The Ice Queen

Sometimes I wonder – when was it that I froze over? Was there one single moment when the ice formed, or was it a series of events that slowly covered my periphery in sub-zero crystals?

It probably all began on that fateful Wednesday evening, the day before Thanksgiving my freshman year at MIT. I was packing my bag to go home for the holiday when the ancient rotary dorm room phone rang. It was Tanya, my high school best friend. Sean, my red headed/track running/crazy smart senior year sweetheart, had hung himself in his parents basement. I spent the holiday weekend going to the wake and funeral. When I returned to MIT, I was a walking zombie. My body was there, my legs walked me to classes, my eyes followed the professor at the chalkboard, and my hand took notes with my pen, but inside I was empty. I would stare at the pages of my textbooks and think “Who gives a fuck? All of this is meaningless.” I dated barely at all. I felt empty, closed, and a million miles away from anyone who tried to reach out to me. My soul overflowed with sadness and I couldn’t imagine any of the (seemingly) happy go-lucky students having the depth to hold me tenderly though my pain.

By the end of my freshman year, I allowed the newly formed ice to soften a bit. I began to date a senior named JW. He was the first man to tell me he loved me and the first one I said it back to. A week after taking my virginity, he told me he realized he was still not over his ex-girlfriend and dumped me. Any water dripping from my melted edges immediately seized up and formed a harder and more secure crystalline lattice. Frozen.

The thing about ice is, there is always the chance for ice to melt – all you need is a little sunshine and patience. Unfortunately, I had neither for myself and instead I became a complete workaholic. I finished out my freshman year in a miserable fog, scraped by in all my classes except Differential Equations (which I would have to repeat later), and stumbled across the country to a coveted internship at Microsoft that I was lucky enough to get. Even the process by which I got hired is fuzzy….I chatted with someone at a booth at a job fair, got a call that they were flying me to Seattle for interviews, landed the job, and then there I was a few months later – sitting by a cookie cutter pool at Timberlawn apartments across the street from the Redmond campus, rooming with a Senior CS major from Wellesley named Suzanne who had short spikey dark hair and glasses even thicker than mine.

I fell into my sophomore year and began to take CS classes in earnest. Somewhere along the line I had decided I should graduate a semester early and thus there was zero wiggle room in the schedule I laid out for the remaining 2.5 years. Clearly, in hindsight, given my trauma from Sean’s suicide and the inherently rigorous nature of MIT, this was a bad idea. But…but I was a workaholic, and my parents were broke and worried the financial aid would run out, and we were all dysfunctional together in making this unhealthy plan. I began to study and work almost constantly. I barely dated, though secretly I longed for connection. I spent so many hours at a computer typing papers and writing code that I developed very serious repetitive strain injury (RSI) in my hands and forearms. Eventually, MIT had to hire other students to type for me as I dictated, because my hands wouldn’t work. I continued to push forward. Microsoft brought me out to the Pacific Northwest all three summers for internships and I finished as planned – a semester early. I took zero time off after graduating and immediately relocated to Seattle to begin with Microsoft full time in the Exchange Server group as a Program Manager focusing on security, cryptography, and public key infrastructure.

I continued to develop an identity around being faster/better/smarter. That was all I had – my achievements and my perfectionism. I didn’t exercise, I didn’t have significant hobbies, and I didn’t date with any serious depth in those first 2 years after leaving MIT. With each success, I hardened more and demanded greater accomplishments of myself. I wasn’t ready to admit that the praise, promotions, and raises were exciting but at the same time – empty.

Fast forward a few years – more promotions, more glory, more money, more pain. My RSI had become chronic and crippling. I had opened my heart briefly to the first real love of my life – a rough around the edges free spirit named Tom, but he broke my heart and I closed back up. I didn’t like myself. I was an exhausted, stressed out, grumpy, tense, tiger lady ice queen who took no prisoners. My hands began to fail. I couldn’t even masturbate without significant pain – the ultimate insult. The universe told me that everything had to change.

I quit my job, sold my car, gave up my apartment, gave away my furniture, put everything else into a 5×10 unit at Self Storage on Capitol Hill, and went travelling. In Thailand I found peace in my hammock on the porch of my tiny bamboo bungalow. In India I did not find peace, but I found perspective as I met various locals from different castes and observed the ebb and flow of a country overflowing with more bodies than it was meant to hold. I learned that time could be one continuous thread rather than a series of discrete chunks. I allowed myself to simply…exist, listen, and be.

I wish I could say that my ice melted during my year of travel, but I don’t think it did. I did learn to slow down. I did learn to be gentler with myself. I did shed a lot of baggage, grew a lot, and gain new important perspective about the struggles of various people from around the world. I became a better human being. Still, when it came to romantic involvements and deep friendships, I was an ice queen and it was very hard for anyone to get truly close to me. After I settled back in Seattle, Tom (the man who broke my heart) tried to break back in. He looked into my eyes, held up a diamond ring, and said “I offer you all that I have and all that I am in exchange for whatever you wish to give me.” I said no. He descended into a world of meth and mental illness and threatened me in various ways until I cut off all contact. Six years later he would become my second ex-love to kill himself and I would wonder – was it my fault? My brain knew it wasn’t, but the heart and brain don’t always agree.

Then there was the day I met John in the desert in that magical place they call Black Rock City. What did I say earlier? That to melt ice all you need is a little sunshine? John was like a soft delightful cocoon of light that completely enveloped me. Every ice crystal went through 2 phase changes right into steam and there I was – a warm, alive, human being. By the time the sun rose the next morning, we were still awake – walking the dusty desert, hand in hand, talking about our future. Many friends were in the desert with us and watched us fall in love. Years later one said “I mean, he melted you. HE MELTED THE ICE QUEEN. No one was able to do that before”. Once I melted into John’s arms, there was no turning back and we were married 7 months later. We had 2 beautiful children, climbed mountains, threw enormous dinner parties, survived a remodel, had a ridiculous amount of awesome sex, got a dog, and only became more connected with each passing year. We weren’t perfect. No person or union is perfect. But regardless – we were happy.

After John died in the avalanche on Mount Rainier, the ice didn’t re-form immediately. In fact, for over a month afterwards, although I was devastated, I was also still open. There was this beautiful and terrible sense that my sadness was a vast, cold, windy ocean. The ocean flowed over the rock, magma, and dust that was my true love for John. Above me was the sunshine of all the friends and family that nourished me so tenderly. Of course, sunshine cannot dry up an ocean, but still – it feeds all that is below it and allows the cycle of life to continue. My community saved me. Every embrace was like a beam of light directly into my heart. I leaned into this love. I welcomed it into every fiber and every cell of my body. I let it nourish me, as much as I could possibly be nourished. There were some who judged me, but overall my community was beyond phenomenal and I am truly humbled by the grace of those who tended to myself and my family.

So what happened that froze me over again? It’s so painful, even now I struggle to write about how it broke me to be judged and criticized for how I was grieving during those early stages of horror. In fact, it was all I could do to not have a complete breakdown or run away. John was dead, my children were hysterical, and my burdens were crushing. They had not recovered his body, so I could not file for life insurance. We did not have a will and I had to jump through legal hoops just to cash his last paycheck. I had urgent short term cash flow issues I needed to fix. I had to hire a lawyer to get a court signed letter stating that I was the administrator of the estate. I had to say, over and over again, on the phone “No I don’t have a death certificate. His body is buried in snow and ice. They won’t give me one until his body is found or until they determine they think it will never be found.” I had to decide who would gain custody of my girls should I die and put a will in place stating just that. I had to repeatedly look at the written words – death, dead, deceased, avalanche. On top of that, I had to process my grief, care for my fatherless children, make sure the bills got paid, and not fall apart.

And there’s the fact that I wasn’t being touched. Yes, I was hugged. Yes, my friends held me. But – it’s not the same. In that first year I went so many months without real touch, a lover’s touch, the touch of someone who could make me feel like a woman again. For 10 years I was kissed many times a day, held at night, and made love to several times a week (or more when I was lucky), and then – all of that was gone in a moment. Oh how I ached to be touched. The need became so overwhelming and constant that I couldn’t even cope with fantasizing about actual sex. My fantasies became simple and mundane – a man touching my low back as I cooked at the stove, and then him kissing my shoulder. Or – a man wrapping his arms around me on the couch, running his fingers through my hair, nuzzling my neck. My body was so neglected it felt like it was withering, shriveling, pruning, dying. But – I couldn’t date. My life was too much of a mess. Sometimes I would go on first dates, more for the distraction, and was reminded over and over that I wasn’t really there. I wanted to be touched so badly, but if someone tried then I would freeze up and pull away. I had shut down in order to survive.

It’s true that I eventually did fall in love with a bearded hottie named Bear. He was the only one who was able to crack the shell. He blew oxygen on my cooled off embers and my ice began to melt from the inside. I began to smile again. I was touched by him in every possible way and I loved it. But, it didn’t last. My life was so big… too big for him. My grief, my grieving children, my need to be held. I was still broken, and though my love for him was real, sometimes love isn’t enough.

After we broke up, I froze over again. I had to cope with my pain without his love to nourish and replenish me. Friends could not comfort me the way he had comforted me. When I woke up at 3am to the horror of my life, he wasn’t there to hold me and tell me that I would not get sucked away by the ocean of sadness. Instead I would drown over and over again in between vomiting up the dark brackish water of my grief. My children were angry with me because they wanted Bear to become their dad. I wasn’t being touched. The worst part was – I knew that the comfort I needed wasn’t coming for a long time. A voice inside of me said loudly that it wasn’t my time to have a boyfriend, it was my time to begin to pick up the pieces and face the horror full on. I hardened. I stopped smiling. I marched forward. I decided not to date at all and dug my heels in at home. I was dark, closed off, and unreceptive. Men stopped noticing me and I stopped noticing them.

Then, there was the day, last month, when I decided to move to Spain with the girls. I wanted to run away from my life so badly and then it finally hit – I could run away, as long as I brought them! So I picked out a darling tri-lingual school in Barcelona and made plans to move in the fall. An adventure. A place with no ghosts. A chance to show my two girls that the world is still big and beautiful, even with all of our loss.

The planning involved for the move was daunting – a mountain of paperwork for the visa, an entire house to pack up. So many ghosts to face through it all. Still, my tenacity began to come back. My girls and I began to have something to look forward to. I wouldn’t say that I became happy, but I would say that I began to feel alive again. I began to feel like myself again. I had intention and purpose, something I had had trouble finding even a wisp of during the 2 years since John’s death. My fire, my intensity, my Holly-ness began to build.

And – the ice began to melt.

I began to laugh more. I had something interesting to talk about with new people I met and stopped wearing my widow badge smack in the center of my forehead. In fact, in the last month since I have made the decision, men have begun to notice me again – on the sidewalk, in the grocery, on mountain tops. Just last week on top of Mount Si, a man in his late 20’s in a Vanderbuilt t-shirt came right up to me and chatted me up while his friend lingered to the side, the way you do when your buddy is making a move and you don’t want to be in the way. I told him I was 41 and he kept flirting with me anyway. Something has shifted. I’m still not planning to date, but regardless – I take this as a sign that I’m getting better. The fire inside off me is burning again.

Things are still hard and I’m still very sad. But – I’m alive. Or rather, I’m ALIVE!!! A man didn’t melt my ice, I did it myself. Growing up my mom always told us – “Try 20 things and if you get one, you are ahead.” Mom – 19 failures in, I’ve hit one out of the park.

Barcelona, here we come.

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barcelona-la-segunda-familia
Holly in Barcelona in front of La Segunda Familia, June 2001 – age 26

Running Away

Ever since John died, I’ve been running away.

First, my spirit ran away from my body. This happened a few hours before I was told he was dead – my heart knew before my brain was informed. Of course, I didn’t understand it at the time, but my spirit was running after John. I would float up to the sky, look for him, and beg him – “Joooooohn…. Take me with you….”. At the time, I thought it was the case that his soul came down to comfort me and communicate with me, but now I know that it was I who went to him.

I remember, hours later, after my spirt had left, that I had to tell my children their father was dead. The empty shell of my body moved its lips to say “Dada died on his climb.” We all screamed and sobbed. I held them as they clung to me, but I wasn’t there.

Over the coming months, I would have to pull my spirit back into my body for brief periods of time, but it always took enormous effort and was excruciatingly painful. My children would tug on me, needing me, circling around me as I stared off into space. I would force myself to become present and face the horror – we were a family of 3 and not 4. I was not able to take any joy in my children during this time. I managed better when I had only one of them, but when I was alone with both of them I felt slapped in the face over and over with the fact that John was dead. 3. Three three three. Not 4. Never again 4. Me alone with the girls. Me as a single mother. Them with only one parent. For about a year and 6 months, every time I spent extended time with the 2 of them, without other families present, I felt nauseous, dark, empty, miserable. Of course I never stopped loving them and protecting them, but I was still an empty shell.

A couple of months after the horror all began, I ran away for a one week break at a wellness center in Mexico. My friends saw that I was crumbing, were worried I would break down, and told me to go. While I was gone I was able to breathe a bit and gather strength for the next push. While I was gone, I was able to get a bit of time off from wanting to be dead. Then, I used that bit of strength to face the fact that I didn’t want to go home but had to go home anyway.

It became obvious to myself and others that I walked along a precipice. I began to have extensive fantasies about the mountains taking me, consuming me, and allowing me to join my John. I dreamed about how, if I didn’t have children, I would keep climbing and climbing and climbing until the Mountain Gods finally had mercy. Maybe it would take a year, maybe it would take 40 years, but I would keep climbing until I was with him. However, I do have children, and I was never so far gone that I would have allowed them to become orphans. My children were both my biggest burden and my saviors at the same time.

Because I was so close to the edge, I scheduled regular solo time away – hiking trips with friends, visits to see family members, a trip to a small island in Vietnam. These trips saved me. I was only able to face my horrific life knowing that I would be able to step away once every 6-8 weeks. I always crashed emotionally upon my return, but at the same time came back fresher and much more able to face my children. By letting the steam slowly seep out every once in a while, I didn’t explode, I didn’t break down, I didn’t kill myself, and I didn’t fall apart. I held it together enough to be a mom, run the household, manage my rental property, care for my Mother In Law, and move through over 6 months of 2+ hrs a day of death and estate related paperwork.

There were those of you who judged me and criticized me for stepping away from my children when they needed me most. John’s cousin, who was living with me for free in exchange for 10 hours of childcare a week, told me I was “shitty to my kids” and “only thinking about myself”. Even in my cloudiness, I knew I was about to break and that if I didn’t step away then something much worse would happen. Yes, the kids needed me, but what they needed most was for me to become whole again, for me to want to be alive again. At our grief center, where they understand death better than John’s cousin did, they told me time and time again “Put on our oxygen mask before that of your children. You cannot care for them if you fall apart.” They told me that I was doing well, that in most cases things are much worse, that many widows shut down more and stop showing affection for their children. In fact, as miserable as I was, when I was with them we had a lot of conflict, but I also showed them tons of affection – hugging them, kissing them, snuggling them. Although I was broken and dark, I still had love. I always had love for them, just not always for myself or for life itself.

There came the time, a year and a few days after John’s death, when I climbed Mount Adams with Morgan. I stood near the summit, happy, feeling like myself again. There was John in the sky, bouncing from mountain top to mountain top, playfully grabbing on to the wing of an airplane and catching a ride. My mountain man – still an adventurer in the afterlife. It was in that moment that I realized – He is up there and I am down here. I am supposed to stay down here. And then, after a glorious summit, I hiked back down and actually wanted, really wanted, to remain alive and walk into my future. It was that day that I stopped running away from life.

Still, it took another 6 months before I completely stopped running away from my children. There was the day, 1 year and 6 months AD (After Death) that I came home from a one week vacation in Europe with my then-boyfriend Bear. We had a wonderful trip, but I actually wanted to go home. Almost every other trip I dreaded the horrific return to reality, but this time I was delighted. Oh my beautiful children, how I missed you! Oh Melanie, come spend the night in my bed so we can snuggle. Oh Isabella, tell me all about the books you are reading and the boys you have crushes on! It took 18 months, but I finally was able to just relax into being with them. I was finally able to embrace the number 3.

And now, although I no longer want to run away from my beautiful children, I still want to run away from everything else.

There’s that mountain – that fierce and glorious mountain that took John’s life. It was his favorite mountain – he summited it 3 times before that fateful Liberty Ridge climb. He always told me that when he died his ashes were to be spread there in a glacial crevasse. For a long time, the mountain was comforting to me. I felt lucky, because I knew that as long as I was close to the mountain, I was close to him. Now, the mountain is more of a slap in the face than a comfort. Mount Rainier on all the license plates. Rainier Beer. Rainier Avenue, which I drive down almost every day. From my roof on a cloudless day I can see the mountain – there is the ridgeline from which he fell, there is the glacier 3300 feet below the ridge where his body decomposed for 3 months before they found him. When I hike Mount Si or Mailbox or Granite – trails John and I loved together – I get to the top and stare at that mountain, stare at the beast that took everything from me. I don’t hate that mountain, but at the same time I’m getting pretty fucking tired of the constant reminders.

There is also the reality that I still cannot sleep. For over a year after John died I was only able to sleep 2-4 hours a night. Now I sleep 3-5. I wake up at 2am and fill with darkness as I face my unhappy life. I lay in bed and anxiety about the future pulses through my veins. I have received medical care of various forms and tried various medications, but nothing has really worked. I have jerked myself awake at the wheel countless times, finding myself in another lane, amazed that the firey crash that haunts my dreams hasn’t happened. Last weekend I took the girls camping and on the drive there had to slap myself across the face repeatedly to stay awake. I kept getting dizzy in the way I was right before I fainted that time last fall, sitting up at the dinner table. I’m really, really afraid. My insomnia has become chronic enough that it threatens to make my girls orphans, but I don’t know what to do. I do know that I sleep better when I travel, when I’m at my cabin, and when I am in my campervan. It’s my home that’s the problem. It’s the home that I shared with John that I need a break from. It’s my home where I cannot sleep.

In fact, ever since John died, Melanie has been crying and saying to me “Mama, we need a different house. This house is filled with too much sadness.” I never know what to say to her. It’s complicated. This beautiful home holds so much sadness, but it also holds so much joy. There is the custom yoga studio that John built for me. The purple heart plinth boxes that he hand made in his woodshop for the trim for our bedroom. The 2 bedroom apartment in the basement that either gives me the opportunity for income for the future, or a continued living space for John’s mother (my MIL), whom I provide housing for and whom is a wonderful and loving grandmother to my children. I always told John that if anything happened to him I would make sure his mom “was ok” and have made good on that promise since he died, but what happens if I sell the house? If I move, I absolutely want a smaller space – something simpler, something easier for me to take care of as a stretched-too-thin single mom. However, then there wouldn’t be an apartment for her. And if I buy another house with an attached MIL apartment as a requirement, then I’m shopping for a house that suits other people’s needs but isn’t really what I want. I’m stuck.

And then, there’s my dating life. I had a wonderful relationship with Bear, fell in love, and saw that I really can open my heart completely to someone new. But, it didn’t work out and now I’m back on the scene. In February and March I went on 1-3 dates with each of about 10 different men whom I met via various online dating sites. I kissed a few, slept with none of them. I tried various methods of unveiling my life – sometimes letting them know of my widowhood before meeting, sometimes revealing it casually on the first date and then dropping the topic, sometimes not mentioning it at all. It was hard to keep it a complete secret… it felt wrong to not mention I was a mom, and then the question follows as to if I’m divorced, or they might ask who is watching the kids while we are out (my late husband’s mother). Heavy heavy heavy. If I hid my trauma then I felt more alone, but on the flip side I got tired of telling my sad story. I got sick of listening to myself. It was obvious that I was very attractive to men as an individual and less attractive as a single-mom-widow package. Even worse, I realized with horror that men I met were very much put off by the fact that I live with my DHM (Dead Husband’s Mother). I would see their expression completely change when that fact was revealed. I didn’t try to emphasize it, but didn’t lie when they asked who was watching my kids. What a horrible position to be in – my MIL is such a wonderful and loving person, a fantastic grandma, and is 100% supportive of me finding a new partner. But still I realized – if I met a man who was living with his DWM (Dead Wife’s Mom), I would be put off too. A man entering my life will assume that the DHM would never see him as equal to the DHM’s dead son. It doesn’t matter that my MIL is not like that at all… that’s what men will assume and they will run away accordingly. The whole situation is a lose-lose situation that isn’t anyone’s fault. Not my MIL’s fault, not the fault of the men I met that it was a very intimidating and off putting situation. What do I do with that? I’ll tell you exactly what I did – a month ago I completely gave up on all dating. I closed my online accounts, I closed my heart, and I gave up.

Oh, and, back to Bear – almost 4 months after the breakup and I can’t fall out of love with him. He showed me that the sun can indeed rise again over bleak terrain. I learned that I could indeed fully surrender into love again. But – it wasn’t meant to be…we were at different places in our lives. I’ve had many boyfriends in my life, but I’ve never ached for someone this long after a breakup. I’ve never longed for someone for such an extended period of time since… since John died.

I want to run away from all of these things.

I want to run away from the Mountain. I want to run away from my house where I cannot sleep and where there are still too many reminders. I want to run away from my DHM, even though I love her and she couldn’t have been more supportive. I want to run away from the sad story that I tell potential suitors. And – I want to run away from Bear, because loving him this much hurts.

The only thing I don’t want to run away from is my children. In fact, I run to them. Now that my spirit is back in my body, I reach for them in every way. When Melanie wakes up crying for her father during the night, I welcome her into my bed and tell her “I’m glad you came to me. I needed snuggles too.” Instead of falling into a dark pit of horror in the evenings or going out on a date, I chat with Isabella after Melanie is asleep – about the books she is reading and the boys she has crushes on. I want to be with them more, not less. I want to shake off all these distractions so that I can truly focus on my most important job – my job as not only Mom, but Mom and Dad. I need a simpler life.

It was around that time that our country was holding its primary elections – Bernier Sanders and Hilary Clinton were competing for the Democratic nomination, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump for the Republican nomination. Liberals everywhere were up in arms over the fact that Trump had so much momentum. How could anyone in our country be behind someone so sexist, racist, and unsupportive to the poor? In fact, Isabella began to take interest in politics and had various questions about Trump, questions about why someone like him would have so many followers. I tried to explain things diplomatically… “Well, it’s complicated. Sometimes a person is voting for a candidates fiscal policies and not their social policies.” I only held on to such niceities for a moment, though. The idea of Trump as president filled me with such bile, that in the moment I spurted out –

“If Trump wins we are getting out of the country. If he wins we are moving to Spain.”

It wasn’t a thought that I’d had before, and I wasn’t serious (or so I thought), but I must have had a determination about me, because the girls drank in my rash statement. They looked at each other, for several moments, and their faces began to burst with smiles. Iz shouted, with glee –

“Trump for president!!!! I want to move to Spain!”
And then Mel chimed in – “Mama, vote for Trump! TRUMP FOR PRESIDENT!”

They literally began to spontaneously dance around the room. I enjoyed their boisterous energy, but also felt sad that I had created more Trump supporters. Definitely bad karma for me.

It was about a week later, after the children asked me many times to please please PLEASE vote for Trump, that I realized, I mean REALLY realized, that –

I can indeed run away.

I can run away, as long as I take my children with me. I don’t have a job. I don’t have a husband. I don’t even have the prospect of a boyfriend, now that I’ve given up on dating. The only thing I have is my children.

And so, I gathered up my girls and began preparations to move to Spain.

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camano camping