I sat there in the bathroom stall at the Vancouver airport, looking at the stick I had just peed on. I was supposed to get my period before I left for Paris, but it hadn’t come and near the end of my trip I picked up a pregnancy test. I wasn’t quite sure what exactly was supposed to show up in the display window, since the instructions were in French. Huh. One clear pink line and next to it – one fuzzy pink indistinct line. I threw the stick away, pulled my pants up, and let go of knowing the answer for the moment. Still, something was different. I tried to hurry to the gate for my connecting flight to Seattle. Hurrying was my forte, which is why I remember so distinctly a slowness that came over me that day. An involuntary slowness, in fact. That was the first of many days when I would feel a new-but-soon-to-be-familiar bone deep fatigue.
It was April 10, 2004 – 2 days after my 29th birthday, 7 days before John and I were to be married. Rob and I had just returned from a week in Paris – my version of a bachelorette party. Rob had been like a brother since freshman year at MIT and was to be my Matron of Honor, or Best Man, depending on how you looked at it. John and I had met at Burningman just 7 months beforehand and had fallen crazy in love in a way neither of us had ever experienced. All in that short timeframe we moved in together, got engaged, and planned a wedding. Somewhere in there, the birth control was thrown out the window. Honestly, we tried to use birth control. We knew we should wait until after the wedding, but… we couldn’t help ourselves. Several months into our relationship, after John had already proposed, we became overtaken with a primal need to create life together. John would make love to me, look into my eyes, and say “Let’s make a baby.” We began to have a sort of sex that I’d never had before, a sort of sex that I hadn’t really known was real, the sort of sex where your cells melt together and you go down a rabbit hole into a different dimension that you never want to return from. In fact (and I know this sounds silly), that make-a-baby sex with John made me feel connected to all sexual creatures over the course of time, all the way back to cave-men and cave-women. Because… because the primal need to have his seed as deep as possible inside my egg was so low level and raw. Because I then finally knew what it was like to need and ache for someone so badly on a physical level that reason and logic became irrelevant. Birth control became irrelevant.
In fact, our burning need to combine our DNA was the primary reason we set a wedding date for just a few months later. I remember when I told my mother of the wedding date. She said
“Why rush? Take a longer engagement! Get married in the fall instead of this spring.”
I said “Ma, we have thrown the birth control away. We can’t help ourselves. I would be surprised if I’m not pregnant soon.”
That’s all I had to tell her.
“Oh.” Was all she said. “Oh, ok.”
I landed in Seatac, took a cab home, and picked up a new pregnancy test. The instructions were in English, and finally I knew – I was pregnant.
I waited for John, who was at work. Oh how he swept me up in his arms and kissed me all over. He gave me a beautiful necklace with an enormous black pearl and a potted stargazer lily as late birthday presents. I delightedly told him “I’m pregnant” and watched his eyes turn into 2 liquid brown pools of utter happiness. It was what he wanted. It was what we wanted.
With the wedding 7 days away, we had to hustle. We were cooking our own rehearsal dinner, had done all the wedding planning ourselves, and would be hosting family in our home. Also, there were dress fittings, which were highly amusing given my newly pregnant state. It was still so early – my belly hadn’t changed and wouldn’t change for a couple of months. My breasts, however, had reacted to the pregnancy hormones by growing 2 cup sizes in 1 week. I kid you not. John’s mom had sewn the dress herself and was very confused at the last fitting a few days before the ceremony. My breasts spilled voluptuously over the top and she said “Huh… we fitted this just a week ago. How strange.” John teased “I’ll try to keep my eyes on your face when we exchange our I-do’s, but it will be tough.”
I remember how I had bought special white lace panties to go under my wedding dress and how the fine stockings I had purchased were uncomfortable when I tried them on the day before. I said to John “Do you mind if I’m bare legged under my dress? I hate being uncomfortable.” He smiled, and said “Whatever you like, babe.” It was always that way with us over the 10 years that were to come – when we were going out and I didn’t want to have to look all pretty, I would ask him if he minded if I dressed casual and he would tell me I was sexy in any state. Always. Every time.
I remember walking down the aisle with my arm threaded through my dad’s. I wanted to walk faster but my father held me back firmly, dictating the pace, practically pulling my arm out of its socket with his insistence. My younger sisters Juliet and Rose were up front, playing clarinet and flute as I approached John, my husband to be, the father of the child already in my belly. Him. John. My love. He smiled at me and I could see his eyes were wet. We exchanged the vows we had written for each other and became husband and wife. My universe became aligned in a way it never had before, and I knew John and I would be together forever. The optimism and pure joy I felt in becoming his wife were bigger emotions than I had known I could experience. Everything in life would be ok, even the shitty things, as long as I was with John. I was home. Forever, I was home.
I remember how funny it was that, in a way, we didn’t really care about the wedding itself. John kept saying to me “I don’t care so much about the getting married part, but about the being married to you part. I just want to be your husband. The best part starts after the wedding. The best part is the rest of our lives.”
The last wedding anniversary we celebrated was our 10th – April 17, 2014 – 41 days before his death on Mount Rainier. John wanted to get a new ring made for me for the occasion, but we had been spending a lot lately and I suggested he wait and do it next year. I was always the frugal one.
Rob offered to loan us his cabin on the Kitsap peninsula and so we left our girls (now age 5 and 9) with John’s mom and took a weekend away, just the 2 of us. Unfortunately I was horrifically sick with a head cold. The timing was terrible, but when you have childcare, you use the childcare. So for 2 days I laid on the couch in the cabin, blowing my nose and moaning with misery while John tended to me. That was the thing about John – when I was sick he was always everything I needed to be. I learned that after my first C-section, and again through-post partum depression, an eventual miscarriage, and later a second C-section. Every time he was everything I needed him to be without me telling him what that was.
I remember, the second day we were at the cabin, how we sat on the floor with our backs against the couch. John had lit a fire in the woodstove and had some electronica playing on the stereo – the sort of downtempo music we might have listened to back in the day at 4am when decompressing after going to an all-night dance party. We were chatting about that magical week when we met at Burningman. He turned to look at me, and even now I’m still haunted by the fact that I can replay that video in my head and remember every detail of his face, the room behind him, and how his mouth moved as he formed the words. He smiled HUGE said “Holly, we just knew. That week, we KNEW we were meant to be together forever. We. Just. Knew.”
That brings us to now – April 17, 2016, what would have been our 12th wedding anniversary, stop 2 in my horrific springtime train ride through sadness – my 41st birthday on April 8, April 17 wedding anniversary, soon after – Mothers day with no John to honor me, and then the 2 year anniversary of John’s death on May 28.
The truth is – rough stretches like this still take me apart at the seams. I can’t breathe. Really, that’s not an expression – I cannot breath because there is some sort of 20lb bag of sand on my chest. I am black and empty inside. My sleep problems have not improved but rather have gotten worse again – often only 3 hours a night. When I lay awake at night, I think “How can I raise the girls without him. How can I continue without him. How will I find the strength to keep going through so much sadness. Why can’t the earth just swallow me up.” I have trouble seeing joy in my future and put most of my energy into making sure the girls are ok. If I can’t be happy, maybe they can. Yes, I feel the words bubbling up inside of those around me – “Happy kids need a happy mom. Focus on yourself too.” Don’t you see? I want that too, and I am trying, so hard, but it feels like I’m clenching my fingers around the smoke that drifts above my burned up life.
As I write these words, I ask myself – how will people receive them? Will they see my words as a cry for help? Or will they realize that, in a way, these words are actually a way of asking those around me not to help or worry more. Don’t you see? Don’t you know that, given the enormity of what I and my girls have lost, you cannot fix it? Don’t you realize that, no matter how many years go by and what sort of beautiful love I experience (even if I get happily married again), April 17 will still be a sad day? Because on that day the entire world and all the joy in it were open to me. On that day, all of my dreams came true, and now on this day I am reminded that all of those particular dreams are lost forever. It doesn’t matter that I have already loved another since John died or that I know that I will love yet another someday. None of that changes what I and my girls have lost.
You can’t fix it. All you can do is sit with me in my darkness, hold my hand, and wipe away my tears. For those of you who do just that, you are now my family. You and my girls are now my everything. You know who you are – you are the ones who keep me from drowning, not because you fix anything, but because you never diminish the magnitude of my loss, and –
You honor me just as I am.
That is why I do not drown.