all too sickeningly real.
Finally, Bob was cleared to be returned. We held a memorial at the airport where Bob and Judy kept their planes, respecting sentiments Bob had expressed many times at other memorials for fellow pilots. No maudlin weeping over his death. Instead, a communal sharing of memories in celebration of his life.
At the beginning we all went outside to watch the traditional fly-by: a group of planes swooping overhead in the "missing man" formation to honor a fallen pilot. You can see it here, along with the last picture of Bob, snapped just before his final take-off.
Inside, one by one, people stood up to tell stories about Bob. Sincere tributes that brought more laughter than tears. Bob had a wonderful sense of humor. He loved a great story, especially at his own expense. So we gave him the kind of send-off he surely would have wanted.
Just a few months later a good friend also became a widow. Also suddenly. Talking after her husband's funeral she said something so simple, yet so incredibly profound, "I've lost my whole reality."
That's it. A five-word description of devastation. No matter how full a life we lead, no matter how busy, hectic, even separate our worlds are from our spouses -- they are our center. Our true north. Our reality.
If we lose them, we become lost. And even if we find our way home, the most important person is no longer there to greet us.
Over the past two years, my sister has sent me musings, thoughts, feelings on her changed reality, on being a widow. This one pretty much sums it all up:
I know I saw this coming – for years. Racing through the sky in high performance vintage WWII airplanes naturally carries a risk. I think that at some subconscious level I had prepared my gut for it.
That doesn't make it any better, nor does it mitigate the changes in my life – and the difficulty of adapting to those changes.
Bob and I had a ritual of a good-bye kiss before he took off. We laughed and agreed this was necessary in case I never saw him again. I wasn't there at that last air show -- so no kiss. My fault?
Friends and associates think a tsunami of grief should have knocked me over and rendered me incapable of almost anything. It didn't. It hasn't.
They are surprised by my efficiency in carrying out normal activities. I just do it one day at a time. Get up, take a shower, get dressed, eat breakfast, move on to the tasks of the day. Repeat daily. I find myself trying to comfort them with descriptions of my routine. I hope it helps.
These same friends and associates seem to feel it would be insensitive to utter Bob's name in my presence. The name "Bob" is like the word "cancer"... in the course of a normal conversation, both words cause voices to drop to a whisper. That doesn't help.
No, I'm not okay with it, but I do what I have to do. I have thrown myself into work, sometimes long days, sometimes long distances, nearly always leaving the house in the dark. While I love my work, I'm still disappointed that there is nobody to call to say I'll be late. There's nobody to sympathize with my slave labor.
And at the end of a long, busy week when I come home on Friday and have to slow down my engine alone, it puts me at very loose ends and I feel very blue. My cheery self reminds me I can sleep late, go to a movie, go hiking with friends, anything I want. My insides tell me those are not my first choices.
So, weekdays are fair except for getting into bed alone. Weekends suck. It's that silence thing again, a mixed blessing because that's when I'm supposed to gear up for another week of a frantic work schedule.
I could gear up more easily when Bob was here. There's a hole in my life that wasn't there before my world exploded -- the world that is now too solitary and quiet.
I know I saw this coming and am living the way I imagined I would. I just didn't know how much I wouldn't like it.
At the time, I told Judy and my friend with great sincerity and hope, "We'll help you build a new reality." Surely a shared goal for all who've lost a partner. But not yet.
First they need to get used to wearing the label widow. For however long it takes to heal. Maybe forever.
Judy takes great pride, if not much comfort in the final label her husband gained upon his death: hero. Bob's respect for human life became his epitaph, and his legacy. Aviation experts declared that Bob could have ejected from the plane and saved himself. He chose instead to attempt a landing that would keep the plane from plowing into an entire neighborhood and killing innocent people.
He succeeded. At the cost of his own life.
homemade sign at the site of the plane crash
Bob Guilford--husband, father, brother, uncle, lawyer, pilot, friend, hero--deserves a hero's welcome into the clouds he loved. More than Rest in Peace, Bob ... Fly in Peace.
"In the sky my soul is found, And my body in the ground. By and by my body'll rise To my spirit in the skies, Soaring up to Heaven's gate." Ambrose Bierce
And to my sister Judy: Live in peace.