Marilynn and I are first cousins and the two eldest cousins in the family. After the loss of our spouses, just eleven months apart, we teamed up to recover from the grief. On that journey we became brother and sister and soul mates. This is our story.
The Bond Strengthens
Marilynn and I are cousins. Our cousin bond was formed as children. I lived in Iowa and she lived in Wisconsin. We fondly remember the eight hour trips when our families visited each other. After graduating high school in the ‘60s we drifted apart. Both of us had set out on our generations mission to “do our own thing.” Like most of our generation, that mission left us wanting. The cousin bond was renewed in the 1980s when our paths crossed in southwest Wisconsin. The Holy Spirit had reconnected us. Neither of us had any idea that reconnection was preparing us for future events. The future would forge the cousin bond into a brother-sister bond.
The 21st Century had been tough on us. My daughter Kim was killed in June of 2000 by a drunk driver. In July of 2004, Marilynn’s husband Phil had taken his life. In November 2004, Marilynn’s dad, my favorite uncle, had died from complications of dementia. In the winter of 2004-2005 my wife Maxine had lost two cousins to cancer. In February 2005, Maxine’s younger brother Virgil died from lung cancer. In June of 2005, my wife Maxine died from lung cancer. In early December 2005, the wife of Maxine’s older brother Chuck died of cancer. The day after Christmas 2005, Ray, a cousin of Marilynn and I lost his wife to cancer. In March of 2006, my mother died from heart problems and complications of old age. Marilynn and I were worn out from perpetual grieving.
In addition to the renewed bond of the ‘80s, Marilynn and I shared other things. We were the eldest male and female of the cousins. Part of our bonding was the first born syndrome. Our younger cousins always looked to us for answers. We also shared a great deal of the Stratton “genes”:
We were farm kids and we knew how to work.
We can’t stop to rest until all the work is done, if we think all the work is done we must have forgotten something.
We are always helping others but forgetting to take care of ourselves.
We share a passion for family history.
We share the inability to say no to anyone who needs help.
We know we have become our fathers.
We know that in times of indecision of a group one of us will step forward and make the decisions.
Admitted or not, each of us likes to be in control.
We share the instinct that individually each of us can always figure a way out of a problem.
We share the instinct that individually we can handle anything by ourselves.
Both of us were devastated by the sudden loss of our spouses, just eleven months apart. With the loss of our spouses, both of us encountered something we could not handle individually. This was a perplexing situation for both of us. Unknown to each other, both of us decided to seek professional counseling.
Shortly, we made it known we had sought counseling and it was helpful. For each of us knew our cousins, and our families, were watching to see if we would recover.
Our recovery began by sharing our personal experiences with each other. After Phil died, I gave Marilynn a journal with a personal letter in it. After Maxine died, Marilynn did the same for me. The journey of the journal gift had come full circle in a short time. The journal was a place for us to pour out our emotions, frustrations, anger, fear, and hopes. The journal was a large help in recovering from our loss.
After Phil’s death, I shared with Marilynn what I had learned from Kim’s death and about grieving. I gave her a shoulder to lean on and cry on. I tried to be the brother that she didn’t have.
At the funeral for Marilynn’s dad, we sat together to hold each other up. We were grieving a person very important to both of us. In the days before and after Art’s funeral, we came to understand how much we needed each other.
After Maxine’s funeral, Marilynn stayed with me for a week. She shared her knowledge about grief after the loss of a spouse. She cooked for me. She help me make decisions. She gave me a shoulder to lean on and cry on. She became the sister that I didn’t have.
Maxine and I vacationed, fished, relaxed, ate out, and sometimes made important life changing decisions at the Red School Resort in Birchwood, WI. The fall colors of late September and early October provided a picturesque setting for us to relax.
I decided I wanted to continue to go to Birchwood. It soothed my soul. But in the fall of 2005 I didn’t want to go alone. Without Maxine it would be too hard to be alone. I gave Marilynn the sales pitch. Her own bedroom, no telephones, no cell phone service, picture windows, lazy boy recliners, and a picturesque lake in the Northwoods. Now it is a toss up whether Marilynn or I am the biggest workaholic. I was doubtful I could get Marilynn to go to Birchwood with me. However, she agreed the first time I asked. Talk about the work of the Holy Spirit!
In Birchwood we shared our souls. We talked with each other about feelings and things we could talk with no one else about. We could cry and sob on each others shoulder and not feel guilty or ashamed. We knew, as only we could know, how much it hurt, deep down hurt. We shared our Lutheran faith, the faith that Grum, our grandmother, had taught us. The faith that life goes on and you can, and must, be strong. The faith that God is always with you.
We spent a week in Birchwood. The red, gold, and brown leaves were in their magnificent fall color. The white birch trees stood out brilliantly in the woods. From the lake we watched bald eagles glide across the sky in the pink and purple sunsets. We watched the brilliant orange harvest moon rise over the lake. We fished, we relaxed, we talked, we cried, we bonded deeply. We transformed our cousin bond into a brother-sister bond. The bond would strengthen and sustained us as we grieved and worked to find our individual new path in this ongoing journey of life. We became brother and sister forever.
We continue to use that bond to strengthen, sustain, and love each other as we find our new paths in the journey of life. We know the Holy Spirit is at work every day in our lives. Sometimes we are not sure where our individual paths are leading us. Sometimes we think the Holy Spirit is working to combine our individual paths into one path. Regardless of where the path leads us we know the Holy Spirit is guiding us. We know that regardless of where the path may lead us, we will always have a brother-sister relationship.
We also know, as with our marriages, one of our souls will return to God before the other. When that happens, the remaining one will cry, sob, and grieve again. The remaining one will also be filled with joy that the other has begun the journey in the next life. They will give thanks for the times they were able to share the joys and the heartbreaks of the earthly life. They will also look forward to the day their bond will again be renewed in the next life.
With a bond forged from life’s experiences, and strengthened by the Holy Spirit, Marilynn and I continue on life’s journey as brother and sister.