A Day in the Life Part III – Rebirth

October 6, 2016

The entire crowd stood and roared, waving paper Catalonian flags. They began to sing, joyously in fact. My girls jumped up, so delighted.

“What is it, mama?!”

“I don’t know… I think they are singing some sort of Catalonian anthem!”

Everyone in the crowd had so much pride, so much joy in being exactly where they were. It was contagious, and I found my eyes wet. It felt like… like I was becoming part of something new.

My daughters and I were in Tarragona, one hour outside of Barcelona. We had moved to Spain just 3 weeks before and were in Tarragona on a weekend trip to see the biannual Concurs de Castells – the Human Tower Competition. There were teams from all over Europe and from as far away as China. The sea of bodies was truly mesmerizing… almost 20 teams, over 500 competitors, all wearing the traditional white pants and black waist sash, all part of one ocean of bodies huddled together in the arena.

“Oh Mama!” They gasped, eyes wide.wp_20161001_063

Bodies began to pop up in the air as the first team began. First the sturdy men made the base, holding other men up on their shoulders while others leaned in, pushing against them, reinforcing them for those that would come next. More people stepped on shoulders, walking over the heads of the people leaning in, shimmying up to the next level. Once the structure of bodies was at least 4 high (with several at each level), the kids in helmets began to scamper up to the top. Everything moved fast, because they knew the structure would not maintain itself for long. The kids had made it to the top, waved an arm in the air in victory, and the team began the race to disassemble from the top down.

The structure began to wobble, and I looked away. I don’t like it when bodies fall. I can’t handle it when bodies fall. For two years I have had flashbacks of John and the team of six falling – swept off the ridge, 3300 feet, onto a glacier. Please, don’t let them fall. Nothing protects us. People die.

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About four days after our arrival in Spain, my PTSD symptoms began to subside. For over two years I hadn’t been able to shake the night terrors – the 3am episodes when my body would flood with adrenaline, heart racing, body covered in sweat. I had seen doctors, therapists, used various yoga and meditation techniques, and tried a slew of medications. But – what I really needed to do was run away from my life.

And so, run away is what I did. The first few nights in Spain, I still woke up gasping for breath, despondent. “My children will never have a father.” The voices said. “I cannot be everything they need.” “Please earth, swallow me up.”

But, the earth beneath me here in Espana didn’t swallow me up. Instead, it welcomed me, wrapped me up in its arms, and kissed me on both cheeks.
Instead of dying from pain, I was reborn.

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My body hardened and I held my breath, but the tower of bodies did not crumble. The kids scampered down, then the strong but not heavy bodies in the middle, then the enormous burly men near the base. I relaxed and let my shoulders drop. The crowd cheered. My eight-year-old Melanie said to me, with confidence and intention –

“Mama, I think we should move here full-time, not just for this year. I want to be on one of these teams, Mama. Will you help me get on a team? I want to be the one that climbs to the TOP.”

Then, about 30 minutes later and 6 successful towers in, it happened. A young boy from the top was scrambling back down. The people in the middle began to sway and shake a bit. I could tell they were barely holding it together. NO. I couldn’t handle it. I looked away as the crowd gasped. When I looked back – a pile of bodies. The boy from the top was holding his bloody nose. Adrenaline flooded. My heart began to race. I said to the kids

“I don’t like this. Do you want to keep watching, or should we go?”

I truly wanted to bolt but I didn’t want to ruin it for them.

“We don’t want to go!” Melanie said, bouncing in her seat.

My 11-going-on-30 year-old Isabella put her hand on my leg and calmly said “Mom, it’s ok. Really, it is.”

Everyone that had fallen got back up. No one on the competition floor seemed overwhelmed. No one left in an ambulance. Each team was given 3 attempts. More towers were built. More crumbled. The girls could tell I was on edge. After the third time I said

“Should we leave now?”

Melanie looked at me with poise, confidence, a tenacity that made me feel like I was looking into the eyes of my younger self.

“I still want to do it, Mama. I still want to be on a team someday. I am not afraid.”

I felt the adrenaline subside. Anxiety had lifted its ugly head and then pulled back into its hole without wreaking havoc on my body. I was… ok. Happy even. Our lives were broken. The towers were broken. Everything was broken. But, broken things can be rebuilt.

The girls and I went to dinner, then back to the hotel. Our room had one double bed and one single bed. I smiled at Melanie and said
“Would you like to share the big bed with me, sweetheart?”

“Mom” she tossed back, suddenly many years older than the little girl who flew across the Atlantic with me 3 weeks before. “I want my OWN bed.”

“Oh” I said, surprised. “Well, looks like there is a Murphy bed on the wall. I will pull it down and everyone can have their own space!”

We all read on our Kindles for a bit and then went to sleep. Yes, I actually slept. For a couple of weeks by then I had been sleeping. Not a ton, still just 5-6 hours a night, but it was real sleep, the sleep of someone who was settling in, the sleep of a woman who was beginning to surrender and let go. More amazing still, I had begun to dream. For two years, I hadn’t dreamed. All of the sudden I was dreaming every night. That night, something random about my friends Justin and Morgan who were living in my home back in Seattle. The night before, something bizarre about a much younger African American boyfriend whose friends were eating all the food in my fridge. In the dream I laughed at his friends, told them to finish up, and then told the boyfriend “You really should find another lover. I’m going to be gone.”

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We woke up the next morning in good spirits. After dining on manchego cheese, serrano ham, and baguette that I had stashed in the min-fridge, we wandered through an open air market. We were relaxed, happy… further gorging ourselves on roasted nuts and empanadas. Melanie convinced me to buy her a tiny 8euro crystal ball, something she had been begging for for a couple of weeks.

Then, we moved on to a Roman amphitheater not far from the hotel. The amphitheater had been built in the 2nd century and was in use until the 4th century for various sporting events – animal hunts and gladiator fights. The gladiators were often prisoners of war, trained specifically for these events. I read the signs and explained to the girls –

“See the big hole in the middle of the arena? The gladiators and animals were held below and were lifted up on a platform to face the crowd and their opponents.”wp_20161002_016

“Why did they fight, Mama?” Melanie said

“They didn’t have a choice. They were prisoners. People came to watch because they thought it was fun.”

Melanie hardened and said “Mama, death doesn’t sound like good entertainment. That sounds terrible.”

“It was a different time.” I responded softly, taking her hand. “All we can do is learn from the past so we don’t repeat it.”

We wandered from the amphitheater to some other Roman ruins in town. Melanie ran ahead, as was her way. Isabella began to muse.

“I want to become a writer, mama.”

“What do you want to write about?”

“I want to travel everywhere, learn lots of languages, and write about my adventures. Do you think I could print a magazine and sell it in airports?”

“Why don’t you start a blog?” I said.

“How do I do that?”

“I’ll help you.” I smiled. “We can start tonight when we get home.”
Home. Seattle isn’t home any more – Barcelona is.

++++++

“ ¡Me acuerdo de ti! ¡Compró todos mis mangos!” He laughed. Meaning – I remember you! You bought all my mangos!

We were back in Barcelona and it was Monday morning. I had left the apartment in a short black skirt I bought on Las Ramblas the week before. Behind me I pulled a tall skinny purple grocery cart on wheels, also recently purchased. Originally I had planned to carry groceries around in my Seattle hiking backpack, but once I arrived I realized – that’s not how the Europeans do it. I had only been to this particular produce shop once before, but still – the burly bearded owner remembered me.purple-shopping-cart

“Mis hijas como mangos muy mucho!” I said – “My daughers like mangos very much.” “Lo siento para los otras personas que quieren mangos!” – “I am sorry for the other people who want mangos!”

He laughed and laughed. “No es una problema!”

I filled up my purple cart and made my way to the meat market. For some reason, most of the butchers in Barcelona seemed to be women. I loved it.

“Tienes algo ecological?” I asked? Do you have anything organic?

She could tell I was struggling with the Spanish and responded kindly in broken English. “This here – pigs from the country. They eat only acorns on the ground. Is good?”

“Si, es bien.” I smiled.

“Where are you from?” she asked.

“Yo soy de Los Estados Unidos. Pero – ahora, vivo aqui. Vivo in Barcelona.” I am from the United States. But – I live here now. I live in Barcelona.

“Un regalo,” She responded, handing me a bit of hard sausage. A present.

I wheeled my purple cart home, behind my sassy skirt and tall black boots. Again my eyes got wet, but not with sadness, with relief. Something new and right was growing inside of me.

I returned to my apartment, sat down on the couch, and opened “Madame Picasso”, a fictionalized account of Picasso’s love affair with Eva Gouel, spanning the sinking of the Titanic and World War 1. Gouel died of cancer before they were able to marry, further scarring his heart which had already been broken by the death of his young sister, the death of his father, and the suicide of one of his best friends. As I finished the book I felt a kinship with Picasso and admired him anew simply because, well, he survived.

My eyes were heavy as I placed my kindle on the table next to the couch. Not from sadness, but from fatigue. It seemed that, as I began to sleep more, my body felt permission to admit how exhausted it really was. I laid down on the couch and slept easily for two hours, enjoying vivid dreams yet again. How could I have gone two years without dreaming? It doesn’t matter. That time is over.

I woke up, left the apartment, and walked down the street to the bus stop, ready to collect my girls, still groggy.

“How was your day?” One of the other mothers asked.

“I took a wonderful nap.” I said.

They knew of my trauma and smiled kindly. I rambled sleepily –

“Back in Seattle my friends kept asking me – “What will you do while you are in Spain.”” I continued, laughing “I kept telling them – all I want to do is learn to sleep again! I can’t see past that!”

They chuckled and said. “That is what Espana is for! You came to the perfect place.”

We all laughed in agreement as our kids stepped off the bus. For so long, my smiles had been forced – an upturn of the corners of my mouth while the edges of my heart turned down. But that day, my smiles were real and true.

“Shall we take a picnic to the beach?” I said.

“Yes mama, lets!”

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Before we left Tarragona, Melanie took out her little crystal ball.

“Would you like me to read your fortune mama?” She said.

“Sure sweetheart, go ahead.” I was amused and happy. We had had such a nice weekend together, our little family of three.

“I see your future, mama. You will be living in Europe in a house, with your two daughters.” She looked right into my eyes and beamed sunshine into my heart.

“Oh really Melanie? That sounds good to me, darling. “

“I love you mama.”

“I love you too, sweetheart.”

A Day in the Life Part II – Transition and Hysteria

September 7, 2016

“Promise me you will eat something, and promise me you will go to bed soon!” Jahnacia said.

“Yes yes, I promise.” I replied. But we both knew it was a lie.

I was noticeably thinner and the lines around my eyes were heavy as I clawed my way to the finish line, the bloody stumps of my legs dragging behind me. My two daughters (age 8 and 11) and I were to get on a plane the next day. After months of planning, we were leaving our Seattle home and moving to Barcelona – a drastic move that not everyone was supportive of.

It hadn’t been easy. Months before, I had started the extensive process to acquire long term visas for myself and the girls. Background check, financial documents, birth certificates, death certificate -proving I wasn’t abducting them away from a still-alive father, and so much more. Official documents had to be apostilled with the Secretary of State. Everything had to be translated and notarized by a certified translator and submitted in person to the Consulate of Spain in San Francisco.

Harder still, I had to pack up my entire home – over a decade of memories. I had to face all the hidden grief bombs that reminded me of the horror of John’s death – hand written love letters I had given to him on anniversaries and birthdays, still tucked into his nightstand; Burningman bling from the late 90’s in the attic of his beloved garage/mancave; his juggling pins which could be lit on fire – back from the escapades of his early 20’s with a fire performance troop. I forced myself to put our framed wedding photo in a box, sealed it, and let it be buried by an ocean of boxes filled with other broken dreams. It was all horrible, but I plodded on.

My instinct five months earlier, when I came up with this plan, had been to sell the house. I couldn’t breathe and wanted to completely shed myself of baggage and worries. I didn’t think I could start my new life if I was still getting phone calls that dirty water was coming back up out of the shower in the basement, or the neighbors were angry yet again over conflict in the shared driveway. But, my relator said I shouldn’t sell, said it was a good investment. And – another friend also insisted I keep it. “NO you can’t sell it” she said. “You need a home to come back to. I will live in it while you are gone and take care of it for you so that you don’t have to stress about it.” But, three months later, two months before our planned departure, her mother helped her buy her own home. I don’t blame her – she was going through a divorce and needed to get her kids settled, but yet again I was alone.

I knew I didn’t have the time or energy by that late hour to completely empty and sell the house, so I gritted my teeth and found other friends to live there. They agreed to live among my furniture if I packed up all my other belongings. I found additional friends to live in the two-bedroom apartment in my basement and care for my sweet nine-year-old Brittney Spaniel. I had provided the apartment for my late-husband’s mother and as part of this transition, I was coordinating her move to Alaska to live with her daughters. She was angry that I was pushing her out, making it harder for her to see my daughters – her grandchildren. And why shouldn’t she be angry? I had all the power and she had none. I tried to soften the blow by providing the funds for her daughter to add on to her home, so that there would be additional space, but nothing I did was enough. I was the bad guy. Still, I plodded on.

And of course, through all of this, I had to be a mother to my precious fatherless children. They needed so much of me. My eight-year-old Melanie was still sleeping in my bed many nights. It was summertime, and I was determined that they would still have fun, even though I had just SO much to do. We went to Wildwaves, mountain biked near our Leavenworth cabin, threw the ball for our sweet pooch in the river while floating around on tubes. In between the fun, I had to continue all the cooking, all the driving, all the packing, and all of the preparations on the other side – I worked through an agent to secure an apartment in Barcelona sight unseen, I set up a local bank account in Spain from my living room couch, and I completed the final arrangements with the semi-private tri-lingual school they would be attending once we landed in Catalonia. Through all of this, I had very little childcare – my late husband’s mother helped as much as she could and wanted to help more but had been struggling with pneumonia for months and truly needed to take care of herself. I was alone. Totally and completely alone.

The fact is, most of me didn’t want to go. Everyone thought I was embarking on a big vacation, to which I responded “Don’t you understand? I won’t have any friends. I won’t have any help with the kids. I will be a single mom in a foreign country, barely speaking the language. It will be hard.”

Isabella was excited, but Melanie wasn’t. She told me over and over “I do NOT want to move to Spain, mama.” “Why do we have to go, mama… can’t we stay here?” I tried to gently inspire her with all the things we would learn, all the adventures we would have, but she didn’t buy it. She was angry.

But still, I knew deep down we had to leave.

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Jahnacia went to bed around midnight after helping me pack for hours. I stayed up until 4am in a panic – I still hadn’t finished digging important documents out of my office that needed to be scanned before leaving. I sent a frantic email to Bev, whom I had entrusted with the one signed copy of my Last Will and Testament earlier that day, giving her some final instructions as to administration of the estate should anything happen to me while I was in Spain. I sent an email to the new tenants, apologizing for the fact that I would likely not be able to finish packing up the last of my kitchen and bedroom closet, asking them to put the final items in boxes to be stored in the yoga studio.

From 4-5:30am I slept a restless, dreamless sleep. I woke up without an alarm in order to finish packing my clothing, my laptop, snacks and distractions for the girls on the long flights, international power adaptors, the sleep medication my doctor had suggested I use once I arrived, to see if I could finally reset my sleep patterns once I was in a new environment. I began to stack the suitcases by the front door – 6 checked pieces at a full 50lbs each and 4 carry-ons. I would have help to the airport, but after that, none.
At 9am Pat, the father of my late husband, arrived. He was there to say a final goodbye to his grandchildren. I told him, out of earshot of the kids –

“I am on the edge of breaking apart. My PTSD is kicking in. I will have to completely ignore you. I need you to distract the kids.”

I said to the girls “Please try to get along this morning. I’m having a tough time getting everything done and am worried we will miss our flight.”

“I don’t want to go.” Melanie responded, arms crossed.

At noon, my friend Brian arrived. He was to take us to the airport in his enormous van. I had asked him to arrive an hour early – we needed to leave for the airport by 1pm. I wanted to get to SeaTac 3 hrs before our international flight, because I knew I would struggle – so much luggage, plus the kids, and – I had worked so hard, I couldn’t let anything get in the way. I had asked for his help because I knew he could hold space. I knew he could maintain calm when I could not.

“What can I do?” He said.

I shouted instructions at him and he did my bidding. By 1pm I was not ready to depart. I hadn’t eaten anything since 6pm the night before and felt woozy, as if I might pass out. My hands had a slight tremble. The last suitcase still wasn’t fully packed. Random possessions were still strewn about, and people were going to move in the next day. I said to Brian –

“Come with me to the garage.”

The detached garage was behind the house. John had always told me – he bought that house for the garage. It had been his wood-shop, his man-cave, his place to escape, and now it was mine. I was shaking and almost hyperventilating but by then was experienced enough with these episodes to communicate externally while simultaneously breaking down.

“Brian, I am on the edge of a full panic attack. I know we need to leave for the airport now. I am not ready. I know I shouldn’t be in the garage – I need to be inside, eating, getting the kids shoes on. But if I don’t calm down, my PTSD will take over and I will become completely unable to function. “

“What do you need?” he said.

“Just stand here and be calm. I am going to just try to breathe. I have to pull it together or I will never make it.”

So, I walked in a circle over and over there in my man-cave. I gasped for breath. I fought the adrenaline. I wiped away tears. I could not stop my body from trembling but I managed to not lay down on the dirty cement floor and succumb to the darkness. After about 10 minutes, I said

“Let’s go.”

We went inside and I ran back and forth through the house for 45 more minutes. Brian heated up leftovers, put a plate for me in the kitchen, and sat with my kids and Pat while they ate. I shoved a bite in my mouth, ran to the bedroom, threw a few more items in the suitcase while I chewed, ran back to the kitchen, shoved another bite in, threw some items in a box in the living room, back and forth.

By 2pm (an hour late), I said “We have to leave NOW. If there is traffic, we won’t even arrive two hours before the international flight.”

Brian had the car loaded. I asked the kids to pee one more time. Pat said his goodbyes and left. We got in the car. I was still shaking. I expressed fear that two of our carry-ons were overweight and that they wouldn’t let me on the plane. I knew I was being completely ridiculous but adrenaline coursed through me and the intelligent part of my brain couldn’t fight the irrational and idiotic fear that had taken over.

We made it to the airport, through security, onto the plane, and (many hours later) into our AirBnb in Barcelona.

And so it began.

A Day (Night) in the Life

August 16, 2016

I was standing by the sink when I heard her crying.

My entire body hardened.  Another crisis.  Always another crisis.  I could never ignore it, no matter how spent I was or what I was in the middle of, because if I did then she would spiral down fast and we would both pay a higher price.  I ran outside.

“Mama, mama, he won’t STOP!”

Melanie was wailing, her mouth shaped into a horrible ‘O’, her body flailing, repeating herself over and over. “Mama he won’t stop! He won’t STOP!  I TOLD HIM TO STOP AND HE WON’T STOP!”  Any sense of joy or satisfaction in my day dissolved immediately. Her needs were all on me and no one else would or could fix it.  I got down on my knees in the grass and looked into the eyes of my eight-year old daughter – my darling, my blood.  I tried to breathe slowly but failed as I felt my body flood with adrenaline.  My heart raced and I pressed my palm against my chest to keep it from beating so hard that my skin would burst open.  I knew by now that it didn’t matter what the issue was; she and I were both having a PTSD hormonal response, but for different reasons.  Hers was caused by innocent questions that came from Jamie, her six-year old playmate, while mine was caused by… well, her.  I pulled from within to present a face of calm.

“Shhhhh.   What is it, sweetheart?  Calm down.  I’m here.”

“Mama, I keep telling him to stop but he won’t!  He asked me how Dada died and I said I don’t want to talk about it.  I DON’T WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT!”

She was frantic, unable to listen or look at me.  I could barely understand her as she continued through hysterical sobs.

“So then Mama he said ’Did he die from a heart attack?’ and I said ‘NO, stop talking about it!’ and then he said ’Did someone shoot him?’  and I said “STOP TALKING ABOUT IT.’”

“Shhhh darling.  Come here.  Shhhh… just breathe.  I will help work it out.   It’s ok.  You don’t have to talk about how your dad died.”

She leaned against me and cried as I stroked her hair and made the same shushing sounds I made when she cried in my arms as an infant.  After she had calmed down, I left her to play in the back yard so that I could talk to Jamie, who was now in the house.   I got down on my knees again and found myself face-to-face with one very confused child – an innocent six-year old who had simply been trying to make sense of a topic (death) that no six-year old should have to make sense of.

“Jamie, can we talk for a minute?”  I smiled.  “You haven’t done anything wrong.  You aren’t in trouble.”

His jaw and fists clenched.  I so badly wanted him to relax.

“Melanie said you had some questions about her dad dying.”  I smiled again, hating that poor Jamie had been put in such a situation.  I had learned by then that a child his age is not capable of understanding death. They see the departed person as simply ”on a trip”.

Jamie looked down and did not respond.  He needed the moment to be over.  I decided to simply do my best to leave the door open and then let it go.

“Jamie, it’s okay.  Death is really confusing.  Don’t feel bad.  I mean it.  It’s okay to not understand.  Melanie has a hard time with the questions sometimes, but you can always ask me or your dad.”

Jamie said nothing and turned away.  Another part of my insides blackened and shriveled.  Everything would always be on me.

+++++++

We sat down to dinner and chatted.  It was mostly pleasant

Except, Melanie was angry.  She wouldn’t talk to Jamie.  She sat with her arms crossed in front of her chest. I was reminded that I will never escape.

“Sweetheart, it’s not his fault,”  I whispered gently.

She stiffened and her mouth tightened.  “Mama, it IS his fault.  He wouldn’t listen.  He wouldn’t stop talking about it!  I told him!”  She almost became hysterical again.

“Melanie, when you were six it was hard for you to understand as well. It’s very confusing for a child that young.  Death isn’t talked about much in our society.  He just wanted to understand.”

Jamie wasn’t the only one who was innocent – Melanie was innocent too.  At age eight Melanie isn’t developmentally capable of looking at John’s death from the outside.  The problem wasn’t Melanie, Jamie, or me.  And, that’s why my body became heavy as lead and much older than my 41 years.  It’s not anyone’s fault, but still. I carry the burdens.  So I sat there, eating sushi, pasting on a smile.  My spirit floated up and looked at my body below, weighted down with sandbags and anchors on the outside, dark, withered, empty on the inside.

Later that night, Melanie went upstairs to put on her PJs and brush her teeth.  I followed to tuck her in.

“Mama, Mama,” she cried, pulling me into her bed and burying her face in my neck.

I held her and stroked her hair.  “Shhh, sweetheart.  Time for bed.”
“Mama, I miss Dada SOOO much.”

“I know sweetheart.  Me too.  I understand.”

“I’m going to have nightmares about Dada tonight. I know I will, Mama!”
After about 30 minutes I had her calmed down enough to leave her to fall asleep.  She would rather spend every night in my bed, and in fact she often does, but I encourage her to spend at least some time in her own room, more for her sake than mine.

I went downstairs, finished cleaning the kitchen, sent my other daughter, her 11-year old sister, Isabella, to bed, read for a while, and went to bed myself at 11:30.

At 3 am, I woke to my own crash.

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I never understood PTSD before my husband John died over two years ago in an avalanche on Mount Rainier while ascending Liberty Ridge.  I thought PTSD meant you had something painful happen that left you stressed and traumatized, too overwhelmed to function normally in society.   But I had no idea about the changes in brain chemistry.

Imagine this: Frank, a soldier in Vietnam, spends months in the jungle. He learns that the rustling of a leaf means that the enemy is laying in the bush, ready to pounce.  Eventually, his brain short-circuits its analysis center and, when it hears a leaf rustling, it immediately floods with adrenaline and goes into fight-or-flight. Frank returns to his home country and finds himself, years later, in the park with his son.  Someone walks by with their dog and rustles a leaf.  Frank begins to sweat and jumps up in distress.  On some level he recognizes that nothing is wrong, but his amygdala has taken over and the hormonal flood puts him into a state of fear and stress.

Frank is imagined, but my friend Eric is not. Eric survived a rocket attack in the Iraq war.  When the rocket hit, there was no time for analysis – his brain shot adrenaline and he immediately began to pull his buddies to safety.  Both were on fire, pierced with multiple pieces of shrapnel each the size of a fist.  One died there, one later.  Now, back home, open fire of any sort can put him into combat mode.  A simple flame under a coffee pot or candle on a birthday cake at a friend’s house can cause him to instantaneously shoot adrenaline and leap up with hypervigilance, ready for the next attack.  It’s beyond his control.

PTSD fundamentally changes your brain structure.  In a normal individual, information first flows into the frontal cortex.  The frontal cortex and the hippocampus chat and decide what to do with the stimulus.  Perhaps the hippocampus records something as a memory.  Perhaps it signals the amygdala to go into fight or flight.

When someone has PTSD, the frontal cortex often short-circuits the hippocampus and allows the amygdala to take over.  Minor stimulus results in fight or flight.  A rustling leaf or a lit birthday candle triggers an instant true state of alarm and fear.  Frank and Eric have no choice.  In fact, studies of soldiers with PTSD have shown that their frontal cortex and hippocampus have both shrunk while the amygdala has enlarged.

These changes in the brain are significant. They aren’t something that a person can just ‘get over.’

I developed a PTSD response upon waking up within the first two days after John’s death.  I would wake up only to remember HE IS DEAD. My body would flood with adrenaline.  Even now, two years later, upon waking my amygdala believes that I am in state of danger and acts accordingly.

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So there I was, at 3 am, awake.  I felt fine at first. Thirty seconds later my adrenaline flooded, my heart began to race, my breathing quickened, and I began to sweat. I filled with horror and despondence.  “Nothing will ever be ok again,” my inner voice said.  “You aren’t strong enough to do this alone.”  It continued.  “Please earth, swallow me up now. I cannot go on another day.”  My rational brain was clear: I was having a PTSD response.  But my rational voice is often beat into submission by the two bullies on the block who have fashioned long-term physical and chemical changes in my brain: Adrenaline and Cortisol.

As I lay there in the darkness, I used my tricks to try to bring myself out of the episode.  I encouraged a smile to my face.  I repeated to myself “My children love me.  I love them.  My home is safe and secure.  My friends are amazing.”  I told myself to breathe slowly – in for a count of two, out for a count of four — as my yoga teacher had taught me.

But it didn’t work.  I put my hand to my chest and gently massaged the area that began to tighten.  I felt the horrific chemicals flowing from my brain.  My heart rate continued to speed up.  I began to cry.

This happens almost every night.

I’m not even sure I’m crying for John so much anymore even though part of me will cry for him for an eternity.  Now, most of the tears come from knowing that my dream of a happy and whole family is dead and I am left alone with all of the burdens.

I curled into a ball and continued to cry for twenty minutes.

Once I realized that I would not be able to go back to sleep, I got up but left all the house lights off.  I never know quite what to do with this middle of the night time.  Sometimes I write when I am truly desperate, but only when I have given up on any sleep at all, because once I open my laptop there will be no chance of another one or two hours of slumber. I can’t call anyone at 2 or 3 am.  I can’t get in the car and go anywhere since my kids are in bed and I cannot leave them.  I’m not going to exercise at 3 am. I can read, or watch a movie, which I sometimes do.   Often, I water the lawn, because … well, it needs to be watered.

So I went outside, turned on the hose, and tended to the yard by moonlight– the tomato plants, the oregano-sage-thyme herb pot, the patchy grass.   Even if my life is dead, at least the lawn won’t be.  Then, I sat on the back porch and sobbed into my hands.  It was 4:30 am.  I needed someone to hold me.  Every night I ache for someone to simply hold me and stroke my hair.  I need someone to do for me what I do for Melanie – hold me, make soft shushing sounds, tell me that everything will be okay.  I need someone to do this without his or her own stress.  Someone who is not so overwhelmed by the darkness that he or she needs it to stop. Someone who can maintain calm and strength and allow me to move through.

Unfortunately, that person does not exist and I have zero interest in forcing the wrong person into that role.  Less than zero interest.

I do, however, have my Melanie who, at almost four years younger than her sister Isabella, still craves my touch, still offers hers.

For over a year after John died, Melanie would often come into my room screaming and crying in the middle of the night.  I only got two to four hours of sleep a night back then, and if she interrupted me during my one good stretch, it might be only one or two hours.  It was hard to cope.  She doesn’t do that now.  It’s true that she still prefers to sleep in my bed, but she can handle being alone. If I put her in her bed, she will mostly stay there.
Now, it is I who cannot handle the aloneness.   I try every day to not need her so much, but in my desperation I have begun to carry her into my bed in the middle of the night.

So, at 4:30, when I was still at the bottom of my well and desperate for human warmth, I did what I have done almost every night for the last six months.  I padded upstairs in the darkness to her room, opened her door, felt around for the frame of the bunk bed, found her body, and leaned in to gently find her forehead with my kiss.  She rolled into my arms, the familiarity of it reaching her even in her slumbered state.

I softly said, “Shh… it’s me.  It’s Mama.”

Her eyes still closed, she kissed me repeatedly on my neck and shoulder.  “Mama, mama… I love you so much.”

In fact, when I scoop her up every night, she immediately pours out gratitude even though she isn’t fully alert.   The compliments and love are in such abundance – “Mama, you are the best mom in the world.”    “Mama, you are such a good mom.”  “Mama, once I realized it was you and that you were picking me up, I was so happy.”

With one arm under her back, the other arm under her knees, and her head against my chest, I carried her out of her room.  It’s not easy.  Melanie weighs 55 pounds. In the middle of the night she is a boneless floppy weight that has to be held like precious cargo.  All the lights are off and I must not bang her head against a wall or trip down the stairs.  So I walk delicately down the hallway, feel around for the stairs with my toes, carefully descend while praying we don’t both take a tumble, carry her along the first-floor hallway, through the kitchen and into the master bath, put her on the toilet so she can pee, and then pick her back up and carry her to my bed.

Once Melanie was in my bed, there were more sleepy words.  “Mama, cuds and snugs?”  “Mama, I love you.”  I slid in next to her and exhaled into a place of relief.  I was on my back with the right side of my body pressed against her warmth.  She flopped onto her left side, nestled into my shoulder, and slung her right arm across my chest before immediately dozing off.  I placed my left hand on top of her arm on my chest and held it there.  My breathing slowed down.  I absorbed the love and light flowing from her body into my heart center and was able to doze off again.

For a while, I was embarrassed that I have become so dependent on my daughter.  I am that mom in ‘Terms of Endearment’ who crawls into bed with her kid after her husband died.  I am that mom whose kids have become her whole life.  I am that mother that will someday struggle when her kids move on with their lives and don’t want to hang out with their old ma so much.

I dozed from about 5 to 6 am and then slipped out of bed quietly, leaving her in my room so that I could write on my laptop in the living room.  By 8 am she stirred and called for me.  I always look forward to this part, the part where I am dosed with more love.  I walked back into the room and crawled into bed with her.  She pressed her body against me, kissed me on the cheek, nestled in, and said, “Mama, I love you.”

“Do you remember me scooping you up, darling?”

“No, I don’t remember at all!” She said, smiling.  By morning she never remembers, and I knew it didn’t matter.  She always woke up so much happier in my bed than hers.

I often wonder how all of this is perceived from the outside.  It is true that I am doing much better.  I am stronger.  I have had many successes in the last year and am feeling proud of my parenting.  I am able to laugh more.  I still cry a lot, but now I am functional through the tears and I am getting things done.

But the night time horrors continue and my PTSD is real.  My brain chemistry has changed.

What is the solace in all of this distress?  Melanie.  Melanie is my solace.  She tends to me.  She tells me she loves me, holds me, gives me what I need so that I can make it through until the night horrors slink away.  Miraculously, Isabella is my solace too, but in different ways and that’s a different story.

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September 10, 2016

Almost a month later, I sit here again in the darkness at 2:30 am, only now at our new home in Barcelona. I had been planning this move for months, desperate to do anything to hit the reset button on our lives and my sleep.  Yesterday Isabella said “This is the best thing you have done since Dada died.  This move to Spain – it’s the best thing you have done, Mom.”

She’s right.

I am moving forward.  I am getting things done.  I am rediscovering the fierce intensity that I used to be known for.  I would and will do anything for my girls, and damn it – I will never ever give up on making a beautiful future for them.

But I still cannot sleep.  I still stumble through each day so exhausted that I have images of knocking my teeth out as I fall on my face out in public.  I still have trouble staying awake while driving. In fact, one of the reasons I chose to move to a European city was so that I could stop driving for an entire year.

I am succeeding, but still struggling.  And that is how it will be for a long time.

Recently someone asked me “What will you do with your time while you are in Barcelona?”   I said, “I’m going to write. I’m going to give my two girls a ton of love.”   And –

“I’m going to learn to sleep again.”