Building My Castle

Yet another sleepy drive. How is it that I haven’t crashed the car yet during this last year of sleepless grief? I keep thinking – “It’s only a matter of time… hopefully when I do crash, no one gets hurt.”

I’m in the middle of a 6 hour drive back from Smith Rock. My two girls, Isabella and Melanie, have been starved for 1:1 attention since their father died, so I decided months ago to take each of them on a few mother-daughter trips this summer. This time I have Melanie in tow, and she is content and quiet in the back seat listening to Taylor Swift on Bose headphones. I’m starting to doze off, as I often do, and begin to dig my nails into my leg, stretch my eyelids wide open and slap myself across the face, trying to stay awake.

I’d sleep more if I could, but I can’t. Since John died, I have rarely been able to sleep more than 2.5-4 hours a night. I wake up after a few hours, inevitably begin to spin mentally on all of my burdens, fill with anxiety, and can’t go back to sleep. I’m seeing professionals about it and have tried various remedies (both pharmaceutical and not), but still – sleep eludes me. None of the remedies seem to calm down the fear that fills me when I wake, the awareness that I’m completely alone and everyone is counting on me. My 2 little girls and my Mother In Law – they need me to hold it together. They need me to provide for them. I cannot fall apart, because if I do, there is no one to pick up the pieces.

For whatever reason, I begin to mentally review a book I just finished – “The Enchanted” by Rene Denfeld, which moved me in subtle ways that are hard to express. The story revolves around a few men on death row and the death penalty investigator that is looking into one of their cases. The investigator (referred to as “the lady”) does not try to prove the innocence of her clients, but rather investigates to see if there are extenuating circumstances which warrant converting the death penalty into a life sentence. She says that, in order to hear their real story, she builds them a castle, so that they feel safe. She says “Even monsters need castles.”

And then it hit me – I need a castle! What if I build a castle of safety and calm in my head, a place I can go to when I wake in the middle of the night, a place where I will be comforted and soothed back to sleep? As I drove, I began to build such a place.

The castle isn’t really a castle at all, but rather a deliciously cool roomy dark cave. The bed is small (unlike my bed at home) and on a thick platform of heavy rich mahogany with 4 heavy posts rising at the corners. By the bed sits a man, in a chair. This man is not John. He has thick black hair, a black beard, and soft forgiving eyes that look like two calm silver-blue lakes. With a rich rumbly voice, he tells me to lie down in the bed. I feel safe, because it is instantly clear that this man wants nothing from me. Once I’m tucked into the bed, he asks me to tell him my worries. I list them, one by one, and he writes them down in a notebook. With each transcribed fear, he says nothing and isn’t in any way dismissive, but smiles at me in a fatherly way, as if to say “You amuse me.” In fact, his quiet amusement helps the burdens to fall off my shoulders, one by one, as I realize that some of the worries are about things that are solvable and that other don’t need to be solved that day.

When I’m done, he puts the notebook aside and begins to comfort me. There is nothing sexual about his actions and I feel completely safe. As he sits by the side of the bed, he strokes my hair, caresses my cheek, and kisses my forehead. He senses the moments when my body begins to tense and allow the fear back in, and instantly says “shhhhhh” before the hardness can take hold of my body. Eventually I sleep, and I sleep well.

I went home and tried it that night, but alas – it didn’t work. It felt too contrived. I layed there in bed trying to imagine my cave and this soothing man, but the whole time I knew it wasn’t real, and that fact just increased the depth of my sadness. I began to muse that it might not be so healthy to create an alternate world. I wondered – is this what you hear about abuse victims doing when they can’t handle their current reality – they create a place of escape to go to while being abused. Is this all crazy making? Is this me trying to run away in my mind?

Yet again I went to the bottom of my well – despondence, darkness, aloneness. This man who soothes me but does not demand anything from me does not exist. I am not to be comforted, I am to suffer. I am truly alone.

It happened that a week later my friends Scott and Bev were holding a small joint birthday party at Scott’s penthouse apartment. I arrived and joined everyone on the deck, but soon my wave of darkness hit. Everyone there was happy and I was not happy, so as I often do – I felt alone. I left the group and went into the living room and be physically alone as a reflection of how I felt in my heart. I cried a bit, quietly so that no one would see. After a while, Katie joined me on the couch. Katie has a sweet smile and adorable bright eyes that make her look perpetually young. She told me of her sadness and I told her of mine. We were suffering for different reasons but still – in our humanness, we were the same. Eventually others joined us and the group moved to sit on some cushions on the floor. My dark passenger came back and I went to my distant place – the place where I am at the bottom of a well, looking up at a prick of light in a world that isn’t familiar any more. There I was with friends who love me, who would do anything for me, but still – I had allowed myself to get sucked downwards.

Katie looked up at me, from the cushions on the floor, and said
“Come, lie down.”
I moved down to the floor.
“Put your head in my lap. May I stroke your hair?”
“Yes, please. How did you know?”

I surrendered to her nurturing hands easily. She stroked my hair, scratched my scalp, rubbed my temples, massaged the stress out of my forehead and eyebrows, and softly caressed my cheeks. After about 15min, I became restless, because I assumed she must be getting bored and that I shouldn’t demand too much by continuing to lay there. She felt me begin to stir and said

“Shhh. Relax. I’m enjoying doing this for you.”

Feebly, I dropped back down, exhaled, and let all of the tension go. I surrendered fully, and that sweet girl rubbed my head for an entire hour, asking for nothing in return. I went home and descended easily into a deep sleep, sleeping longer than I had in months. When I woke up, I felt peaceful and soothed.

Katie, how did you know? Universe, did you send her to me? I am loved, and I am not alone.

I’ll say it again more for me than for you – I am not alone, I am loved, and the world is still beautiful. Thank you Katie, and when you need me, I will rub your head too.

Imprisoned in my Sanctuary

I am inside a cabin, standing in front of the door. My 6 year old daughter Melanie’s hand is in my hand. The cabin is at the WP_20150531_08_29_07_Probase of Mount Rainier. My Mother-in-Law Mary and 10 year old daughter Isabella are also in the cabin.

The cabin is old and beautiful – Douglas fir beams, pine subfloor, cedar siding. I had spent the morning chopping wood with my favorite oak handled maul so that we had fuel to fill the cast iron woodstove. It was warm, cozy, and familiar, but also small – just one room. No privacy, no escape except out of that door. I reach for the knob with my free hand.

“Don’t go, Mama.”

I love mountains. I love looking at their jagged snowy peaks from afar and love even more when I’m on top, looking down on the clouds. The bigger the mountain, the longer the journey, and often the more gear that is needed. The heavier the pack, the bigger the reward. After descending a mountain, I look back at it and say to myself – “I climbed that. I did not take a gondola, helicopter, or use a Sherpa. My own two burly piston-like legs took me there. “

When I look down on the world from the summit or look back at the mountain after descending, I feel omnipotent. I realize I can do anything. I feel deeply how the best things in life involve some suffering along the way.

Melanie stops me before I can turn the knob.

“Don’t go, Mama. Stay here. Dada died on Mount Rainier. You can’t die.”

Of course, while mountains make me feel powerful, they also remind me of all I have lost. My sweet John, taken in an avalanche last year. His team of 6 climbers was swept off a ridge, 3300 feet straight down onto the Carbon Glacier. They did not suffer. It is I who suffers.

Despite Melanie’s resistance, I can’t help but open the door and gaze through the doorway at this mountain that calls to me every moment of every day.

“Mama, stay here. I need at least one parent here, and Dada is dead, so you have to stay here.”

“Melanie, I will be careful. I will not die until I’m very old.”

“That’s what Dada said, Mama.”

As she squeezes my right hand tighter, I open the door with my left. Oh how glorious Rainier is! The cool blue glaciers crisscrossed with 100 ft deep crevasses and halo of clouds – fierce and peaceful all at the same time. It has never been hard to understand my husband’s love affair with that mountain. He told me so many times during our 10 year marriage that when he died, he wanted his ashes spread in a crevasse high up on this glorious peak that he had gazed upon for his 40 years on this earth. Mount Rainier was home for his heart then, just as it is home for his soul now. He almost got his wish, in a way. His body remained buried in ice and snow on the Carbon Glacier for 3 months before a helicopter spotted him and plucked his remains off the mountain. Now I have his ashes and have to wait until I can bring them back to his desired resting place. I want to go now, but I have to wait until Melanie will let me.

“Mama, only mountains with no avalanches. Why do avalanches have to exist, Mama?”

Melanie’s hand grounds my right hand here while at the same time my left hand reaches up to John in the sky. He shines his light down on me and waits for me, but does not pull on me as Melanie does, because he and I both know that it is not my time to ascend. It is my time to shoulder the family responsibilities here on earth. Still, I keep reaching and dreaming of being with him. It’s such a lovely and intoxicating vision – John and I, swirling above Mount Rainier, dancing with the birds, watching over the mountain, soaring into eternity together.

“Mama, I don’t want you to die and go to heaven EVER.”

I have climbed Mount Rainier before. A friend of John’s told me of the day that John received word, from afar, that I had had a successful summit. He had never before seen John so happy or proud. John grinned and told him “That’s my badass mountain girl.” I set an intention to climb Rainier every summer until I was too old for my legs to carry me to the top. John decided to do the same, but we were not destined to do it together. We knew that if we climbed on the same rope team and tragedy hit then our girls would be orphans.

“Mama, Mount Rainier is dangerous. You can NOT go.”

When will she let me go? When can I leave the cabin? How long do I let her hold my hand? Do I wait until she lets go someday, or do I get to choose when I pull my hand away? I want to climb the mountain.

Alas, I close the door. Is this warm cozy cabin a sanctuary, or a prison? Do my children ground me, or are they an anchor? It is a sanctuary and it is a prison. My children ground me and they anchor me.

I stoke the fire, feed the family, and tuck the kids into bed. I sleep for 3 hours. As has been my rhythm since John died, I wake up, remember that he is dead, and can no longer sleep. I want to get up, leave the cabin, and gaze upon the stars that twinkle above the mountain, but I must not wake my children and so I just lay there in the dark. I reach for him. His soul swoops down. He presses his forehead against mine and allows me to run my fingers through his full coarse auburn red beard.

“Sweetheart, I want to be with you.”

“I know, babe, I know. But it is not your time. “

“Will you wait for me?”

“Do you have to ask?”

“No, I don’t.”

“Thank you for staying behind to care for our children and my mother. You and my mother need each other.”

“Anything for you, babe.”

And just like that, he flies back up above the mountain, where he belongs.

I will return to this cabin every summer until it is my time to walk through that door and climb the mountain. That time is not now. Wait for me John, and I will wait for you.