One Final First

I should be at work today, but this day is unlike any day that has ever come my way. It is the last of all the firsts I have experienced over the past year. The first holidays, the first birthdays, the first anniversaries, the first vacations, the first meals, the first sleepless nights, the first of everything. And with each first, I have thought, “If only Beth were here.”

I get through today and everything beyond this point will be the second time around.

Milestones exist for a reason, I guess. Markers along the way that let you know that life moves on with an energy all its own, separate from any human ability to control or sway or influence time. The waves endlessly pound the beach with no thought of what day it is. The seasons come and go by the unstoppable rhythm of orbits that are ancient and almost eternal. There is a time to live and a time to die, and there is nothing that stands in the way of the Divine order.

When I first wrote to you about Beth’s passing, I had no idea what was in front of me. I was ignorant of what it meant to be widowed. Unprepared for the lessons already familiar to so many of you. But in writing about my journey, I have found a sympathy and an understanding in your words of encouragement. On the day she died I was lost. It may sound odd to say it quite like this, but love got me through it. Friends like you got me through my first year.

On Saturday I drove to Selma to fulfill a promise I made to Beth. As I turned off West Dallas Avenue and drove past the stone pillars at the entrance into the cemetery, I rolled my window down. The Alabama humidity poured over me. Max sat up in the back floorboard and peeked out at the Live Oaks and Spanish moss hanging from the branches. I have been here so many times over the last 40 years.

Her people are here. She and I have sat under the shade of more than a few funeral tents in this place. Aunt Ellen and Uncle Norman. Her mama, who died way too young. Her younger sister, Susan. Her daddy just a few years ago. Our nephew, Michael. Our brother-in-law earlier this year. Other generations of her family laid to rest in the sandy soil of the Alabama River since the 1800s.

Beth always had a keen sense of personal history. She loved to make the connections and to dig into the stories of her ancestors. Stories that told her of who they were and somehow defined who she was. She spent countless hours in the genealogical library in Mobile. She and I wandered through other unfamiliar cemeteries photographing headstones and making notes to document those stories.

Sometimes, cemetery markers are the only clue you have to the past.

So, it’s no surprise to me that she made me promise to do this. It has always been an unspoken understanding that we would be buried together, wherever that might be. I’m certain that she knew it wouldn’t be in Selma. I made a Georgia Girl out of her the moment I asked her to marry me.

“Wherever you put me,” she said, “I want a marker at the cemetery in Selma. Promise me you’ll do that.”

I promised a lot of things over the 43 years we had together. I wasn’t always good for what I said I’d do.

About five years ago she said she wanted to take a ride down the Alabama River. Just a lazy day on a pontoon boat passing the time below the St. James Hotel and the Edmond Pettus bridge. She had been around that river her whole life. The flood waters invaded their home when she was a child living in the low bend of the river just east of town. She played by the river. She may even have fished on the river, but she had never taken a trip on the river. I promised we would do that. And though we made plans, we never, I never made that happen for her.

On Saturday, I followed through. A metal plaque that says, “In Loving Memory.” I placed it in the ground next to the Williams headstone near her mom and dad. The last line reads, “Daughter of Marshall and Gloria.” Though she is buried in Pine Mountain, she can be sure that Selma won’t forget her. I can certainly vouch for the fact that she never forgot Selma.

I have been silently counting the days, fully aware that this day was approaching, yet I didn’t really know how the one-year mark would hit me. How I might handle the day. What I would do with this day. Although I have relived some of the memories of her being in ICU facing what was then unknown to us, I am not sad. I miss her, but the sting of sadness has loosened its grip by now. I have briefly found my tears in the last day or two, but only because my heart is still healing.

There is no right or wrong way to spend this day. I know that. I have visited her grave. My oldest daughter had been there before me and placed flowers there for her mama. All three of my kids have talked about what this day would mean to them. It is maybe the hardest of the first passages, getting to the anniversary of her leaving us.

I have spent the last 12 months letting go. I have reworked some of the space in our closet. I have cleaned out drawers. I have made quilts for the kids out of her clothes. I have painted our bedroom and hung curtains in the house. I have rearranged furniture. I have done all the things a man can do to busy himself in the silence of a house where once there were two.

Finally, today has come. This is the day I turn the page on a new chapter. I’m not saying I will ever forget her. You know better. I’m just saying that tomorrow will be a different kind of new day.

I read 1st Corinthians 13 at the cemetery on Saturday. The love chapter reminds me of everything Beth was to me. I like the line, “Now I know but in part,” because it’s true. I know so little about why this happened or what the future holds. I only trust that I know the One who does know.

As the day closes, I am reminded of where I sat exactly one year ago today, August 22nd. The nurse came to the waiting room and told us that she had gone peacefully. The hour was late. Tonight, in one final first, I am removing my wedding band and placing it in a small box with hers. Letting go is both hard and necessary. I know this. You know this.

I also know that the greatest of all gifts is love.

And I have her to thank for showing me that every day.

10 thoughts on “One Final First

  1. I’m thankful I can type, because at this moment I can’t speak. Had to stop several times during my read aloud to Allen.
    We love you, Paul!

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  2. Amen🙏🏻 Bless you…..you are such a precious soul…..Beth was so lucky to have YOU. Grief is a long winding road that doesn’t end, but changes along the journey as we trust in God’s grace to guide us❤️

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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  3. Paul, you made me cry with this post! My thoughts go back to the Beth I knew. I thought about the trip Janelle made with her to Alabama. That was quite an experience for Janelle. Beth was a very special lady!

    My thoughts and prayers go out to you today, as you begin a new year. Blessings to you and to your family. Would love to see you all.

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  4. Paul, as always, your writing has moved me. Days like today are never easy and my thoughts are with you. A lot runs through my head pertaining to this subject, but I can say the most valuable (I think) personal experience I have is that I tend to lean more into the positive milestones (birthdays, holidays, etc) versus tragic days like today. It’s probably not for everyone, we all grieve our own way. But for me, it seems to work better. I’m glad you’re finding peace.

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    • Without a doubt, the year mark deserves everything. I hope Nick and I have even a fraction of the happiness I know you two had. ♥️

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  5. A great tribute to the love of your life!! I know you have struggled though many of those first’s. But now you move on thinking of your bride, your children’s mother as we begin the second’s. Thinking of you this day my friend!! Truly, the greatest gift is Love!!!

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  6. As I’ve said before, I can only imagine. I’ve watched several people go through what you have endured and each one has handled it in different ways. I guess the hardest for me to watch was my dad after he lost, of what he believed was his life’s partner, in a
    Car, train wreck. That first year aged him ten. All those “ first” were not kind to him as, I’m sure they haven’t been kind to you.
    However, after watching the way you’ve dealt with those First, has made you my idol. If Dee leaves this earth before I do I can only imagine how I will handle that burden, but I pray I can be like you. Thanks for sharing your soul with those of us who admire you greatly.

    Rick Nokes

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  7. That was beautifully written and beautiful sentiment. I’m both proud of you and sad for you. I believe, most importantly, that Beth would be both proud of you and live you even more for how you’ve handled all the firsts 🌻

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