It was the movie that gave me the idea – the idea of how I would bring new joy into our lives, the idea of how I would find a place where we could make new memories that were not tinged with sadness. But first, before I explain the happy part, we must take stock of the sadness.
My husband had died in an avalanche on May 28, 2014. I was left alone with an ocean of grief and a pile of different flavors of crushing burdens. Even more tragic, my (at the time) 5 and 9 year old little girls were left with no daddy. Over and over again, I faced my demons and tried to take the girls to do the things we liked to do as a family before John died – camping, hiking, outdoor bouldering, skiing. Sometimes it was a complete disaster, because there were too many reminders of the hole that was left behind. Other times the girls and I were able to move through the sadness and reclaim some part of our past, painful as it might be to continuously be slapped in the face with the fact that this future did not include John.
I realized early on that our 25 acres of forested land would always be a special and cherished tribute to John, even though many of the memories of our time there are now tinged with blue. A couple of months ago I wrote about our land in “On Fire”. The land was John’s baby. He wanted space – 20 acres at least, a creek, and thousands of trees. He wanted to be able to Build Shit and make truly enormous campfires. So, we made the dream happen. We bought the land, camped on it in our VW pop top, and eventually John spent a summer building a one room cabin by hand. Our happiest family memories happened on that land – the girls and I cuddling and swinging in the hammock; John crouching by the fire pit, flipping a pork tenderloin sizzling over the coals; Melanie climbing her favorite tree and never wanting to come down; the hot standing up sex John and I had way out in the field out of view, just after he had chainsawed up a tree; the huge rowdy multi day camping parties we would have with friends, the symphony of hundreds of birds every evening during their 6pm chatty hour, the chorus of millions of insects squeaking and buzzing during THEIR 8pm chatty hour, it goes on forever. The happy memories on the land go on for freakin’ forever.
After John died, it was hard to go back to the land, but at the same time going back felt like the absolute right thing to do. John’s hard work, love, and dreams were there. The girls would tell me “I have so many happy memories of daddy from the land. Don’t ever sell it, mama. When you die, leave the land to us, mama.” It was tons of work and emotionally draining to take the kids there without him, but still I did it, and the girls (though they missed him) truly delighted in being there, every time. I loved the land, but more importantly – I love my girls, and the land soothed them.
Then, several months ago, the land burned down.
Our 7000 trees burned, including Melanie’s favorite climbing tree near the fire pit and the 2 trees that held up our hammock. The sheds with our tools, shade structures, and outdoor kitchen equipment burned. John’s one room hand built cabin burned. The fence posts burned, and the hand-carved “Mul-Acres” sign that John put on the gate burned. Everything burned. It was August 2015, 1 year and 3 months after John died. WA state had been hit with the most horrific wildfires the state had seen in decades. It was the Okanogan Complex fire that took our land and many of our dreams. It was this fire that stole yet another piece of John from his little girls, and it was this fire that stole the rest of the childhood that they could have had frolicking in the forest. Oh how I wanted nothing more than a place where the girls could be free, where they could catch bugs with nets, get completely filthy, and make s’mores until they vomit. The fire took away some of the little bit of joy and solace that we had left.
How is it that so much tragedy can hit one family in such a short time? How is it that one more precious thing could be taken from my girls? What was the universe trying to tell me?
I became completely panicked about the idea of telling them what had happened. Traumas are like concussions. For a while after you get a concussion your brain fluid is inflamed. If you get another concussion during this period of inflammation, brain damage is significantly more likely. After John died our hearts were scarred up broken puss-leaking organs that were in no state to cope with any more damage. What was I to do? Oh how I ached and agonized. I felt, deeply, that the girls would break in some new and permanent way if I didn’t handle this right. How would I tell them? When would I tell them? What could I POSSIBLY do to make sure they were ok? How could I stop them from believing that the universe planned to eventually take away every single thing that meant something to us?
Our grief counselor agreed I should not to tell them of the fire until I had a plan. So, I carried the horror alone. The terrible secret, my continued grief, and the impending continued trauma of my children mixed together in my belly as an overcooked toxic stew that I could not digest. I was left with near constant nausea. To make matters worse, Isabella and Melanie brought up our land on an almost weekly basis. We hadn’t been out there in months, but still – the girls were so fond of the land that it was common for them to talk about it all year. Isabella loved to have long conversations about the things she wanted to build out there – “Mama, I want to put a zipline on the land. Maybe it could connect that tree by the firepit to a tree down by the creek. Can we do that, mama?” Melanie loved to talk about an elaborate doghouse she wanted to build for Ellie – “Mama, lets build Ellie a doghouse on the land. I want it to have 2 floors and a staircase in between. Then, if we get a second dog, we already have the doghouse for 2!”
Those conversations fucking killed me. Week after week, I had to play along somehow, not ready to spill the secret. I’m truly amazed that I did not actually vomit as I spewed out lies. “Um… we’ll see. A zipline might be dangerous.” I told Iz, just to have her grill me about the risks and try to convince me that we really could do it in a safe way. Back and forth, back and forth. Lies and vomit. Horror and grief. The brave face I put on contorted my soul and pruned up my skin. I am a person who has strong gut instincts and has learned to follow them. For 3 months, I had no instinct as to how to handle this. I only had emptiness and fear. The answer wasn’t presenting itself to me. I absolutely ached to tell them, not for their sake, but for mine. Keeping the secret was poisoning me, but still – I waited.
Then, the answer came in the form of a Disney movie.
I first heard about “Inside Out” at The Healing Center, the place that the girls and I go for grief counseling. The Healing Center specializes in the “abnormal” grievers – meaning children and young adults – the people who aren’t _supposed_ to be grieving. They hold group therapy for young widows/widowers and for kids, meaning – Melanie (now 7) is in group therapy with other 6-8 year olds who have lost a mom or dad, Iz (now 11) is in a group for 9-11 year olds, and I (age 40) am in a group of widow and widowers age 30-60. Frankly, these groups are the only places where the girls and I consistently feel understood and not alone. At one point Jen, who runs Isabella’s group, mentioned the movie as a tool to help kids understand their complicated emotions.
I didn’t watch the movie right away but eventually found myself in Boston for Thanksgiving at my sister Juliet’s house with the girls, tired and distracted. I hated the chaos of traveling over a holiday, but couldn’t face Thanksgiving at home without John at the head of the table. Isabella was sitting on the couch, reading, wanting quiet. She was wearing exercise capris and her favorite workout shirt from the rock climbing gym. She did 80 different sports, but when she was home she wanted to be cozy with a book and unbothered by her sister. Melanie was bouncing around like the physical powerhouse she had been since birth. She had my disposition – caffeine flowed naturally in her veins and she never stopped moving. They did their usual sisterly dance – Melanie wanted Isabella’s attention, Iz ignored her, Mel climbed all over her anyway, Iz got irritated, Mel kept going. I was distracted, grieving for John, and wanted the conflict to go way. Let’s watch a movie! How about “Inside Out”? Why not. I turned it on, planning to work on my laptop while they watched, but the laptop ended up staying shut. I was mesmerized.
The movie centers around a girl named Riley whose emotions are personified as characters – Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear. When she is 12, Riley moves from her happy life in Minnesota to an unfamiliar San Francisco. Joy tries to keep Sadness from touching Riley’s old happy memories. She becomes frozen and stuck. Eventually, Joy realizes that Sadness is necessary and lets Riley truly cry. Riley is able to finally able to let go, be as she is, and open to making new memories.
I sat there as the movie ended, dumbfounded. I had all the answers I needed. I couldn’t stop the girls’ old memories from getting tinged with blue, but I could do everything in my power to make new happy memories moving forward. I can’t stop the sadness, but I can do my best to add joy.
So, I developed a plan, a plan to helps us find new golden memories together as a family of 3, a plan to balance out the blue-tinged memories of us as a family of 4. The plan involved a big financial commitment on my part and scared me. I was afraid I was being too rash. I wondered if people would think I was overspending and grasping at straws. Maybe I was. Maybe it didn’t matter. In spite of my fear, the plan grew inside of me like a new wet pink organ that was able to pump hope to my heart. I had many private bittersweet tears. I didn’t want to have to make a new plan, but I was also overcome with gratitude for the strength that I could feel coming back. The Holly I was before John died was a woman who took charge and made things happen. Holly was coming back. I was coming back, and – fuck you, universe. I was going to do this.
The plan took 2 months to execute. I continued to hold All Of The Secrets. Then, the big day came. I picked them up from school early with a fully packed car, including – a gallon of antifreeze, a snow shovel, board games, food (but no dishes or pots and pans), clothes (but no bedding), a big pile of newspapers, snow pants (but no skis), and 2 Kindle Fires. I walked them out to the car, asked them to hold hands with myself and each other (in a circle), and got down on my knees. I started gently, mentioning the land, hinting at how it wasn’t so easy for me to manage the land by myself without their dad – the long 5+ hour drives, being off grid without his help, chopping all the wood and cooking all the meals…. I told them how I had begun to wonder if maybe the land wasn’t a perfect fit for us anymore. And then I spilled –
“Remember the big fires last summer? “
They looked at me blankly and didn’t answer.
“Remember the big forest fires? Lots of sad things happened. Three firefighters died, some families lost their homes, and many acres of forest burned down. It was very sad for many people. Our land burned down too. What happened is really, really terrible. Others lost more than we did, but still – it is terrible.”
The girls looked truly shocked. Isabella’s mouth hung open and she began to rapidly blink her quickly flooding eyes. Melanie looked at me and inhaled quickly, the way she did when she was about to fall into a bottomless puddle of loud tears. I continued with my planned speech, hoping to hold things together before they totally lost it.
“Girls, we have had so much sadness. I cannot take all the sadness away. When you feel like crying about your father, or about our land, then cry. We need to cry. We need to feel the sadness that is inside of us. I have realized, though, that we also need to find joy. We cannot stop our old memories from getting touched by sadness. All we can do is honor that sadness while also making NEW memories together as a family, as our new family of 3. That is all we can do.”
So I told them we were going to watch “Inside Out” while we drove to “The place where we would make new memories.” I gave them each a Kindle Fire, because God knows that siblings can’t even share a tablet screen without fighting. Though they had watched the movie months before but I was hoping this time they might watch it in a new way.
And then, we drove. For 2 hrs and 45min we drove. Over Stevens Pass, near Wenatchee, and down into Leavenworth. I was excited but also exhausted because yet again I was doing everything by myself. I kept glancing back at the girls in the rear view mirror. They were solemn as they watched the movie, but also curious – something big was coming. Despite my exhaustion, I felt stronger than I had been since John died. Damnit, I’m doing this. My mama bear love for them was fierce and intense. I gripped the steering wheel and clenched my teeth. I’M DOING THIS. This is my life now. The only important job I have is to make sure the girls are ok. I WILL MAKE SURE THEY ARE OK.
At some point during the drive the movie finished. We wound through a tiny community called Ponderosa Estates over mostly-plowed snowy roads and pulled into a freshly cleared driveway. In front of us was an adorable wooden cabin with snow dripping off the roof and a large covered front porch.
“Girls, we are here at the surprise! Get out of the car!” I said.
The girls tumbled out, grinning. They saw how excited I looked and thus knew it must be something good. I held their hands again, in a circle as we did before the drive, and got down on my knees in the snow. In that moment, I was the strongest and most determined woman who had ever been born. I knew I was doing the right thing. No one in the world could take this from me. I wouldn’t say I was happy in that moment, because happiness is not something I have felt often since John died, but I was alert, in charge, victorious, and damn proud.
“Girls – this is OUR cabin. I bought this cabin for us. I cannot take away all the pain, but I am going to do everything I can to help us find new joy. This is a place for us to make new memories together. This is a place for us to be happy together. I love you girls so so SO much.”
The girls proceeded to jump up and down and squeal with joy. I easily had not seen them that happy since before John died. I unlocked the front door and said “There are 3 bedrooms. Isabella – yours is upstairs to the left, Mel yours is upstairs to the right!” Oh the whooping and hollering. They explored inside joyously while I did all the work in the background. I got out my snow shovel, dug out the water main, used the shovel to pry the cap off, and turned the water on with a flashlight and a long forked tool. I unloaded the car, filled the cabinets with food, and made dinner. I used the newspaper along with some wood from the shed out back and made a fire in the wood stove. I explained to the girls that I had bought not only the cabin, but all the furniture/dishes/bedding from the previous owners too, because I wanted us to be able to glide right into joy. “Really mama? These couches are ours too?”
Of course, there were more tears over the lost land as the weekend continued, but the tears faded fast. Melanie said “Mama, I’m land-sick. You know, like home-sick. But still, the cabin is much better than the land. This is better, mama.” Isabella said “Mama, can we move here full time?” I said “Why would you want to do that? Our Seattle house is so much nicer!” To which she responded “Mama, I don’t care about nice-ness. I care about coziness. This cabin is very, very cozy. I don’t want to leave.”
I realized – not only is the cabin an opportunity for new memories – it is also an opportunity to be without ghosts. The cabin may be old with not-so-nice brown carpets and quite a lot of dust, but to them it is brand spanking squeaky clean new – no ghosts, no memories, no sadness, only opportunity. A clean slate. A chance to move forward.
We proceeded to spend an idyllic weekend together – building snow men, throwing snow balls, and sledding at the local “sledding hill” shown to us by the neighbors. I showed the girls the community center with a summertime outdoor pool just a block away and the river (also a block away) where we can go tubing once the seasons change. When it was time to pack up and go, they didn’t want to leave. “Please mama, can we stay? Please? Can we skip school on Monday? Just one day?” I smiled, said no, and did what I needed to do – turned off the water main, filled the toilets with antifreeze, locked up the house. It was true that I had no one to help me, but it was also true that I had chosen a destiny that I could manage solo. A shorter drive, a real kitchen, power and water. I’m not a harried widow driving 5 hours to an off grid forest with 2 young children. I’m a still-grieving-but-very-centered single mom who bought a cabin that she can manage just fine all by herself.
And you know what? I’m damn proud. I did good. There will be more challenges, more pain, more tears, but that’s ok. There will be joy too.