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The Missing Piece and a Journey to Healing

August 22, 2017 by
Photography by Tim Guthrie

Tim Guthrie, an art professor at Creighton, produced the award-winning documentary Missing Piece. The documentary details Guthrie’s journey to find peace with the death of his wife, Beth, from complications of Parkinson’s disease and dystonia.


Sometimes I cant believe I can go on without her.

The loss feels too great, too heavy. We didn’t simply have each other as companions. We had each other to lean on when we needed one another—when I was struggling with work or my master’s degree, when she was devastated over a pregnancy that ended in an emergency room, or as her diseases put her through increasingly more pain.

Now she’s gone. She’s not here to lean on.

I’ve done everything I can to find ways to live without her, to find a way for life to be a little less difficult and painful. I spend a lot of time revisiting pleasant memories, working to get to a point where I can feel happy—to a point where those memories can overpower the persistent image of finding her that awful morning. I want to do anything to erase that vision from my memory bank. I wish for a willful and controlled amnesia.

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

I made a film about, and for, her—my wife, Elizabeth Broderick.

Showing the film has been a challenge. I don’t attend most of the film festivals, but during the screenings of the few I have attended, I usually leave the theater before her film begins. The film is my love letter to Beth, but it’s also painful for me to watch.

Sometimes, I think the film, and the Missing Piece photos I took, are too personal for me to talk about. Mostly, though, everything from Beth’s death until now has been extraordinarily painful and personal to talk about, so why should the film or photos be any different?

I started a blog, “Traveling with Virtual Beth,” for family and friends who wanted to track some of what I have been doing, and where I’ve been going—especially for my parents, who wanted to follow my travels. I’ve openly shared both the physical and emotional journey. I’ve opened up on the blog. I’ve opened up on my Facebook page, as well. Most people are respectful. I don’t mean to make people uncomfortable. I don’t mean to make my grieving process seem worse than anyone else’s. I know I’m not unique in losing a loved one. It’s a pain that is unfortunately universal.

Original photo taken at Tim Guthrie’s apartment (early 1990s); revisited in their house (2017)

I’m aware that I’ve been grieving pretty publicly, which was an issue as I began to be approached by reporters. One by one, I turned all but one away. Everyone expected that I wanted to talk more about everything, but it has always been a struggle. It adds to the challenge when someone else who didn’t know her, or even me, wants to tell a story I’m still struggling with myself. I somehow still want to protect her, even in death.

One reporter, who assumed I’d want to talk more openly than I did, wanted to write about details I have never talked about online or in the film. When I pointed out that if that’s what she wanted to include in the story, I ultimately wasn’t interested, her response was, “I’m the reporter, I decide the story.”

And like that, I was done with the interview and never talked to her again. Granted, months later, another writer, Kim Carpenter with the Omaha World-Herald, gently got me to open up, finally, so a story was eventually written from someone’s perspective other than my own. Still, it was a challenge. It actually felt a bit as though she was my therapist over months of talking with her.

At Fontenelle Forest (early 1990s); revisited at Red Rocks Park in Vermont (2016)

I don’t talk about it often, but I actually saw a therapist. It was helpful for about a year, but I stopped going this past summer, mostly for financial reasons. I think spreading Beth’s ashes, revisiting places and taking photos, keeping the blog, and making the film probably helped more than a therapist could.

In the first six months of this journey, I kept arguing with people who insisted the photos were works of art. For me, they weren’t art, but a very personal process that was helping me deal with the loss. I initially loathed thinking about them as art. I never, ever, ever wanted to reduce Beth to an art project, and calling them art somehow felt insulting to her memory and shameful to me. Grief makes one say and think absurd things.

I’ve thought about ending the blog many times, and, even though I know I will ultimately bring it to a close by the end of the year, I find myself recalling comments I’ve received—like the many messages from people who have thanked me for sharing—comments that expressed gratitude because sharing my journey has helped others deal with their own grief. The comedian/writer/actor Patton Oswalt even sent me a message after his wife died, and after he discovered and read every post on the blog. It felt like an odd honor, but also like being part of a widowers’ club. Such messages have made the blog worthwhile, though. Knowing it has helped others is strangely comforting.

At Durham Museum (early 1990s); same location (2016)

It’s one thing for me to get through this myself, but the thought of it helping anyone else actually motivated me to continue for as long as I did. I thought I’d only continue the blog for a year. It will have been two years by the time I bring it to a close. When I imagine it has assuaged anyone else’s grief by sharing my own, it makes her death a little less difficult to bear. If anything good can come from her death, it eases my mind and soothes a broken heart to think she is helping others, even long after she’s gone. Yet, as I run out of photos and work to move forward, it feels like the right time to end it.

I know I can’t return to the person I was, but if I can get to a place where I can at least move forward again, and spend less time curled up alone, then maybe that’s something. To be honest, everything I’ve done to honor her these past couple of years has been worth it.

She may not be here to lean on in times when I need her most, but I’ll keep the good memories, which the photos help me recall.

I can’t move on without her, but maybe I can move forward with our shared memory, learning to carry it all with a little more ease. Hopefully the loss will someday be a little less heavy, more bearable.

The simple fact is, I miss her so damn much; that’s one thing I know I’ll carry until the day I die. 

Honeymoon at Dolwyddelan Castle, Wales (1994); same location (2016)

Visit virtualbeth.wordpress.com to view Tim Guthrie’s blog. A screening of the documentary, Missing Piece, is tentatively scheduled at Film Streams on Nov. 7 (7 p.m.). Photographs will be exhibited at Gallery 72 in November with an opening reception Nov. 9 (5-9 p.m.). A special preview at the gallery will follow the Nov. 7 screening.

 

 

 

Acclaim for Missing Piece

Missing Piece was accepted into several national and international festivals. Here is an abbreviated list of screenings and recognitions.

Omaha Film Fest

Best Short NE Documentary

Audience Award for Best Short Film

Global Independent Film Festival

Best Documentary Short Film

2017 Humanitarian Award Winner

Sydney Film Festival

Best Documentary Short Film

Canada World International

Film Festival

Best American Film

High Coast Film Festival, Sweden

Honorable Mention

Sweet As Film Festival

Honorable Mention

Hollywood International

Independent Awards Festival

Finalist

This essay was printed in the September/October 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Honeymoon at Llandanwg, Wales (1994); same location (2016)

The Story of Standing Bear

October 25, 2014 by
Photography by Sara Lemke

When 12-year-old Claudia Archer received a cell phone call from her mother informing her that she had won an essay contest, her reaction was more bewilderment than triumph.

“I’m like, ‘What essay is this?’” she says. School was already out for the year and the Brownell-Talbot middle-schooler had written a lot of essays in her sixth-grade writer’s workshop class.

“My writing teacher, Mr. G.—Mr. Goetschkes—had us write an essay each week. And every now and again he threw in an essay contest, and one of them was the Standing Bear essay.”

Months had passed since the assignment, but Archer finally recognized her work: “I realized I wrote it and that I won! I was really excited, but it was a shocker.”

The contest was sponsored by the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs and McDonald’s with the objective of generating awareness, especially among youth, of the many accomplishments of Ponca Chief Standing Bear. By contest guidelines for the middle school category, Archer was limited to 200 words and her essay had to demonstrate original thinking and her own opinion. Her final entry was, as she puts it, “short and sweet,” and Robert Goetschkes, her writer’s workshop teacher, agrees.

“The Standing Bear essay was one of those in-class, full-on writing process activities, so she had a lot of time to work on it and revise it, get feedback from some of her classmates, that sort of thing,”
he explains.

Goetschkes, who is with Brownell-Talbot’s English department, says he actively seeks multiple writing competition opportunities for his students every year, and hopes that someday a master database will exist to increase participation.

“I have found that in all of these writing contests I’ve done that I get the same response: ‘I wish more teachers did this’. What I say is, ‘I wish more teachers knew about it’,” he says. “I think if even one student wins every year, it has an impact. I tell the kids that even if you don’t win you are operating at your best when you are competing.”

The four Chief Standing Bear essay contest winners (one in each age category: elementary school, middle school, high school, and college) received a $25 McDonald’s Arch Card and Kindle e-Reader, plus saw their essays appear on tray liners in McDonald’s restaurants throughout the state this summer. Archer and her fellow honorees attended a May reception at the Governor’s Mansion hosted by first lady Sally Ganem and were allowed to bring two guests; Archer chose her parents, Ed and Nuria.

“They’re proud of me and they were really excited for me,” she says.

“She’s a very hard worker, she dedicates a lot of time and is very patient,” Nuria Archer says. “And she has the biggest heart you’ve ever seen. Everybody tells me she’s way beyond her years.”

Claudia’s Essay:

“There is a road in the hearts of all of us, hidden and seldom traveled.” — Chief Standing Bear

Chief Standing Bear was a great individual. He was born in 1829 and died in 1908. He became a great leader for the Ponca tribe. Sadly he went through the terrible death of his son, due to harsh weather and his burial became an adventure.

Ensuring his burial was in his homeland was important to him. In January 1879, Standing Bear and his followers abandoned the Indian Territory to accomplish it. On the way to their ancestral homeland, Standing Bear and his followers got captured and taken to Fort Omaha, Nebraska.

In the spring of 1879, a journalist interviewed him and published a story that grasped many of the public’s attention. Because of this, many lawyers tried to prevent Standing Bear from going back to Indian Territory.

It is said the story explained why the tribe was divided. The majority of the Southern Ponca went to the Indian Territory, but Chief Standing Bear and his followers returned to Nebraska and became the Northern Ponca. 88 years after his death, a tall bronze statute reminds us of this leader today.

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