Steve Buttry lived a wonderful life and he lived a great death

Steve Buttry lived a fascinating life. His death a few weeks ago was tragic and sad as all deaths are, especially to the family who loved him, and to the many people who called him friend. His death was also intriguing, instructive and  provocative. Provocative, because I think Steve did a great and powerful good with how he LIVED death.

Steve and I considered each other dear friends even though we were actually together less than a dozen times. Our friendship was fueled by the digital age. We grew close through blogs, Twitter, and Facebook. Our bond became strong.

I deeply respected Steve’s determined efforts to move the stodgy newspaper industry into the 21st Century. He was outspoken when he needed to be. To my delight he tilted at more than a few windmills and he passionately cared for journalism. He did all that with unerring kindness, concern and attention to people’s feelings and emotions.

To be candid, I was lucky that Steve said nice things about me and my book in his compelling blog and in private forums. Steve and I had a comfortable mutual admiration society.

You don’t have to take my word about Steve’s successes and his impact. This salute from a student editor is heartwarming. Wonderful tributes are  here, here and here. And this incredible collection of salutes should tell you everything you need to know about Steve and his professional and human contributions.

Assuming I have established how well Steve lived an extraordinary life, let me travel the road less traveled (Steve would expect nothing less of me) and talk about what I find the intriguing and instructive part.

Steve was a deep believer in transparency before he got sick so it was unsurprising that when he faced his third bout with cancer he discussed it openly on Caring Bridge, Facebook and on his excellent blog. Steve especially impressed me with his constant gratitude for his life, his loves, his experiences and his friends. He eloquently wrote about all the gifts he received since he survived his first two cancers. His omnipresent optimism also fueled that particular blog.

The striking thing about Steve’s path to his death was his amazing commitment to his relationships. His devoted, funny and strong wife Mimi could never have doubted Steve’s love, and her love for him shone like a guiding star.

Last August, Steve and I shared breakfast at a suburban hotel outside Minneapolis. We both knew his path was growing short and I brought the relatively fresh scars of my late wife’s death to the table. We both shot straight and hid nothing. Before Mimi joined us, Steve told me he was spending a great deal of time writing letters to his three sons and Mimi. These were not dashed-off letters. They were comprehensive stories about the family, his interaction with each of them and reflections on his deep love for each of them.

Steve did the same for his friends with far greater brevity. A few weeks ago I received a delightful two paragraph letter from Steve thanking me for being his friend. Apparently several other friends received similar notes. My note thanked me for what I had done for him, wished we had known each other better and concluded with some nice compliments.

Now to the provocative part. Here is how Steve began that note. “I’d rather die suddenly, but a slow death does let you leave with less unsaid, so I am writing letters to some friends.” I responded with this:

Thank you for your brilliant and kind letter. Writing these took guts.

I was a little surprised that you said you would prefer to die suddenly. From afar it seems to me you are LIVING a perfect death.

Colleagues and friends have been able to honor you in several different ways. You had a wonderful opportunity to share with and embrace your family and your devoted wife.

I think I have told you that the greatest thing my Dad ever taught me was how to die. Well, friend you are my new model. Your transparency, your courage and your integrity are fantastic examples for all of us.

Now that gentle Steve has passed there is a small tinge of regret for telling him how he ought to feel, but it is a small tinge.

As I said in the first paragraph, I think Steve did a great and powerful good with how he LIVED death. I wanted him to realize that, in my view, he accomplished so much with that death.

Steve has left us with three instructive lessons.

He fashioned a model of strength that any and all of us should strive to follow. His courage, his candor, his attention to to others and his selflessness set a standard that I pray I can match when the time comes.

He allowed people to honor him. LSU’s Manship school honored him with a scholarship in his name, and he was awarded a Chairman’s Citation from the National Press Foundation in 2017. Certainly those honors should have pleased Steve, but they also allowed so many givers to formally thank him for his great contributions.

Steve taught us to attend to relationships in an intimate and professional way. His wife, his sons and his friends are not going to forget his final communications.

I remain surprised by Steve’s wish for a more sudden death. I have a dear friend who lost his wife about five years ago. Dan Untiedt;s  wife Ginny’s car  inexplicably hit a tree and she died suddenly. Dan was incredibly distraught and dearly wished he would have had some time with Ginny before she died as I had with my wife before she passed three years later.

I told Dan shortly after my wife died, that a sudden death is horrible, awful and terrible. I also told him a lingering death is horrible, awful and terrible. They are simply different.

Steve Buttry’s slow death must have been painful, horrible, awful, terrible and a loathsome burden. But for my money one of his many legacies will be the great lessons he taught us with the way he died.

God bless Steve Buttry’s soul and his outstanding family.

 

Retirement, a time to pause, enjoy, reflect and plan the future

The first three days of my retirement from teaching at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism I slept until 9 am and lollygagged around the house until about 11.

I felt guilty and pained. It felt like I was reneging on my commitments. Except I didn’t have any commitments!

My wife says I have done a better job “learning to be retired” in the last several days. I am completely unsure what that actually means so it is obvious I have a long way to go.

I retired once before, in 2002 and that one didn’t take.

It is apparent to me that like everything else retirement means different things to different people. I have a busy six months of national and world travel planned with lots of time reserved for grandkids, kids and brand new adventures with my wife. Yet, when that subsides I do not plan on climbing into a hammock with lemonade and bon bons. There is simply no way I can shut my mind off and withdraw.

I am going to be open to any and all possibilities, but I especially want to explore where my writing might take me. I have some specific book-length projects in mind, but by the time I sit down to a keyboard those concepts may morph several times. I think I have some important things to say. Finding the vehicles and style to say them are still a bit mysterious to me.

Where this blog fits is one of the key questions I need to reflect on for the next several months. It is obvious to anyone who has been following that my output has diminished. I could blame that on a hectic final semester with two new courses and one new mode of presentation. I could blame it on a reluctance to weigh in on certain topics because they struck me as too political. That all obfuscates the real reason which is that my mission became foggy.

When I started this blog in August of 2014 I had just lost my wife of 39 years and I was on the precipice of launching a book, “Some People Even Take Them Home,” A Disabled Dad, A Down Syndrome Son and Our Journey to Acceptance.

My passion was great and my mission was clear and simple: Offer insight into grief and the experience of disability. I pray I provided wisdom. You never get past either of those experiences, but the role of these posts became murkier as I found new love and married.

I am certain I will never run out of opinions, but over the next several months I want to think carefully about the mission of this blog and about who might care about my thoughts. The direction of my major writing projects will definitely have a major influence on whether and how I continue this blog.

I would love to hear your thoughts about what has worked over the last two years and what hasn’t. And, if you have thoughts about where I should take this blog from here I’d like to hear that too.

Until I weigh in again, be kind to each other.

Tim McGuire is the author of “Some People Even Take Them Home” A Disabled Dad, A Down Syndrome Son and Our Journey To Acceptance.

O-L-D is all about perspective and gratitude

As I struggled to sleep Sunday night, I realized that in a space of four days I had at least five complaint-oriented conversations about the aches, pains and indignities of being over 60.

One woman complained the she just couldn’t move boxes and clean and paint like she used to do. She was downright angry her body was failing her. Another group of women joked as they complained. Another man interrupted a conversation I was having with another woman about how we were falling apart, by grabbing a piece of paper and writing O-L-D on it.

But the guy who got me thinking deeply about this whole thing was a man I’ve known for several years. I ran into him in a coffee shop Sunday. We swapped our complaints, pains and hurts until he wisely said “at least we’re this side of the dirt.”

That pulled me up short. My late wife Jean and scores of other people I knew well can’t gripe and complain about hurts and pains because they are gone. I have the gift of life and all my aches should be gifts, not trials.

I know I quote too many country music lyrics in these blog posts but Saturday I heard these lyrics from a Highwaymen song from 20 years ago. The song was written by the late Stephen Bruton:

I am what I am,
‘Cause I ain’t what I used to be.
‘Cause it is what it is,
But it ain’t what it used to be.

It’s silly to keep comparing ourselves to younger versions of our selves. Those days are gone. It is what is, even if it’s not what it used to be. I may not like it, but I need to embrace it as reality.

It gets me back to my old friend gratitude. Rather than focusing on those hurts and aches and the hardships I need to be grateful for what I have because a lot of folks don’t have anything at all.

McGuire on Life, Disability and Grief will take a spring Break for the next two weeks or so, Posts will continue around March 17.

Tim J McGuire is the author of “Some People Even Take Them Home” A Disabled Dad, A Down Syndrome Son and Our Journey To Acceptance

Let a simple “I am sorry” suffice

At my wife Jean’s funeral, a long-time family friend who lost her mother three years ago, walked up to my daughter Tracy and said, “I know there is nothing I can say.”

That friend was so wise. She had been through it. She knew that well-meaning people have a great deal of difficulty saying the right thing to grieving family members. The grieving party simply wants to know you care. The last thing they want is advice, spiritual observations or explanations of why this horrible, terrible thing happened.

Death is so inexplicable, so profound and so disturbing for everyone that words become very complicated and fraught with danger. Some people are tempted to withdraw and avoid confronting the bereaved. That’s the wrong answer too.

I have found that a simple “I am very sorry,” is the most comforting thing I can hear. The people who run the risk of getting kicked in the shins are the nice folks who tell me how I feel. I have been told “you must be so devastated right now.” I am tempted to respond, “Actually I have been pretty good for the last hour, but you just screwed that up.”

Please don’t try to make yourself feel better by telling me what I am going through. You simply can’t imagine what it feels like. I knew in the last two weeks that Jean was going to die. Yet, I can honestly say I never imagined the reality of “dead.” It is simply overwhelming.

Without question the grieving party is carrying a lot of baggage from coping with that sudden reality, but the most sympathetic approach is to understand that baggage and simply express sorrow.