The scene still haunts my grief addled brain. Me – standing up in the living room. The kids – age 5 and 9, sitting on the dog clawed white leather couch, facing me. I told them their father was dead and then we all screamed and cried hysterically as one would expect us to. No mother should have to say such things to their children, as no children that young should have to hear those words.
A year and a half later, the numbness and hysteria is gone, but the horror is not. Even now – if I let myself imagine, just for a moment, what it would be like if John came back to help me raise the girls, I instantly become nauseous and feel like I’m re-living that night all over again. I flash back to the phone call from the Ranger telling me of the avalanche, the calls I then had to stoically make to John’s family, the conversation with the kids on the white couch. Can it really be true? 18 months later and I still wonder – is this really my life?
The good news is that Melanie (now 7) opens up to me about her feelings. The bad news is that her pain breaks my heart all over again every day. When I put her to bed in the evenings, I always climb in with her for a bit. Partly because she wants me to, but partly because I’m also in need of the touch and warmth. Typically we lay on our sides facing each other. She wraps her arms around my neck while I bury my face in her hair, and we chat.
Just now, 2 hours ago, we had this conversation, verbatim. This is a very common conversation for us to have when I’m putting her to sleep. She initiates these conversations completely out of the blue, not me.
“Mama, I don’t want you to ever ever EVER die.”
“I won’t die until I’m very old, sweetheart.”
“…and I don’t want you to ever leave me.”
“I will always be your mom and I won’t die until I’m old”
“No mama, I mean – I don’t want you to be alive but gone where I can’t see you.”
“I will go on trips at times, but we will always spend lots of time together.”
“Mama, what if you marry someone and after a couple of years you find out he isn’t a good dad?”
“Hmm. Well, someday if I get engaged, then that man and I can live together for a while before the wedding, and if he isn’t a good dad, I will find it out before we get married. I won’t marry someone who isn’t going to be a good dad to you.”
“But, won’t that be rude, if you tell him you will marry him but change your mind?”
“Yes Melanie, but I would rather be rude than marry someone who won’t be a good father to you.”
“Yeah mama, because I need a good dad. The best would be my real dad, but he’s dead. I miss Dada.”
“I miss him too, Melanie. Every minute of every day, I miss him.”
“Melanie, I love snuggling with you. Your skin is so soft. I love kissing your cheeks.”
“Your skin is soft too, mama.”
“Not as soft as yours. My skin hasn’t been as soft since your dad died.”
“Let me feel.”
Melanie strokes my cheek gently with her fingertips
“Mama, I think your skin is softer than mine.”
“Mama, I get saddest about Dada at night. Every night I get sad.”
“Me too, Melanie.”
“That’s why I come to your bedroom in the middle of the night. Sometimes I don’t even know I’m getting up. My body just gets up because it is so sad.”
“I know Melanie, but still, you have to try to stay in bed.”
“One last kiss and then goodnight.”
I get up and walk quietly to the door in the darkness. Melanie starts whimpering.
“Mama…. Daddy. I miss Daddy.”
“I know Melanie. Just try to sleep. Goodnight. I love you forever.”
“I love you forever too, Mama.”
I am alone. I am loved by so many people, but still – I am the only one holding this space. I hold my grief, her grief, and Isabella’s grief. I use the little bit of strength I have left to be calm and nurturing while her words rip my heart apart. My poor darling Melanie. So young, so innocent, so sweet, so powerless. I ache for her, I ache for Iz, I ache for myself, and I ache for John for not being able to watch his beautiful girls find their way in the world. No one can fix this. When Melanie cries in the middle of the night, that’s all on me – not on my MIL Mary, not on my aupair Camila, not on John in the sky – it’s on me and only on me.
This deep and profound alone-ness has been a theme for me as of late. I go to a lot of group therapy, and this seems to be a theme for other widows as well – year two is lonelier than year one. No more numbness, just a sadness and desolation that stretches into forever. He’s really not coming back.
Still, I have gratitude. My brain has distilled all of the horror and reminds me repeatedly – only a fiercely strong tiger mama could survive all of this. The wounds of my trauma are like claw marks on my belly, exposing ribs and entrails, but still – I do not succumb. I bleed, I pace, I snarl, and I spend hours every day licking up the caked and dried blood, but I do not succumb. I am not graceful, gentle, or selfless every second of every day, but I know that my most important job is to protect my cubs, and I do just that. I hold them. I cry with them. I set up college funds, drive them to group therapy, and do whatever I need to do to take care of them. Even though we often bicker, argue, and take our grief out on each other; still – I can tell that they know I will always be there for them. I may not be very fun to be around, but I’m tenacious and my dedication to my children flows through every fiber of my being.
Thank you, John for giving me these beautiful children. Thank you, universe, for bestowing me with this unending strength. Thank you to my community that continues to let me be as I am – broken, but also beautiful in my brokenness
I should have known I would crash at the Doctors office. How could I not? Still, I didn’t ask anyone to go with me, mainly because I’m done being so needy and broken.
At age 40, I’ve decided to get my tubes tied. Birth control isn’t something I’ve had to worry about for a long time. A few years after Melanie was born, John had a vasectomy. Now John’s dead, Melanie is 7, and I’ve re-entered the dating world.
I’ve never before been so afraid of getting pregnant – not even when I was in college and a baby would have ruined everything. Now the idea of another child reminds me that my life isn’t what I planned and triggers panic attacks about my true alone-ness. I had been feeling good about the consult I had scheduled at Swedish. I’m taking charge! I’m recognizing my limitations and taking steps to own my future. I’m making a smart decision. Still, I woke up sad and lonely. I packed my kids lunches and found this note in Melanie’s lunch box. The pain never seems to go away.
It wasn’t until I was in the exam room later that morning that my eyes began to brim. The doctor walked in and, though I was sad, I instantly liked her. She had short, spikey hair, a smooth face, no makeup, and was very trim with angular features. She wore a crisp button down shirt tucked into tailored dress pants with beautiful masculine/feminine wingtip shoes with high heels. She had a masculine wedding band and seemed unapologetically (but not flamboyantly) gay in a way that made it a non-thing instead of a thing. I was safe with her.
We began to go through my reproductive health history. I detailed my 2 traumatic C-sections – one after 40 hours of labor, the other after 30. I explained that my uterus had almost burst the second time – when they opened me up they said my uterus was paper thin around my old scar and they couldn’t cut there because it wouldn’t have even held stitches, so they had to give me a second scar. I told her of the allergic reaction I’d had to Phenergan during my first labor and how I had gone into convulsions and John thought I was going to die. I mentioned the abdominal herniation I’d had both pregnancies, and how my belly muscles still weren’t put back together, limiting certain forms of exercise. Finally, I told her of my miscarriage in 2006, leading to a traumatic D&C under general anesthesia. Side note – D&C stands for Dilation and Curettage – they open you up and scrape your uterus out so that you don’t have the trauma of hemorrhaging chunks of your dead baby into the bathtub. I still bled for 20 days afterwards. 20 days.
Then, my general health history. The extreme stress, panic attacks, and PTSD-like symptoms since his death. The insomnia leading to a level of exhaustion that seems almost life threatening. For some reason I didn’t mention the fact that, 3 weeks ago, my lips went blue and I fainted at the dinner table, only to be dragged to the couch by my frantic friends while my horrified children looked on. Maybe part of me was afraid that, if I seemed too fragile and weak, then she wouldn’t let me have the surgery.
She was thorough, but also kind. She maintained her composure and professionalism as she wiped her eyes. 18 months later and my ability to make strangers cry is intact. We discussed my ongoing work with my regular doctor to address the health issues that have arisen in my time of grief, and I could tell she was confident that I am receiving solid care. Finally, she said
“I’m just so sorry. I can’t even imagine. I don’t know what else to say.”
And then I said what I always say – that there is nothing else to say besides “I’m sorry.” I was grateful that she didn’t try to offer me a solution or bullshit words of hope. She looked at me with heavy eyes, honored me in my sad place, and I felt understood.
After all of that, there wasn’t any uncertainty between us. My body should never carry another child. My uterus could burst. I’d have to get cut open again. My abdominal muscles would rip open wider. It wouldn’t be safe to carry a child after 18 months of averaging 4 hours of sleep a night. I’m stripped bare, empty, and my reserves are all gone. How could I ever manage single parenthood to 2 traumatized fatherless children while caring for an infant and processing my continued grief? Sterilize me, and do it as soon as possible. Give me some certainty in a life where I feel powerless.
It was then, near the end of the appointment that the tears finally spilled over the edge of my lids. Why hadn’t I brought anyone with me to hold my hand? If John hadn’t died, I wouldn’t have to get sterilized. If he was alive and I had an important doctor’s appointment, he would have come with me. He wouldn’t have let me say no, he would have insisted on coming. I’m so tired of crying alone, yet I’m also painfully aware of the fact that widowhood is a very solo journey. Only I can find my new future.
As the appointment wound down, she told me I would receive a call from someone who would be able to get me on the surgical calendar. She looked at my old file from when I’d been to Swedish years before, and said “When we call you, should we use the number on file ending in 4132, or the number ending in 6915?”
My body became 20lbs heavier yet again, and I responded “Use the number ending in 4132. The other number is for my dead husband. You can remove that.”
She deleted his number from the file, and I was reminded yet again – I am alone.
Does it ever feel that way to you, as if you are watching yourself from the outside, asking “Is this really my life?”? I felt a bizarre detachment that day in August. My husband was still dead, my young girls still fatherless, I had just learned that the Okanogan wildfires were closing in on my 25 acres of forest, and I was anticipating a hot date with a gorgeous bearded biomedical engineer I’d just met.
Purchasing the land was John’s idea. John was a crazy-smart, cigarette smoking, fire eating, adrenaline-junkie mountain man who worked for Microsoft to pay the bills but didn’t wrap his identity around his job. We had met at Burningman in 2003 – him, 30, with neon orange hair, me, 28, with light-up fairy wings. John taught me that falling in love means throwing out all your rules and his arms became the only home I ever needed. He proposed less than 4 months after our first fateful all-night walk and by 2008 we were married with a 3 year old – Isabella, and another one (Melanie) in my belly. We had already camped all over the state in our VW pop top and John often lamented how unfortunate it was to have to camp in tiny spots in public campgrounds with miniature barely-there fire pits. He longed for space, trees, and big fires. He sent me an email from work one day, out of the blue. He told me how he wanted a piece of land for our own, how he had looked at hundreds of listings online, and that we needed at least 20 acres if we were going to be able to truly find solitude.
John wasn’t frivolous and rarely came to me suggesting spontaneous unnecessary large purchases. I knew immediately that it was one of those moments that I should surrender to and didn’t debate the practicality of it all. John picked out various parcels for us to visit and soon we owned 25 acres of land in Okanogan. There was a muddy creek for the kids to stomp in, sheds to hold John’s tools, a perfect clearing for a fire pit, endless chipmunks for our sweet pooch to chase, and approximately 7000 pine, larch, and douglas fir trees. We didn’t have any of the money and couldn’t get a loan for the land since undeveloped land is considered ‘risky’, so I handled getting our primary home refinanced. The bank handed us equity and we bought the land outright.
Months later I was cut open and Melanie was born. I was both surprised and not surprised that John wanted to take the baby out to our land. I was hesitant to be out in the woods, off grid, with no running water right after having had a C-section. John told me he would take care of me, and he did just that. He brought us out to the land with a 5 week old Melanie and handled everything while I sat under the trees in a camp chair cuddling my tiny babe. It was cold, so I swaddled her in several blankets and pulled up my bulky fleece jacket to nurse her. I wondered – how did Eskimos nurse their babies? Perhaps there is a niche market in warm jackets with nursing slits, for mountain women who don’t want popsicle teats.
Milksickles and all – I fell in love with that man all over again that trip. He chopped the wood, built the fires, chased a delighted Isabella, and cooked our meals over the fire pit. The first night, as we sat by the fire, John looked at me with the sweetest softness in his eyes and said “I love you, babe.” Sure, he told me he loved me all the time, but this moment burned into my memory because of the incredible gratitude that poured out of him. I knew then, on a cellular level, that I had made him the happiest man ever, and that I was supporting him in exactly the life he wanted to lead. Every time we went out to the land for years to come, I got one of those extra special I-love-you’s under the stars the first night. It wasn’t conscious on his part, but rather a beam of adoration that flowed directly from his chocolate brown eyes into my soul.
Oh how all four of us frolicked on the land over the years. The kids climbed trees, chased butterflies, and built small forts out of sticks and logs. I learned how powerful and strong I felt when chopping wood. We invited our friends and held various camping parties, including Barry and Maja’s 150 person outdoor burningman-style wedding with an entire goat on a spit. John wielded the chain saw and taught Isabella to fish in the lake nearby. We were happy.
In the summer of 2012 John began to build a one room cabin with the help of his childhood friend Michael. They spent endless hours framing the walls, installing windows, constructing roof trusses, hanging the door, and stapling roof shingles. They drank beer as they worked, blasted Pearl Jam through a Goodwill stereo plugged into a gas powered gennie, and generally enjoyed being two dudes swinging hammers out in the woods. Oh how sexy John was when he was truly himself. I liked him best when he was dirty and sweaty, power tools in hand, rocking out to his favorite tunes.
The last time we were together on the land was May 2014. John was 40, I was 39. He planned to depart early to embark on a technical climb of Liberty Ridge on Mount Rainier. He had been training for this climb for almost a year – ice climbing with a private guide in Colorado and hitting the trail 2-3x a week with a 65-80lb pack. I asked him, a few times, to slip off into the woods and have sex with me before he left, but he was distracted and busy and it didn’t happen. I remember thinking, as he drove away that Sunday, that if he died then I would be mad that he had turned me down for what would have been our last time together. There was no reason to expect him to die, but all that week, after he left, I was haunted by an image of myself alone with the girls.
Two days later, on Tuesday, John was able to text me from the climb.
John – “At high camp. Hard climbing today. Bad forecast for tomorrow so may hole up for the day. The guides will make a call early in the morning. I love you.”
John – “Tell the girls that I’m doing fine and that I miss them. I miss you too.”
Holly -“I love you and am proud of you.”
John – “Thanks babe.”
John – “Our high camp.” (attached pictures of the group)
Holly – “What a bunch of hot mountain men! Any vertical ice climbing yet?”
John – “Not until the summit bid, right at the end. Some very steep snow today through with nasty exposure. We were short roping. Started yesterday in the rain and very sloppy slog into camp one.”
John – “I’m the oldest guy on this trip! Ok, I’ve got to melt some snow so I can get some sleep. I love you babe!”
Holly – “Love you tons.”
Then, Wednesday, the next day –
John – “Still on it. Totally epic. We are doing a bivy at 12,500′ right now, took two hours to dig tent platforms. Totally variable conditions, lots of belayed pitches. Took 7 hours to get 2000′ elevation today. Cold strong winds. The guides are doing an awesome job of keeping us safe. Weather is supposed to improve tomorrow and we will top out the ridge at 14,100′ and probably descend all the way unless someone has issues.”
Holly – “Wow! So you might be home tomorrow night! I’m so happy for you.”
John – “We will see.”
Holly – “I love my mountain man.”
John – “I love you too! In my bag, holding the stove melting snow.”
Holly – “Enjoy the summit tomorrow, babe. You deserve it.”
John – “Got to power down now, I love you.”
Holly – “I love you forever.”
I didn’t hear from John the next day, Thursday. I assumed that he was exhausted, having summited, and that the team needed some extra time to descend. I had a Friday evening steak celebration dinner planned – he would walk in the door soon – ravenous, dirty, stinky, and happy. I stonily began to cook the meal when I got the call – Search and Rescue helicopters would be dispatched in the morning. On Saturday, Search and Rescue spotted an exposed hand sticking out of the snow and gear strewn about on the Carbon Glacier in a direct fall line from where the team had been camped. There was so much rock and ice fall in this area, they could only safely view it from the sky. It was determined that, during the night, an avalanche swept the entire team of 6 off the ridge, 3300 feet straight down. The were killed instantly, marking both the most tragic accident on Mount Rainier in 33 years and the beginning of my horrific journey into widowhood. Three months later when the snow began to melt they recovered 3 of the bodies, including John’s, but the other 3 were swallowed up by the glacier, never to be found.
It was hard to go back to the land after John died.
It was the July 4th weekend, 2014, 5 weeks AD (After Death). I almost hyperventilated and vomited while packing up – where was my partner for the campervan-dance? I was the gatherer, he was the tetris king – making sure that the sleeping bags, camp chairs, tools, propane tank, kids, and dog would all fit. I packed up through tears and somehow got myself and the girls (by then, age 5 and 9) across the state. When we arrived, it was after dark. The girls couldn’t even run around and play due to the complete blackout, but still they were SO thrilled to be there! They said “Mama, I love you” unprompted, over and over, which is what they do when they are feeling bright and happy.
I put them to sleep in the top bunk of the camper and then sat out by the fire pit alone. I didn’t light a fire, as cows had kicked the fire pit stones around. So I sat there, in the dark, gazing up at the beautiful stars. Then it hit me – I was NOT alone. John was right there with me. I began to cry and his soul wrapped its arms around me. I felt him thanking me, over and over, for taking the girls out to the land, for continuing to raise them as he would want me to raise them, for going camping and hiking with them even though it’s so much harder to do now that he is gone. I was swept away by all of the love that he showered on me in that moment. I realized that, even though John is dead, he will always be there for me. So, while his energetic arms were wrapped around me, I leaned my head on his chest, sobbed, and let him comfort me. He stroked my hair, soothed me, and told me he was proud of me for being so strong for our girls.
The girls and I spent the next few days hiking, hammock swinging, and rebuilding the fire pit. I saw him in everything out there – in our beat up old campervan, in the cabin that he and Michael had been building together, in his beer bottle caps left in the dirt from previous trips, and in the stars that came out so brightly at night, the ones that he and I had gazed upon together while we snuggled up by the fire.
The girls and I went back to the land several times. Over a year later the girls were age 7 and 10 and I was 40. We were no longer hysterical and numb, but still swimming around in a cold and stormy ocean of grief. Shortly after our last trip in July 2015, I began to hear of the fires in Okanogan county. I did nothing and for a long time did not allow myself to consider the idea that the fire might be near my particular parcel of land. It was as if my body had no more space for pain, so I embraced ignorance. Then, there was a day, in late August, when an alarm bell went off somewhere in my limping, grief-addled brain, and all of the sudden I had to know. So I opened up the online fire maps, and saw with horror that my land was surrounded on 3 sides by fire. My body knew. That was Saturday. By Monday my 7000 trees and my husband’s hand built cabin were gone. Burnt. Obliterated.
I told all of my friends and then had to listen to their words of hope.
“We will help you re-plant in the spring.”
“Don’t forget about the firefighters and the people who lost primary homes. They have it worse.”
“All part of the cycles of life in the forest. This could be a tremendous learning experience for your girls.”
Ok everybody, stop right here and let me tell you how I really feel. I don’t want your hope. Fuck hope, and fuck perspective.
On the day that I find out that my land has burned down, I don’t want to hear about replanting or about all the things my children will learn. My children lost yet another part of their father, and you can’t make that ok for a 7 and 10 year old. The seven miles of dirt road out to my plot will be covered with fallen burnt dead trees for years to come and it will be a long time before I can even drive there. My children have lost the rest of their childhood on the playground their father created for them.
So, I do not want your hope. In fact, on that day that I lost my land I felt a level of detachment that I hadn’t experienced before. After all of the trauma, brokenness, and fragility; after over a year of constant nausea, night after night of Melanie sobbing into my neck for her dead father, and a year of Isabella’s anger at the world; I was done. I watched my land burn as if I was a spirit floating in the sky, unattached to the physical world, and I longed to run away. Certainly, at that point, once my land was incinerated, if I didn’t have children then I would have sold everything, thrown on a backpack, and gone anywhere but here. My life was taken from me, and except for my children – there is nothing for me here. You can argue with me that I still have so many things, but then you are offering hope, and remember – I don’t want your hope. I want you hold my hand, stroke my hair, honor my tears, and sit with me in my darkness.
Oh how I was suffering, and let me tell you – everyone around me suffered too as they tried to cope with tolerating the joyless Hardened Ice Queen. I needed an escape. I needed to be touched.
I needed to get laid.
In fact, it had been a very long time since I had been truly touched by anyone. Sure, I had been on some dates. I flirted, practiced presenting the whole widow/single mom baggage, and shared a few kisses; but no one seemed safe and my legs remained tightly clamped shut. My whole body became one angry tangled mess of hardened muscles. I tried every method to release the steam – extreme exercise, in-home massages, acupuncture, and spa vacations. These soothing methods kept me from some sort of worse rampage, but still – I was hard, dark, cold, and miserable. I joked that I was going to make a sign I could hold up in the air when I was especially intolerable, stating “I Would be WAY less grouchy if I was getting laid. SO SORRY.”
So, that brings us to Monday, the day my land was finally overtaken by fire, a couple of days before my first date with the new Bearded Hottie (BH). BH and I had met a couple of weeks before on the trail. We both happened to be hiking the same through-hike in the Enchantments – 19 miles, 6300 feet elevation change, 13 hours. He had a straw hat, wooden staff, a hunter green button down shirt, and beefy forearms. I was surprised when BH contacted me afterwards, wanting to meet for drinks. He made me laugh with his playful flirty texts and we boasted to each other about the ridiculous number of hours we spent exercising. I was tired of wearing my widowhood on my sleeve and decided not to tell him of my burdens. I wanted to pretend that I was simply a young, beautiful woman, with no horrific war wounds, going out on a first date.
On Wednesday I dressed myself in smoky eyeliner, a tight white tank top showcasing my toned climbing shoulders, a black skirt, and my favorite sassy knee-high burgundy leather Fluevog boots. We met at the bar and drank Manhattans as we chatted about our shared love for both mathematics and chopping firewood. I let it slip that I had kids, because it felt like a lie not to, and then changed the subject. Our time together was easy and I felt like the vibrant woman I used to be. I decided to bring him home and have sex with him on the first date, something I’d never done before. So there we were, standing in my bedroom, kissing. He pulled back, looked at me, and said “I’m not looking for anything serious.” I said “Good. Me either.” BH took off his clothes and I found myself looking at the most muscular, chiseled man I had ever been with. OH MY GOD. The universe doesn’t hate me. The phoenix had risen from the inferno of my land and was about to burst right out of my pelvis.
Somehow, BH managed to play into all of my fantasies without me telling him what they were. He easily picked me up, carried me to the bed, and transformed me from a heavy 150lb piece of muscle into a weightless stargazer lily whose petals were about to open. I shyly told him that I sometimes had trouble orgasming and that if he found it frustrating then I didn’t mind ‘helping’. He looked at me with dismissive amusement, smiled confidently, and said “I’d like to try.” He began to kiss me softly everywhere, the way you kiss someone when you have all the time in the world, the way you touch and caress someone when the lovemaking is about the journey and not the destination. BH eventually made sweet love to me and I fell asleep on his chest as he gently stroked my hair. How did he know? Soon after, at 1am, my youngest wandered down from her upstairs bedroom and knocked on my locked door as she often did at that time, crying for her father. I threw on clothes, snuck out of the room without revealing my sleeping lover, sang to her and comforted her until she was asleep in her own bed, then went back to my locked bedroom. I snuggled up to BH, burying my face in his neck. He stirred, hooked his knuckle under my chin, tilted my head back for another kiss that lasted forever, and then made love to me again. We slept more, woke up, and had sex for a third time. I heard the kids begin to wake up and I giggled delightedly as I instructed him to climb out of my egress window and step down onto a cooler in my back yard.
I fed the kids breakfast and threw them in the minivan for a promised trip to Wild Waves. Once we arrived I staked out a lounge chair by the wave pool and sent them off to explore. I laid there, glowing, feeling nothing short of delicious, and realized I hadn’t felt that alive since before John died. I ran the numbers and estimated that, in terms of in-home massages, counseling, and expensive colorful Michael Kors purses; BH had performed about $4,350 worth of therapy on my body. I decided not to contact BH or expect anything of him. To attach to a follow-up date would be an attachment to potential disappointment, and I had no more space for such things. BH had given me months worth of material for my Masturbation Fantasy Rolodex, and I wanted to mentally draw on the juiciness of that blissful night of hot sex for a long time without the memory being tainted in any way. It’s not that BH wasn’t appealing – in fact, he was all of the things I would want – funny, whip smart, outdoorsy, athletic, and kind, not to mention ridiculously hot. For those reasons, I detached even more from any future connection. Our amazing night together would remain one perfect, uncomplicated memory.
I laid there for hours, at peace, while my children floated back and forth, telling me of the rides they had been on, asking for more money. Then, there was John, smiling down on me, as he used to do on our land.
“Holly, you needed that.”
Then, he started laughing at me! My own dead husband was amused by the image of his icy wife melting into a puddle. I didn’t know whether to be embarrassed, or grateful for his playfulness.
“Holly, you were a terror. Everyone will have an easier time being around you now.”
And then I began to laugh too. He was right. Thank you, Bearded Hottie, for blowing oxygen on my cooled off embers. You helped me to lose myself and to remember that I may be a widow and a single mom, but I’m also a woman – a pulsing, vibrant, hot mess of a caged tiger who needed to be let out to play. I didn’t need words of hope, I needed to be in the moment and get burnt up in the flames of passion with you. I thank you, my dead husband thanks you, and everyone who has had to suffer my reign of terror thanks you. All of the sorrow in my heart is still there, but now there is a little light alongside it, and for that, I couldn’t be more grateful.
It was just a couple of days ago – Thursday, October 29 – 1 year, 5 months, and 1 day since John died.
Things had gotten much better over recent months – the girls were firmly entrenched in the new school year, I began to love cooking again and had thrown myself into a year-long Memoir writing class, and in general we were having many joyous moments. Still, the thread of sadness wove through, as it always will. Just the day before I had asked Melanie “Are you happy today?” meaning, “Did you have a good day at school?” She immediately replied “Well, no I’m not happy, because my dad is dead. I will always be sad that he is dead. Besides that I’m ok.” And that’s how it was.
Thursday morning I woke up feeling heavy. Halloween was coming and John always loved taking the girls out in their costumes. I got the girls to school, spent 2 hours sitting at Les Schwab while they put new tires on my Honda minivan, and then went home. I had an hour to kill and decided to make myself clean out John’s nightstand.
The nightstand is one of the few untouched areas left. The clothes went first – in those first few horrible days I spent long stretches of time prone on the floor of the walk in closet, weeping into his Pearl Jam t-shirts and blue jeans. I knew that couldn’t go on, so I had friends come help me box everything up a week after he died. The couch went next – every time I walked into the living room I thought I might vomit as I saw his ghost of a body in his favorite seat, filling the bum indentation that was there. Friends carted it away and Mellington helped me shop for a new one – something of a completely different color and shape. That’s all I cared about – that it was different.
Eventually, with help, I worked through the bathroom drawers, his office, and various other parts of the house. I was never able to do it alone because I would get stuck crying while holding various objects. Some things were thrown away, some donated, some placed in special spots around the house, some given to the girls, and some boxed up for me to open some day as I was ready. The goal was of course not to eliminate John, but to make the home manageable for us energetically.
Still, I didn’t touch the nightstand or the garage. The garage had been made into a woodshop that was filled with all of John’s beautiful tools. John once told me that he bought the house for that garage, and when we were married we joked that it should go in our vows – “Thou shalt not put a car in the garage.” The garage was his shop, his creative spot, his unabashed mancave. I often sat in the garage, after he died, crying for his lost dreams. Poor John. He made such a beautiful life and doesn’t get to enjoy it. I gave in to a strong instinct to keep the shop as it was, and his mancave became my mancave. In fact, it was the only place I could truly be alone, as, in my home with 2 children, John’s mother, and an aupair, all of my privacy had completely eroded. My life wasn’t my own any more, but at least in the garage I could be quiet, sit in the sawdust with John’s tools, and be left alone to feel and cry.
The garage would remain a shop, but the last item in question, the nightstand, was more than overdue. I opened the bottom drawer and grief seeped out like a low hanging cloud of dark smoke. There were John’s High School prom photos and pictures from his first Rainier summit. Oh, my sweet John. I tried to think about what to do with the pictures, began to cry, and put the photos back. My poor girls – their dad will never see them off to their own prom. His poor mother, who lost her pride and joy. Poor, sweet, John – who died on his favorite mountain. And then there is me – left to pick up the pieces without my best friend John by my side to hold my hand.
I cried my eyes out for at least an hour – missing him, willing him to come back and save me from this horror, and feeling heavy. Then I wiped my face off and went to my friend Rob’s house. We had plans to debone 2 full chickens, side by side, while watching a video of the master himself – Jaques Pepin.
We made Jaques proud, stuffed the deboned chicken dresses with ham and mushrooms, roasted them, and sat down with our kids for a lovely meal. I had maybe 1/3 a glass of wine but for some reason found it completely unappetizing. By this time, I was hangry, having been too distracted with the pictures and grief to remember to eat a full lunch. I felt off as we ate, and thought about excusing myself to the couch to lay down. I said nothing, though, because I didn’t want to attract attention to myself and was tired of always being the needy one in the room. Then, suddenly, my temperature spiked. I broke out in an intense full body sweat, my ears started to ring, and my vision started to go. I remember thinking “Oh shit, someone better notice what’s going on, because I’m already too far down this hole to communicate or help myself in any way.” Suddenly Rob and Julie were grabbing me by the arms, dragging me to the couch. Julie told me later that my lips had gone blue and that my left arm was bent, shaking, and twitching, rattling my plate. As soon as I was on my back on the couch, the episode was over.
I curled up into a ball and began to silently cry. I wanted to howl and moan, over and over, “I’m just SO TIRED. So, so tired.” I didn’t have that option though, because my kids were there and Melanie was especially disturbed. She often reminds me that I am her only living parent and that I can’t die, because if I die then she will be an orphan. Knowing that I would pay a heavy price if she became frantic, I smiled at her, told her I was fine, and suggested that we serve dessert. Then, Camila got the kids home while Julie, Bev, and Rob spent time taking care of me and examining my basic functions to make sure I hadn’t had some sort of mini-stroke. I was able to walk around fine, and except for a slight headache and even deeper than usual exhaustion, I felt pretty normal. I had a strong urge to remind Bev where the one signed copy of my will was, but stayed quiet because I knew the reminder of my fragility would stress everyone out.
My friends got me safely home. I went to bed alone holding significant fear that I wouldn’t wake up. My brain knew the fear was irrational, but my heart said “Screw you, brain. People die all the time.” I slept about 2.5 hours and then woke up, as I often do. For over a year after John died I only slept 2-4 hours a night. These days I’m lucky to sometimes get 5. I climbed out of bed and into a reading chair, put on music, and began to cry my fucking eyes out. Since it was 2am, everyone was asleep, and I was thankfully finally allowed to fully cry without worrying that my children or friends would become frantic. I sobbed, I wailed, I howled, and in general I allowed myself to feel all of the misery that was inside of my body at that very moment. I felt completely alone in the world and exhausted to the point of collapse. My grieving children need me, what if they lose me? I can’t keep shouldering all of these burdens by myself – they are too heavy. I cried for 2 full hours, and sometime around 5am I was able to collapse in bed for a couple more hours of sleep before getting the girls up for school.
I want to get off this ride.
I sat there in the middle of the night, wrecked and miserable, and that was what kept coming back to me – GET ME OFF THIS RIDE. It was as if I was a little girl again, on the roller coaster at Canobie Lake Park. I remember the first time I rode the big coaster – my car left the station and started climbing up the first big rise, getting ready to drop while we all screamed with joy. The pit of my stomach fell out on the way up, because I was young and the ride was perhaps a bit too much for me. I became nauseous and no longer wanted that joyous free fall. I wanted to get off the ride. But – there was no getting off.
Last year, I had a similar experience during a spring climb of Asgard pass.
I had climbed Asgard in the summer when it was rock and dirt but it was a different beast when covered with ice. My buddy Peter and I climbed up it late in the day when the snow was slushy, camped on a hard snow bed in our zero degree bags, and then tried to descend the next morning. The slushy snow had hardened into an icy crust overnight, and I had a lot of trouble getting purchase with the side points of my crampons. I plunged my ice axe in, over and over, so that I had something to hold on to if my feet slipped. The run out wasn’t good, and if I took a slide there would be damage. As sharp as my foot spikes were, they just weren’t grabbing the ice and eventually it happened – I lost my feet, my ice axe didn’t hold, and I screamed as I took a slide. In an instant I assessed the situation and decided to intentionally slide towards a pile of rocks. Ideally, I would be able to slam my feet into the rocks and stop. If I wasn’t angled right, my body would hit the rocks instead and I would likely break a bone. If I missed the rocks and kept sliding, I would most likely break many bones or worse. I was lucky and was able to stop myself with my feet on the rocks, but my trouble didn’t end there. I had slid into an even steeper section, a section that was too dangerous to go down facing forward. I yelled up to Peter to take a different path down. I knew that the only way I was going to get safely off the mountain was to climb down backwards, meticulously kicking the front points of my crampons in with my face towards the slope and my back towards the view. And so I did just that. The ice was so hard, I had to kick my front points in 3 times to make each step stick safely in the ice. Kick-kick-kick, pause. Kick-kick-kick, pause. Using only my front points meant that my calf muscles were constantly engaged, and they burnt out horrifically, to the point where I would have started crying from the pain if I thought it would do any good. I struggled to get my ice axe in because the ice was so hard, so I would jam it down over and over until it finally penetrated the ice. Sometimes it would suddenly plunge through the ice so quickly, my body would slam forward and my face would hit the ice too. It was the most stressful mountaineering situation I’d been in and I wanted to give up.
I wanted to get off the ride.
I remember one particular moment when I stood there on my front points, feeling like I had nothing left. I wanted so badly just to lay down on the ice and weep, but I knew – regardless of how exhausted I was or how much pain my calves and shoulders were in, I had to dig deeper to find the strength to finish. Getting off the ride was just not an option.
Just as now, I cannot get off this roller coaster ride of grief, loss, and single parenthood.
Recently, Melanie sobbed against my neck for John as I was putting her to bed, and she said “Mama, when Camila puts me to bed, I don’t cry. I save all my tears for you.” Regardless of how exhausted I am or how little sleep I get, when my children wake up in the middle of the night crying for their dead father, it is I who must attend to them. When my children delightedly talk about which friends they want to invite out to our 25 acres of forested land next summer, it is I who must smile and hold the horrific secret that the land has burned down, because the therapist says the children aren’t ready for more devastation. It is I who must set up the college funds and makes sure the lights stay on. I have so much help, but still – many burdens can only be carried by me.
Sometimes I wonder how it is that all of this suffering has not broken me and then I realize – I am breaking. I saw my doctor on Friday, the day after my lips went blue at the dinner table. She said I did not have a stroke but rather I had a vasovagal response, which means my brain lost oxygen for a bit and I fainted – probably in response to the exhaustion and to low blood sugar. I am breaking. Two weeks ago I vomited, while hiking, because I had pushed myself too hard for how broken I am,but not nearly as hard as I used to push myself. This past summer I almost fainted from heat exhaustion twice while carrying a heavy training pack on the trail. In June, when I climbed Mount Adams, my heart raced and ached when I was at altitude in a way it never had before. These sorts of things never happened to me before John died. The hairline fractures are busting open, and I am breaking. All I want to do is disappear into a cave for a month with a headlamp, some books, and my favorite pillow. I need to rest. I need to sleep 24 hours a day for weeks. I’m cooked. I’m done. I want to get off this ride.
But, I can’t, so – I don’t.
I don’t give up, I dig deeper. Many of my reserves have been stripped away, but still – I find threads and wisps of strength tucked away in remote crevices of my beaten down body. I am a warrior, and when warriors have been in the bush for weeks with little food and water while dragging their wounded and dead comrades, they keep going. I keep going. I don’t know how this story ends, but I know that my girls need me. So, I wake up every day setting an intention to nurture my tired body and to forgive myself when I struggle.
I am struggling, but I am also succeeding. I hold my grieving girls when they cry and am able to be fully present to wipe away their tears. I keep them busy and engaged and they are finding joy alongside the pain. I’m finding joy alongside the pain too, and it feels good. If you see me laughing, then laugh with me. If you see me break, then hold my hand and kiss my forehead, but know that you can’t fix it. This is a ride that I can’t get off.
That brings us to today – Sunday morning, 3 days after I opened and closed the nightstand, 3 nights since I fainted. Melanie is asleep in my bed, having crawled in with me at 2am. Just now I walked into the bedroom after working on this piece, needing my laptop power cord. Melanie stirred, reached her arms out, and said “Mama, can we just snuggle and read all day today? Nothing else, just snuggling.”
Yes Melanie, we can indeed snuggle, and for that – I’m grateful. I survived. I woke up this morning and wasn’t dead. I might even have the strength to tackle the nightstand again today. If I open the drawer and need to close it again, I will cry a bit, forgive myself, and then go get more of those delicious kiddo cuddles. My work here isn’t done, and frankly – I’m glad the planet isn’t ready to lose me just yet.