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.


Holly in Barcelona in front of La Segunda Familia, June 2001 – age 26

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