6 Months

730am, Friday, November 28 – Cat Ba, Vietnam

Six Months

Today marks 6 months since my sweet John was taken in an avalanche. His entire climbing team of 6 was swept off Liberty Ridge 3300 feet straight down onto the Carbon Glacier, marking the most significant climbing accident on Mt Rainier in 33 years, since 11 people were taken out by icefall on the Ingraham flats in 1981. Just like the Ingraham flats tragedy, no mistakes were made. No one slipped, no one failed to properly train (which can put an entire rope team at risk). The guides were solid (I’ve climbed with the lead guide, Matt Hegeman, myself), and proper precautions were taken. In both cases, the mountain crumbled in ways that cannot be predicted, except in that one can predict that glaciated peaks will always crumble – you just don’t know when, on which route, or how significant it will be.

John never trivialized the risks of mountain climbing. He was a huge fan of extensive training and insisted I take a proper 10 day course if I were to climb on glaciers. We spent countless hours in the evenings discussing the pros and cons of various gear and safety techniques. He would always train even harder than the guides told him he needed to train, as he wanted to have extra reserves should a storm hit, or in case another climber was injured and needed others to carry his or her load. John took mountaineering very, very seriously. Still, he respected the fact that, when on the mountain, he could never be in complete control. He spoke often of the Ingraham Flats tragedy. He said “Holly, you can do everything right and still the mountain is in charge. Icefall on the Ingraham flats took out 11 climbers in 1981, and that was on the ‘safe’, standard route that many inexperienced climbers take to the top without issue.” He would say “Sometimes the mountain makes a decision, and there is nothing you can do but respect and honor the raw power of nature.”

John never sheltered me from the risks. However, I never once thought about telling him not to climb. The man that I fell in love with was a mountain man. John lived to summit big snowy glaciated peaks. He was never more alive than when he returned from a trip – sunburnt, wind chapped, scabbed ankles, missing toenails, once with a cracked rib after a slide on Glacier Peak that slammed him into a tree (which was apparently a good thing, as it was that or go off the cliff). He would light up with joy and we would chat into the night about every detail, as we also did when I returned from one of my climbs, also often limping, bruised, with skin missing in various places. John and I never climbed anything risky together, as we had to make sure that, if the worst happened, our girls would not be orphans. Still, even though we usually climbed separately, climbing was a huge bond that we shared, and something we understood about each other. John and I both liked to do things that were really hard, reached for challenges that involved suffering that would have turned others away. That feeling of standing on a summit, looking down on the clouds, having pushed through pain, high winds, potential frostbite, while gasping for breath in an oxygen poor atmosphere, was a feeling that we both reached for in the same way. Frankly, there has been no day in my life when I have felt more accomplished than the day that I stood on top of Mount Rainier after navigating the crevasses on the Winthrop Glacier. After John died, someone told me that they had never seen him more proud than the day he received word (while I was on my way down) that I had had a successful summit.

Accordingly, I have no anger. I am not angry with John for embarking on this climb and I am not angry with Mt Rainier for making the decision it made that day. I’m not even angry with myself. I told John that I loved him in every possible way at every possible opportunity. I honored him as a mountain man and cheered him on as he followed his dreams. I have no regrets, no reason to be mad at myself for not appreciating or supporting him in every way.

Because there is no anger, I am left only with grief. While these last 6 months have been long, exhausting, and chock full of unending heartbreak, it still feels like just the beginning. The loss of one’s life partner and the father of one’s young children is enormous and all encompassing. I still weep multiple times daily. When I close my eyes and picture his sparkling eyes and full red beard, I literally feel like I’m going to vomit. In fact this nausea of the last 6mo, which hits me at least 2x a day, is more significant than all the nausea of my 2 pregnancies combined. I ache for him. I barricade both sides of my body with enormous pillows at night, so that the bed does not feel so big and empty. I play his favorite Pearl Jam songs voluntarily, knowing they will make me sob, wanting to hear them anyway so as to feel closer to him. When I cook dinner, I still stare at the front door, remembering how happy I was every time he walked through it after work, missing the way he squeezed me and kissed me hello, willing him to walk through that door just one more time. And then, after dinner, when I put my girls to bed, I ache even more. I ache for the loss of their innocence. I ache for all the future milestones of theirs that he will miss. I ache because John used to put them to bed, and thus this task is yet another reminder that I am alone.

Before I lost my John, I would have thought that 6 months was a very long time. It is true that I have made much progress in my healing path during this time, but still, I have come to understand that it is still just the beginning. My grief is truly an ocean. I tread water in this ocean, using all of my strength to resist the dark undercurrents that threaten to suck me under. I continue to feel enormous gratitude for the beams of sunshine of all of you who hold me. There is so much darkness, but there is also so much light. Thank you for sharing my journey.

Running away

4am, Friday November 28 – Cat Ba, Vietnam

There is this urge, when one is in so much pain, to run away. It is perhaps easy for others to trivialize this instinct and to say “Running away never solves anything.  You should stay where you are and face what you have to face.”.  However, given that running away is such a common desire when one is experiencing true trauma, it is an instinct well worth examining.

Many times, over the last 6 months, I have had the urge to run away.  This is not to say that I do not love my children.  In fact, my children are the greatest gift that John has given me.  Without them, I would be truly lost on a way that is too painful to even contemplate.  Still, at times I have this urge to run away.  If I didn’t have children then I am quite sure that, after John died, I would have disappeared into the mountains for a while, growing a metaphorical beard, laying in the dirt, and crying for hours upon hours for my lost love.  This is not an option for me, and again – my children, who hold me back from this brink, are a blessing.

If running away is such a common instinct, then why do we judge it?  Why does one smugly sit there and assume that the person in pain is doing something “unhealthy” or something that “won’t bear fruit”?  How could you really know what path someone’s journey of grief will take?  As I have said before, when one experiences true loss, falling apart is part of the process.  There are things one might do that could seem obviously unhealthy, but in fact these things might be 1. much healthier than various truly terrible alternatives and 2. unfortunately necessary in order to emerge on the other side.

I am reminded of the movie “Silver Linings Playbook”.  The lead character, Tiffany, loses her husband in a car crash.  She begins to sleep with any man or woman she finds, desperate for any sort of comfort.  To be clear, this is not something I’m doing, and in fact my pain over not having been touched in any way in a very long time is another topic entirely.  Even though her path is not my path, I can still relate to her methods.  When you are in SO MUCH pain, you search for precious moments of escape.  Stop yourself before you form the thought that escape isn’t healthy.  There are truly crushing levels of pain that can render one non functional, and sometimes the only way you make it through is by giving yourself moments of escape.  Even if your methods are “unhealthy”, they might in fact be saving you from something worse, such as suicide.  To be clear again, I have never for a moment contemplated harming myself.  I’m speaking generally here.

Like Tiffany, I yearn for escape.  I long to disappear somewhere in the world, to walk the earth – half of the time wanting to walk while sobbing and wearing my pain like a cross, the other half of the time wanting to wear the mask of a “normal person” and pretend (with strangers I meet) that I have no trauma and am still the vivacious/intelligent/interesting person I once was.  It doesn’t matter that, at the end of the day, all of the pain is still there and I have not truly escaped anything.  Running away from the pain is part of the process.

I ask you, dear reader, to try not to over analyze the path of those you know who have experienced true loss.  Unless someone is shooting up heroin or contemplating the murder of someone who has wronged them, perhaps you shouldn’t try to tell them they are “doing it wrong”.  Of course, this doesn’t mean you ignore them.  There is so much you can do without making the mistake of trying to dictate their path.  You can hold them, visit them, praise EVERY SINGLE attempt they make to move forward, and remind them that you walk with them, whatever their path may be.  You can give them thoughtful books, bring them meals, offer to drive them to therapy, while being ready to let it go if they aren’t ready.  Most of all, you can decide not to judge, you can let go of your ego, and you can stop yourself from criticizing any missteps along the way.  What would your path look like if you lost your life partner and the father of your children in one go?  I don’t know, and neither do you.

Thanksgiving day in Vietnam

3am Thursday, November 27, Thanksgiving day – Island of Cat Ba, Vietnam

It is not a coincidence that I decided to travel to a place where there would be no Thanksgiving.  That is not to say that I feel I have nothing to be grateful for.  In fact, I have much to be grateful for – 2 beautiful children, family and friends who hold me so close and honor my journey of grief without judgment, a healthy body, a warm home, and 10 beautiful years with an amazing man who gave me everything that I could ever want – years that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

I am here because the memories of past Thanksgivings are too raw, the wounds are too exposed and vulnerable for the moment.

I remember the first Thanksgiving after John and I were married.  I was 8.5mo pregnant (due Dec 11) and much too fatigued and encumbered to cook a big meal for guests.  Certainly, we weren’t going out of town so close to my due date, so John easily and happily said “Lets invite family here.  I will cook everything and you can rest.”.   And so, that beautiful husband of mine did just that.  He roasted the turkey, stuffed the stuffing, mashed the potatoes, crusted the whipped yams with pecans and walnuts, sauteed the green beans, tossed the salad, warmed the rolls, simmered the fresh cranberry sauce, poured the wine, and most impressive of all – baked the pumpkin pies with his own home made crust and a filling made from fresh pumpkin he had broken down himself.

Johns mother, father, step mother, uncle, grandmother, and grandfather were all in attendance.  Everyone was very impressed.  Secretly he grinned and told me how much it meant to him to cook for Granny, who had been the one to cook most of the big holiday meals over the years.  Afterwards, he said “That went so well, perhaps it should become a Thanksgiving tradition – I cook everything and you relax.”

I shouldn’t have been surprised, but John followed through.  Every single year (except one, when we went to Aunt Betsy’s), John cooked the whole meal.  I would offer to prep a few dishes, but he would always smile and decline, reminding me that Thanksgiving was a time for me to relax.  This went beyond the kitchen.  When guests got too drunk, or discussions turned too political, he would wink at me in a special way.  The unspoken message was that I was free to go read in our room for a while, or run an errand, or in general check out for a bit while he entertained.  He made it a luxurious and soothing time for me, 10yrs in a row.

This year I decided early on that it was not in my path to continue to host John’s extended family for Thanksgiving.  The idea of doing all the work myself and not having John as a buffer was too much of a slap-in-the-face reminder of what I have lost and that I am alone.  I emailed everyone, politely saying that I wouldn’t be hosting because it was just too painful to do it without John.  John’s uncle, who had told us in the past that Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners at our house were the two best meals he ate every year, replied and simply said “Total BS.”.  John would have shielded me from that, but John is not here.  Apparently, this uncle thinks Mary and I should be “over it”.  Forgive me if I have no compassion for his loss of a good meal while I am in my time of grief.

I made a plan to send my kids to Boston for the holiday.  My parents and two younger sisters lovingly offered to care for them while I did my own thing.  In fact, the girls were very excited for the adventure.  Juliet told them there would be candy, movies, and time at the rock gym.  Grandma Ann said she would heat up the indoor pool and that they could swim every day.  Rose planned a day off work to indulge them in projects and TG dinner prep.  A friend, who wanted to visit  family in the Boston area, offered to chaperone them on the cross country flights.  And so, I with non trivial amounts of Rose’s trip planning help, I booked a trip to Vietnam, where there is no Thanksgiving, where I do not need to sit at a holiday dinner table and look at the spot where John would have sat.

Perhaps you wonder how it is that I can leave my children for 10 days, over a holiday, during a time of grief.

It seems obvious (after much introspection, many books on trauma, and hours of group/individual therapy), that one is going to break in some way when faced with such enormous loss.  A friend told me of a man she knew who, after losing his wife to cancer, shut himself in his home for 2 years, eating only delivered food, allowing (literally) hundreds of pizza boxes to pile up and fester.  When friends eventually came to clean out his house, they removed multiple van loads of garbage and filth.  Another friend told me of her trauma, and how, when she could no longer cope, she (without warning or any plan) said “I’m leaving.”, left her kids with whoever was around, got in the car, and didn’t return for weeks.  By the way, she is now a doting and responsible mother/grandma, someone whom I would trust with my children in an instant.

In the past, I would have observed these breakdowns in others and, while I would have felt compassion, I would not have been able to relate.  Now, when I meet someone who has experienced true loss, I am amazed when they _aren’t_ falling apart.  This is a topic for more in depth writings, but – falling apart is part of the process.  I came to realize that I could break in uncontrolled ways, or I could make space for myself to beak in safer ways.  Either way, breaking was in the cards.  So, I forgave myself for not having it in me to face the holiday, did everything I could to make sure that my children would be tended to while I was away, and I left.

This is not the first time I have had to leave my children in order to have space to process my grief, nor will it be the last.  There are those of you who have judged me.  I have my moments of anger over this fact, but mostly I feel compassion for those who cannot see the forest for the trees.  The tree of this holiday is insignificant compared to the forest of survival.  I will  survive, and I will honor that this path through the evergreens is dark, messy, and not always something that is easy for others to watch.  Those of you who walk with me and allow me to find my own way (knowing that I and only I can find the path) give me the greatest gift that I could receive.  For that, on this Thanksgiving day, I am grateful.  Thank you.

Another visit from John

Nov 26, 730am, Cat Ba, Vietnam

John came to me again last night.  I sat on the beach in the dark, by myself.  I felt him wanting to connect, but I resisted at first.  I only want to connect with him when I have time, space, and emotional energy to be fully present.  So I gave myself a few moments to breathe deeply, closed my eyes, and dove in.  Immediately he put his forehead against mine.  I slid my hands along the sides of his face, along his scalp, and into his hair.  He began to weep, and then we talked for a bit.

“I want to come back.  I miss you and the girls so much.  I can’t stand it.  I want to come back.”

“John, you can’t come back.”

“This hurts too much.  I can’t stand seeing you in such pain.  I can’t stand not big able to hold you and comfort you.”

And then I felt the heavens trying to yank him away.  He began to be sucked upwards and we reached our hands out to each other, trying to hold on.

“John, surrender.  I don’t know why, but this is your destiny.  You must let go of your attachment to this earth and shed the burden of your fear for me and the girls.  We will find a path.  These burdens are mine to carry.”

I felt John give in.  He stopped fighting, and then, because he let go of his resistance, the sky stopped yanking him away and I was able to hold him.  For perhaps the first time since his death, I was able to truly feel his pain rather than being consumed by my own.  I filled with compassion for this sweet, tender man who will never see his children have babies, who will never climb the many peaks that he dreamed of, who will never grow old with his wife.  I held him and let him sob for a while.  I let myself comfort him.  I allowed myself to be completely present and honor his great loss.  Then, just like that, he was gone again, until the next time I’m lucky enough for one of these brief moments of connection.  I cherish these moments and never take them for granted.

John – I love you forever and beyond.

Fear

5am, November 26, Cat Ba, Vietnam

I find myself crippled by fear in ways that I have never experienced before.  I am not someone who has historically been afraid of risk or injury.  After I had children, I took certain precautions, such as that I wouldn’t climb on glaciers without first taking a course in crevasse rescue and without a professional guide by my side, but still, I didn’t carry much fear.  I did my best to mitigate the risks and took comfort in the fact that, should I injure myself (or worse), John would be there to tend to me and the children.

Of course, now there is no John.  I stumble around in this world full of fear that something will happen to me.  I am not afraid of the pain of an injury, not afraid of my own suffering, but I am consumed by the awareness – there is no other parent to care for my children.  In Hanoi, I couldn’t relax.  In order to cross the street one must dodge between zippy motorbikes.  I’m told never to run across the street, only to walk, because then my path is more predictable and the motorbikes can better flow around me.  There was no break from this anxiety, as the sidewalks are impassable die to rows of parked motorbikes, so even when not crossing, one walks on the edge of the street and tries to ignore the motorbikes and cars that literally brush you as they fly by.  I couldn’t stop wondering – what happens if a bike hits me and I break an arm or a leg?  Who would take care of the children?  How would they get around if I couldn’t drive?  True, I could hire more help, but that is little comfort right now.  At the end of the day, I’m alone, and there is no escaping the reality that my children are fatherless and my burdens are heavy.

I knew, after John died, that I could no longer climb on glaciers – not because I resent the types of mountains that took my husbands life, but for the sake of my children.  I still love these mountains and yearn to climb them.  The secondary loss of this passion (after the primary loss of my husband) is non trivial and will be the subject of many other writings.  Regardless, I have discovered that, even if I stop climbing big mountains, even if I always wear my seat belt, there is so much fear and awareness of the delicate balance of life.  Anything could happen, and if something does happen to me, the cost is immeasurable.  I carry these burdens as I carry my 60lb training pack.  Unlike the pack, I cannot choose to lighten my load when I am tired.  These weights of fear and responsibility are mine to carry alone.  This awareness ages me and contributes to my struggle to find any joy in life.

More wanderings in Hanoi

November 24 – Hanoi, Vietnam

I woke up at 1am this morning and was reminded that sleep continues to elude me. This goes beyond jetlag. I’ve had sleep issues for years, but they got much worse after John died. Now, I can only sleep 3-4 hours a night. The exhaustion manifests as new wrinkles, dark under-eye circles, and a cranky disposition. And yes, I have seen a doctor about this, many times in fact.

I had a joyless day in Hanoi yesterday, as I have already written. I wanted to be drawn in by the beauty of SE Asia – smells of incense and shrimp paste, honest smiling people who genuinely want to help you, cheap massage on every corner, incredible food, beautiful temples, and more. I wanted to feel things that I have felt on past trips, but for yesterday, it wasn’t meant to be. In fact, I was so downtrodden that I genuinely considered staying in the hotel spa all day. I gave myself permission to hide, should that be my path.

Eventually, in the wee hours of the morning, my mind went to something the Dali Lama said, something that I come to often. He said that sometimes the act of putting a smile on your face will make you happier, even if you put it on your face solely for that reason, even if your mind knows that you are tricking yourself. Now, while I can’t say that I was smiling, I did put on my brave face and made myself explore the city yet again. I first made my way to the Vietnamese Museum of the History of the Revolution. This museum detailed the struggle of the Vietnamese against the French Colonialists and the eventual path to independence. There were many aspects of this resistance that reminded me of the movement in India against the British colonialists (something I happened to read a bunch about just last week). In both cases (and at many other times in history all over the world), many were slaughtered horrifically and mercilessly, and many became widows. Widowhood is something that I understand. Again, the Dali Lamas words came to me – he often wrote that, in order to find more peace with your own suffering, it is helpful to put yourself in the shoes of those who have suffered more. So I closed my eyes and let myself touch the pain of many who have come before me. I filled with sadness and compassion and allowed myself to remember that, while I have lost so much, I still have so much, and I never want to take all of the gifts in my life for granted.

Next, I made my way to the Vietnamese Women’s History museum.  The visit began with an exhibit on marriage – rituals, customs, etc.  I walked in and was immediately hit with this quote, in large letters, on the wall at the entrance –

“Wife and husband are as inseparable as a pair of chopsticks.”

The old me might have felt the need to debate this statement, might have over analyzed the words and argued that, while one chopstick is useless by itself, I am not useless by myself.  The me of this moment, however, felt no need to analyze or debate.  I just allowed myself to feel.  In that moment, the quote rang true.  John and I were a pair, a team.  We were two puzzle pieces – in no way identical, but in every way complimentary.  I have always been a strong and independent person, but that fact does not in any way diminish the pain of my loss.  My other half is gone.  It is as if an arm has been cut off – eventually with time and therapy the hemorrhaging will stop, the wound will scab up, and I will learn to use the other parts of my body to compensate, but there will always be scars, and my body will never be the same.

Later on, in the museum, there was an exhibit about street vendors in Hanoi.  Apparently, most of the roaming vendors are women who come in from small villages in order to supplement income.  I watched videos of women talking about how they have family land on which to cultivate crops, but the land only produces enough rice to feed their family for 3mo out of the year, and so, while their husbands labor in the fields, they leave their children with others and travel to Hanoi to sell food and other goods on the street.  One woman talked of how her husband had died (he broke his neck in an accident while laboring) and so now, in order to provide for her children, she leaves them to work in Hanoi for weeks at a time, staying in a room in a guesthouse that she shares with other street vendors – one room, 10 women.  I saw and felt the pinched pain of widowhood on her face.

After I left, I was approached by a roaming vendor hawking baked treats out of a basket.  In Hanoi one is approached by perhaps 10 -20 vendors a day, so mostly I ignored them, but this time I paused.  She wanted to sell me some tiny treats for $2.50, which I’m pretty darn sure was at least 5x what they should have cost.  In that moment, I peacefully let her milk the westerner and gave her the money.  It was only $2.50 to me, but so much more to her.  I had learned that these women make about $20 a week, working six 12+hr days.  Who knows, maybe she was a widow too.  Perhaps I should have given her even more than I did.

My grief is an ocean that constantly threatens to suck me down into a dark vortex of sorrow and loss.  However, the grief also deepens me.  It gives new meaning to things I might not have noticed before, new ability to understand the pain of others, and new compassion for every single human being around me.  All of us feel pain, all of us seek joy.  We are all the same.

Seeking joy in Hanoi

November 23, 2104

I am here traveling solo in SE as part of an overall attempt to seek joy.

I remember finding so much joy during the solo international travels of my mid-20s. there was beauty in all of it – landing in a foreign place with no plan, beaches, rice paddies, museums, bamboo bungalows, food, temples, gardens, hammocks, mountains, smiling children, throngs of motorbikes… I loved all of it. I learned that different doesn’t mean better or worse. I learned that America is but a very small spot on our globe and that there is an enormous and colorful world out there with so much to teach me. I learned that many things that I thought were big problems were really small problems in the grand scheme of it all.

Here I am again, trying to find the new me, the me that is Holly, not Holly-and-John. I am floating, adrift, stumbling around in Hanoi, gazing upon sights that would have delighted me years ago, unable to find the joy and wonder that I once found, painfully aware that I am different now.

For the first several months after John died there was more hysteria, but also more moments of joy. By hysteria, I mean – uncontrollable sobbing, shock (“OH MY GOD, MY HUSBAND IS DEAD.”), hyperventilation when talking about the loss of him, entire days when I got nothing done because the tidal wave of grief flattened me. However, the numbness that accompanies significant loss gave me brief breaks from the hysteria. The body protects itself during this early stage by not allowing you to feel the pain all the time. So in between the bouts of hysteria, there were moments of laughter, silliness, joy.

Now, almost 6mo in, there is no hysteria and there is very little laughter. I find myself wrapped up in a deep, all encompassing sadness like nothing I have ever experienced before. I have many days when I truly cannot imagine ever being happy again. I continue to be told that I am “on schedule” and that I can expect things to get worse before they get better.

It is fascinating to observe how my brain and heart have different conversations. My brain knows that there is happiness to be found in this world. My brain tells me that it is possible I will love again some day. However, my heart sings a different song…. a song of true sorrow and heartbreak, with lyrics detailing the loss of the one man who looked to the depths of my soul, reached inside of me, and wrapped his love around my heart without conditions or caveats.

I am here in Vietnam because my brain told me to come here. The logical side of me insists that I continue to seek joy, even when my heart claims that joy is not possible. I am not yet finding joy, but every single day I set the intention to keep trying, to stay open, to not harden. Really, there is no other choice. I must continue to seek that which my heart says cannot be found.