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.


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.

The pain is so enormous

November 13, 2014

The pain is so enormous.

I had a dream the other day that someone had stolen my minivan and trashed it. John wasn’t a big part of the dream, but in it he wasn’t dead. I woke up and thought “Oh, it was a dream! My minivan isn’t trashed, woohoo!” but then I realized “Oh right… that means John’s dead.” I’d be happy to have a trashed minivan, if it meant that I could have my husband back.

I read this book a while ago called The Lovely Bones. In it a 14 yr old girl is brutally raped and murdered. For years her soul floats above the earth, looking down, watching how life unfolds for her family during their time of grief. There was a boy she loved before she died. He loved her too but they hadn’t connected yet. Eventually, years after her death, her soul came down and entered the body of a mutual friend so that she could have just one night to be with this man who had pined for her ever since she died.

I often fantasize that this could happen, fantasize that John could come down from the sky for just one day so that I could touch his beard, look into his eyes, and melt into him one last time. Heck, forget one full day – I’d give anything for just one moment with him. I ache for him every second of every day.

Last night I spent a bit of time sitting up on our roof. John and I used to go up there often after the kids were in bed. It always felt like a little sanctuary away from it all – up above all the other houses around. We would sit in a wooden loveseat, sometimes with a blanket, and chat. It was our special time 1:1 time. It was a ritual that we adored. Last night I sat there on one side of the loveseat, wishing he was with me. I set an intention to open to him, to welcome him, and then – after a few moments, his soul floated down and joined me. He looked at me with those soft, crinkly, adoring eyes and told me that he loves me and is proud of me. He told me how much it means to him that I have stood by him this whole time. It means so much to him that I continue to honor his path as a Mountain Man and that I don’t have a shred of anger towards him for pursuing his dreams, even though it is these dreams that ultimately led to his death. He told me that he’s so sorry for all of the burdens I must carry and that he doesn’t judge me for one second ever as I navigate my journey of grief, because he knows this path is SO hard and that I’m just trying to keep breathing. I wept and told him that I honor his path and will stand by him until the end of time. And then, just like that, he was gone, and his soul flew back to circle above Mt Rainier, which is where he resides most of the time with the rest of the mountain spirits.

John – I love you forever. Thank you for always being there to comfort me, even in your death.

Rough trip to NYC

November 1, 2014

I just returned from a quick 3 day trip to NYC. My friend David, who is the CEO of Mylio (a startup working on an exciting photo-related product), was launching his product at PhotoPlus Expo and invited me to come for the big launch event.

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been taking a lot of trips so that I can step away from my burdens and (hopefully) come back to them fresh and ready for the next push. Sometimes these trips are rejuvenating, sometimes they are very hard, sometimes both. This particular trip involved some fun moments but overall was draining and excruciatingly painful at times. You see, when I step away from my burdens, when I move to a place where I am not in charge of so much around me and I can surrender, then there is nothing to face but my grief. It is necessary for me to face my grief, even if it knocks me on my ass. The way out is through, meaning – I must move through my grief.

On the first evening of the trip, David invited me to a birthday celebration for his 35yr old son Theo. We went to the Manhattan home of some relatives. There were many older (in their 60’s) couples, and I immediately got triggered. Somehow couples my age don’t trigger me as much as older couples. I always thought John and I would grow old together. We often discussed fun trips we might take together and adventures we might have once the kids were in college. I see older couples, and I see my dashed dreams. I also sometimes find birthday celebrations to be hard, as I’m not excited about celebrating my own birthdays (and getting older) without John. I blinked back tears and tried to act normal for a while. Eventually Theo rescued me and took me to a bar in Brooklyn where there weren’t any older couples and it wasn’t anyone’s birthday.

The next evening was the launch event. The presentation kicking off the event involved speeches from various well established photographers. Over and over, the photographers talked about their huge photo archives, and how painful it is when you can’t find or permanently lose important photos. They all said that, when they have a paid photo-shoot, they get the photos to the client right away, but their own family photos were never well organized (until Mylio). Each of them went on and on about how there is nothing more important than family and then showed handfuls of happy photos of their family at various milestones in life.

Let me tell you, those presentations were horrifically painful. I stood there, tears silently streaming down my face, sometimes wiping them away, sometimes not bothering. It was literally almost more than I could bear and it took all of my strenth to not just leave and ditch the entire event. The presentations reminded of how hard it has been to look at photos of John and our family since he died. I force myself to do it, but it breaks my heart when I look at all of those happy moments with him and realize that no such happy memories will ever be created with him again. I looked at all the happy photos of the other families and was slapped in the face with the reminder that my family is broken. Yes, I need to find a path towards the girls and I becoming whole again, but we aren’t there yet and won’t be for a long time. It has been 5 months since John died but to be clear – that is but a brief moment in time. The wounds are still oozing and raw, and the pain is still increasing as I continue to wake up every day without him and become more and more aware of the reality in front of me – I am alone.

When I returned home, people asked me if it was a good trip. I told them that it wasn’t a good trip, but it was a productive trip. I must feel these feelings that are inside of me. I must swim around in my ocean of grief, as that’s all part of the journey. A common quote I come back to is – “Widows don’t move on, they move forward.”. I move forward through the pain instead of trying to embrace the numbness that continues to wear off.

Alongside the pain, I still have a surprising amount of gratitude. I feel such pain because I loved so deeply. I adored John and I told him so all the time. John was the most wonderful husband, lover, friend, and partner that I could have asked for. It didn’t take his death for me to realize that. I told him over and over, through the years, that I was so thrilled to be married to such a wonderful man and felt nothing but joy at the idea of being by his side as we grew old. I don’t have to sit here and regret that I didn’t cherish him when he was alive, because I did cherish him. I did support him in following his dreams. The Liberty Ridge climb that took his life was something he spent a year training for. He would light up when he would talk about details of the route, special gear he would need, and his increased workout regimen. He would thank me, over and over, for supporting him in this path, because the training involved many evenings away from home, and because we both knew that the route had non trivial risks. Still, I have no regrets. John died loved, he died following his dreams, and he died honored by his life partner in being who he truly was – a mountain man.

John – I love you forever.


October 27, 2014

Several weeks ago, out of the blue, Melanie said –

M: “Mama, why don’t you have another baby?”
Iz: “Oh yes that’s a great idea!”
H: (completely taken off gaurd) “Er…um… but… I don’t have a husband.”
Iz: “You don’t need a husband to have a baby. A baby would be so much fun! Maybe it could be a baby brother!”
M: “Yes a baby brother!”
H: (triggered, almost crying) “While you are technically correct that I could have a baby without a husband, I really don’t want to have a baby without a partner to help me.”
Iz: “We could help you!”
H: “I don’t want to talk about this any more.”

I don’t know what possessed them to want to have this conversation with me. I haven’t brought it up since. Then an hour ago, unprompted –

Iz: “Mama, I really do want another sibling. You should have another baby!”
H: “I don’t have anyone to have a baby with, Isabella.”
Iz: “You could do it the way so-and-so did it! You don’t need a husband!” (referencing a friend who had in-vitro
H: (triggered, weeping) “I don’t have a husband. I’m not having a baby without a husband.”
Iz: “Mom, seriously! I can help you! I can change diapers and carry the baby around!”
H: (changes subject, tries to distract Iz from the whole idea)

These conversations are really not helping me right now. As if life isn’t hard enough without my kids pressuring me to get impregnated and have a baby BY MYSELF. Ugh.