Aaaannd….. crash.

Not a car crash. An emotional crash. A swan dive off a cliff. A collision, head first, with an energetic brick wall. Rewind to last Saturday, 8 days ago – I had just come home from a very serene and grounding week at a wellness retreat when grief descended and knocked me on my ass – just like that. The kids were on play dates, my husband was still dead, and I walked into a completely empty house. Crash.

In fact, I had been feeling more ‘up’ than ‘down’ for about a month. My friends were excited and relieved to witness my ‘good’ streak. I could tell they were getting attached, and I feared how they might react when it ended. Just a week before my crash, I had been at dinner with a friend, speaking of some sadness. He said “But…. But you were doing so well!  This is terrible! I thought you were doing better!” I said “I AM doing better, but even if I’m doing better, I’m still going to be sad sometimes!” I began to wonder if it would be easier to hide the low patches from friends, because if they saw me low, then they might think I’m no longer healing and would get stressed out. When my friends get stressed about my state of grief, I fill with their anxiety, and then I spiral farther downward.

I was not at all surprised to crash after a month of feeling better than I had felt since before John died. You see, it doesn’t matter how many lovely hikes I take, how many hugs I get, or how optimistic I am about my future path. John is still dead, my very sad children still don’t have a father, and the pieces of my life are far from put back together. I don’t want to never feel sad, because… because that would feel more wrong and scary than it feels to cry the tears that are the other side of true love. I spoke to a widower friend of mine recently who called it a “delicious kind of sad”. This is a statement that most of you won’t understand, but one that is not uncommon among widows(ers) who are at least a year or two out (there is nothing delicious about the sadness in the first year, let me tell you). You see, in the pain, there is beauty. In the open, raw, and vulnerable place one is in when one cries from the bottom of one’s soul, one finds new depth. When I cry, I am more connected to John and to the love that we shared, I am more real, and I am less paralyzed. Do I want to cry all the time? No way – I want to experience joy too! Do I want to keep crying, at times, for my sweet John and for the loss of my children’s innocence? Yes, I do – for the rest of my life, in fact.

Once I hit my brick wall, I did what I often do – I went up to my roof deck and sat in the Adirondack style wooden love seat that John and I often sat in together. This particular chair had been finished with linseed oil by John in his shop. He had stained about 8 chairs and love seats years ago, and this one is the only one left that isn’t broken or already at the local dump. I can see John’s mountain from the roof, and I stared it down as I paced clockwise circles around the 400 sqare foot geiko fleck surface. It’s become an unintended ritual – I land in my Dark Place, go to the roof, cross my arms, face the mountain, talk to John, cry, pace clockwise circles while my brain spins on various topics (the kids, future career paths, fears about dating), listen to music that makes me cry more, square off to the mountain again, etc. My aupair and my children know – when I go to the roof, I go there to be alone.

So there I was – on top of my roof, but also at the bottom of my well. I paired John’s portable Bluetooth Bose speaker with my phone and played my standard bottom-of-the-well playlist. Play these songs if you like, but just listen to them and feel the words in your own way, rather than watching the videos which present them in a specific way.

Broken Record by Shakira
I Will Follow You Into the Dark, by Death Cab for Cutie
Just Breathe by Pearl Jam
The End by Pearl Jam
Part of Me by Black Lab

I played these songs and I cried my fucking eyes out. I cried because I’m a single mom. I cried because, regardless of what I do, my daughters lives will never be what they could be if their amazing father was still here. I cried because it is excruciatingly painful to never be touched, and because there is no one to hold me and tell me that everything will be ok when I wake up with fear and anxiety at 3am. I cried because, simply put, I MISS HIM. Even if I get happily married again someday, I will still miss him!

It’s not that I didn’t have dark moments during my ‘good’ month. I was hit by grief many times and cried on average once a day. However, doing ‘better’ meant that when grief knocked me over, I usually bounced back in an hour (instead of 1-n days). When I cried, it usually wasn’t a whole body sob but rather was more of a quiet time to weep. When the dark cloud of sorrow descended this past Saturday, I hoped that would continue to be the case, that I would bounce back quickly as I had for the last 4 weeks, but instead I spiraled down for a full 8 days.

The next day, Sunday, I was still in my pit of despair. The girls and I had a whole day together. I tried to make it fun – I took them shopping for dresses for an upcoming wedding and out for jumbo pretzels and fancy crepes. Still, I cried on and off all day, because full weekend days when I’m alone with the girls trigger me. Weekends used to be a time for all day excursions with John, and now weekends remind me that we are 3 instead of 4.

On Monday, I cried because I spent hours cooking with a friend, and it was only the 2nd time I’ve cooked with someone since John died. We made a Mexican mole, a dish that John used to love, a dish I happily made every month when he was alive, a dish I hadn’t made even once in the 1 yr and 2mo that he’s been dead.

On Tuesday, I tried to soothe myself by going on a hike to an alpine lake. I sat there alone on an exposed tree root, eating my packed lunch of beet salad and chicken, gazing at the water, remembering times I had been there with John. I cried because I will never again share the Pacific Northwest trails with him, I cried because I couldn’t text him cute pictures of our sweet pooch swimming around in the lake, and I cried because I am still struggling with my decision to leave my weighted pack behind. I had watched other hikers with heavy training packs branch off to a harder trail and felt jealous. They weren’t broken as I’m broken. They are getting stronger while I’m getting weaker. I’m not a Badass Mountain Girl anymore. The time on the trail did give me some moments of peace, but the lack of a heavy pack meant that I didn’t get the endorphin rush that will often negate some of my depression.

On Wednesday, I cried extra, because it was Melanie’s 7th birthday. I woke up feeling like I was going to vomit. Seven years ago, I labored for 30 hours without pain medication. Seven years ago, Melanie was born via emergency C-section after my uterus almost burst around my old C-section scar. Seven years ago, John was the most wonderful husband and was everything I needed him to be during my recovery. I finished wrapping her gifts in the early morning, crying as I signed them “love Mom” instead of “love Mom and Dad.” I took her to the bakery to pick out her cake and bought her a maple bacon bar, telling her it was a gift from her daddy in the sky, because nothing says John like a meat covered pastry. That afternoon we held her birthday at a friend’s pool and I did my best to hide my unhappiness, but still it was written all over my face. I couldn’t bring myself to fake a smile and sit next to her as she opened her gifts, so I let her grandparents sit with her while I watched from across the yard. I sat there, miserable, watching her joy in being in the moment, remembering just the night before how she had yet again clung to my neck and cried for her dead father, reminding me “Mama, I KNEW he shouldn’t climb that mountain. I told him not to go. If he had listened then he would still be here and I would still have a Daddy.” I have not yet met a widow or widower with young children who does not agree – kids birthdays are crushingly painful reminders of the enormity of what we have lost.

On Thursday, I cried as I packed up our bags to get on a flight to San Diego to spend time with family. I cried because I’m tired of family vacations with 3 and not 4, I cried because I we are traveling to the first wedding I had been to since John died, and I cried because traveling solo with 2 kids is a ton of work even in the best of times.

On Friday I was down but didn’t cry much, because apparently I was saving all the tears for the next day.

That brings us to yesterday, Saturday, the most horrific day, the day of my brother Greg’s wedding. On this day, I went to my lowest, darkest place. Everyone who is grieving or has grieved will tell you – grief comes in waves. I had hoped that the week-long wave was about to end, but instead it was to be followed by a full-on tsunami. There I was, at the first wedding I’ve been to since John died, the first wedding I’ve been to without him by my side in 12 years. Already in a fragile state, I interacted with my brother JR for the first time since before John died 14 months ago. JR didn’t come to the funeral, because he said it would be better if instead he brought a couple of his kids for a fun weekend later in the summer, to perk my girls up. We had a long planned sibling reunion (there are 6 of us) scheduled for a month after the funeral. JR canceled his and his kids attendance at the last minute, saying that “It won’t be fun given what has happened” and “It might be hard on my kids.” YOUR kids? The energy of death is hard on YOUR kids? What the fuck about my kids whose dad is DEAD? My children were in fact very disappointed that JRs kids weren’t coming, because that meant the reunion was all boring adults and no other kids. It would have been a bright spot for them, a healthy distraction, but JR took that away. As for the “fun weekend” he would fly to Seattle for later that summer – never happened. After the text I received, 13mo ago, telling me he wasn’t coming to the reunion, I received zero calls, zero emails, and zero texts. That brings us to yesterday. He arrived, smiled, and said “Hey Holly. How are you?” His kids said to my kids “We haven’t seen you in years!” At which point, I said nothing but my heart broke yet again. My inner voice said “How am I? How the fuck do you think I am? My husband is dead and in my darkest time you completely abandoned me. I needed you. You could have invited my girls over for holidays so that they could be distracted by your fun pack of kids. You could have visited. Death makes you uncomfortable, and you were a coward.”

I did not desire a confrontation, especially in such a public and joyous (for everyone else) setting. I said none of the above inner-voice words out loud and instead excused myself to go to the bathroom. I stood there, by the bathroom, pretending to stare at a mural, crying behind my sunglasses, and my hands began to literally shake uncontrollably. I tried to calm myself down so that I could return to the pre-ceremony gathering, but I could not, so I just stood there, for 25 minutes, continuing to cry silently. Just as the ceremony was about to start, I went back and slid into a seat. I wept through the procession and vows, and then made my way to the reception where I was to sit at a table with all of my siblings including JR. It was my intention to remain calm, composed, and to create no conflict. I sat there for 15 minutes but could not hold it together and went to the bathroom to cry in a stall. When I couldn’t stop crying in the bathroom, I went down to the waterfront by myself. I sat there, alone, and cried some more. These tears were not quiet tears, they were not sweet delicious tears of beautiful depth, they were horrific exhausting whole body wailing sobs. I cried because my brother, who I had idolized growing up, abandoned me in my darkest hour. I cried because I love JR and miss him. I cried because I was there all alone. I cried because my husband is dead. I cried because when John was alive, he would have protected me and taken care of me, but instead there was no one to wrap his arms around me and tell me that everything will be ok.

I accepted that the tears were not going away and texted my loving sister Juliet. She said she and her sweet husband Michael would keep an eye on my kids. Isabella and Melanie were having fun with all of their cousins, who will filing them full of candy. I wanted that joy for them. Even given all my sadness over JR, I was happy that my kids were enjoying his kids. The fact is – JR isn’t a bad person and had no intentions to hurt me, he’s a human being with his own demons – his own long standing discomfort with death, his own burdens and challenges that come with all the energy it takes to raise 6 kids that were born in just an 8 year spread. So, I let things be as they were. My kids were happy, I was at the bottom of my pit, and it wasn’t going to help anyone if I spread that darkness around the party. I sat there, sobbing, for over 2 hours, and missed the entire reception. Juliet was kind enough to bring me my dinner on a plate and there was a bar accessible outside, so I got tipsy and kept crying. Eventually someone I didn’t know walked around the grounds calling my name, and told me that Jean, the bride, was asking for me because she hadn’t seen me the entire evening. I wiped my face off, walked into the party, and cried in Jean’s arms. Then I grabbed my kids and left.

Today, Sunday, I’m still crying. I cried into my Pho, remembering how John always said that Pho is the best hangover cure. I cried into my frozen yogurt as my kids happily told me how much fun they had had with JRs kids at the wedding while I had been (unbeknownst to them) crying down by the beach. Once again I find myself shivering, alone, on a raft in my dark and stormy ocean of grief.

The good news about the waves of grief is that waves, and even tsunamis, are eventually followed by lulls. It’s been a terrible 8 days, but still – I have hope. Still, in the big picture, I’m getting better. I no longer want to die. I believe I will find love again someday, whereas for the first year I could not envision the possibility. In fact, these days I am happy quite a bit of the time, just not this last week! I am deeply comforted by the concept of impermanence. This too shall pass. Every day is a new day. Of course the first wedding I went to alone was going to be hard. Of course my first interaction with JR after not hearing from him in so long was going to be painful. I don’t have to go through those particular firsts again. I surfed the wave. I cried the tears I needed to cry and allowed others to care for my children when I could not. I woke up the next day still glad to be on this planet.

Is this particular wave of grief over? Don’t know yet. What I do know, is that I have fun and exciting things planned. Next week, I’m going on a 6 day campervan road trip with my college buddy Jared to a wedding in Montana. It won’t be the first wedding after John’s passing, and I won’t be alone. I already know that I’m going to have a ton of fun and laugh my ass off with college friends I haven’t seen in years. I’m going to swim in a reservoir, hike the local trails, soak at a hot spring, tour Yellowstone, and dance in the barn at the reception – Montana style. Will I cry? Sure, I cry almost every day, but I already know – there will be much more joy than sadness. I reach for that joy, I reach for my future, while honoring that, though the tears will become less frequent, they will always be there. That’s ok – it’s all worth it. I have no regrets.

Beast of Burden

In a way, my journey with a heavy pack started from my horrific bout with post-partum depression.

Holly and Isabella
Holly and Isabella

There was nothing that John and I wanted more than a baby, but we had paid a heavy price. Labor hadn’t gone well – 40 hours with no pain medication, life threatening complications including an allergic reaction to a drug that put me into convulsions and made me lose touch with reality, and then a devastating emergency C-section. My mother and I had had an enormous fight a couple of weeks before and were barely talking. My friends hadn’t had babies yet and didn’t know how to help. John and I were very alone. There I was with my new baby – cut open, traumatized, sleep deprived, nipples scabbing and bleeding after a difficult first month of nursing, feeling my mother’s anger towards me from afar. It’s no wonder that I fell down to the lowest place. For the rest of our 10 year marriage, John and I were to call that time “The Dark Year”.

The day Melanie was born
The day Melanie was born

When Melanie was born 3.5 years later, I was determined to not fall into the same traps. I had my work cut out for me – another difficult labor, this time 30 hours without pain medication, and then another emergency C-section when they began to lose her heartbeat. After cutting me open they said “Normally we cut along the old C-section scar, but your uterus was so paper-thin there, we didn’t think it could hold the stitches you would need to be put back together. If you had labored any longer, your uterus would have burst and you could have died.” John brought me home, took care of me in every way possible, and I set an intention to not have another dark year. There were a number of things I decided to do differently, one of which is that I decided that I would get outside and exercise more. As a yoga teacher, I certainly exercised plenty after Isabella was born, and as an outdoorsy family I had hiked at times with Isabella on my back, but I knew I needed more consistency this time around. I didn’t have a lot of childcare, so I was going to have to execute on this new plan with Melanie in tow. I set a schedule for myself – I was going to hike 2x a week, rain or shine, whether or not I’d been up all night nursing. Just 9 weeks after I had been cut open, I strapped Melanie to my chest and began. Oh I was so tired and it was so hard! I focused on one easy trail (Tiger Mountain) and it took me 8 months of hiking 2x a week before I could make it all the way to the top. When it rained, I wrapped a jacket around us such that Melanie’s little head could poke out. When it was snowy and icy, I put microspike traction devices on my boots so that I would not slip while carrying my precious Melanie cargo. When I was exhausted and depressed, I went anyway, holding myself to the schedule. These hikes were the best possible thing for me. I always ended in a better mood than I started. I didn’t even have to sacrifice time with my baby. If she was hungry, I could sit down right there on the trail to nurse her before continuing with my hike. Often, she would sleep against my chest, gently rocked by my steady gait, happy to be nuzzled against mama. If she cried, I would sing to her as I plodded on. We were happy.

Hiking with Melanie
Hiking with Melanie

I continued to carry Melanie on my hikes twice a week until she was 2 years old. By that time, she was no longer in a pouch on my chest, she was in a serious framed hiking carrier with deep pouches for diapers, water, food, and other gear. I took her on even longer hikes and let her out of the pack at times to toddle around in nature. Melanie plus the framed pack plus water and gear edged up towards 50lbs. I had become strong again and felt healthy. Around that time, Melanie became more of a kid and less of a baby. She wanted to move more. She didn’t want to be stuck in the pack and began to pull my hair and holler in my ear when she was bored. I put her in a French pre-school a few mornings a week and began to hike solo while she played with her new friends and learned darling French songs.

While my hikes without a Melanie cargo were still lovely and relaxing, I found that I didn’t get the same endorphin kick without the 50lbs on my back. I didn’t sweat as much, work as hard, or get that lovely blissful high I had become addicted to. So, I began to hike with sandbags and gallons of water in my backpack. That’s right, I voluntarily weighed down my pack to make the exercise more rigorous, wanting the endorphins, needing the endorphins. People noticed my large pack on the trail and kept asking me “Are you training for Mount Rainier?” I said no, thinking to myself “Not training, just combating depression.” Then, after a year or so of hearing this question on the trail, I thought to myself “Why the hell not? Sure, I AM training for Mount Rainier!” My Mountain Woman self was born and I was to spend the next few years training intensely and climbing various peaks around Washington state and in the Alps.

My training at times bordered on obsessive. Actually, I can’t even give myself that much slack. I didn’t border on obsessive, it was completely and utterly obsessive compulsive. I allowed myself the luxury of a ‘light’ 50lb pack when I was tired but pushed myself to carry 60lbs when I felt decent. Sometimes I carried as much as 65lbs – 43% of my body weight. I carried this heavy load on 6-8mi hikes 2-3x a week to the point where the skin would regularly get sanded off my back in large patches by my backpack. I didn’t slow down, I just bought huge roles of moleskin and kept going, joking with friends that all the training in the world couldn’t negate the laws of physics and friction on my skin. I wore my wounds like badges of pride.

The fact is, that even with these minor amounts of suffering, I was happy. Endorphins were my drug. I was strong and so alive! The strength I built allowed me to summit Mount Rainier, Mount Adams, Mount Baker, Mount Stuart, and Mount Saint Helens. I found peace and clarity when standing on a glorious peak, above the clouds, looking down on the world. John swelled with pride and loved calling me his Badass Mountain Girl. Still, I took it too far. When I was scheduled to climb Adams for the first time in 2013, I had a horrific head cold and went anyway. I dragged myself up the mountain, coughing and wheezing. Halfway up, I was pelted by a hailstorm with no shelter. I had to curl into a tiny ball on the ground for 30min to reduce my exposure to the bruising ice. Still, I went to the top, and after I got home I had walking pneumonia for a month. I continued to train and in fact continued to over train. I carried heavier packs than I needed to carry more often than I needed to carry them.

I began to wonder, a couple of years ago, about the symbolism of the heavy pack. Why did I choose to make myself suffer more than necessary? What burdens was I carrying? Did the pack represent some sort of energetic burden I had in my heart? Some sort of burden that I was manifesting as physical weight on my back? Why was I so critical of myself on the rare occasions when I lightened my pack to a ‘mere’ 40 or 45lbs? When I felt the instinct to lighten my load, I would tell myself that I was a wimp, that I was lazy, that I didn’t know how to suffer like a good Mountain Woman. No one was ever more critical of me than I was of myself. I had plenty of ideas as to the meaning of it all, but still I kept over training, I kept bagging peaks, and, although I suffered more than I needed to, I also experienced a lot of joy. Mountains brought me peace and happiness and I kept going.

I kept going, in fact, until the day that John died in an avalanche and everything stopped. Unable to eat, I lost 10 pounds in 8 days. At most I was able to sleep only 2-4 hours a night, and in fact it would take over a year before I could get as much as 5 hours some (but not all) nights. In the first 3 months after he died, I lost 25% of my hair and literally feared I would become bald, as I heard could happen in extreme cases of stress. Before he died I was comfortably able to carry 60lbs 8-10 miles in a day. Six days after he died, I could barely hike 4 miles with no pack at all.

Granite Mountain, 60lbs, July 28, 2014 - 2mo after John died
Granite Mountain, 60lbs, July 28, 2014 – 2mo after John died

Being the hardass obsessive compulsive warrior woman that I am, I was determined to get back on the trail and regain my strength. I began to train again, and 2 months after he died I carried 60lbs up Granite mountain – a brutal and steep trail. Although I made the summit, I was slower and weaker than I had been when climbing Granite in the past. I continued to hike with a heavy pack twice a week in addition to my regular yoga, bouldering gym, and running practices. The hikes were a bizarre oxymoron of incredible joy but also haggard exhaustion. Almost all of the emotionally ‘good’ days in that first year after loss were hiking days, so much so that everyone jumped through hoops to make sure I had childcare and could get away. When I hiked, I didn’t want to die. When I was in the mountains, I found glimmers of hope. When I sat by myself on various peaks, I connected with John’s soul. At the same time, these hikes with a heavy pack drained reserves that I didn’t have to spare. I was always slower than I should have been and made excuses, to myself, that it was just that one time, that I would do better once I got a good night of sleep. I stopped noting my round trip time, because it was too disappointing. I kept going and continued to be soothed by the beautiful Pacific Northwest, but the literal spring in my step was gone. I had been running on adrenaline, and adrenal fatigue began to kick in. Still, I kept hiking with the heavy pack.

The funny (or not funny) thing is – after John died I had even less justification for the necessity of such rigorous training. Most mountaineering can be done with a 45lb pack or less. You really only need the 50-60lb pack for technical climbs of big mountains, where lots of extra safety gear is needed – harnesses, ice axes, snow pickets, extra bottles of fuel to melt snow for water, and the many extra layers of warmth that are needed when you are sleeping on ice. These big, technical glaciated peaks had been my true love, but John died on a glacier. Within days of his death my children and Mother-In-Law made me promise that I would not climb Mount Rainier or other dangerous glaciated peaks again. I was no longer allowed to climb the mountains that called my name, no longer needed to train with that heavy of a pack. Regardless, I couldn’t let it go. I came up with lame justifications for my heavy load. If I stopped carrying such a heavy pack, I would get fat. I needed to carry the heavy pack so that I would be able to carry extra if I was out with friends and someone didn’t want to carry their stuff. I had to be able to carry a huge load so that I could take my kids out backpacking and let them go sans-load. If I stopped carrying such a heavy pack, then…then I wouldn’t be John’s Badass Mountain Girl anymore.

I carried the heavy pack for over a year after John’s death, making excuses for how slow and haggard I was, making excuses for why I couldn’t stop.

Then the day came, a month ago, when I was to finally have the chance to climb a big mountain again – Mount Adams. Yay for Mount Adams! At 12k feet, Adams is the second tallest mountain in Washington state, dwarfed only by Mount Rainier, the mountain that took my John. Adams was a perfect gift because it was huge and snowy but non-technical (no glaciers or avalanches). It was a mountain that I was still allowed to climb without risking my girls becoming orphans.

Except, it didn’t really pan out that way. My true exhaustion and depletion reared its ugly head and on the climb my anatomical heart physically hurt. I thought it might beat out of my chest. My brain flashed to a recent conversation with a young widow I had just met. Her husband was jogging up a hill in the heat when he had a coronary episode and dropped dead. Later they discover he had a congenital heart defect. In fact, perhaps due to some dark foreboding, just a month before I had sent a frantic email to Bev and Nika, telling them where the one signed copy of my will was, stating guardianship and trustees should anything happen to me. It began to occur to me – I could die. My kids could become orphans. According to Elizabeth Harper Neeld (author of The Seven Choices and expert on grief and loss), a widow(er) is over 2 times more likely to die in the first 2 years after loss, either from a car accident, or illness that takes hold when one’s immune system is weakened from grief, or in my case from perhaps a heart attack.

Still, after that Mount Adams climb I stupidly kept carrying the heavy pack! I had a 93 mile Wonderland trail trip planned, and had to stay in shape! I kept hiking unhealthily through brutal heat! I couldn’t give up, because then I would have to face my ridiculous fears. Here, I will list them so that you can laugh at me. I’m afraid that if I don’t keep carrying the heavy pack, then…
..then I will get fat.
…then I will be lazy.
…then I won’t be impressive anymore and people won’t think I’m interesting.
…then my muscles will atrophy and I will be a big fucking wimp.
…then a will be a big loser 40 year old over the hill widow.

But really, I have to face the biggest fear, the fear that I kept saying was silly but really is much less silly than all the other fears.

I’m afraid I will die and that there will be no one to care for my children and Mother In Law.

So, I canceled my Wonderland trip. I finally gave up. Part of me hated myself for doing so, but part of me knew it wasn’t giving up, it was giving in. Instead of going hiking, I went to a wellness spa, and the last straw was the acupuncture session I received mid-week. I told the therapist that my husband died last summer and that I’m exhausted. She smiled kindly and began to take my various pulses. Her face became genuinely concerned, and she said

“Your heart and kidney pulses are almost non-existent. Your spleen, where stress and anxiety are held, is hard, jaggedy, and too full. It feels like your brain is too active, like it never stops. Would you say you push yourself too hard?”
“Your session is scheduled to end in 50minutes, but I would like to work on you as long as possible. Can you stay later?”

She put needles in various places, turned the lights down, and left me alone to cook. I immediately began to cry, partly from continued grief, but mostly from relief. Crying while getting acupuncture is a funny thing! My hands had needles, so I could not move them! Tears rolled down my cheeks and into my ears which were covered in needles, so I could not touch them! It’s ok to laugh. It was such a funny place to be! Crying, covered in needles, tears in my ears, powerless! There was nothing to do but surrender, so I did.

I took a long walk afterwards and cried a bunch more, but also felt very peaceful and grounded. It came to me –

I was carrying the heavy pack all of those years in preparation for carrying the heaviest load I will ever have to carry – that of a widow with young children, that of woman who gladly told her husband that she would care for his mother if anything ever happened to him. I am the matriarch. It is all on me. I must be strong for everyone. If I fall apart, there is no one to pick up the pieces. For years, I have been training for this role. I have been training to be able to suffer on the trail and still keep going. These burdens are no longer encapsulated in sandbags and water jugs that go in my pack, they are on my shoulders, and I am not allowed to put them down to rest. I must put the physical pack down so that I have the strength to carry the energetic load of a widow, a single mom, and the head of household for a traumatized family. I let go of my 60lb burden and my Badass Mountain Girl ego so that I can begin to restore the reserves I will need to stay alive and remain on this planet.

So, I put down my beloved custom made high capacity Dan McHale pack with purple and green straps. I will continue to hike, because mountains bring me great joy, but I will do it differently. I commit to not carrying any extra weight (beyond what is bare bones necessary for the activity at hand) through the end of 2015. No more sandbags, no more extra water jugs. Amusingly, I just could not convince myself to put down the heavy pack for a full year, only through 2015. I start with where I am right now, and I say it out loud so that I don’t back away from my promise. It’s time to let go of being perfect, time to be a human being, time to surrender, while also admitting I still haven’t fully let go. My work is far from done, but that’s ok. I’m putting down my pack for a while and setting an intention to remain on this planet for many years to come. For today – that’s good enough.

Backpacking with the girls, 3 months after John died
Backpacking with the girls, 3 months after John died

Badass Mountain Girl or Pampered Princess?

John and I never climbed the really big mountains together, which is fortunate, because there was theday when he didn’t come home. If I’d been with him, I wouldn’t have come home either.

Statistically speaking, mountaineering accidents are rare. In fact, it is said that you are more likely to die driving the roads around Mt Rainier than climbing Mt Rainier itself. Still, we knew we couldn’t take the chance that our girls would become orphans if one avalanche or slide took out our whole rope team. So, we played switch hitter. Sometimes John was off climbing, sometimes I was. It was easier that way – we didn’t have to scramble to find childcare and our burdens of worry were lighter. In fact, climbing was hugely bonding for us even thought we did much of it separately. We would train together – taking our little girls for family time at the bouldering gym or taking them out on weekend hikes while he and I carried 60+lb packs. We would stay up late strategizing before one of us had a big climb and then stay up late breaking down the achievements and mishaps of said climb after it was done. We would spend hours debating the pros and cons of various pieces of technical gear. I might say “My new crampon-compatible La Sportiva boots are surprisingly comfortable, but I’m just not sure they are stiff enough for ice climbing or insulated enough for Rainier.” Other times he might say “I saw some yahoo struggling to melt snow (for drinking water) with a tiny little Jetboil while I was sitting pretty, melting snow easily with my MSR Whisper Light.” Climbing was something we shared, whether we were on the trail together or not.

As the summer of 2014 approached, John and I made lots of exciting plans. How would we fit in all the joy we were reaching for? John had his climbs, I had mine, we had family camping trips to plan, father-daughter trips with John and each of the girls, and of course the mundane realities of work and household duties. It would be a busy, but wonderful, summer. John and I scrambled to get each of our important climbs on the calendar – 2 different Rainier climbs for John (Liberty Ridge and the Kautz); Rainier, Adams, and the Wonderland trail for me. In fact, the schedule happened to settle in such a way that John would return from Liberty Ridge on a Friday, we would spend the evening together, and then I would depart the next morning with 3 of my climbing buddies for Mount Adams.

Of course, John didn’t come home that Friday evening. I cooked the surf and turf celebration dinner I had planned for his arrival, because, well, my kids needed to be fed. I deflected their questions about his return, telling them he was a bit delayed but would be home soon. In a numb haze, I continued to meticulously pack up my gear for my Adams climb, all while knowing but in no way accepting that Search and Rescue helicopters would be dispatched in the morning.

It turned out that by that Friday evening John had already been dead for 2 days and everything in my life was going to change.

Instead of climbing Mount Adams the next morning, I sat at home on the phone with a Ranger from Mount Rainer. I listened as she told me that a helicopter had spotted the team’s gear strewn about on the Carbon Glacier, 3300 feet directly below where the team was camped. They could only view the fall area from the air, as there was too much rock and ice fall to make ground travel safe. I was told they spotted an exposed hand, but no bodies.

Instead of climbing Mount Rainier in July, I spent countless hours reassuring my frantic children that I would never again climb the mountain that took their dad’s life. Melanie would cling to my neck at night, sobbing, begging me through tears “Mama, no climbing big mountains. Dada is DEAD and I need at least one parent here. No climbing mountains with avalanches, mama, EVER.”

Instead of hiking the Wonderland trail in August, I acknowledged that trauma had ravaged my physical body and had robbed me of my incredible strength. For a while, I was not able to eat without fear of vomiting. For months, I was not able to sleep more than 2-3 hrs a night before waking up to my terrible reality. Grief filled up my chest like a pool of dark heavy tar, and it became obvious that I didn’t have the 8 day, 22,000ft elevation gain/loss, 93 mile hike in me.

Instead of spending the summer climbing, I spent the summer planning a memorial, crying, caring for my hysterical and traumatized children, and wading through the horrific 2+ hours a day of death related paperwork and administration that would ultimately take me over 6 months to complete. I lost my husband, I lost my body, I lost my summer, I lost myself.

I often tell people that year 1 after loss is about numbness, hysteria, and day-to-day survival. Once you have stabilized, dealt with the horrific paperwork, and learned to keep breathing through each day, then you hit year 2. Year 2 after loss is about moving past day-to-day and into the rest of your life. What now? What kind of career do I find now that I am the sole breadwinner? How do I begin to reach out for joy in life again after spending a year laying on the floor sobbing? How do I cope with the fact that, a year in, I only miss him more. A year in, as I now fully realize that John is never coming back, I must manage the deep, dark, all encompassing loneliness that settles in. This is forever. My other half is gone forever.

In a way, for me, Year 2 started a bit early – April 17, what would have been my 11th wedding anniversary – 10 months and 20 days after loss. I had to do something to cope with the day, so I decided to climb a mountain, or rather 3 mountains, with my friend Selena, who also used to be one of John’s climbing partners. We climbed up Granite mountain, chatted with other hikers at the top, then post holed down the other side through deep snow and ascended back up to the summit of West Granite, where we were alone. It was a glorious bluebird sunny day. We proceeded to strip down to softshell pants, sports bras, and glacier glasses, and sat on our packs so that the snow didn’t give us popsicle bums. The clear skies allowed for the kinds of views that cause your entire world perspective to change, and we sat there gazing upon the glory that is Mount

Selena on Granite Mtn, Aptil 2015
Selena on Granite Mtn, Aptil 2015

Rainier. Selena said to me –

“It was just about a year ago that I did this hike with John. He was training for Liberty Ridge, so bright and excited. He really only talked about 2 things that day – his upcoming climb, and how much he loved you.”

Of course, I hold onto any crumb of love that comes to me from John these days.

“How did you know he loved me so much?”
“He had that glistening sparkle to his eyes when he talked about you. You know that glisten – people have it when they are really truly happy, when the happiness jumps out through their eyes. He was just so happy with you, Holly. It’s not something you are imagining post-loss. He really, really loved you, and he was so happy because you supported him in climbing these mountains. He was truly happy.”

Then, Selena and I went quiet. We sat there for a full hour. I crossed my legs, adjusted myself so my body was squarely facing Mount Rainier, closed my eyes, and dove in.

“Hi John. Happy wedding anniversary.”
“Oh, Holly.” I felt his soft crinkly eyes gaze down on me as I began to weep.
“I miss you so much, John, I can’t stand it.”

I accepted his shushing and allowed the chatter of my mind to quiet. I opened my eyes and found myself face-to-face with the incredible radiance of the mountain that claimed my John. My chest began to ache, but I realized that it wasn’t so much from pain as it was from an incredible energy exchange that was happening. I literally felt John pouring light and strength into my heart center. It burned and I had to press my hand firmly over the area so that my chest wouldn’t explode. For a full 10 minutes I simply allowed John to brighten me, nourish me, replenish me, unconditionally love me. And then something incredible happened, something that proceeded to last for almost the entire hour I was there –

I felt happy.

Yes, happy. For that hour, I felt a true joy that I hadn’t felt since John died. I felt alive. I felt how the whole world is open to me. I felt free, up there in the clouds. Life became simple – me, the sky, the snow, Rainier, and John. Finally, I heard his voice again inside my heart. What he said was very simple – that this time ahead of me was to be a time of both great joy and continued sadness, and that it was up to me to embrace life and have fun whenever I could.

Selena and I eventually hit a third peak (Granita). There was no set trail down, so we bushwhacked through slide alder and tried not to break anything when post holing through the thin snow covering boulder fields. On the way down I made a clear decision – I decided to have a fucking awesome summer of mountaineering. I lost my summer in the mountains when John died, and damnit – I was going to reclaim my Mountain Woman self this time around. I wasn’t going to be the Grieving Widow all the time anymore, I was going to be Holly, the Badass Mountain Girl, and I was going to have a ton of fun doing it.

So, I made a bunch of plans, including Mount Adams in June and the Wonderland trail in July. My super fit mountain woman friend Morgan agreed to climb Adams with me, and there we found ourselves on the morning of June 6 – standing behind her black Prius, at the base of Mount Adams, dividing up the shared gear, packing up our 50+lb packs. And then, it happened again, as I was stuffing John’s 4 season Northface tent into my huge custom McHale pack – I felt happy. Not just a little happy! I felt bright, joyous, and truly excited to be alive! I wasn’t dreaming of the mountains taking me so that I could float up above them with John – I was dreaming of climbing them, and coming back down to be with my girls.

Morgan and I eventually threw on our packs and began to ascend. Though our loads were heavy and the heat was brutal, we were in great spirits – making crass jokes and telling climbing stories. Still, just a few hours in, I began to struggle. The heat made me feel faint and I had to rest more often than I should have. Morgan was very patient, and we continued to make our way up. Once we reached about 8k feet, something very scary happened, something that I have a hard time admitting even now. I began to gasp for breath and my anatomical heart began to physically ache and race as if it was going to beat out of my chest. My leg muscles pumped away and were just fine, as I’d been training with a heavy pack all year, it was

Tired but happy on Mount Adams, June 2015
Tired but happy on Mount Adams, June 2015

my heart that was the issue. It did not in any way feel like grief or sadness – I was happy, in a good mood! It felt like deep, undeniable exhaustion on a cellular level. I have never before or since had that experience – I could feel the organ of circulation inside of my chest and it HURT. I wondered – is something really bad about to happen?

I’m embarrassed to say – I kept climbing. When my heart began to race and ache and I gasped for breath, I would stop and rest, and then I would continue until it hurt again. Climb, rest, climb, rest – Morgan was an angel of patience. We reached high camp at Lunchcounter, cleared a snow platform for our tent, and settled in for the evening. In fact, we were still in a great mood, laughing, chatting up various bearded mountain men camping nearby. Sure, I’d been slow, but still – it felt absolutely fantastic to be up in the clouds, away from it all, looking down on the world. I glanced around camp and enjoyed (rather than being saddened by) how much of John was all around me – his 20 yr old bomber 4 season Northface tent, the custom made high capacity backpack with purple and green straps that he had surprised me with one Christmas, his banged up aluminum pot used for melting snow for drinking water, and the La Guryeve crampons he had lovingly bought me before my first summit of Mount Rainier. We ate a feast of ramen and energy bars, slept, and then started for the summit in the morning. Most of our gear was left at high camp, so our packs were light and we were still in a good mood.

The bliss of the summit - Morgan and Holly, Mt Adams, June 2015
The bliss of the summit – Morgan and Holly, Mt Adams, June 2015

Perhaps because my pack was lighter, or perhaps because I had adjusted to altitude, my heart did not hurt on day 2. However, I was embarrassingly slow, in fact perhaps as much as 50% slower than Morgan. I let her race up to the summit without me and trudge on behind at my own snail pace. And then, a couple hours in, there was my John! I felt him playfully hopping from summit to summit – Mount Adams, Mount St Helens, Mount Hood, and back around again. He laughed and I was reminded that my husband was and is an adventurer – both in the flesh on this planet and now in the afterlife. Then I noticed a jet airplane off in the distance and watched John leap towards it, grab onto a wing, and go for a wild ride, all while grinning down on me. He said “Holly, I’m happy, and so are you!”

I made the summit, one foot in front of the other, and Morgan and I made our way down. I was happy but often felt faint from the heat. We went home and I meditated on what it all meant. Did I train enough? Yes, I trained all year. Training wasn’t the issue. If I had trained more, I would have exhausted myself more. My body didn’t need more exercise, it needed rest. I had to finally admit that the grief and sleep deprivation had inflicted extensive damage on my physical body.

I knew I had a brutal Wonderland trail trip coming up in just 5 weeks – 8 days, 93 miles, 22k feet elevation gain and loss, heavy 55lb pack, brutal heat. This was a trip I was supposed to do last year, a trip I wanted to do this summer as part of reclaiming my Mountain Woman Self, a trip John would have been proud of me for accomplishing. The voices in my head began to compete –

Nurturing Holly: “I am completely fucking exhausted, I shouldn’t go.”
Hardass Holly: “Don’t be a fucking wimp. Pull yourself together.”
Nurturing Holly: “I’m worried I’m going to collapse.”
Hardass Holly: “You are a warrior. Push through.”
Nurturing Holly: “But, I’m just so TIRED.”

Back and forth, back and forth, all month. Hardass Holly continued to win out, because Hardass Holly usually wins out, and I kept training at least twice a week with a 50-60lb pack. On two different occasions I almost passed out from heat exhaustion. I continued to have serious reservations. I began to fantasize about cancelling the trip and going off by myself someplace where I could rest. I dreamed of a quiet retreat or spa somewhere with cool white sheets, soothing views of mountains, good books to read, no cell phones, and many hours to sleep. I was ashamed of this fantasy, told no one, and continued to push on.
Less than 24 hours before I was supposed to depart for the Wonderland trip with Nika (my bestie), Selena, and Bri, I went to dinner with D, a dear kind friend. I did not tell D about the spa fantasy but did tell him that I wasn’t excited about going on the climb. He was truly surprised, because of how much he knows I love the mountains. I told him of how I had struggled on Adams, of how little I had been sleeping, and all of the sudden, right there at Tallullah’s café on 19th and Mercer, I burst out crying. I hate crying in public. D said

“You should cancel your trip.”
“No, I can’t. People are counting on me. I’m sure I’ll be fine once I get on the trail.”
“Holly, why don’t you cancel your trip and let me send you to a spa as a treat.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“I want to do it.”

I fought D for a while. I’m a warrior, not a wimp. If I go to the spa, I’m a Pampered Princess and not a Badass Mountain Girl. D kept pushing back. I consulted my BFF Nika, my Mother in Law, and various friends, and the consensus was clear – everyone has been really worried about my deep exhaustion and all parties would be relieved if I didn’t do the Wonderland. My MIL actually almost cried real tears, in fact, about how concerned she has been about my health. Bev said “Maybe it’s time to stop being a warrior.”
Before I surrendered to the idea, I asked myself one more question – what would John think? Am I still John’s Badass Mountain Girl if I go relax instead of crushing the Wonderland trail? And then it hit me –

John is dead.

I will always love John. He will forever be the great love of my life, the father of my children, and the man who gave me everything I ever wanted. I feel certain that I will always have a deep connection with his soul and know that there are important wishes he had that I will continue to honor. However,

I don’t want to be married to a dead guy anymore.

John’s not here. Maybe I’m not supposed to be John’s Badass Mountain Girl any more. I’m not the Holly I was before I met him and I’m not the Holly I was when I was with him. I need to find a new Holly, and in fact, I can already feel her emerging. Just as the lotus flower blooms from the mud, I can feel green tendrils of life poking out of the decay that is inside of me, the decay that is the life that I had with John, the life that was full of joy but is now gone. These sprouts will not blossom if I do not rest, if I do not repair the damage that grief, stress, and sleep deprivation have done to my body. I do now what has always been the hardest thing for me to do – I surrender. I give in. I let go.

So here I am, at a beautiful wellness center. My villa has cool white sheets and views of the mountains. Last night, I slept 8 hours. The last time I slept that much was 10 months ago in my campervan, after Julie and I hiked 18 miles in a day through the Enchantments. Just an hour ago, I went to a “Meditation and Poetry” workshop. The teacher read the following poem, which seemed to be just for me –

          When despair for the world grows in me
           and I wake in the night at the least
           sound in fear of what my life
                     and my children’s lives may be,
           I go and lie down where the wood drake
           rests in his beauty on the water,
                     and the great heron feeds.
           I come into the peace of wild things
          Who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.
           I come into the presence of still water.
           And I can feel above me the day-blind stars
                     waiting with their light.
           For a time I rest in the grace of the
           world, and am free.

          -Wendell Berry

I go and lie down where the wood drake rests and I rest too. I rest in the grace of the world and I am free. I lost my summer, my body, myself, but all of these things can be found again. I will find myself, I am finding myself. I still love mountains and am still planning to have an awesome summer, but I set a new intention to be gentler. I admit that I don’t know what the future holds and guess what – I’ve gotten to the point where that’s exciting, not depressing. I am alive, I am loved, and the whole beautiful world is open to me. Thank you D, thank you Nika, and thank you to all of you who continue to hold me. My husband may have died, but I did not die. I am opening, exploring, blossoming, and truly glad to still be here on this planet with all of you.