On Fire

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.

Nursing infant Melanie, out in the woods.
Nursing infant Melanie, out in the woods.

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.

5 week old Melanie, all bundled up inside our campervan.
5 week old Melanie, all bundled up inside our campervan.

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.

Isabella on our land, 2012, age 7
Isabella on our land, 2012, age 7

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.

cabin-in-progIn 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.cabin-almost-done

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.

At Wild Waves, feeling awesome.
At Wild Waves, feeling awesome.

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.

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