This past weekend, I took my 2 girls and my Mother In Law Mary on a 4 night camping trip to our off-grid land in Okanogan. The very last time John and the girls and I were together as a family was on our land this same weekend last year.
Every time I get ready for a camping trip, I’m painfully reminded of the John-and-Holly Campervan dance. I was the ‘gatherer’ – picking out the girls clothes, gathering the headlamps, making a pile of the boots/rain gear/pillows/sleeping bags. John was the errand runner and Tetris king, buying blocks of ice and groceries, packing the cooler so that it would stay cold for 5 days without having to buy more ice, arranging everything in the camper so that somehow there was still space for our bodies among the gear, food, propane tanks, and other tools. It was a familiar dance, one we could do with almost no words.
Now, I am alone.
Sure I have the help of my au pair Camila and my MIL, but it’s not the same. I woke up at 3am on the morning of our departure, packed for a while, got the girls to school, finished packing with Camila’s help, and then got on the road with the girls and Mary. John used to do all of the road-trip driving, because he loved to drive and because he was a better driver than I am. I hate driving, always have, and loved that I could relax in the passenger seat. Of course, now all the driving is on me. I sat up there, driving the huge campervan for 5+ hrs, miserable, tense, exhausted. It’s illogical for the driver to be the depleted stressed out grief-stricken woman who can only sleep 3-4 hrs a night due to anxiety, but that doesn’t matter, because there was no one else to drive us. I am alone.
As usual, the girls were SO delighted to arrive. They love our land. They feel free there. John and I used to joke that we knew how happy the kids were by how many unprompted spontaneous I-love-you’s we got. That evening, there were many such happy outbursts of love. The kids wanted to be there.
On my end, the land symbolizes peace, but it has also come to represent burdens, hard work, and dashed dreams. Without John’s help, it’s a ton of effort to make a trip like that happen for the girls and Mary. Without John here, there is much less joy and much more work. My MIL Mary is a beautiful human being who spent time with the girls when I was busy setting up camp, read Melanie to sleep every night while I built up the fire, and had the intention to help me in every way she could, but even her undying spirit cannot compensate for her tired and grief stricken body. She doesn’t replace John. No one replaces John.
A few of John’s friends decided to build a treehouse for the girls, as a tribute to him, because it’s the kind of thing he would have done for them. I almost wept with gratitude at the idea, because this is exactly what my girls need – more adult men who are role models, who care about them, who do the kinds of things that John would have done, things that I wouldn’t do. But then, there was a mishap and, during construction, Isabella fell from the treehouse – 10 feet down, landed flat on her back on uneven/sharp ground. Based on her symptoms, she seems to have a cracked rib and something seems wrong with one of her arms – it hurts when she moves it, but there is no visible trauma on the outside. As I ran over to the tree, in a panic, once I heard the scream, I was reminded – I am alone. Still, the girls are happy. After she recovered, she begged to go back and continue to watch the treehouse construction in-progress. Children are amazingly resilient.
I woke up at 4am on the last morning, with anxiety as usual, and began to quietly pack up camp while everyone slept. There is always so much to do when we host guests on our land and when projects are in motion – lumber and tools to put away, camp kitchen and tables to break down, power generator to be run dry of gas and stored, sheds to lock, sun shade to break down. My poor MIL – she woke up, ate breakfast quickly so that she would be ready to help, and then promptly got heartburn and had an asthma attack. I am alone. Friends helped break down her tent (and more) while she sat and rested, so that I didn’t have to do everything, but still – I am alone.
We had a plan on the drive home to have Mary sit in the back and read to Melanie while Isabella sat up front with me. Often when the girls are together in the back they will squabble, and this would fix it. Poor Mary got carsick, though, and couldn’t read, so I had to listen to Melanie ask every 5min “Are you feeling better yet, Mammie? Can you read now?” Melanie is nothing if not persistent.
We got home and Mary found she was running a fever. I told her to go rest instead of helping me unpack (she goes downhill fast if she doesn’t care for herself while sick). I tried to get Isabella and Melanie to help unpack and unload, which they did a little bit, but Isabella’s body was genuinely hurting a lot from the fall the day before and so I gave up and did it myself. I am alone.
The dead-husband, sick-MIL, and injured-Isabella combo threw me against an energetic brick wall. There I was again, at the bottom of my well. So I played my sad music, wept for a while, and then made dinner for the girls, because I had no choice. I asked Isabella to set the table and gave Melanie a bowl of beets to carry in. She promptly dropped it – broken glass, beets, and olive oil all over the dining room floor. I’m amazed that I didn’t burst into tears again. I held it together, cleaned it up, made more beets, got the kids fed, and then set an intention to end the evening with something fun. So, after dinner I suggested we play Uno while eating tortilla chips and sour cream. The girls were delighted and said “That was so fun, mama. Can we play cards and eat chips as a family every night?” Then, Isabella sat and made paper cranes. She told me that her class was making over a hundred paper cranes in honor of John, and that on Thursday (the anniversary of his death) she was going to get to bring them all home. She said “Mama, my teacher Mrs. Quinn is so nice. It was her idea.”
I left Isabella to work on the cranes so that I could put Melanie down for the night. From her bed, Melanie grabbed my neck extra tight and said
“Mama, I don’t want you to ever leave. I don’t want you to ever go to heaven.”
“Melanie, I’m not going to die until I’m old.”
Then she became almost frantic
“Mom! That’s what dad said, and he still died! I need you, mom. You CANNOT die.”
“I will be very careful, Melanie. I will make sure I don’t die.”
“NO climbing big mountains, Mom.”
“Ok Melanie. I will be safe.”
then, she immediately launched into this (again, somewhat frantically), as if she had been thinking about it for a while –
“Mom, what if you get married again, and then divorced, and then we will be EXTRA SAD.”
“Does that scare you, Melanie, that I will get divorced?”
“Yes mama (almost crying). Because then I will have lost a dad and a step-dad. Then I would have to get a step-step dad.”
“I could just not get married again.”
“No mama, you have to get married again. If you don’t get married again then how will I get a little baby brother or sister?”
“Melanie, I’m not having any more babies.”
And then Melanie’s face clenched up in pain and she literally began to sob.
“Mama that’s not fair! I need a little brother or sister. Mama why not? Why?”
So I just held her. I tried to distract her, saying that really we never know what will happen. I grabbed at straws and appeased her by saying that maybe some day I will marry someone who already has kids, and those kids can be her brothers and sisters. It was painful on so many levels, because I’m not even sure I ever will get married again some day, because I’m reminded again of just how alone I am.
I have so much help and love – my friends, my family, my MIL, my au pair. But still, all of that together does not equal John. I am alone, and no one can fix it. I settle into this loneliness, meaning – I accept that this is my path alone and that there will not (and should not) be a savior who will fix it. I sit with my loneliness. I don’t run from it, I’m not numb to it, and I do not reject it, because the loneliness comes from love, and because the only way out is through.
I am sorry for all of you who must continue to see me in this state. I know you all want to fix it. I know you feel helpless. I know it isn’t fun to spend time with someone who is often so depressed. Thank you to those of you who continue to honor my path, who continue to love me, who continue to sit with me in my darkness. Last night I was so low, I just wanted to text someone and say “I hate my life” or “I can’t imagine ever being happy again” or “I miss John so much I want to puke”. However, I did not send any of those texts, because – what does someone say in response to such dark grief bombs? I shield people from my darkest moments more than they realize. Still, while I was in my dark place, wanting to express my true feelings to someone but not feeling able to, a message came in on my phone through Facebook. It was my friend Charles, who I haven’t seen in months. He said “It’s going to be a tough week. Know that I’m sending you lots of love. If you need anything, just shout.”
Thanks Charles. I didn’t need to shout. Your little bit of love was right there when I needed it. I am completely alone, but still – I am loved in my state of alone-ness. I am held. I am despondent, but also fiercely strong. I am going to make it through. I repeat that, more for myself than for all of you – I am going to make it through.