A day can come along without warning that suddenly changes the course of our lives. October 11, 2004 was mine--the day my beloved wife Bette (pronounced Betty) left this world and our home in Maryland and was taken up to heaven.
As with most life changing events, this came as a complete surprise. Bette had struggled with her health and been in constant pain for several years. She had been feeling better in recent days, though, and she was excited about our plans to move into a new home at the end of October. The main limitation Bette still faced was her stamina—she got tired and out of breath very easily.
She had a flare up on October 10 and needed to take some of her pain medication. This resulted in Bette sleeping most of the day while I watched football. She enjoyed the first half of that evening’s Redskins-Ravens game with me before heading to bed. I stayed up to watch our favorite team, the Ravens, win before I retired for the night.
When I climbed into bed, Bette asked, "Did we win?" I answered, "Yep, we sure did." "Good," she said, "I love you" and then rolled back over. I responded, "I love you too baby girl. Good night." Bette was in a very sound sleep when I left for work that morning, not unusual since our body clocks were different and she was physically unable to work. I kissed her goodbye and headed out to begin my commute.
I felt very good about life that morning. The prior few months had been the best of our marriage. We had endured some very stressful times in recent years, but most of that was behind us. We were able to enjoy some excellent quality time with each other and looked forward to many more years of the same.
Bette never woke up, passing away sometime during the afternoon of October 11. Her heart, under such strain because of her physical problems, finally gave out. When I found her body that afternoon, she was snuggled up in a very comfortable position. She obviously felt no pain and drifted off to heaven very peacefully.
She had passed from this existence more excited and hopeful about the future than she had ever been. We should all be so fortunate. Bette did not have to endure those hopes and dreams being dashed because of yet more physical limitations brought on by a weak, tired heart.
Every couple likes to tell you that they share a love like no other, but we actually did. Nothing was more important to me than my Bette, and nothing came ahead of her Jimmy. Everything was better when we were together and nothing was quite as good when we were apart. We never needed a "break" from each other. During our final spring and summer together, our favorite activity was simply holding each other and savoring the amazing level of intimacy we shared.
I learned so much about what it means to be a man, a partner, a husband, and a lover from Bette. She never fully realized the depth of her wisdom. Bette knew when to give me a hug and when to apply a swift kick in my pants. She taught me how to take responsibility for my life and not to hide behind blaming others for my shortcomings. Bette was one of the strongest people I have ever known. She gave me the strength to try new things, most of all writing.
Bette believed in my writing long before I ever did. We sat in a department store cafeteria one night talking, and she kept prodding me with the question "What do you really want to do?" When I finally answered writing, she nodded, having already known that herself. She knew me so much better than I knew myself.
As I began the sportswriting part of my career, she was my editor. As Bette read more about basketball and football, she learned about the games and grew to enjoy watching them with me. Two of the highlights of our time together were sharing the Ravens’ Super Bowl victory and especially The University of Maryland’s NCAA basketball championship.
Most of all, Bette taught me unconditional love. I had never received that from anyone. My mother loved me tremendously, but always pointed out how I had to "earn" that in her eyes or else she would withhold it. Bette taught me how to receive love unconditionally, and it became very easy for me to love her in that manner.
I could never have asked for a partner more devoted or that could love me more completely. Now, twelve years to the day after I met her, she was gone and I felt very much alone.
I have learned a lot about myself and about life in general in the last year, and the first enlightenment I received was that I was far from alone. My best friend Robin showed up at my apartment later that evening and stayed until well past midnight. Bette’s family in Illinois was extremely supportive and did most of the work setting up her memorial service out there.
My friend Brian joined Robin at my place the next evening, both of them putting aside very hectic schedules to do so. My brother Michael and brother-in-law Mike drove down from Rochester, New York, and stayed with me until I left for Illinois, then made the trip out and back with me. My coworkers at BAE Systems were extremely supportive. I was NOT alone, and I learned to take advantage of the offers people made to help me, something I had never been good at before. I had always viewed that as a sign of weakness, but I now felt very weak.
God gave me the right words to say at the memorial service the following Saturday, held at the gravesite of Bette’s parents she had missed so much. The outpouring of love from her friends and family in Illinois would have touched her deeply, as it touched me. Many tears were shed that day, especially by me. Bette had taught me long ago I could cry and still be a strong man. I even saw Robin, who flew out from Maryland for the service, shed a tear for the first time in the 34 years I had known him.
Much to my surprise, the sun came up on October 12 and has every day since then. There is a certain liberation I felt after realizing the worst thing that could possibly happen to me occurred; yet I was still standing. There has been a lot of pain over the last year, but I continue to have plenty of help dealing with and moving beyond it.
My friends and family (including those in Illinois) and my grief therapist Tom Golden
have been invaluable in leading me forward in my life, as has my church family at Believers’ Covenant Fellowship
. Apostle Dale Jarrett has quickly become a wonderful source of spiritual wisdom and a trusted friend. Then there is Brenda, who I will write about in a few weeks. I will just say for now she is amazing, an angel God provided to lead me into this next phase of my life and help make it the best yet.
I write this today, on the first anniversary of Bette’s passing, to thank those who have stepped up over the last year, and to have a written record of what a wonderful, loving, and giving person Bette was. She accomplished many things as a social worker and activist in Illinois during the 1980’s and helped many people improve the quality of their lives. As I have detailed above, though, the person she had the most positive lasting impact on was myself. Anything I may accomplish going forward will be partially due to her influence on my life.
I wish I could build a memorial to Bette or name a building or a charitable organization after her so there would be some tangible lasting evidence on earth of who she was and what she did with her life. At this time, however, all I have are these words to share with you. I hope they have succeeded in shedding some light on the truly wonderful loving, giving woman Elizabeth Marie Johnson (Steward) was.
The twelve years Bette and I had together did not seem like nearly enough time, and there were a lot of things we never got around to doing. Rather than feel regret for what was left undone, I rejoice in the love and time we did share. Less than three weeks before she passed away, Bette wrote me a note that included this quote: "I will cherish all the memories we have made for all eternity." Likewise, my darling.
I thank God for those twelve years and for the opportunities that lay ahead.
I thank you for taking the time to read this and learn about my beloved Bette.