Cougar

It started as a joke, six years ago now… three years before he left us. He made the suggestion after one of those happy weeks when I dragged him into the bedroom eight times in seven days.

“Holly, if I ever die” he said, with a smirk “If I ever die, you will have to find someone younger.”

I laughed and slapped him on the ass. “What are you talking about?”

“Holly” he continued “No one your age or older will be able to keep up with you on the trail and in the bedroom.”

He had a point.

It became a running joke. We would have tons of sex, or I would climb a big mountain, and he would remind me that if anything happened to him, I would have to become a cougar. He made the joke about his death at least a dozen times in those last three years. We giggled and he would pull me in close, manhandling me just the way I wanted him to.

Other times it wasn’t so funny. Repeatedly over our ten year marriage he gravely told me that he had had premonitions that he would die young. He would look guilty when he told me of these fears, as if to say “I’m sorry that I will be leaving you and the girls alone.” We didn’t laugh those times.

Then one day it happened. Not long after he turned 40, he didn’t come home. An avalanche swept him and his team of six off a ridge, 3300 feet straight down onto a glacier. I cooked surf and turf with steak and crab in order to celebrate his successful climb, but his plate went cold. “When does daddy get back?” the girls said. “Soon.” I said nervously, as we ate his special dinner without him. “He’s just a bit late.” The next day the helicopter spotted their gear and an exposed hand sticking out of the snow and we knew they were all dead. They couldn’t safely land the helicopter and it was 3 months before they recovered his body. I was 39 and our daughters were 5 and 9.

++++

About six months after John died I found myself at a bar in Brooklyn with two men – Kevin, age 30, and Almost Lawyer Boy (ALB), age 34. I call him ALB because he “almost passed the bar” a few times before giving up in order to take a cushy job at his father George’s company. In fact, his dad George was a friend of mine whom I had worked with at a software company years ago, and I was in NY at his invitation for the big launch of his company’s first product. George had told me many times that I was the “ultimate woman”, but at 22 years my senior he would not have kept up and I never acknowledged his advances. Apparently the apple did not fall far from the tree.

I sipped a Manhattan and had Kevin and ALBs undivided attention.

“You look so sad.” ALB said.

“I haven’t been touched in forever.” I said. “I have no idea how to get back on the dating scene.”

“Go cougar.” Kevin teased. “Seriously. You look ten years younger than you are. Go cougar.”

“Your skin looks incredible.” ALB said, a bit wistfully, as if it wasn’t the first time he had noticed.

ALB took my hand on the subway back to the hotel but I pulled away with fear and confusion. He spent the next month doggedly pursuing me, under the guise of wanting to help me, be my friend. He told me that he’d had a crush on me for over a year, since before my husband had died. A few times he tried to put his arm around me but my whole body hardened with anxiety. I told myself lies – that I was ready to have a boyfriend, that it would be tense and anxious with anyone new, that I just had to ‘work through it’. In a haze of grief and neediness, I gave in. Though, ALB would turn out to be the needy one.

To be clear, ALB was a mistake. He was insecure, clingy, manipulative, and quickly became obsessed with the idea that I was the love of his life. Within a month he wanted to talk about the future, marriage, moving in together, said he was going to start saving up for a ring. Talking about such things put me into triggered and overwhelmed state just six months after my husband had died. He became angry and belligerent when I shut down talks about long-term commitment.

After two months, I stopped lying to myself. I took ALB out for a beer at Chucks Hop Shop and tried one more time to explain that I cared about him but that I really couldn’t commit to anyone because I was still committed to my dead husband. He began to yell at me in front of about 12 other customers.

“What does that mean?” he said, his eyes squinting. “Does that mean you are going to fuck other dudes?”

“No I’m not going to sleep with anyone else. It’s not about that.”

“So, if you aren’t going to sleep with anyone, why can’t you commit to me?”

“I’m…. floating… I am still so full of pain… I’m not fully present. I’m still with John. Commitment isn’t really possible when you are grieving…”

I was mumbling. I knew I couldn’t make him understand. I wasn’t breaking up with him, just trying to explain why we had to slow down.

“WHAT THE FUCK DOES THAT MEAN?” He had stood up and was yelling down at me. “Commitment isn’t possible? That sounds like a bunch of bullshit.”

I began to cry. I hadn’t seen him this bad before. I realized – this is what verbal abuse looks like. It was a new and horrifying experience in my life to be preyed upon while in my weakest state.

I asked him if we could leave because everyone was staring at us. He yelled at me the whole walk home and adopted an aggressive stance that made me feel strangely afraid and exposed, even though I’m strong, fit, capable, even though I have a black belt in Shaolin Kempo. When we arrived at my house I ended our entanglement. He immediately softened and tried to save things but by then I knew that was all part of his act – attack me, make me weak, and then glide in as the sweetheart who would save me.

Instead of continuing to tell myself lies, I admitted the truth – that he was the wrong person and I wasn’t ready. I had let myself be his prey and would not make that mistake again.

ALB pursued me for months after I left him and eventually I cut off all contact.

+++++

Over the coming months I went on first and second dates with a few men but had hardened and didn’t allow myself to open to any of them. I held the power if I remained closed. By then I was 40. My husband had been dead for a year, my children were sad and angry, and the Okanogan wildfires were licking away at the 25 acres of forest John and I had bought together. If I didn’t have children I would have sold everything and climbed mountains until the Mountain Gods had mercy and let me join John up above our favorite snowy peaks. But, I did have children and thus was not allowed to die.

cougarMy sexless rage shape-shifted me into a ferocious feline predator. Cougars are solitary except when they mate. Cougars can jump 18 feet into the air and can run 40 miles per hour. Cougars are cunning, angry, vicious, and powerful. After the transformation was complete I pulled in my retractable claws, padded into my cage, and locked the door. I paced, snarled, and flashed my teeth through seven months of celibacy.

That’s when I met Bear.

Bear was 29 and when he first asked me if I would like to get a drink, I thought maybe he didn’t realize how old I was. ALB had been so immature… why would I date someone even younger than him? But… Bear hit all the right notes. Outdoorsy, into mountains, intelligent, funny, playful, and he had a gorgeous beard. I said –

“Do you usually date older women?”

“No” he responded “But I figured that if you hike, do yoga, rock climb, ice climb, and run, then your age doesn’t really matter. It’s just a number. You seem awesome.”

I told my friend Julie “I’m not going to tell him right away that I’m widowed or that I have kids. He is young and hot. I want to have fun and don’t want to spoil it with all the heavy stuff.” I felt my power growing. I needed sexual release, and an athletic 29 year-old with a gorgeous beard would be my perfect prey.

I got what I wanted. Bear and I proceeded to have enormous amounts of truly phenomenal sex over the coming months. Angels wept. The earth moved. On Bear’s end – he didn’t know sex could be like that.

“Women my age think their only job in bed is to show up and look good.” He said. “But you… you… wow.”

“Oh really?” I smiled.

“Most of them starfish in bed.” He continued.

“Starfish?”

“You know… they lay there like a starfish. They expect the dude to do all the work. You on the other hand… you know how to be on bottom, on top, you respond and moan so enthusiastically… “ He started to shake his head, lost his words, picked me up, and threw me on the bed.

++++

For the first month that Bear and I were together I put up a lot of walls. I was afraid to become attached because of how young he was, so I told myself more lies –

“Oh c’mon” I said to my friend Nika “He’s 29. It won’t be serious. I mean, it’s not like a 29-yr-old is going to become a dad to my kids.”

I decided that the entanglement would never be long term due to our age difference, and so I wouldn’t get attached. I would keep my walls up and that was how I would stay safe.

But… Bear was so warm and loving, I couldn’t help but fall completely in love. I would have followed Bear anywhere, done anything for him. Bear also fell, telling me that he had never fallen for someone so hard and fast, asking me to go get sized for a ring, telling me that he didn’t want to be one of those men who took me for granted, didn’t want to let such an amazing girlfriend slip through his fingers.

Turns out – I wasn’t the only one lying to myself. Bear wasn’t ready… he needed to explore, travel, find himself as an individual. Hadn’t I done the same thing when I was his age? Hadn’t I traveled the world solo in my mid-20s, running around India and Thailand, free as a bird, beholden to no one? And… maybe age wasn’t just a number. If it was, Bear would not have insisted that I lie to his parents.

“They saw that movie “This is 40.”” He said. “They have an image of what 40 is and things will go much more smoothly if they think you are 38.”

I agreed to the lies and after meeting his parents, I asked him what they thought of me.

He grinned “”She’s perfect.” They said. “What’s the catch? What’s wrong with her?” they joked.”

Somehow I felt the ickiness of what he was about to say before he said it.

Bear said “I figured they would find out soon enough.” Then he looked away, perhaps realizing that he had just clearly said that my age, widowhood, and children were “the thing that was wrong with me”. Bear damaged me that day.

Bear also insisted that I not tell his friends upon first meeting that I was a widow, that I had kids, or that I was 40. “First impressions matter.” He said. “It will be better if they don’t find out until after they see how awesome you are.” He damaged me that day too.

I told Bear how much his words hurt me. I told him that I wanted to be with someone who was proud of me. He went on and on about how he really was proud of me, how I needed to understand that first impressions were important and that he was doing what was best for our future. He offered to change nothing. That was when I should have realized that Bear wasn’t the one.

After we had been together for five months, I stopped lying to myself and let Bear go. I pined for him for months after our break up and hated that I couldn’t stop loving him, but also knew that living my truth meant not being with him. I swore I would never again let myself fall for someone so much younger, someone who didn’t know what he really wanted, someone who was a boy and not a man.

+++++

Almost exactly one year later I found myself at Poco Wine Room – sitting across from a young Indian man, tense because I had not yet dropped the bomb. When he found out, he would run away from all of my burdens and that would be that.

I had re-entered the singles scene and had been resisting the advances of a new suitor for weeks. Rahul was a Muay Thai loving hyper-intelligent data scientist with deep liquid chocolate-syrup eyes and a soft dark beard. I just couldn’t take his advances seriously, given that I was 42 and he was 30. I was absolutely, positively NOT going to fall in love with another man so many years my junior. What game was he playing? Why did he want me? Maybe he thought it would be a novelty to sleep with someone so old? Eventually Rahul made his final pitch –

“Look Holly, I really think we have a lot in common. Here is my number. Let’s go out. Give me a chance!” I gritted my teeth and agreed to meet him for a drink.

Even though I was pessimistic about the outcome, I primped and preened – penciling on thick smokey eyeliner, pulling on knee-high boots. I always felt so much pressure to look pretty when going out with someone younger, as if I could hide the wrinkles around my eyes and the scars on my heart. Halfway through sipping my Manhattan I went for it.

“Tell me about your longest relationship.” I baited

“I dated a woman for six years before and through college.” He said. “But I knew I needed to explore. I wasn’t ready to get married, settle down, and all that goes with that big package of a life. How about you?”

“I was married for 10 years.”

He wrinkled his forehead. “Um, do… do you have kids?” I could tell he was flustered.

“Yes I have two daughters. I was widowed almost three years ago.”

His eyes squinted. He laughed nervously. He mumbled and tripped over his words. This wasn’t the first date he had expected. Though, he did pull it together and regain his composure as we changed the topic. Later, when we left the bar, I said to him

“I know this is a lot to absorb. Why don’t you think about if you want to keep chatting with me. It’s ok if you don’t. I won’t be offended. It’s ok for this to be too much. You can let me know later.”

I wanted to warn him not to open the cage else he might become my prey. Or… maybe if I took down my walls then I would become his. Either way, it was simpler to push him away.

Immediately he said “I don’t want to just keep chatting with you, I want to keep seeing you. I want to go out again.” Then he looked at my lips as if he wanted to kiss them, but I turned my head and didn’t let him.

I’ve met Rahul’s type before. In the moment they want to be the knight in shining armor that saves the bird with the broken wing. They romanticize the idea of helping the damsel in distress, but then when the mystery of it all wears off they run away. As a happy-go-lucky 30 year old, Rahul would forget me and would find someone younger with less baggage. I was stoic but not offended. It wasn’t his fault.

But – He did continue to pursue me. And – I continued to question him. In my hardened state I maintained control.

“But, you looked so uncomfortable when you learned about my kids…” I said.

“Holly” he said solemnly “If I looked nervous, it’s because I was afraid I would screw up a date with such an amazing and beautiful woman.”

On our second date, I found out his father had died of a sudden heart attack when Rahul was 23 and his mother was 56. Rahul understood loss and was able to sit with me in my darkness, as I was able to sit with him in his.

On our third date, Rahul spent over 2 hours cooking me an elaborate Indian meal. He kissed my neck and shoulders repeatedly as he worked the curries on the stove. “This is your night” he said. “Let me take care of you.”

Eventually I let him undress me. With the patience of a seasoned lover he kissed me everywhere – the curve of my low back, the crook of my elbow, the soft undersides of my breasts. Still, for a week afterwards I expected him to disappear. My lies and walls helped me to maintain control – “He doesn’t really care about me, so I’m not going to get attached.”

When I told my friends of my new lover, I smeared bravado over my vulnerability like peanut butter.

“Look at my hot young new lover” I said, showing them pictures.

Don’t you see? I had to erect the fascade over the bloody mess of my wounds. I made it sound like a game because if I didn’t reach for some sort of amusement then I would just be bleeding all the time. And – no one can bleed that much and survive.

My friend Rebecca was surprised that so many young men would be interested in a widowed middle aged single mom. “You must be a phenomenal in bed.” She said, with genuine surprise.

I just smiled, smearing peanut butter yet again.

Rahul left on a planned three week vacation to India to see family, and I assumed he would drift away. I assumed I was a novelty, the shine of which would fade over time. But, that’s not what happened at all. Rahul messaged me many times a day for the entire three weeks… missed me, bought me gifts, told me of all of the Indian dishes he wanted to cook for me and ways he wanted to ravish my body upon his return.

I had a hard time taking down my walls. I still didn’t believe him.

When Rahul returned to America, we snuggled and he told me of his adventures in Mother India – weddings he had been to, childhood chums he had reconnected with. He said

“I told my friends about you.”

“Oh?” I said… wondering if it was like with Bear, wondering if he told them about me but was hiding certain details, hiding my age, hiding my kids.

He continued – “I said to this one friend “She’s so amazing… she is extremely intelligent, super sporty, very pretty, and she does everything. She has a million balls in the air all the time and when something difficult in her life comes up, she just handles it herself…. She doesn’t wait for anyone to do it for her. “”

He laughed a bit, and then said “I want you to meet my friends, and I want to meet yours.”

“Won’t they have a problem with my age?” I asked.

“Oh sure some of them might be juvenile about it.” He laughed easily “But I don’t care.”

That’s when I knew he wasn’t Bear. He really did like me, and maybe just maybe I could take down my walls. I convinced myself – take a risk… open up to him. He has proven himself. Let go. Let go into him.

Unfortunately, a few days later, the universe decided differently.

“Bad news.” He said. “Really terrible news, in fact.”

His company had missed the deadline to extend his H1B visa and he would have to return to India in a few weeks. No exceptions. No recourse.

“Can you get a new H1B visa once you are there?” I asked.

“Theoretically possible but practically impossible.” He responded.
The Trump administration had pledged to reduce the number of new H1B visas offered. In order to get a new one, Rahul would enter a huge pool of candidates and would just be another body in the ocean of 1 billion Indians. I would likely never see him again.

“I wish I could take you to India with me.” He said with true sadness. “I wish we had met sooner.”

“Oh Rahul.” I said. “I would be a scandal in India. An older white woman with kids? A scandal.”

“Holly,” he said gently and kindly “You are fitter than me. You look younger than me. People would come from near and far to see you.”

I wanted to argue with him. I wanted to remind him of the wrinkles around my eyes and the tough cracked skin on my hands. But I stayed quiet. I let his kind words wash over me, truthful or not.

+++++

I tried to stay open to Rahul after that, so that we could enjoy his last few weeks in the country, but I could not. My walls went back up just as they had begun to come down. I went back to my comfortable and familiar role as the Ice Queen. The best plan would be to close my online dating profile and my heart.

“I’m just going to shut down” I told my closest friends.

“I can’t date any more. It’s too painful.”

“I give up. I’m not going to try again for at least a couple of years. I’m just going to focus on the kids and meditate on turning off my sexual desire.”

What I didn’t say out loud was this – “My heart has too many scars, and if it gets broken again I just might bleed to death. “

I spent every day for the following two weeks hardening. It would be simpler to go it alone. I would be fine. I fell to the bottom of my well as I told myself these lies.

The thing about the bottom of my dark, cold well is this – I’m there alone. And when I’m truly alone, there is nothing to do but face myself and all my infinite flaws. Why was I dating younger men? Why was I choosing candidates who were unlikely to have the emotional capacity to hold space with a widow with two fatherless children? My life was so messy and heavy… why was I dating the men who were the least likely to be able to step up to my very complicated life for the long term?

And although I am infinitely flawed, I am also self-aware. So, I began to tell myself the truth.

I am dating younger men because….

….because youth is the opposite of death, and I’m fucking done with death.
….because younger men are vibrant, open minded, and progressive.
….because sex with these younger boyfreinds satisfied a ferocious predator instinct in me that made me feel like I still had some sort of control in my life.

Yes, that’s the truth. I tried to date younger men and pretend that my life wasn’t as messy and pain-filled as it was, but really I was full of shit – I did get attached, my life is messy, and someone that much younger is unlikely to be experienced or emotionally mature enough to step up. Of course the other truth is – I wasn’t really being fair to these men… making assumptions, preying upon them, putting up walls.

I continued to harden and let various minerals assimilate in my skin like fibers of Kevlar. I meant for this armor to only protect my heart from the pain of love, but of course armor does not discern. I shut off not only to romance but to everything. I stopped reaching out to my friends. I didn’t respond when they reached out to me. I sat at home wooden and sad.

+++++

“Holly, I would like to see you before I leave.” He said sweetly and kindly.
I had been avoiding Rahul for three weeks and he knew it. The truth was, I wanted to see him. I missed him. As much as I had hoped that shutting down would make life easier, it didn’t. And – what about my friends? What would happen to me if I let myself sink down into a pit of isolation? It is true that shutting down made the pain a bit softer. Shutting down also made it harder for me to feel joy. I realized – maybe, if I’m going to keep the spark inside of me alive, I’m just going to have to be willing to take more pain.

“Remind me when you leave?” I asked him.

“Tomorrow, 7pm.” He said heavily. This was our last chance.

“Come over tonight. Spend the night.” I said. “Spend your last night with me.”

I had never before asked Raul to sleep over. I had never allowed that level of intimacy. I had never allowed him to be with me in my most vulnerable place – that place where I cannot sleep and I lie awake at 3am facing my ocean of sadness.

Rahul came over later that evening and made sweet love to me, attending to my every need. Afterwards, I pressed myself against his side and buried my face in his beard while he ran his fingers through my hair.

“I am so sad to not have more time with you.” He said.

“We are over before we got started.” I responded sadly.

“Will you date after I leave?” He asked

“No, It’s too hard. My heart is bleeding too much. And – telling my sad story to new men over and over is fracturing my soul. I can’t do it anymore. It hurts too much. You?”

“I will try but I am unlikely to meet the kind of women that I want over there. I will be miserable.”

I kissed him and ran my fingers through his beard.

“I am trying to work out a deal with my company so that I can come back.” He continued. “I will work remotely for several months while they try to renew the visa. They said it might work, might not. I don’t want to live in India. I want to live here.”

“Rahul, I am not expecting you to come back to me.”

He pulled his head back and looked at me with wide eyes. “But Holly, I want to! There is so much for us to explore together. I want to hike with you, camp with you, see your cabin. You do so many interesting things and I want to do them with you! I want to come back to you.“

He held me tightly as I was silent. I felt that he meant it but still I stated the obvious “Rahul, the reason I say that is because we both know our time would be finite. You would never marry a white single mother who is so much older. Your family would never accept me.”

We were both silent together. My words weren’t accusatory. I knew he felt pain over the cultural norms that he had to conform to. I knew he longed for the sort of freedom in life that would have allowed him to be with someone like me.
We laid there quietly for a long time, slept in each others arms for hours, then made love again.

I kissed him goodbye, sent him out the door before my children awoke, and then he was gone. I was sad but not broken, because the truth is that I’d never really let him in.

+++++

“Red sneakers, Michael Jackson!” I said delightedly pointing to his feet on the dance floor.

I was at “Toast to Tech”, the big party at the end of my college reunion weekend at MIT. I wasn’t happy to be there… It had been so tiring making small talk all weekend. How could I update people on my life without telling them about my dead husband and fatherless kids? I couldn’t, and the whole experience had wrecked me anew. But – I was almost through it. This party was the last event and then I would be done.

The band was playing “Billy Jean” and I was happy to use dancing as an escape. I moved to the front of the crowd, right in front of the stage, and danced next to a man with a trim beard, sleek black pants, black button down shirt, and red sneakers. When I pointed to his shoes and referenced MJ, he looked confused. Then I looked at his name tag. Class of 2012 – he was here for his 5th reunion, me my 20th. With horror I realized that he was too young to have seen the videos of MJ is his red Reebocks. A baby, 15 years my junior.

Still, he was a fantastic dancer. We began to circle each other, dancing and interacting without touching. Then he grabbed me, twirled me, circled his arms around me before spinning me again.

“What course were you?” I asked, in between beats

“Course 6-3” He hollered over the music. Geek code for Computer Science and Engineering

“Me too!” I responded.

His name was Juliano. He was from San Paulo originally and now worked in NYC at a software company. My retractable claws began to tingle.

Juliano grabbed my hand suddenly and marched right out of the room with me firmly in tow. I knew exactly what he wanted. I felt the sense of power surge inside of me. I had planned to stop cougar-ing but maybe I would make one more exception. Somehow I was going younger and younger – 5 yrs, 11 yrs, 12 years, and now 15 years. My bravado swelled and suddenly I was covered in peanut butter yet again.

Juliano pulled me into an alley, pressed me against a wall, and began kissing my lips, my face, my neck. I fell into him, clenching his hair, dragging my claws down his back. He was about to become my prey or I was about to become his.

But – I didn’t feel anything. The power drained out of me and I felt empty.

Juliano pulled back, grabbed my hand, and started walking again.

“Where are we going?” I said

“To the Marriott” he responded, not breaking stride.

I stopped. “I can’t have sex with you.” I wasn’t tentative. I was clear. No part of me thought it was a good idea.

“Why not?” He said, kissing me again. His hands slid down to my low back. He became frantic.

I tried to make it into a joke and made dumb excuses “Because…because it is never that great the first time. I don’t want to invest in having sex with someone unless I’m going to have a LOT of sex with him. “

“I can have a lot of sex with you.”

“Oh whatever. I will never see you again after tonight.”

“Yes but I could have lots of sex with you *tonight*.” His eyes bore into me. “I can have sex ten times tonight if you want.” He was being literal.

Right. Younger men. They can have sex over and over. Isn’t that one of the reasons I was preying on them?

He kissed me again, sliding his palm along my face and into my sweaty hair.
But – I felt nothing.

“I can’t” I said. I ran back to the party. He chased me, dropped and shattered the his phone as I disappeared into the crowd, never to see him again.

And with that, I stopped lying, went back to my hotel, took a shower, and was done.

A Day in the Life Part III – Rebirth

October 6, 2016

The entire crowd stood and roared, waving paper Catalonian flags. They began to sing, joyously in fact. My girls jumped up, so delighted.

“What is it, mama?!”

“I don’t know… I think they are singing some sort of Catalonian anthem!”

Everyone in the crowd had so much pride, so much joy in being exactly where they were. It was contagious, and I found my eyes wet. It felt like… like I was becoming part of something new.

My daughters and I were in Tarragona, one hour outside of Barcelona. We had moved to Spain just 3 weeks before and were in Tarragona on a weekend trip to see the biannual Concurs de Castells – the Human Tower Competition. There were teams from all over Europe and from as far away as China. The sea of bodies was truly mesmerizing… almost 20 teams, over 500 competitors, all wearing the traditional white pants and black waist sash, all part of one ocean of bodies huddled together in the arena.

“Oh Mama!” They gasped, eyes wide.wp_20161001_063

Bodies began to pop up in the air as the first team began. First the sturdy men made the base, holding other men up on their shoulders while others leaned in, pushing against them, reinforcing them for those that would come next. More people stepped on shoulders, walking over the heads of the people leaning in, shimmying up to the next level. Once the structure of bodies was at least 4 high (with several at each level), the kids in helmets began to scamper up to the top. Everything moved fast, because they knew the structure would not maintain itself for long. The kids had made it to the top, waved an arm in the air in victory, and the team began the race to disassemble from the top down.

The structure began to wobble, and I looked away. I don’t like it when bodies fall. I can’t handle it when bodies fall. For two years I have had flashbacks of John and the team of six falling – swept off the ridge, 3300 feet, onto a glacier. Please, don’t let them fall. Nothing protects us. People die.

++++++

About four days after our arrival in Spain, my PTSD symptoms began to subside. For over two years I hadn’t been able to shake the night terrors – the 3am episodes when my body would flood with adrenaline, heart racing, body covered in sweat. I had seen doctors, therapists, used various yoga and meditation techniques, and tried a slew of medications. But – what I really needed to do was run away from my life.

And so, run away is what I did. The first few nights in Spain, I still woke up gasping for breath, despondent. “My children will never have a father.” The voices said. “I cannot be everything they need.” “Please earth, swallow me up.”

But, the earth beneath me here in Espana didn’t swallow me up. Instead, it welcomed me, wrapped me up in its arms, and kissed me on both cheeks.
Instead of dying from pain, I was reborn.

++++++

My body hardened and I held my breath, but the tower of bodies did not crumble. The kids scampered down, then the strong but not heavy bodies in the middle, then the enormous burly men near the base. I relaxed and let my shoulders drop. The crowd cheered. My eight-year-old Melanie said to me, with confidence and intention –

“Mama, I think we should move here full-time, not just for this year. I want to be on one of these teams, Mama. Will you help me get on a team? I want to be the one that climbs to the TOP.”

Then, about 30 minutes later and 6 successful towers in, it happened. A young boy from the top was scrambling back down. The people in the middle began to sway and shake a bit. I could tell they were barely holding it together. NO. I couldn’t handle it. I looked away as the crowd gasped. When I looked back – a pile of bodies. The boy from the top was holding his bloody nose. Adrenaline flooded. My heart began to race. I said to the kids

“I don’t like this. Do you want to keep watching, or should we go?”

I truly wanted to bolt but I didn’t want to ruin it for them.

“We don’t want to go!” Melanie said, bouncing in her seat.

My 11-going-on-30 year-old Isabella put her hand on my leg and calmly said “Mom, it’s ok. Really, it is.”

Everyone that had fallen got back up. No one on the competition floor seemed overwhelmed. No one left in an ambulance. Each team was given 3 attempts. More towers were built. More crumbled. The girls could tell I was on edge. After the third time I said

“Should we leave now?”

Melanie looked at me with poise, confidence, a tenacity that made me feel like I was looking into the eyes of my younger self.

“I still want to do it, Mama. I still want to be on a team someday. I am not afraid.”

I felt the adrenaline subside. Anxiety had lifted its ugly head and then pulled back into its hole without wreaking havoc on my body. I was… ok. Happy even. Our lives were broken. The towers were broken. Everything was broken. But, broken things can be rebuilt.

The girls and I went to dinner, then back to the hotel. Our room had one double bed and one single bed. I smiled at Melanie and said
“Would you like to share the big bed with me, sweetheart?”

“Mom” she tossed back, suddenly many years older than the little girl who flew across the Atlantic with me 3 weeks before. “I want my OWN bed.”

“Oh” I said, surprised. “Well, looks like there is a Murphy bed on the wall. I will pull it down and everyone can have their own space!”

We all read on our Kindles for a bit and then went to sleep. Yes, I actually slept. For a couple of weeks by then I had been sleeping. Not a ton, still just 5-6 hours a night, but it was real sleep, the sleep of someone who was settling in, the sleep of a woman who was beginning to surrender and let go. More amazing still, I had begun to dream. For two years, I hadn’t dreamed. All of the sudden I was dreaming every night. That night, something random about my friends Justin and Morgan who were living in my home back in Seattle. The night before, something bizarre about a much younger African American boyfriend whose friends were eating all the food in my fridge. In the dream I laughed at his friends, told them to finish up, and then told the boyfriend “You really should find another lover. I’m going to be gone.”

++++++

We woke up the next morning in good spirits. After dining on manchego cheese, serrano ham, and baguette that I had stashed in the min-fridge, we wandered through an open air market. We were relaxed, happy… further gorging ourselves on roasted nuts and empanadas. Melanie convinced me to buy her a tiny 8euro crystal ball, something she had been begging for for a couple of weeks.

Then, we moved on to a Roman amphitheater not far from the hotel. The amphitheater had been built in the 2nd century and was in use until the 4th century for various sporting events – animal hunts and gladiator fights. The gladiators were often prisoners of war, trained specifically for these events. I read the signs and explained to the girls –

“See the big hole in the middle of the arena? The gladiators and animals were held below and were lifted up on a platform to face the crowd and their opponents.”wp_20161002_016

“Why did they fight, Mama?” Melanie said

“They didn’t have a choice. They were prisoners. People came to watch because they thought it was fun.”

Melanie hardened and said “Mama, death doesn’t sound like good entertainment. That sounds terrible.”

“It was a different time.” I responded softly, taking her hand. “All we can do is learn from the past so we don’t repeat it.”

We wandered from the amphitheater to some other Roman ruins in town. Melanie ran ahead, as was her way. Isabella began to muse.

“I want to become a writer, mama.”

“What do you want to write about?”

“I want to travel everywhere, learn lots of languages, and write about my adventures. Do you think I could print a magazine and sell it in airports?”

“Why don’t you start a blog?” I said.

“How do I do that?”

“I’ll help you.” I smiled. “We can start tonight when we get home.”
Home. Seattle isn’t home any more – Barcelona is.

++++++

“ ¡Me acuerdo de ti! ¡Compró todos mis mangos!” He laughed. Meaning – I remember you! You bought all my mangos!

We were back in Barcelona and it was Monday morning. I had left the apartment in a short black skirt I bought on Las Ramblas the week before. Behind me I pulled a tall skinny purple grocery cart on wheels, also recently purchased. Originally I had planned to carry groceries around in my Seattle hiking backpack, but once I arrived I realized – that’s not how the Europeans do it. I had only been to this particular produce shop once before, but still – the burly bearded owner remembered me.purple-shopping-cart

“Mis hijas como mangos muy mucho!” I said – “My daughers like mangos very much.” “Lo siento para los otras personas que quieren mangos!” – “I am sorry for the other people who want mangos!”

He laughed and laughed. “No es una problema!”

I filled up my purple cart and made my way to the meat market. For some reason, most of the butchers in Barcelona seemed to be women. I loved it.

“Tienes algo ecological?” I asked? Do you have anything organic?

She could tell I was struggling with the Spanish and responded kindly in broken English. “This here – pigs from the country. They eat only acorns on the ground. Is good?”

“Si, es bien.” I smiled.

“Where are you from?” she asked.

“Yo soy de Los Estados Unidos. Pero – ahora, vivo aqui. Vivo in Barcelona.” I am from the United States. But – I live here now. I live in Barcelona.

“Un regalo,” She responded, handing me a bit of hard sausage. A present.

I wheeled my purple cart home, behind my sassy skirt and tall black boots. Again my eyes got wet, but not with sadness, with relief. Something new and right was growing inside of me.

I returned to my apartment, sat down on the couch, and opened “Madame Picasso”, a fictionalized account of Picasso’s love affair with Eva Gouel, spanning the sinking of the Titanic and World War 1. Gouel died of cancer before they were able to marry, further scarring his heart which had already been broken by the death of his young sister, the death of his father, and the suicide of one of his best friends. As I finished the book I felt a kinship with Picasso and admired him anew simply because, well, he survived.

My eyes were heavy as I placed my kindle on the table next to the couch. Not from sadness, but from fatigue. It seemed that, as I began to sleep more, my body felt permission to admit how exhausted it really was. I laid down on the couch and slept easily for two hours, enjoying vivid dreams yet again. How could I have gone two years without dreaming? It doesn’t matter. That time is over.

I woke up, left the apartment, and walked down the street to the bus stop, ready to collect my girls, still groggy.

“How was your day?” One of the other mothers asked.

“I took a wonderful nap.” I said.

They knew of my trauma and smiled kindly. I rambled sleepily –

“Back in Seattle my friends kept asking me – “What will you do while you are in Spain.”” I continued, laughing “I kept telling them – all I want to do is learn to sleep again! I can’t see past that!”

They chuckled and said. “That is what Espana is for! You came to the perfect place.”

We all laughed in agreement as our kids stepped off the bus. For so long, my smiles had been forced – an upturn of the corners of my mouth while the edges of my heart turned down. But that day, my smiles were real and true.

“Shall we take a picnic to the beach?” I said.

“Yes mama, lets!”

++++

Before we left Tarragona, Melanie took out her little crystal ball.

“Would you like me to read your fortune mama?” She said.

“Sure sweetheart, go ahead.” I was amused and happy. We had had such a nice weekend together, our little family of three.

“I see your future, mama. You will be living in Europe in a house, with your two daughters.” She looked right into my eyes and beamed sunshine into my heart.

“Oh really Melanie? That sounds good to me, darling. “

“I love you mama.”

“I love you too, sweetheart.”

A Day in the Life Part II – Transition and Hysteria

September 7, 2016

“Promise me you will eat something, and promise me you will go to bed soon!” Jahnacia said.

“Yes yes, I promise.” I replied. But we both knew it was a lie.

I was noticeably thinner and the lines around my eyes were heavy as I clawed my way to the finish line, the bloody stumps of my legs dragging behind me. My two daughters (age 8 and 11) and I were to get on a plane the next day. After months of planning, we were leaving our Seattle home and moving to Barcelona – a drastic move that not everyone was supportive of.

It hadn’t been easy. Months before, I had started the extensive process to acquire long term visas for myself and the girls. Background check, financial documents, birth certificates, death certificate -proving I wasn’t abducting them away from a still-alive father, and so much more. Official documents had to be apostilled with the Secretary of State. Everything had to be translated and notarized by a certified translator and submitted in person to the Consulate of Spain in San Francisco.

Harder still, I had to pack up my entire home – over a decade of memories. I had to face all the hidden grief bombs that reminded me of the horror of John’s death – hand written love letters I had given to him on anniversaries and birthdays, still tucked into his nightstand; Burningman bling from the late 90’s in the attic of his beloved garage/mancave; his juggling pins which could be lit on fire – back from the escapades of his early 20’s with a fire performance troop. I forced myself to put our framed wedding photo in a box, sealed it, and let it be buried by an ocean of boxes filled with other broken dreams. It was all horrible, but I plodded on.

My instinct five months earlier, when I came up with this plan, had been to sell the house. I couldn’t breathe and wanted to completely shed myself of baggage and worries. I didn’t think I could start my new life if I was still getting phone calls that dirty water was coming back up out of the shower in the basement, or the neighbors were angry yet again over conflict in the shared driveway. But, my relator said I shouldn’t sell, said it was a good investment. And – another friend also insisted I keep it. “NO you can’t sell it” she said. “You need a home to come back to. I will live in it while you are gone and take care of it for you so that you don’t have to stress about it.” But, three months later, two months before our planned departure, her mother helped her buy her own home. I don’t blame her – she was going through a divorce and needed to get her kids settled, but yet again I was alone.

I knew I didn’t have the time or energy by that late hour to completely empty and sell the house, so I gritted my teeth and found other friends to live there. They agreed to live among my furniture if I packed up all my other belongings. I found additional friends to live in the two-bedroom apartment in my basement and care for my sweet nine-year-old Brittney Spaniel. I had provided the apartment for my late-husband’s mother and as part of this transition, I was coordinating her move to Alaska to live with her daughters. She was angry that I was pushing her out, making it harder for her to see my daughters – her grandchildren. And why shouldn’t she be angry? I had all the power and she had none. I tried to soften the blow by providing the funds for her daughter to add on to her home, so that there would be additional space, but nothing I did was enough. I was the bad guy. Still, I plodded on.

And of course, through all of this, I had to be a mother to my precious fatherless children. They needed so much of me. My eight-year-old Melanie was still sleeping in my bed many nights. It was summertime, and I was determined that they would still have fun, even though I had just SO much to do. We went to Wildwaves, mountain biked near our Leavenworth cabin, threw the ball for our sweet pooch in the river while floating around on tubes. In between the fun, I had to continue all the cooking, all the driving, all the packing, and all of the preparations on the other side – I worked through an agent to secure an apartment in Barcelona sight unseen, I set up a local bank account in Spain from my living room couch, and I completed the final arrangements with the semi-private tri-lingual school they would be attending once we landed in Catalonia. Through all of this, I had very little childcare – my late husband’s mother helped as much as she could and wanted to help more but had been struggling with pneumonia for months and truly needed to take care of herself. I was alone. Totally and completely alone.

The fact is, most of me didn’t want to go. Everyone thought I was embarking on a big vacation, to which I responded “Don’t you understand? I won’t have any friends. I won’t have any help with the kids. I will be a single mom in a foreign country, barely speaking the language. It will be hard.”

Isabella was excited, but Melanie wasn’t. She told me over and over “I do NOT want to move to Spain, mama.” “Why do we have to go, mama… can’t we stay here?” I tried to gently inspire her with all the things we would learn, all the adventures we would have, but she didn’t buy it. She was angry.

But still, I knew deep down we had to leave.

++++

Jahnacia went to bed around midnight after helping me pack for hours. I stayed up until 4am in a panic – I still hadn’t finished digging important documents out of my office that needed to be scanned before leaving. I sent a frantic email to Bev, whom I had entrusted with the one signed copy of my Last Will and Testament earlier that day, giving her some final instructions as to administration of the estate should anything happen to me while I was in Spain. I sent an email to the new tenants, apologizing for the fact that I would likely not be able to finish packing up the last of my kitchen and bedroom closet, asking them to put the final items in boxes to be stored in the yoga studio.

From 4-5:30am I slept a restless, dreamless sleep. I woke up without an alarm in order to finish packing my clothing, my laptop, snacks and distractions for the girls on the long flights, international power adaptors, the sleep medication my doctor had suggested I use once I arrived, to see if I could finally reset my sleep patterns once I was in a new environment. I began to stack the suitcases by the front door – 6 checked pieces at a full 50lbs each and 4 carry-ons. I would have help to the airport, but after that, none.
At 9am Pat, the father of my late husband, arrived. He was there to say a final goodbye to his grandchildren. I told him, out of earshot of the kids –

“I am on the edge of breaking apart. My PTSD is kicking in. I will have to completely ignore you. I need you to distract the kids.”

I said to the girls “Please try to get along this morning. I’m having a tough time getting everything done and am worried we will miss our flight.”

“I don’t want to go.” Melanie responded, arms crossed.

At noon, my friend Brian arrived. He was to take us to the airport in his enormous van. I had asked him to arrive an hour early – we needed to leave for the airport by 1pm. I wanted to get to SeaTac 3 hrs before our international flight, because I knew I would struggle – so much luggage, plus the kids, and – I had worked so hard, I couldn’t let anything get in the way. I had asked for his help because I knew he could hold space. I knew he could maintain calm when I could not.

“What can I do?” He said.

I shouted instructions at him and he did my bidding. By 1pm I was not ready to depart. I hadn’t eaten anything since 6pm the night before and felt woozy, as if I might pass out. My hands had a slight tremble. The last suitcase still wasn’t fully packed. Random possessions were still strewn about, and people were going to move in the next day. I said to Brian –

“Come with me to the garage.”

The detached garage was behind the house. John had always told me – he bought that house for the garage. It had been his wood-shop, his man-cave, his place to escape, and now it was mine. I was shaking and almost hyperventilating but by then was experienced enough with these episodes to communicate externally while simultaneously breaking down.

“Brian, I am on the edge of a full panic attack. I know we need to leave for the airport now. I am not ready. I know I shouldn’t be in the garage – I need to be inside, eating, getting the kids shoes on. But if I don’t calm down, my PTSD will take over and I will become completely unable to function. “

“What do you need?” he said.

“Just stand here and be calm. I am going to just try to breathe. I have to pull it together or I will never make it.”

So, I walked in a circle over and over there in my man-cave. I gasped for breath. I fought the adrenaline. I wiped away tears. I could not stop my body from trembling but I managed to not lay down on the dirty cement floor and succumb to the darkness. After about 10 minutes, I said

“Let’s go.”

We went inside and I ran back and forth through the house for 45 more minutes. Brian heated up leftovers, put a plate for me in the kitchen, and sat with my kids and Pat while they ate. I shoved a bite in my mouth, ran to the bedroom, threw a few more items in the suitcase while I chewed, ran back to the kitchen, shoved another bite in, threw some items in a box in the living room, back and forth.

By 2pm (an hour late), I said “We have to leave NOW. If there is traffic, we won’t even arrive two hours before the international flight.”

Brian had the car loaded. I asked the kids to pee one more time. Pat said his goodbyes and left. We got in the car. I was still shaking. I expressed fear that two of our carry-ons were overweight and that they wouldn’t let me on the plane. I knew I was being completely ridiculous but adrenaline coursed through me and the intelligent part of my brain couldn’t fight the irrational and idiotic fear that had taken over.

We made it to the airport, through security, onto the plane, and (many hours later) into our AirBnb in Barcelona.

And so it began.

A Day (Night) in the Life

August 16, 2016

I was standing by the sink when I heard her crying.

My entire body hardened.  Another crisis.  Always another crisis.  I could never ignore it, no matter how spent I was or what I was in the middle of, because if I did then she would spiral down fast and we would both pay a higher price.  I ran outside.

“Mama, mama, he won’t STOP!”

Melanie was wailing, her mouth shaped into a horrible ‘O’, her body flailing, repeating herself over and over. “Mama he won’t stop! He won’t STOP!  I TOLD HIM TO STOP AND HE WON’T STOP!”  Any sense of joy or satisfaction in my day dissolved immediately. Her needs were all on me and no one else would or could fix it.  I got down on my knees in the grass and looked into the eyes of my eight-year old daughter – my darling, my blood.  I tried to breathe slowly but failed as I felt my body flood with adrenaline.  My heart raced and I pressed my palm against my chest to keep it from beating so hard that my skin would burst open.  I knew by now that it didn’t matter what the issue was; she and I were both having a PTSD hormonal response, but for different reasons.  Hers was caused by innocent questions that came from Jamie, her six-year old playmate, while mine was caused by… well, her.  I pulled from within to present a face of calm.

“Shhhhh.   What is it, sweetheart?  Calm down.  I’m here.”

“Mama, I keep telling him to stop but he won’t!  He asked me how Dada died and I said I don’t want to talk about it.  I DON’T WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT!”

She was frantic, unable to listen or look at me.  I could barely understand her as she continued through hysterical sobs.

“So then Mama he said ’Did he die from a heart attack?’ and I said ‘NO, stop talking about it!’ and then he said ’Did someone shoot him?’  and I said “STOP TALKING ABOUT IT.’”

“Shhhh darling.  Come here.  Shhhh… just breathe.  I will help work it out.   It’s ok.  You don’t have to talk about how your dad died.”

She leaned against me and cried as I stroked her hair and made the same shushing sounds I made when she cried in my arms as an infant.  After she had calmed down, I left her to play in the back yard so that I could talk to Jamie, who was now in the house.   I got down on my knees again and found myself face-to-face with one very confused child – an innocent six-year old who had simply been trying to make sense of a topic (death) that no six-year old should have to make sense of.

“Jamie, can we talk for a minute?”  I smiled.  “You haven’t done anything wrong.  You aren’t in trouble.”

His jaw and fists clenched.  I so badly wanted him to relax.

“Melanie said you had some questions about her dad dying.”  I smiled again, hating that poor Jamie had been put in such a situation.  I had learned by then that a child his age is not capable of understanding death. They see the departed person as simply ”on a trip”.

Jamie looked down and did not respond.  He needed the moment to be over.  I decided to simply do my best to leave the door open and then let it go.

“Jamie, it’s okay.  Death is really confusing.  Don’t feel bad.  I mean it.  It’s okay to not understand.  Melanie has a hard time with the questions sometimes, but you can always ask me or your dad.”

Jamie said nothing and turned away.  Another part of my insides blackened and shriveled.  Everything would always be on me.

+++++++

We sat down to dinner and chatted.  It was mostly pleasant

Except, Melanie was angry.  She wouldn’t talk to Jamie.  She sat with her arms crossed in front of her chest. I was reminded that I will never escape.

“Sweetheart, it’s not his fault,”  I whispered gently.

She stiffened and her mouth tightened.  “Mama, it IS his fault.  He wouldn’t listen.  He wouldn’t stop talking about it!  I told him!”  She almost became hysterical again.

“Melanie, when you were six it was hard for you to understand as well. It’s very confusing for a child that young.  Death isn’t talked about much in our society.  He just wanted to understand.”

Jamie wasn’t the only one who was innocent – Melanie was innocent too.  At age eight Melanie isn’t developmentally capable of looking at John’s death from the outside.  The problem wasn’t Melanie, Jamie, or me.  And, that’s why my body became heavy as lead and much older than my 41 years.  It’s not anyone’s fault, but still. I carry the burdens.  So I sat there, eating sushi, pasting on a smile.  My spirit floated up and looked at my body below, weighted down with sandbags and anchors on the outside, dark, withered, empty on the inside.

Later that night, Melanie went upstairs to put on her PJs and brush her teeth.  I followed to tuck her in.

“Mama, Mama,” she cried, pulling me into her bed and burying her face in my neck.

I held her and stroked her hair.  “Shhh, sweetheart.  Time for bed.”
“Mama, I miss Dada SOOO much.”

“I know sweetheart.  Me too.  I understand.”

“I’m going to have nightmares about Dada tonight. I know I will, Mama!”
After about 30 minutes I had her calmed down enough to leave her to fall asleep.  She would rather spend every night in my bed, and in fact she often does, but I encourage her to spend at least some time in her own room, more for her sake than mine.

I went downstairs, finished cleaning the kitchen, sent my other daughter, her 11-year old sister, Isabella, to bed, read for a while, and went to bed myself at 11:30.

At 3 am, I woke to my own crash.

+++++++

I never understood PTSD before my husband John died over two years ago in an avalanche on Mount Rainier while ascending Liberty Ridge.  I thought PTSD meant you had something painful happen that left you stressed and traumatized, too overwhelmed to function normally in society.   But I had no idea about the changes in brain chemistry.

Imagine this: Frank, a soldier in Vietnam, spends months in the jungle. He learns that the rustling of a leaf means that the enemy is laying in the bush, ready to pounce.  Eventually, his brain short-circuits its analysis center and, when it hears a leaf rustling, it immediately floods with adrenaline and goes into fight-or-flight. Frank returns to his home country and finds himself, years later, in the park with his son.  Someone walks by with their dog and rustles a leaf.  Frank begins to sweat and jumps up in distress.  On some level he recognizes that nothing is wrong, but his amygdala has taken over and the hormonal flood puts him into a state of fear and stress.

Frank is imagined, but my friend Eric is not. Eric survived a rocket attack in the Iraq war.  When the rocket hit, there was no time for analysis – his brain shot adrenaline and he immediately began to pull his buddies to safety.  Both were on fire, pierced with multiple pieces of shrapnel each the size of a fist.  One died there, one later.  Now, back home, open fire of any sort can put him into combat mode.  A simple flame under a coffee pot or candle on a birthday cake at a friend’s house can cause him to instantaneously shoot adrenaline and leap up with hypervigilance, ready for the next attack.  It’s beyond his control.

PTSD fundamentally changes your brain structure.  In a normal individual, information first flows into the frontal cortex.  The frontal cortex and the hippocampus chat and decide what to do with the stimulus.  Perhaps the hippocampus records something as a memory.  Perhaps it signals the amygdala to go into fight or flight.

When someone has PTSD, the frontal cortex often short-circuits the hippocampus and allows the amygdala to take over.  Minor stimulus results in fight or flight.  A rustling leaf or a lit birthday candle triggers an instant true state of alarm and fear.  Frank and Eric have no choice.  In fact, studies of soldiers with PTSD have shown that their frontal cortex and hippocampus have both shrunk while the amygdala has enlarged.

These changes in the brain are significant. They aren’t something that a person can just ‘get over.’

I developed a PTSD response upon waking up within the first two days after John’s death.  I would wake up only to remember HE IS DEAD. My body would flood with adrenaline.  Even now, two years later, upon waking my amygdala believes that I am in state of danger and acts accordingly.

+++++++

So there I was, at 3 am, awake.  I felt fine at first. Thirty seconds later my adrenaline flooded, my heart began to race, my breathing quickened, and I began to sweat. I filled with horror and despondence.  “Nothing will ever be ok again,” my inner voice said.  “You aren’t strong enough to do this alone.”  It continued.  “Please earth, swallow me up now. I cannot go on another day.”  My rational brain was clear: I was having a PTSD response.  But my rational voice is often beat into submission by the two bullies on the block who have fashioned long-term physical and chemical changes in my brain: Adrenaline and Cortisol.

As I lay there in the darkness, I used my tricks to try to bring myself out of the episode.  I encouraged a smile to my face.  I repeated to myself “My children love me.  I love them.  My home is safe and secure.  My friends are amazing.”  I told myself to breathe slowly – in for a count of two, out for a count of four — as my yoga teacher had taught me.

But it didn’t work.  I put my hand to my chest and gently massaged the area that began to tighten.  I felt the horrific chemicals flowing from my brain.  My heart rate continued to speed up.  I began to cry.

This happens almost every night.

I’m not even sure I’m crying for John so much anymore even though part of me will cry for him for an eternity.  Now, most of the tears come from knowing that my dream of a happy and whole family is dead and I am left alone with all of the burdens.

I curled into a ball and continued to cry for twenty minutes.

Once I realized that I would not be able to go back to sleep, I got up but left all the house lights off.  I never know quite what to do with this middle of the night time.  Sometimes I write when I am truly desperate, but only when I have given up on any sleep at all, because once I open my laptop there will be no chance of another one or two hours of slumber. I can’t call anyone at 2 or 3 am.  I can’t get in the car and go anywhere since my kids are in bed and I cannot leave them.  I’m not going to exercise at 3 am. I can read, or watch a movie, which I sometimes do.   Often, I water the lawn, because … well, it needs to be watered.

So I went outside, turned on the hose, and tended to the yard by moonlight– the tomato plants, the oregano-sage-thyme herb pot, the patchy grass.   Even if my life is dead, at least the lawn won’t be.  Then, I sat on the back porch and sobbed into my hands.  It was 4:30 am.  I needed someone to hold me.  Every night I ache for someone to simply hold me and stroke my hair.  I need someone to do for me what I do for Melanie – hold me, make soft shushing sounds, tell me that everything will be okay.  I need someone to do this without his or her own stress.  Someone who is not so overwhelmed by the darkness that he or she needs it to stop. Someone who can maintain calm and strength and allow me to move through.

Unfortunately, that person does not exist and I have zero interest in forcing the wrong person into that role.  Less than zero interest.

I do, however, have my Melanie who, at almost four years younger than her sister Isabella, still craves my touch, still offers hers.

For over a year after John died, Melanie would often come into my room screaming and crying in the middle of the night.  I only got two to four hours of sleep a night back then, and if she interrupted me during my one good stretch, it might be only one or two hours.  It was hard to cope.  She doesn’t do that now.  It’s true that she still prefers to sleep in my bed, but she can handle being alone. If I put her in her bed, she will mostly stay there.
Now, it is I who cannot handle the aloneness.   I try every day to not need her so much, but in my desperation I have begun to carry her into my bed in the middle of the night.

So, at 4:30, when I was still at the bottom of my well and desperate for human warmth, I did what I have done almost every night for the last six months.  I padded upstairs in the darkness to her room, opened her door, felt around for the frame of the bunk bed, found her body, and leaned in to gently find her forehead with my kiss.  She rolled into my arms, the familiarity of it reaching her even in her slumbered state.

I softly said, “Shh… it’s me.  It’s Mama.”

Her eyes still closed, she kissed me repeatedly on my neck and shoulder.  “Mama, mama… I love you so much.”

In fact, when I scoop her up every night, she immediately pours out gratitude even though she isn’t fully alert.   The compliments and love are in such abundance – “Mama, you are the best mom in the world.”    “Mama, you are such a good mom.”  “Mama, once I realized it was you and that you were picking me up, I was so happy.”

With one arm under her back, the other arm under her knees, and her head against my chest, I carried her out of her room.  It’s not easy.  Melanie weighs 55 pounds. In the middle of the night she is a boneless floppy weight that has to be held like precious cargo.  All the lights are off and I must not bang her head against a wall or trip down the stairs.  So I walk delicately down the hallway, feel around for the stairs with my toes, carefully descend while praying we don’t both take a tumble, carry her along the first-floor hallway, through the kitchen and into the master bath, put her on the toilet so she can pee, and then pick her back up and carry her to my bed.

Once Melanie was in my bed, there were more sleepy words.  “Mama, cuds and snugs?”  “Mama, I love you.”  I slid in next to her and exhaled into a place of relief.  I was on my back with the right side of my body pressed against her warmth.  She flopped onto her left side, nestled into my shoulder, and slung her right arm across my chest before immediately dozing off.  I placed my left hand on top of her arm on my chest and held it there.  My breathing slowed down.  I absorbed the love and light flowing from her body into my heart center and was able to doze off again.

For a while, I was embarrassed that I have become so dependent on my daughter.  I am that mom in ‘Terms of Endearment’ who crawls into bed with her kid after her husband died.  I am that mom whose kids have become her whole life.  I am that mother that will someday struggle when her kids move on with their lives and don’t want to hang out with their old ma so much.

I dozed from about 5 to 6 am and then slipped out of bed quietly, leaving her in my room so that I could write on my laptop in the living room.  By 8 am she stirred and called for me.  I always look forward to this part, the part where I am dosed with more love.  I walked back into the room and crawled into bed with her.  She pressed her body against me, kissed me on the cheek, nestled in, and said, “Mama, I love you.”

“Do you remember me scooping you up, darling?”

“No, I don’t remember at all!” She said, smiling.  By morning she never remembers, and I knew it didn’t matter.  She always woke up so much happier in my bed than hers.

I often wonder how all of this is perceived from the outside.  It is true that I am doing much better.  I am stronger.  I have had many successes in the last year and am feeling proud of my parenting.  I am able to laugh more.  I still cry a lot, but now I am functional through the tears and I am getting things done.

But the night time horrors continue and my PTSD is real.  My brain chemistry has changed.

What is the solace in all of this distress?  Melanie.  Melanie is my solace.  She tends to me.  She tells me she loves me, holds me, gives me what I need so that I can make it through until the night horrors slink away.  Miraculously, Isabella is my solace too, but in different ways and that’s a different story.

++++++++
September 10, 2016

Almost a month later, I sit here again in the darkness at 2:30 am, only now at our new home in Barcelona. I had been planning this move for months, desperate to do anything to hit the reset button on our lives and my sleep.  Yesterday Isabella said “This is the best thing you have done since Dada died.  This move to Spain – it’s the best thing you have done, Mom.”

She’s right.

I am moving forward.  I am getting things done.  I am rediscovering the fierce intensity that I used to be known for.  I would and will do anything for my girls, and damn it – I will never ever give up on making a beautiful future for them.

But I still cannot sleep.  I still stumble through each day so exhausted that I have images of knocking my teeth out as I fall on my face out in public.  I still have trouble staying awake while driving. In fact, one of the reasons I chose to move to a European city was so that I could stop driving for an entire year.

I am succeeding, but still struggling.  And that is how it will be for a long time.

Recently someone asked me “What will you do with your time while you are in Barcelona?”   I said, “I’m going to write. I’m going to give my two girls a ton of love.”   And –

“I’m going to learn to sleep again.”

Madison, Wisconsin

It took me two months to write and polish the essay – the essay where I truly open up for the first time about various experiences I had as a woman in software in the late 90s. I sent the essay to my friends, sisters, closest confidants. I workshopped it in my writing class. I read it, revised it, re-read it, over and over. When I was done back in late April (4 months ago), I continued to share it and discuss it, but I have not yet published it because I’m not ready. In the process I reviewed it upwards of 40 times, and –

Every single time I read it, I cried.

I kept thinking it would stop, but it didn’t.

You see, I’m not working right now. Recap – I have a computer science degree, worked in software for a number of years, chucked it all to become a therapeutic yoga teacher, met my husband, had 2 children, and then –

Then he died in an avalanche, leaving me a widowed single mother at 39.

I stopped teaching. Everything stopped. It was no longer my time to be anyone’s spiritual guide. I met with Sue, the woman who would become my financial advisor. Sue mostly only took clients with significantly more money than I have, but a mutual friend connected us and she received me with warmth and kindness.

Sue and I came up with a plan. I would take a few years to focus on the girls, get the family on track, and either get back up to speed on the software world or go back to school to re-train for a new career. By four years after John’s death, I was supposed to make $100,000 – an amount that should be achievable as that is what I made when I last had a full time job in software in 2002 when I was 26. I agreed to this plan. I told Sue I was excited to get back to geeky left brain analysis after years of nurturing the right side of my brain with creative therapeutic private lessons. I said I might get back into security and cryptography – an area I specialized in years ago. She told me that she saw real excitement in me and that that was how she knew that this was a path that we could embrace.

I decided that by January 2015 (7 months AD) I would begin networking and connecting with old contacts at various software companies in Seattle. In parallel, I would get back up to speed on current software trends and development practices. Except, January came and went. I kept telling myself I just needed a few more months to get my sleep in order, exercise, collect my scattered and scarred trauma brain, but those months stretched into two years. I did lots of things in those two years, including taking an intensive year-long writing class at the local University. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote; finding passion, joy, and relief; but I did not make any serious effort to get back into the world of software. The truth is, I’m still drifting, lost, very focused on the gifts of my two beautiful children but too stripped bare and exhausted to be good for much else.

So, this past spring I forced myself to go deeply into my feelings. I spent March and April writing the still unpublished essay (working title “Just One of the Assholes”). I wrote and cried, wrote and cried, wrote and cried. I finally breathed out what it felt like to be 24 years old, standing in front of a room of Vice Presidents, the CTO, the President, and the CEO – yelled at, torn down and destroyed, only to be celebrated afterwards for being so tough, only to continue to be offered promotions and more money.

I didn’t publish it, couldn’t publish it – too painful.

I finished the essay in late April and spent the rest of the spring and summer trying to truly face what was in front of me. Could I do it? What would it look like? What would that look like for the girls? To make $100k, I would need a full time corporate job. It is true that there are people who can piece together significant income consulting and being their own boss, but this would not be an option open to me for at least the first few years after being out of the industry for so long. I would be a beggar and not a chooser. And – software jobs aren’t just 8 hours a day, they are 10 or 12 hours a day. I decided to take Isabella’s pulse on the matter. She was laying in her bed, reading on her Kindle Paperwhite. I entered her room, putzed around, helping her to pack for an upcoming trip she and Melanie would take to see her Auntie in Alaska. Then I opened up.

“Isabella. You know how I’m supposed to get a job in a couple of years?”

“Mmm..hmmm.”

“Do you remember how much your dad was around when he worked at MassiveSoftwareFirm?”

She became noticeably but not horrifically sad. “Yeah. I didn’t get to see him much.”

“What would it be like if I had a job like that?”

“Well… I would miss you.” She lit up briefly. “Can’t you be a writer? I know you want to be one. Then you could write while we are in school and still be home with us in the afternoons! Then things could stay the way they are now!!!”

Her optimism crushed me. She knew what I wanted but didn’t know that I couldn’t have it.

“I would love to be a writer, but I can’t make enough money doing that to keep living in Seattle and sending you and Melanie to your lovely private school. We need health insurance and other benefits too. I wish that would work but it won’t.”

“Ok mom… well… it will be ok, Mom. Even if you do get a job like dad’s job, I will still see you some in the evenings, right?”

“But what if I date?”

Melanie and Isabella beg me to date. They even find candidates and check ring fingers for wedding rings.

Isabella got sad again, but I saw her decide internally to buck up. “Mom, I would miss you, but then I would still see you in the mornings. It will be ok.”

“But Isabella what if I exercise at all. Sometimes I think exercise is the only thing that keeps me sane. You know how much my fitness and mountaineering mean to me.”

Then she became really truly sad. She got it. “Then I would never see you, mom.”

“Right. So I would not be able to date, or exercise. It would kill me to be away from you girls all the time…. I couldn’t do it. You would need me. Melanie would especially need me… you know how much she is struggling. I either wouldn’t see you or wouldn’t have a life, or both… even if I didn’t date or exercise, I would STILL be gone a lot. I can’t do it. I won’t do it. ”

She tried to console me. “Mom, we could make it work! We don’t want you to give up dating! I would be sad if you were gone a lot but it would be ok!”

I took a deep breath and launched into part 2 of my pitch.

“What do you think about moving? We could go someplace where the houses are cheaper. Somewhere with really good public schools. I could focus more on you and Melanie and could look into a part time I’m more excited about.” What I didn’t say – a job where I won’t be yelled at, a job where I won’t feel alone in a room of over-bearing asbergic men, a job where I don’t become one of them (again).

Isabella lit up, more than I expected her to.

“Oh Mom! You could be a writer, or a high school math teacher! Like you have always wanted to!”

I started to cry. She understood.

+++++

By the time I spoke to Isabella, I had already begun searches in a few different locations. I started with the following requirements –

• Affordable housing
• Good schools, better than Seattle Public Schools
• Access to outdoorsy sports and the girls favorite activities

I honed in on three areas – Bozeman Montana, Los Alamos New Mexico, and Madison Wisconsin.

In many ways I thought I would be most at home in Bozeman, but the houses weren’t quite cheap enough and the schools not quite good enough. I spun on Los Alamos for a while – such darling and affordable pueblo houses, truly phenomenal schools, local hiking trails through gorgeous canyons. But – I don’t deal well with desert climate. And – Isabella did not like that the only climbing gym nearby was a single climbing wall at the local Y. Plus – it’s a small somewhat conservative town. It was a decent choice but I would have a hard time finding my own tribe

Madison Wisconsin emerged as a front runner. In mid-July (a month ago), I deepened my search. I analyzed neighborhoods – I would live in University Heights or perhaps the Villas and developed a list of favorites on Redfin. The girls would be able to walk or bike to the local schools, which were rated very highly. Property taxes in Madison are much higher, but houses much cheaper. I could make the big change when we got back from Spain. I asked my relator what my Seattle home would go for and ran the numbers –what I would need to pay off, what I would have left for a house in Madison. I looked at homes within that budget and showed them to the kids. I could take classes at the University and explore new career ideas as I was ready, while still having lots of time to be a mom. I mapped out the local gymnastics studios after Melanie said “Mama, make sure there is a gymnastics place where they have classes EVERY DAY.” I showed Isabella pictures of an enormous bouldering gym just 7 miles from our proposed ‘hood and she said “Oh YEAH mom that totally works. Way better than the YMCA.” On my end, I had visions of writing and teaching math, enjoying blustery winters, snowshoeing around the local trails with some sort of smarty-pants-bearded Wisconsin hottie – someone who would think I’m damn sexy when I chop wood. It could work.

To be clear, there was an ocean of tears along the way. It was not lost on me or the girls that we would lose our friends, our community. I need my tribe more than ever now. The elephant in the room, though, is this – I cannot have it all. There is nothing more important than my girls and I can sacrifice everything else besides them. They need me to not be gone all the time. They need me to be whole again, and I cannot become so if I walk back into the warzone (software) while I am already bleeding.

Come mid-August, I had everything figured out. I did not want to make this change but was resolved to do whatever I needed to do to keep my family of 3 whole. It happened that I already had a quarterly meeting scheduled with Sue. Two days before the meeting I re-read my long essay in the darkness of the early morning, cried again, and sent it to her, along with a long letter about my thoughts on changing everything and moving to Madison WI. I told her that the excitement she had seen in me before, for software, wasn’t real. I was trying to be the person I have always been – the person who rises up, takes on any challenge, and soldiers through (with brute force if necessary). But I’ve realized –

I’m different now.

I sent her the letter and cried a fucking river because I was finally ready to face the future in front of me. I was so physically haggard by that point but at the same time there was a fire inside of me, the fire of love for my girls. As I began to accept the idea of moving, I began to mourn the loss of the friends I have made over my 20 years here. I began to cry for the mountains I love that would no longer be in my backyard. I cried many times a day for weeks because I finally accepted that, now that John is gone, there just isn’t any going back. I can only go forward.

Then, the meeting with Sue. 11am Wednesday August 17.

Sue and Michael (her investing minion) magically had a brand new life plan all laid out in front of me in pie charts and graphs. She was very professional and I could feel how she allowed space for my vulnerable emotional state. It was one of those moments when I was so grateful for the fact that she was a woman, for the fact that she was able to see me both as an investment portfolio and a traumatized human being at the same time. There are many men in the world who can also hold that space, but… but those sorts of men aren’t usually the ones in powerful positions at software and investing firms.
Sue said “I’m about half way through your essay. It is gripping and saddens me. I want to discuss your plans to have this published. It’s important.”

And then

“We have to come up with a plan where you don’t have to move. You need your community right now. We will make this happen.”

I said through clenched teeth “I would rather have to someday retire to a yurt on my partially burned down Okanogan land than be absent from my girls during their time of greatest need. NOTHING is more important than my girls.”

She got it. And so, we pushed and pulled on various pivot points. I would still take a couple more years to exclusively focus on the girls, my health, and any retraining I would need to do. I would rent the basement 2br apartment in my home now that my Mother-in-Law is moving to live with her daughters in Alaska, bringing in $2k a month. The girls would still get some private school but only through 8th grade. I would use up more capital in the early years until the kids go to high school and would have to make more money later. I would still have to work, but would be more likely to be able to do it making less while the girls are young instead of 100k. I could piece together some writing work, some teaching. It would come together. I would have to have a little faith.

And so – I’m working on just that. I’m working on having faith. I’m working on breathing – in and out. I don’t know what will happen. Who really ever knows what will happen, anyway? And if Seattle doesn’t work out, I now have a backup plan – I’m moving to Madison, I’m focusing on my girls, I’m finding a rough and tumble bearded lumberjack, and I’m making some fucking lemonade.

Everything is going to be ok.

+++++++

madison-snow

Tears

Over 2 years after his death, I still spend a high percentage of time with my eyes brimming, trying not to let the tears spill. Turns out, the fibers of sadness are spun into a continuous thread that weaves its way into my future. There are other threads in my life – fear, excitement, love – but those threads do not negate or eliminate the sadness that is the loss of my John – my husband, my baby daddy, my bearded mountain man, my best friend.

I prefer not to cry in front of others. It’s not because I am embarrassed to cry (I’m not) or because I don’t want to cry (I do, in fact I must). I’ve been trying to figure out why, actually. I am so public with my pain and sorrow and have so clearly worn my widowhood on my sleeve, yet even when I am with my best friends and children I blink the tears away.

Sometimes the tears come while I’m driving. Because – I’m so exhausted. Because… the kids are fighting in the back seat and I’m all alone. Because, I am reminded that the aloneness of being their only living parent stretches into forever. Once my eyes brim the road becomes squiggly, then I blink and let the tears silently roll down my cheeks so that I can see again. I then either leave my cheeks wet or wipe them away discreetly so that my children do not see. Isabella rises to the occasion and comforts me when she sees my tears but alas poor Melanie struggles. If she is bright and I show her my sorrow, then I see the light fade from her eyes in a way that rips my still oozing scabs open anew. I attempt to only show her my tears when she is already experiencing a wave of sadness and wanting to talk about her father. Her sadness comes frequently – often at least one solid wave every day, and the rest of the time I let her hold on to her light.

Other times the tears come during what should be happy moments. Two months ago in June I sobbed my way through the final assembly at Isabella and Melanie’s primary school. It happened that Melanie’s first grade class was to sing a goodbye song to the departing 8th grade, after which each first grader would hand a rose to one of the older students. I sat there, alone, watching my beautiful girl with still so much excitement for life – her mouth opened wide as she enthusiastically belted out the tune. She saw me in the audience and smiled at me in that way that tells me that I am her favorite person in the world. I don’t remember all the words of the song, just that it was about joy – joyously this, joyously that. I sat there and cried my fucking eyes out. I tried very hard at first to simply let the tears roll quietly down my cheeks, but after a few minutes I had no choice but to bury my face in my handkerchief and stifle the sobs. I did not look side to side and did not want to be comforted by anyone, because I knew that no one could comfort me. John is dead and I will forever be attending these assemblies alone.

The times that are the most confusing, though, are the times that I hold back my tears with my best friends. In fact last weekend I crashed hard, harder than I had crashed in months. My children had been in Alaska visiting their Auntie Bridget for almost two weeks and were little more than 48 hrs away from coming home. I had managed the empty nest mostly ok by keeping busy, hiking and making dinner plans with friends. I tried not to be home too much, but I couldn’t avoid the house completely as this was to be my time to dig in, purge possessions, and pack up our home before we move to Spain. I sold John’s gorgeous green and orange custom-built bike on ebay – he only rode it 4x before he died. I managed to re-open the dreaded nightstand drawers and found a more permanent home for his High School prom photos that were there. I pulled his dishes out of the attic – the dishes he owned before we got married, and put them in a box to take to our cabin as replacements for the 30 year old plastic monstrosities left behind by the previous owners. I finished cleaning out the garage, having recently sold his dreams in the name of his woodworking tools – a drill press, table saw, planer, and jointer.

I soldiered through, trying not to succumb to the darkness as my heart broke over and over again, but by this past Saturday, I could no longer cope. I had faced the ghosts in the closets, attic, and garage over and over again, but didn’t even have my children to hold me. By Saturday afternoon I collapsed into a place of complete aloneness. Grief is an ocean with its constant ebbing and flowing waves – sometimes just ripples, sometimes waves big enough to knock you back but not down, and then sometimes the inevitable 50 foot tall tsunami that wipes out everything in its path and says “Surrender to my darkness.”.

So there I was, sitting in my home at 11am on a Saturday, aware that I was about to be taken down but not quite yet flattened. I walked to the garage with a handkerchief in my pocket, blasted Pearl Jam (John’s favorite band), sat down among his dead dreams, and cried my fucking eyes out. Then I went into the house, threw myself onto the bed, and cried a whole bunch more. I forced myself to each some leftovers for lunch, took a shower, went to sit on the roof where John and I often chatted in the evenings after the girls were asleep, and allowed my body to surrender to the gasping whole body sobs yet again. I cried and cried and cried and cried and didn’t call anyone.

It was a difficult day.

I had plans to see a movie with a friend that night – Pan’s Labyrinth at the Central Cinema. I went to the movie with her and was mostly quiet. I did not tell her until later that I had been crying all day. I watched the moving people on the screen and then went to bed despondent yet again.

That night I woke up to the horror at 3am. This is my pattern every single night. I sleep for 2-4 hours, wake up, fill with sadness and fear, get up, walk around, breathe, eventually go back to bed and sleep for at most 2 more hours. This pattern began the night I was told they would dispatch Search and Rescue helicopters in the morning (before his death was confirmed). I slept 2 hours, woke up gasping for air as the awareness of the horror flooded in. I am told that as a result the trauma my body developed a PTSD response upon waking – adrenaline floods, fear overwhelms, despondence and aloneness result. I still have this response, and even after 2 years of doctors visits, medications, individual therapy, group therapy, and weekly acupuncture, I am often find myself at the bottom of my well at 3am.

That brings us to Sunday morning – a week ago now. I putzed around from 3-4am, managed to go back to sleep for about 2 more hours from 4-6am, and woke up still at the bottom of my well. I huddled in a reclining chair in my living room under a blanket, crying on and off, until around 9am. My friend Frank stopped by at 9am to pick up some black Day of the Dead pottery skulls that I had purchased on a trip to Oxacaca in 2001 but was now purging. He immediately saw that I was in a broken state and radiated compassion, but still – I felt a deep resistance to crying in his arms. I let myself fall against him anyway and allowed the gasping sobs to briefly resume. He patted my back, made soothing shushing sounds, and kept reminding me to breathe. Soon I stopped gasping, managed to regulate my breathing, and found a slightly calmer place. He helped me.

Except, he didn’t. It wasn’t his fault and he wasn’t the problem. The fact is – I didn’t want to stop crying. I stopped crying because it is awkward to keep sobbing and gasping when you, dear Friend, lovingly try to help me stop. I stopped crying because so often us grievers have to manage how much sadness we expose our caregivers to. This might surprise you, since I show you so much of my grief in my writing, but still – these are my words that I’m showing you, not my raw tears. I see how it hurts you to watch me cry in the flesh and so I try to stop crying when you are around. Even those of you that keep telling me “It’s fine, Holly… cry around me any time.” Still, I mostly do not, because I can’t handle the helplessness and wave for horror that inevitably spread across your face as you watch me crash.

Part of me believes that there are simply a certain number of tears I must cry, and if I stifle them now then they will erupt later. Perhaps that’s why I cried so much this weekend. My crying for the last couple of months had been more of the quiet weeping type, and apparently I had let a whole bunch of horrific sobbing build up. I wanted to say to Frank “Could you please leave so that I can lay here by myself on my bed and wail and sob until I fall asleep mid-day in a snotty soggy salty tear mess?” Because… that’s what I really wanted to do, what I needed to do. Instead, I allowed myself to be calmed, sent Frank on his way, and then spent most of the rest of the day still at the bottom of my well.

It’s times like last Sunday that my sense of aloneness threatens to engulf me. Everyone tells me that I am not alone, but I am indeed alone in this journey I am on as the only parent to my 2 sweet girls. When I fished Melanie out of Alpental’s ski patrol room and rushed her to the emergency room after a ski accident, I was alone. When I stood up at Isabella’s birthday party, cooking all the food, cutting the cake, and pasting a smile on as I wave my figurative pom-poms, I was alone. When I take the girls to the cabin, drive through hours of traffic, unload the car, make dinner, clean up, and put them to bed – I am alone. When I lay awake at 3am, willing the universe to take every penny that I own in exchange for one more moment to run my fingers through his full red beard – I am alone. Alone alone alone. My friends and community do comfort me and in fact have saved me from a much deeper horror that could have resulted, but still – there is a dark shadow of aloneness that has wrapped its way around my soul, and none of you can remove it. All you can do is sit with me in my darkness.

By the end of the day on Sunday, August 7 – day 2 of my huge sob fest, I felt like I was drowning, like I could not breathe, like all of Mount Rainier was on top of my chest. It felt like I would die from the pain, though my brain knew I would not. I kept telling myself “Just breathe, the episode will pass, you can survive this, the kids will be home tomorrow… they will hold you.”

And then, at 7:16pm, I was given the gift I needed in the form of a comment from someone I have never met right here on my grief blog.

The comment was on a essay I wrote 16 months ago in April 2015 (11 months after loss). The post was titled “Sit with me in my darkness” and conveyed a “fuck hope” message. Meaning – stop sitting there in your comfy non-widowed, non-only-parent chair and telling me that things will be ok, because what I really need is for you to sit with me where I am – in a place of darkness, in a place where your words of hope ring trite. To this day, over a year later, “Sit with me in my darkness” is the post that seems to resonate most deeply with my fellow grievers. I have included the comment in its entirety below –

I lost my beautiful, darling 23-year-old daughter, who was my only child, after being a single-mom all of her life…she was my heart and soul, my best friend, my sunshine, moon, stars, light and whole damn sky and was tragically killed in a Road Traffic Collision as a pedestrian 9 years and 3 months ago 😥  Thank you for sharing so honestly, Holly (and thank you ♥ Megan Devine.♥ of Refuge In Grief for sharing this and bringing it to my attention). Your words (grief) have resonated so deep within me, all of them AND specifically:

“I float on a raft, alone, on my cold windy ocean of grief. If you tell me it isn’t an ocean or that the shore is closer than it really is, then you don’t help me, you only make me feel more alone.” ~ as Megan says, “YES YES YES YES. Fuck all the hope-brokers. That kind of hope dismisses your pain, and pain is what is.” Your beautiful, corageous, raw honesty has also helped to really spark that anger I know I need to direct squarely at others…after all this time?!…because what is needed is nothing fancy or esoteric from those who [profess to] love and support us in our darkness but, as you say: “Sit with me in my darkness. The way out is through. I continue to move through. I am broken, vulnerable, weeping in every possible way. I am also one of the strongest people you will ever meet. Don’t be afraid of my darkness – sit with me and allow me to dive deep so that I can feel what I need to feel and cry all the tears that must be shed. I will survive. We will survive. I am a warrior, and though these wounds are still raw and oozing, they do not destroy me. I may still be at the bottom of a well, but I continue to reach for the light, and for the love of all of you.”

♥ Thank you, again, from my broken heart to yours ♥ Holly ♥ and I am so very sorry for your great loss and for your daughter’s loss, too….sending as much love and light as I can muster from my ‘well’ to yours… ♥ – sukeyblue61

Thank you, sukeyblue61. At my place of deepest aloneness, your words came to me. Even if my friends and family cannot understand what I am going through (how could they?), I have you. You sit with me in my darkness, and I sit with you in yours. Your arms reach me through the ether – ones and zeros, flashes of light on a wire, packets that get reconstructed in order to light up pixels on a screen that show me –

I am not alone, I am not alone, I am not alone.

Love you forever, John. I will never stop crying.

++++++++++++

IMG_2335
John with Isabella and Melanie on our Okanokan land, 2009

Adventurer

I was 16 when I became an adventurer, though I didn’t know it at the time.

It was my junior year at Andover High School. I was young, but not too young to be an unhealthy workaholic, and I was taking caffeine pills in order to stay up until 1am studying every night. You see, the year beforehand my mother and I had concocted what we thought was a brilliant plan – I was to take 2 science classes my junior year – high school Physics and college level Advanced Placement (AP) Biology, plus AP Modern European History. This would set me up to be able to take four more college level classes senior year, including two sciences yet again – AP English, AP Chemistry, AP Physics, and AP Calculous. I would then graduate from High School with six college-level classes, and if I did well enough on the national AP exams, I could use the credit to graduate early from college. That was the plan, set in motion when I was a 15 yr old sophomore. “If you go to Harvard, you could graduate a full year early” she said “But if you go to MIT, you will only be able to graduate a semester early because they give less credit for AP classes than other universities.”

So there I was, popping NoDoz, studying AP Biology until the wee hours every night at our dining room table under a too-enormous-to-clean-properly dusty crystal chandeiler. My mother dangled legs on both sides of the wall – she took so much pride in my achievements but knew my path wasn’t healthy and wasn’t always so sure that she liked the person I was becoming. My father was significantly worse – concern never kicked in for him, only ego and pride. She danced between pushing me forward and begging me to slow down. He just sat there and waited for me to add more accomplishments to the list.

In late January that school year (it was 1992), Mom saw an advertisement – $99 each way to Paris. “We’re going.” She said. We would have to leave in a couple of weeks in order to take advantage of the cheap fare. The trip would partially overlap my February school break, but still I would miss several days of classes. I would miss an important AP Biology test.

“I can’t go. I will miss too much school.” I said.
“We’re going.” She said. “WE’RE GOING.”

I fought her for a while, worried about my grades, but she knew she had to pull me out of my tailspin. She knew I had to step away. She knew that somehow even if I missed a test and a few days of classes then I would still be ok. She never once suggested that maybe I should take less classes or take college at a normal pace, but still she tried to control the damage along the way.

There are so many beautiful memories I have from that fateful trip – the wind in my face as I stood by the Seine, being knocked over by the vibrant colors of my first real Van Gough at Musee D’Orsay, sitting in the garden among the sculptures at Musee Rodin. Still – this image stands out above all the rest – we had just landed at Charles De Gualle airport and were getting into a taxi. My mother spoke very little French and had trouble communicating with the brisk driver. She had visited Europe for her honeymoon 22 years before in 1970 but still was very much out of her comfort zone. I looked over to her, in the back of the car, and felt the stress and fear in her body. Her eyes got red and wet but didn’t spill and her mouth was one tight line. There we were in a foreign country where we didn’t speak the language – a 16 year old girl, a 44 year old woman, and her 70 year old mother (my grandmother) who had always dreamed of going to Paris but had never traveled and needed to be led by the hand. It was all on mom, and she was overwhelmed.

But – we did indeed make it to the hotel. My mom figured out how to drag her bookworm kid and elderly mom all over the city on the Metro so that Grandma Ruth didn’t have to walk too much. We went to Notre Dame, the Louvre , and Versailles and everything I was studying that year in AP Modern European History came alive. We ate oranges, roast chickens, baguettes, and pastries from local markets as we were too broke for the restaurants. We saw the ballet version of “A Streetcar Named Desire” from nosebleed seats at the Grand Opera House and tried on fancy dresses we couldn’t afford on the Champs-Elyees. And then, near the end of our 8 day 9 night adventure, I sat in front of Monet’s “Impression, Sunrise” at Musee Marmottan, and I finally realized – the world is big, beautiful, and full of colors I didn’t know existed. My books weren’t real – this was real. And – my mom made it happen. She was afraid and overwhelmed, but she was also strong enough to know that she needed to push through and that the rewards would be enormous.

I got a ‘B’ in AP Biology that quarter. I missed too much work to keep my ‘A’, though I got back there by the next report card. I was pretty upset about my ‘poor peformance’, but that was all part of my workaholic journey that would take a few more years to fully unravel.

Fast forward – I graduated a semester early from MIT with a BS in Computer Science and Engineering with a focus on cryptography and network security. During my sophomore year I added a student research job at the MIT Media Lab onto my over full plate and developed severe RSI (repetitive strain injury). By early 1999 I was 2 years post-graduation, being promoted rapidly at Microsoft. I often worked 12+ hours on week days and extra on Sundays. My hands and forearms continued to become crippled with inflammation and I could not type (or cook, or drive, or open jars, or masturbate) without shooting pains. My doctor said ‘enough’ and put me on 6 weeks of medical leave.

I was so bored and miserable at first. I hadn’t developed myself outside of work. Without work, what was there to do?

Then, there it was, in an email from Expedia.com – $375 round trip to Paris. I would have to leave in a few days to get the cheap fare. Paris, by myself, with zero French language skills and little time to prepare. It seemed so brash and scary. But…mom had done it. Her eyes were wet and her mouth was tight, but she persevered and gave me and my Grandma one of the most wonderful and memorable experiences of our lives.

Maybe scary things can lead to growth. Maybe I should be less afraid of the unknown and more afraid of the known – my obsessive compulsive need to achieve, my exhaustion, my inability to use my crippled arms for basic household chores.

I bought the ticket and went to Paris by myself. Sure it was only four days, and sure I had been there before. Still – I went to Paris and reminded myself that the world is still big and beautiful. I got off that plane and discovered – I am indeed still alive. I was 23.

Over the years that followed, I took many more solo international trips. I knelt and prayed at various temples in Kyoto, gazed with awe at the David in Florence, and did yoga in the rainforest in Costa Rica. I learned to walk slower and watch the world around me. I went to bed alone but not lonely.

turkey-capadoccia
Holly in Capadoccia, Turkey, 2001

 

Still, I was always a workaholic when I came back from a trip. It took a few years to fully admit that I needed to re-haul my soul, but eventually I decided to sell my car, put my possessions into storage, and travel solo for a year. First 6 weeks in Thailand, then 6 weeks in India before venturing elsewhere. “Be careful.” My yoga teacher Denise said. “I know another woman who went by herself and she said she absolutely wouldn’t do it again.”

Many of my loved ones were concerned that I planned to travel in rural India alone. People kept reminding me that it would be hard, as if I didn’t know. I told them that I wasn’t looking for easy. I wasn’t looking for a vacation. I knew my life had gotten too comfortable and that my perspective was too narrow. I knew I couldn’t fix myself by staying where I was. I wanted to feel, grow, and change. I wanted the trip to be hard. I wanted to struggle. I needed to struggle.

And, struggle I did. But, like Mom – I persevered. My escapades in India are fodder enough for their own story, but for now I will share with you this gem: when you are chased by a pack of wild dogs through a small village and almost eaten, your perspective on life changes and you let go of a lot of bullshit.

Not long after my year of travel, I decided to chuck the software thing and became a therapeutic yoga teacher. I lived by myself in an 860 square foot home, half of which became my yoga studio. I taught myself to cook Indian and Thai food. I worked 20 hours a week in my living room, took afternoon naps, spent time with friends, and sewed costumes for Burningman. When I left software for good in 2002 I was making $100k a year. That first year of teaching I made and lived on $18k, $6k of which went to various yoga teacher trainings. Money was so tight, I didn’t go to restaurants or even out to the movies. But I was surprisingly… happy. Happy in a way I hadn’t ever been before, and that happiness was completely self created.

And now, 2 years after the death of my husband, life has become too comfortable again. Yes, my sadness is an ocean, my burdens are crushing, and my anxiety is pervasive. Still – in a way, life is too easy. I have my comfortable home. I have my comfortable car. I have my comfortable and never ending grief. I grump and gripe about various things because I am so comfortable in my misery. My perspective has again become too narrow. My brain knows there is joy to be found in the world but my heart is still saying “I don’t even want to try, things are too comfortable in this dark and empty place.”

And so, it is time for an adventure yet again. I’m a mom now, so the adventure will be different. I won’t be dragging 2 children through rural India, but I will be settling down with them in an apartment in Barcelona for a year. People keep saying “Oh, what fun! You get to go on holiday for a year!” Yes, it’s true that Europe can be beautiful, luxurious, and easy to navigate. Still, this won’t be a vacation. I am leaving my community of friends and family. I will be a single mom in a foreign country with very few childcare resources. I will still have all of my grief, and when I wake up at 3am only to get sucked into a dark vortex of sadness and despair, I will be completely and utterly alone AND lonely. There will be fun moments in Spain, but I expect the experience to be hard. Single parenthood is hard, period, and I’m only going to make it even harder.

So yes – I know it’s going to be hard. Quite a lot of me is not at all happy about leaving the comforts and community that is here in Seattle, but still I continue to determinedly plan our trip. Staying would mean paralysis and paralysis means death. There is a voice in me that says that it is time for a new phase of growth. I explored so much inside my heart and brain these last 2 years through various books, 1:1 therapy, group therapy of multiple forms, grief retreats, memoir writing, and meditation. I have grown so much, more than I knew was possible through such horror, but by now – I have plateaued. I need things to be hard in a new way. I need an exciting adventure. I need challenges which will, through struggle, make me want to reach for light. And – I need to either miss Seattle while I’m gone (and want to come back) or pick a new place to live.

Everything needs to be shaken up, and my mother always told me that if there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s stirring the pot.

Thanks for Paris, Mom – I love you.