The Nightstand

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.

John's first Rainier climb, 1996
John’s first Rainier climb, 1996

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.

Holly-comforting-melanieRecently, 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.

John's High School Prom, 1991
John’s High School Prom, 1991

One thought on “The Nightstand

  1. I have been following your blog. You aren’t much further ahead than I am in this journey of widowhood. People ask how I’m doing and I can’t explain. I feel fine one minute and think I’ve got this , and then the next minute, completely broken and can’t do this ride anymore and just want off. Thank You for continuing your post. My name is Lisa and I live in Victoria BC. I look across the strait at the Olympic mountains and think of your loss as much as my own.


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