Madison, Wisconsin

It took me two months to write and polish the essay – the essay where I truly open up for the first time about various experiences I had as a woman in software in the late 90s. I sent the essay to my friends, sisters, closest confidants. I workshopped it in my writing class. I read it, revised it, re-read it, over and over. When I was done back in late April (4 months ago), I continued to share it and discuss it, but I have not yet published it because I’m not ready. In the process I reviewed it upwards of 40 times, and –

Every single time I read it, I cried.

I kept thinking it would stop, but it didn’t.

You see, I’m not working right now. Recap – I have a computer science degree, worked in software for a number of years, chucked it all to become a therapeutic yoga teacher, met my husband, had 2 children, and then –

Then he died in an avalanche, leaving me a widowed single mother at 39.

I stopped teaching. Everything stopped. It was no longer my time to be anyone’s spiritual guide. I met with Sue, the woman who would become my financial advisor. Sue mostly only took clients with significantly more money than I have, but a mutual friend connected us and she received me with warmth and kindness.

Sue and I came up with a plan. I would take a few years to focus on the girls, get the family on track, and either get back up to speed on the software world or go back to school to re-train for a new career. By four years after John’s death, I was supposed to make $100,000 – an amount that should be achievable as that is what I made when I last had a full time job in software in 2002 when I was 26. I agreed to this plan. I told Sue I was excited to get back to geeky left brain analysis after years of nurturing the right side of my brain with creative therapeutic private lessons. I said I might get back into security and cryptography – an area I specialized in years ago. She told me that she saw real excitement in me and that that was how she knew that this was a path that we could embrace.

I decided that by January 2015 (7 months AD) I would begin networking and connecting with old contacts at various software companies in Seattle. In parallel, I would get back up to speed on current software trends and development practices. Except, January came and went. I kept telling myself I just needed a few more months to get my sleep in order, exercise, collect my scattered and scarred trauma brain, but those months stretched into two years. I did lots of things in those two years, including taking an intensive year-long writing class at the local University. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote; finding passion, joy, and relief; but I did not make any serious effort to get back into the world of software. The truth is, I’m still drifting, lost, very focused on the gifts of my two beautiful children but too stripped bare and exhausted to be good for much else.

So, this past spring I forced myself to go deeply into my feelings. I spent March and April writing the still unpublished essay (working title “Just One of the Assholes”). I wrote and cried, wrote and cried, wrote and cried. I finally breathed out what it felt like to be 24 years old, standing in front of a room of Vice Presidents, the CTO, the President, and the CEO – yelled at, torn down and destroyed, only to be celebrated afterwards for being so tough, only to continue to be offered promotions and more money.

I didn’t publish it, couldn’t publish it – too painful.

I finished the essay in late April and spent the rest of the spring and summer trying to truly face what was in front of me. Could I do it? What would it look like? What would that look like for the girls? To make $100k, I would need a full time corporate job. It is true that there are people who can piece together significant income consulting and being their own boss, but this would not be an option open to me for at least the first few years after being out of the industry for so long. I would be a beggar and not a chooser. And – software jobs aren’t just 8 hours a day, they are 10 or 12 hours a day. I decided to take Isabella’s pulse on the matter. She was laying in her bed, reading on her Kindle Paperwhite. I entered her room, putzed around, helping her to pack for an upcoming trip she and Melanie would take to see her Auntie in Alaska. Then I opened up.

“Isabella. You know how I’m supposed to get a job in a couple of years?”

“Mmm..hmmm.”

“Do you remember how much your dad was around when he worked at MassiveSoftwareFirm?”

She became noticeably but not horrifically sad. “Yeah. I didn’t get to see him much.”

“What would it be like if I had a job like that?”

“Well… I would miss you.” She lit up briefly. “Can’t you be a writer? I know you want to be one. Then you could write while we are in school and still be home with us in the afternoons! Then things could stay the way they are now!!!”

Her optimism crushed me. She knew what I wanted but didn’t know that I couldn’t have it.

“I would love to be a writer, but I can’t make enough money doing that to keep living in Seattle and sending you and Melanie to your lovely private school. We need health insurance and other benefits too. I wish that would work but it won’t.”

“Ok mom… well… it will be ok, Mom. Even if you do get a job like dad’s job, I will still see you some in the evenings, right?”

“But what if I date?”

Melanie and Isabella beg me to date. They even find candidates and check ring fingers for wedding rings.

Isabella got sad again, but I saw her decide internally to buck up. “Mom, I would miss you, but then I would still see you in the mornings. It will be ok.”

“But Isabella what if I exercise at all. Sometimes I think exercise is the only thing that keeps me sane. You know how much my fitness and mountaineering mean to me.”

Then she became really truly sad. She got it. “Then I would never see you, mom.”

“Right. So I would not be able to date, or exercise. It would kill me to be away from you girls all the time…. I couldn’t do it. You would need me. Melanie would especially need me… you know how much she is struggling. I either wouldn’t see you or wouldn’t have a life, or both… even if I didn’t date or exercise, I would STILL be gone a lot. I can’t do it. I won’t do it. ”

She tried to console me. “Mom, we could make it work! We don’t want you to give up dating! I would be sad if you were gone a lot but it would be ok!”

I took a deep breath and launched into part 2 of my pitch.

“What do you think about moving? We could go someplace where the houses are cheaper. Somewhere with really good public schools. I could focus more on you and Melanie and could look into a part time I’m more excited about.” What I didn’t say – a job where I won’t be yelled at, a job where I won’t feel alone in a room of over-bearing asbergic men, a job where I don’t become one of them (again).

Isabella lit up, more than I expected her to.

“Oh Mom! You could be a writer, or a high school math teacher! Like you have always wanted to!”

I started to cry. She understood.

+++++

By the time I spoke to Isabella, I had already begun searches in a few different locations. I started with the following requirements –

• Affordable housing
• Good schools, better than Seattle Public Schools
• Access to outdoorsy sports and the girls favorite activities

I honed in on three areas – Bozeman Montana, Los Alamos New Mexico, and Madison Wisconsin.

In many ways I thought I would be most at home in Bozeman, but the houses weren’t quite cheap enough and the schools not quite good enough. I spun on Los Alamos for a while – such darling and affordable pueblo houses, truly phenomenal schools, local hiking trails through gorgeous canyons. But – I don’t deal well with desert climate. And – Isabella did not like that the only climbing gym nearby was a single climbing wall at the local Y. Plus – it’s a small somewhat conservative town. It was a decent choice but I would have a hard time finding my own tribe

Madison Wisconsin emerged as a front runner. In mid-July (a month ago), I deepened my search. I analyzed neighborhoods – I would live in University Heights or perhaps the Villas and developed a list of favorites on Redfin. The girls would be able to walk or bike to the local schools, which were rated very highly. Property taxes in Madison are much higher, but houses much cheaper. I could make the big change when we got back from Spain. I asked my relator what my Seattle home would go for and ran the numbers –what I would need to pay off, what I would have left for a house in Madison. I looked at homes within that budget and showed them to the kids. I could take classes at the University and explore new career ideas as I was ready, while still having lots of time to be a mom. I mapped out the local gymnastics studios after Melanie said “Mama, make sure there is a gymnastics place where they have classes EVERY DAY.” I showed Isabella pictures of an enormous bouldering gym just 7 miles from our proposed ‘hood and she said “Oh YEAH mom that totally works. Way better than the YMCA.” On my end, I had visions of writing and teaching math, enjoying blustery winters, snowshoeing around the local trails with some sort of smarty-pants-bearded Wisconsin hottie – someone who would think I’m damn sexy when I chop wood. It could work.

To be clear, there was an ocean of tears along the way. It was not lost on me or the girls that we would lose our friends, our community. I need my tribe more than ever now. The elephant in the room, though, is this – I cannot have it all. There is nothing more important than my girls and I can sacrifice everything else besides them. They need me to not be gone all the time. They need me to be whole again, and I cannot become so if I walk back into the warzone (software) while I am already bleeding.

Come mid-August, I had everything figured out. I did not want to make this change but was resolved to do whatever I needed to do to keep my family of 3 whole. It happened that I already had a quarterly meeting scheduled with Sue. Two days before the meeting I re-read my long essay in the darkness of the early morning, cried again, and sent it to her, along with a long letter about my thoughts on changing everything and moving to Madison WI. I told her that the excitement she had seen in me before, for software, wasn’t real. I was trying to be the person I have always been – the person who rises up, takes on any challenge, and soldiers through (with brute force if necessary). But I’ve realized –

I’m different now.

I sent her the letter and cried a fucking river because I was finally ready to face the future in front of me. I was so physically haggard by that point but at the same time there was a fire inside of me, the fire of love for my girls. As I began to accept the idea of moving, I began to mourn the loss of the friends I have made over my 20 years here. I began to cry for the mountains I love that would no longer be in my backyard. I cried many times a day for weeks because I finally accepted that, now that John is gone, there just isn’t any going back. I can only go forward.

Then, the meeting with Sue. 11am Wednesday August 17.

Sue and Michael (her investing minion) magically had a brand new life plan all laid out in front of me in pie charts and graphs. She was very professional and I could feel how she allowed space for my vulnerable emotional state. It was one of those moments when I was so grateful for the fact that she was a woman, for the fact that she was able to see me both as an investment portfolio and a traumatized human being at the same time. There are many men in the world who can also hold that space, but… but those sorts of men aren’t usually the ones in powerful positions at software and investing firms.
Sue said “I’m about half way through your essay. It is gripping and saddens me. I want to discuss your plans to have this published. It’s important.”

And then

“We have to come up with a plan where you don’t have to move. You need your community right now. We will make this happen.”

I said through clenched teeth “I would rather have to someday retire to a yurt on my partially burned down Okanogan land than be absent from my girls during their time of greatest need. NOTHING is more important than my girls.”

She got it. And so, we pushed and pulled on various pivot points. I would still take a couple more years to exclusively focus on the girls, my health, and any retraining I would need to do. I would rent the basement 2br apartment in my home now that my Mother-in-Law is moving to live with her daughters in Alaska, bringing in $2k a month. The girls would still get some private school but only through 8th grade. I would use up more capital in the early years until the kids go to high school and would have to make more money later. I would still have to work, but would be more likely to be able to do it making less while the girls are young instead of 100k. I could piece together some writing work, some teaching. It would come together. I would have to have a little faith.

And so – I’m working on just that. I’m working on having faith. I’m working on breathing – in and out. I don’t know what will happen. Who really ever knows what will happen, anyway? And if Seattle doesn’t work out, I now have a backup plan – I’m moving to Madison, I’m focusing on my girls, I’m finding a rough and tumble bearded lumberjack, and I’m making some fucking lemonade.

Everything is going to be ok.

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madison-snow

Tears

Over 2 years after his death, I still spend a high percentage of time with my eyes brimming, trying not to let the tears spill. Turns out, the fibers of sadness are spun into a continuous thread that weaves its way into my future. There are other threads in my life – fear, excitement, love – but those threads do not negate or eliminate the sadness that is the loss of my John – my husband, my baby daddy, my bearded mountain man, my best friend.

I prefer not to cry in front of others. It’s not because I am embarrassed to cry (I’m not) or because I don’t want to cry (I do, in fact I must). I’ve been trying to figure out why, actually. I am so public with my pain and sorrow and have so clearly worn my widowhood on my sleeve, yet even when I am with my best friends and children I blink the tears away.

Sometimes the tears come while I’m driving. Because – I’m so exhausted. Because… the kids are fighting in the back seat and I’m all alone. Because, I am reminded that the aloneness of being their only living parent stretches into forever. Once my eyes brim the road becomes squiggly, then I blink and let the tears silently roll down my cheeks so that I can see again. I then either leave my cheeks wet or wipe them away discreetly so that my children do not see. Isabella rises to the occasion and comforts me when she sees my tears but alas poor Melanie struggles. If she is bright and I show her my sorrow, then I see the light fade from her eyes in a way that rips my still oozing scabs open anew. I attempt to only show her my tears when she is already experiencing a wave of sadness and wanting to talk about her father. Her sadness comes frequently – often at least one solid wave every day, and the rest of the time I let her hold on to her light.

Other times the tears come during what should be happy moments. Two months ago in June I sobbed my way through the final assembly at Isabella and Melanie’s primary school. It happened that Melanie’s first grade class was to sing a goodbye song to the departing 8th grade, after which each first grader would hand a rose to one of the older students. I sat there, alone, watching my beautiful girl with still so much excitement for life – her mouth opened wide as she enthusiastically belted out the tune. She saw me in the audience and smiled at me in that way that tells me that I am her favorite person in the world. I don’t remember all the words of the song, just that it was about joy – joyously this, joyously that. I sat there and cried my fucking eyes out. I tried very hard at first to simply let the tears roll quietly down my cheeks, but after a few minutes I had no choice but to bury my face in my handkerchief and stifle the sobs. I did not look side to side and did not want to be comforted by anyone, because I knew that no one could comfort me. John is dead and I will forever be attending these assemblies alone.

The times that are the most confusing, though, are the times that I hold back my tears with my best friends. In fact last weekend I crashed hard, harder than I had crashed in months. My children had been in Alaska visiting their Auntie Bridget for almost two weeks and were little more than 48 hrs away from coming home. I had managed the empty nest mostly ok by keeping busy, hiking and making dinner plans with friends. I tried not to be home too much, but I couldn’t avoid the house completely as this was to be my time to dig in, purge possessions, and pack up our home before we move to Spain. I sold John’s gorgeous green and orange custom-built bike on ebay – he only rode it 4x before he died. I managed to re-open the dreaded nightstand drawers and found a more permanent home for his High School prom photos that were there. I pulled his dishes out of the attic – the dishes he owned before we got married, and put them in a box to take to our cabin as replacements for the 30 year old plastic monstrosities left behind by the previous owners. I finished cleaning out the garage, having recently sold his dreams in the name of his woodworking tools – a drill press, table saw, planer, and jointer.

I soldiered through, trying not to succumb to the darkness as my heart broke over and over again, but by this past Saturday, I could no longer cope. I had faced the ghosts in the closets, attic, and garage over and over again, but didn’t even have my children to hold me. By Saturday afternoon I collapsed into a place of complete aloneness. Grief is an ocean with its constant ebbing and flowing waves – sometimes just ripples, sometimes waves big enough to knock you back but not down, and then sometimes the inevitable 50 foot tall tsunami that wipes out everything in its path and says “Surrender to my darkness.”.

So there I was, sitting in my home at 11am on a Saturday, aware that I was about to be taken down but not quite yet flattened. I walked to the garage with a handkerchief in my pocket, blasted Pearl Jam (John’s favorite band), sat down among his dead dreams, and cried my fucking eyes out. Then I went into the house, threw myself onto the bed, and cried a whole bunch more. I forced myself to each some leftovers for lunch, took a shower, went to sit on the roof where John and I often chatted in the evenings after the girls were asleep, and allowed my body to surrender to the gasping whole body sobs yet again. I cried and cried and cried and cried and didn’t call anyone.

It was a difficult day.

I had plans to see a movie with a friend that night – Pan’s Labyrinth at the Central Cinema. I went to the movie with her and was mostly quiet. I did not tell her until later that I had been crying all day. I watched the moving people on the screen and then went to bed despondent yet again.

That night I woke up to the horror at 3am. This is my pattern every single night. I sleep for 2-4 hours, wake up, fill with sadness and fear, get up, walk around, breathe, eventually go back to bed and sleep for at most 2 more hours. This pattern began the night I was told they would dispatch Search and Rescue helicopters in the morning (before his death was confirmed). I slept 2 hours, woke up gasping for air as the awareness of the horror flooded in. I am told that as a result the trauma my body developed a PTSD response upon waking – adrenaline floods, fear overwhelms, despondence and aloneness result. I still have this response, and even after 2 years of doctors visits, medications, individual therapy, group therapy, and weekly acupuncture, I am often find myself at the bottom of my well at 3am.

That brings us to Sunday morning – a week ago now. I putzed around from 3-4am, managed to go back to sleep for about 2 more hours from 4-6am, and woke up still at the bottom of my well. I huddled in a reclining chair in my living room under a blanket, crying on and off, until around 9am. My friend Frank stopped by at 9am to pick up some black Day of the Dead pottery skulls that I had purchased on a trip to Oxacaca in 2001 but was now purging. He immediately saw that I was in a broken state and radiated compassion, but still – I felt a deep resistance to crying in his arms. I let myself fall against him anyway and allowed the gasping sobs to briefly resume. He patted my back, made soothing shushing sounds, and kept reminding me to breathe. Soon I stopped gasping, managed to regulate my breathing, and found a slightly calmer place. He helped me.

Except, he didn’t. It wasn’t his fault and he wasn’t the problem. The fact is – I didn’t want to stop crying. I stopped crying because it is awkward to keep sobbing and gasping when you, dear Friend, lovingly try to help me stop. I stopped crying because so often us grievers have to manage how much sadness we expose our caregivers to. This might surprise you, since I show you so much of my grief in my writing, but still – these are my words that I’m showing you, not my raw tears. I see how it hurts you to watch me cry in the flesh and so I try to stop crying when you are around. Even those of you that keep telling me “It’s fine, Holly… cry around me any time.” Still, I mostly do not, because I can’t handle the helplessness and wave for horror that inevitably spread across your face as you watch me crash.

Part of me believes that there are simply a certain number of tears I must cry, and if I stifle them now then they will erupt later. Perhaps that’s why I cried so much this weekend. My crying for the last couple of months had been more of the quiet weeping type, and apparently I had let a whole bunch of horrific sobbing build up. I wanted to say to Frank “Could you please leave so that I can lay here by myself on my bed and wail and sob until I fall asleep mid-day in a snotty soggy salty tear mess?” Because… that’s what I really wanted to do, what I needed to do. Instead, I allowed myself to be calmed, sent Frank on his way, and then spent most of the rest of the day still at the bottom of my well.

It’s times like last Sunday that my sense of aloneness threatens to engulf me. Everyone tells me that I am not alone, but I am indeed alone in this journey I am on as the only parent to my 2 sweet girls. When I fished Melanie out of Alpental’s ski patrol room and rushed her to the emergency room after a ski accident, I was alone. When I stood up at Isabella’s birthday party, cooking all the food, cutting the cake, and pasting a smile on as I wave my figurative pom-poms, I was alone. When I take the girls to the cabin, drive through hours of traffic, unload the car, make dinner, clean up, and put them to bed – I am alone. When I lay awake at 3am, willing the universe to take every penny that I own in exchange for one more moment to run my fingers through his full red beard – I am alone. Alone alone alone. My friends and community do comfort me and in fact have saved me from a much deeper horror that could have resulted, but still – there is a dark shadow of aloneness that has wrapped its way around my soul, and none of you can remove it. All you can do is sit with me in my darkness.

By the end of the day on Sunday, August 7 – day 2 of my huge sob fest, I felt like I was drowning, like I could not breathe, like all of Mount Rainier was on top of my chest. It felt like I would die from the pain, though my brain knew I would not. I kept telling myself “Just breathe, the episode will pass, you can survive this, the kids will be home tomorrow… they will hold you.”

And then, at 7:16pm, I was given the gift I needed in the form of a comment from someone I have never met right here on my grief blog.

The comment was on a essay I wrote 16 months ago in April 2015 (11 months after loss). The post was titled “Sit with me in my darkness” and conveyed a “fuck hope” message. Meaning – stop sitting there in your comfy non-widowed, non-only-parent chair and telling me that things will be ok, because what I really need is for you to sit with me where I am – in a place of darkness, in a place where your words of hope ring trite. To this day, over a year later, “Sit with me in my darkness” is the post that seems to resonate most deeply with my fellow grievers. I have included the comment in its entirety below –

I lost my beautiful, darling 23-year-old daughter, who was my only child, after being a single-mom all of her life…she was my heart and soul, my best friend, my sunshine, moon, stars, light and whole damn sky and was tragically killed in a Road Traffic Collision as a pedestrian 9 years and 3 months ago 😥  Thank you for sharing so honestly, Holly (and thank you ♥ Megan Devine.♥ of Refuge In Grief for sharing this and bringing it to my attention). Your words (grief) have resonated so deep within me, all of them AND specifically:

“I float on a raft, alone, on my cold windy ocean of grief. If you tell me it isn’t an ocean or that the shore is closer than it really is, then you don’t help me, you only make me feel more alone.” ~ as Megan says, “YES YES YES YES. Fuck all the hope-brokers. That kind of hope dismisses your pain, and pain is what is.” Your beautiful, corageous, raw honesty has also helped to really spark that anger I know I need to direct squarely at others…after all this time?!…because what is needed is nothing fancy or esoteric from those who [profess to] love and support us in our darkness but, as you say: “Sit with me in my darkness. The way out is through. I continue to move through. I am broken, vulnerable, weeping in every possible way. I am also one of the strongest people you will ever meet. Don’t be afraid of my darkness – sit with me and allow me to dive deep so that I can feel what I need to feel and cry all the tears that must be shed. I will survive. We will survive. I am a warrior, and though these wounds are still raw and oozing, they do not destroy me. I may still be at the bottom of a well, but I continue to reach for the light, and for the love of all of you.”

♥ Thank you, again, from my broken heart to yours ♥ Holly ♥ and I am so very sorry for your great loss and for your daughter’s loss, too….sending as much love and light as I can muster from my ‘well’ to yours… ♥ – sukeyblue61

Thank you, sukeyblue61. At my place of deepest aloneness, your words came to me. Even if my friends and family cannot understand what I am going through (how could they?), I have you. You sit with me in my darkness, and I sit with you in yours. Your arms reach me through the ether – ones and zeros, flashes of light on a wire, packets that get reconstructed in order to light up pixels on a screen that show me –

I am not alone, I am not alone, I am not alone.

Love you forever, John. I will never stop crying.

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IMG_2335
John with Isabella and Melanie on our Okanokan land, 2009