Cowboy Boots, 2016


Cowboy Boots

Name: Kerry Anne

Age: 66

Tell me about the person who died: 

I met my life partner Inez in January of 1966, a few days after I turned 16; she was 20. The family I was babysitting for had moved and I needed a job for spending money. My mom told me they needed someone part time at the hotel not too far from our house. As I walked into the housekeeping department, I heard the housekeeper tell someone, "Go out and greet her and offer her something to drink.” Inez came in sporting a nylon apricot pinafore with a white shirt underneath, sleeves rolled up like a muscle shirt. Her white socks were rolled down to the tops of her tennis shoes.

As I turned to look at her I saw that her eyes were twinkling. As she pulled out a chair she excitedly yelped, “WOO-WOO!” She had the biggest grin on her face. As I had just turned 16, she scared me; I didn't know why she was acting like that or how to react. As we worked together at the hotel, we talked and got closer. She was so loving and patient. From that point on we developed a very loving and devoted relationship.

When I was 20 and she was 24, we moved into a converted garage and started building a life together. Inez was as devoted to me as I was to her. She was Hispanic and Native American and stood 4 ft. 11 in. I'm fair skinned, a redhead, and stand 5 ft. 7 in. We were complete opposites. But we were always very much in love. She grew up in a house that her grandfather built right next to a river. It had a dirt floor and no electricity. They brought what water they needed up from the river daily. She was not materialistic. She would tell me she didn't need anything… she had me. 

We were always together, including at our jobs in a plastic fabrication factory. The labor was intense. One of the jobs we did together was to fabricate a 6-foot-wide golf ball. We had to blow the plexiglass into a mold like blowing bubblegum into an upside-down bowl. The material had to be heated to the right temperature and blown slowly so it would not explode. Inez was really good at this. My job was to paint it white and symmetrically shade in the holes. Working together made it easier. 

She was a protector, fun-loving, and loved to learn new things. She was skeptical about adventures I would plan for us, but it turned out we always agreed on liking or disliking them. On one of our adventures, we were on our way to our nephew’s graduation from college and I wanted to make a road trip out of the time we had off. Our first stop was Mesa Verde National Park in the southern corner of Colorado. Of course Inez was hesitant. "Why do I want to see Indian cliff dwellings? That sounds boring!” I signed us up for an all-day, hands-on tour. We climbed the wooden ladders into the different levels of the dwellings, and crawled through the openings the Pueblo Indians used to get from room to room. She had so much fun climbing and crawling around the buildings that we always wanted to go back.

She was diagnosed with cancer in July of 2012 and was told she had 6-9 months to live. It was a rare and incurable cancer that attacked the nerves. The tumor was behind her nasal cavity and affected her cognitive thinking. It also destroyed the optic nerve of her left eye and her hearing. It left her upper body very sensitive to touch and temperature changes. She endured radiation, chemo, nerve blocks, and the strongest pain medications, just to stay with me as long as she could. She was so brave! We were at Starbucks on a Sunday, she wasn't doing well on Monday, went into transition Tuesday and died Wednesday morning, April 16, 2014. She died in our bed with me wrapped around her. She said when the Lord came to get her she would be ready and she was. But I wasn’t!

What was your experience of grief like after your loss? How did it change over time?

As I knew she was dying, I felt I could handle the grief, because what would be harder than watching her die? I was so wrong. The grief knocked me to my knees. I was devastated. I felt like I had lost part of my body. She took my heart with her. I couldn't remember anything, l felt nauseated all the time, l could not sleep and cried nonstop. I didn't want to be around people. 

She gave me an open heart necklace that has a star with a diamond at its center. She told me that after she died to look at the stars and she would send me a shooting star. The fall after she died I was up in the mountains just staring at the sky, looking at the Milky Way, and a shooting star streaked across the sky. I sat there and cried a long time. She never broke her promises.

It's been two years now, and I feel the grief is starting to ease a little. I can remember things better now so most of the Post-It Notes that have been all over the house have started coming down. One slowly learns to walk in this life alongside the life one had with one’s beloved.

If you had to describe your grief as a literal landscape, what would it look like and feel like at different points since your loss?

Landscape? It has been more like a waterscape. A turbulent, spring run-off river. With high rough rapids, steep deadly waterfalls, and very brief calm areas. As time has passed the turbulence has lessened, the waterfalls aren't as deadly and there are more calm spots. At the beginning it was like a black and white photograph. Now the colors are starting to come back.

Tell me about an object that reminds you of the person who died, and why?

Cowboy boots. We used to go dancing two times a week. The bottom of her boots had circular patterns from the sawdust on the floor. She didn't know how to waltz, so as our 25th anniversary was nearing, I told her if she didn't learn how to waltz I would divorce her. We danced the waltz on our 25th anniversary.

How have the people in your life supported you in your grief? What has been helpful? What has been frustrating? 

Our friends and families have been as supportive as they knew how. They have let me have my space and have also listened. I have a very dear friend who talks while I cry. She tells me about her dogs, garden, etc. and when I stop crying, then she listens. I think listening is the most helpful of all. I have an awesome grief counselor to help me navigate through the grief process, all the feelings and why I'm having them.

Frustrating are people who mean well, but say stuff that hurts. "She's not in pain anymore”, "Now you can move on”, "I bet it's a relief not to have to take care of her anymore”. The hardest comment to take is "She's in a better place". Her better place would be here with me and no cancer!

How did people who were grieving the same person respond to the death compared to you? What similarities and differences did you notice? 

Her brother took her death very hard. He lives next door, and came over every day to sit with her and see how she was doing. Some days the cancer was a bear and we wished he didn't come over so much. He finally realized that, and started calling before he came over. 

Her brother told me one day that he and I loved her so much and that people can't understand why her death is so hard to take. He still has a hard time coming into the house. But he's getting a little better. He and I talk about her a lot when no one else is around. I think that helps him and I know it helps me.

Has anything surprised you about your experience with grief?

Yes, how hard it is! How alone you feel. How life goes on around you while yours is not moving. How brave you really are but don't realize it until you look back at your experience.

How has your private grieving related to your public mourning? 

Private grieving is much more intense. Public mourning is almost nonexistent. People either don't understand or don't want to.

Was there anything about your cultural or religious background that affected the grieving process for you? 

Being gay, it’s hard to explain who you are grieving for to people you don't know. Now I am attending a gay-affirming church. The pastors and community are very supportive.

Were there any personal or public rituals or structures that helped you in your grief?

My partner and I always went to an old adobe church that was built in 1816, close to where she grew up. We were so connected spiritually there. I have been there several times since she died. I feel so close to her there. I feel she is sitting beside me while I talk to her and pray. I tell her what is going on in my life, and with our families, and times I wish she could have been here for certain events. It is so comforting for me. The church is a 5-hour drive from home so it gives me a mini-trip to go visit with her. The last time she and I were there together was a month before she died. The trip was very hard on both of us. But that's what she wanted to do so I made it happen with the help of my sister.

How has your loss and your experience of grief changed you? 

I don't know. I'm still trying to figure out who I am without her.

Cowboy Boots is excerpted from the Grief Landscapes project.