April 17

I sat there in the bathroom stall at the Vancouver airport, looking at the stick I had just peed on. I was supposed to get my period before I left for Paris, but it hadn’t come and near the end of my trip I picked up a pregnancy test. I wasn’t quite sure what exactly was supposed to show up in the display window, since the instructions were in French. Huh. One clear pink line and next to it – one fuzzy pink indistinct line. I threw the stick away, pulled my pants up, and let go of knowing the answer for the moment. Still, something was different. I tried to hurry to the gate for my connecting flight to Seattle. Hurrying was my forte, which is why I remember so distinctly a slowness that came over me that day. An involuntary slowness, in fact. That was the first of many days when I would feel a new-but-soon-to-be-familiar bone deep fatigue.

It was April 10, 2004 – 2 days after my 29th birthday, 7 days before John and I were to be married. Rob and I had just returned from a week in Paris – my version of a bachelorette party. Rob had been like a brother since freshman year at MIT and was to be my Matron of Honor, or Best Man, depending on how you looked at it. John and I had met at Burningman just 7 months beforehand and had fallen crazy in love in a way neither of us had ever experienced. All in that short timeframe we moved in together, got engaged, and planned a wedding. Somewhere in there, the birth control was thrown out the window. Honestly, we tried to use birth control. We knew we should wait until after the wedding, but… we couldn’t help ourselves. Several months into our relationship, after John had already proposed, we became overtaken with a primal need to create life together. John would make love to me, look into my eyes, and say “Let’s make a baby.” We began to have a sort of sex that I’d never had before, a sort of sex that I hadn’t really known was real, the sort of sex where your cells melt together and you go down a rabbit hole into a different dimension that you never want to return from. In fact (and I know this sounds silly), that make-a-baby sex with John made me feel connected to all sexual creatures over the course of time, all the way back to cave-men and cave-women. Because… because the primal need to have his seed as deep as possible inside my egg was so low level and raw. Because I then finally knew what it was like to need and ache for someone so badly on a physical level that reason and logic became irrelevant. Birth control became irrelevant.

In fact, our burning need to combine our DNA was the primary reason we set a wedding date for just a few months later. I remember when I told my mother of the wedding date. She said

“Why rush? Take a longer engagement! Get married in the fall instead of this spring.”

I said “Ma, we have thrown the birth control away. We can’t help ourselves. I would be surprised if I’m not pregnant soon.”

That’s all I had to tell her.

“Oh.” Was all she said. “Oh, ok.”

I landed in Seatac, took a cab home, and picked up a new pregnancy test. The instructions were in English, and finally I knew – I was pregnant.

I waited for John, who was at work. Oh how he swept me up in his arms and kissed me all over. He gave me a beautiful necklace with an enormous black pearl and a potted stargazer lily as late birthday presents. I delightedly told him “I’m pregnant” and watched his eyes turn into 2 liquid brown pools of utter happiness. It was what he wanted. It was what we wanted.

With the wedding 7 days away, we had to hustle. We were cooking our own rehearsal dinner, had done all the wedding planning ourselves, and would be hosting family in our home. Also, there were dress fittings, which were highly amusing given my newly pregnant state. It was still so early – my belly hadn’t changed and wouldn’t change for a couple of months. My breasts, however, had reacted to the pregnancy hormones by growing 2 cup sizes in 1 week. I kid you not. John’s mom had sewn the dress herself and was very confused at the last fitting a few days before the ceremony. My breasts spilled voluptuously over the top and she said “Huh… we fitted this just a week ago. How strange.” John teased “I’ll try to keep my eyes on your face when we exchange our I-do’s, but it will be tough.”

I remember how I had bought special white lace panties to go under my wedding dress and how the fine stockings I had purchased were uncomfortable when I tried them on the day before. I said to John “Do you mind if I’m bare legged under my dress? I hate being uncomfortable.” He smiled, and said “Whatever you like, babe.” It was always that way with us over the 10 years that were to come – when we were going out and I didn’t want to have to look all pretty, I would ask him if he minded if I dressed casual and he would tell me I was sexy in any state. Always. Every time.

I remember walking down the aisle with my arm threaded through my dad’s. I wanted to walk faster but my father held me back firmly, dictating the pace, practically pulling my arm out of its socket with his insistence. My younger sisters Juliet and Rose were up front, playing clarinet and flute as I approached John, my husband to be, the father of the child already in my belly. Him. John. My love. He smiled at me and I could see his eyes were wet. We exchanged the vows we had written for each other and became husband and wife. My universe became aligned in a way it never had before, and I knew John and I would be together forever. The optimism and pure joy I felt in becoming his wife were bigger emotions than I had known I could experience. Everything in life would be ok, even the shitty things, as long as I was with John. I was home. Forever, I was home.

I remember how funny it was that, in a way, we didn’t really care about the wedding itself. John kept saying to me “I don’t care so much about the getting married part, but about the being married to you part. I just want to be your husband. The best part starts after the wedding. The best part is the rest of our lives.”

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The last wedding anniversary we celebrated was our 10th – April 17, 2014 – 41 days before his death on Mount Rainier. John wanted to get a new ring made for me for the occasion, but we had been spending a lot lately and I suggested he wait and do it next year. I was always the frugal one.

Rob offered to loan us his cabin on the Kitsap peninsula and so we left our girls (now age 5 and 9) with John’s mom and took a weekend away, just the 2 of us. Unfortunately I was horrifically sick with a head cold. The timing was terrible, but when you have childcare, you use the childcare. So for 2 days I laid on the couch in the cabin, blowing my nose and moaning with misery while John tended to me. That was the thing about John – when I was sick he was always everything I needed to be. I learned that after my first C-section, and again through-post partum depression, an eventual miscarriage, and later a second C-section. Every time he was everything I needed him to be without me telling him what that was.

I remember, the second day we were at the cabin, how we sat on the floor with our backs against the couch. John had lit a fire in the woodstove and had some electronica playing on the stereo – the sort of downtempo music we might have listened to back in the day at 4am when decompressing after going to an all-night dance party. We were chatting about that magical week when we met at Burningman. He turned to look at me, and even now I’m still haunted by the fact that I can replay that video in my head and remember every detail of his face, the room behind him, and how his mouth moved as he formed the words. He smiled HUGE said “Holly, we just knew. That week, we KNEW we were meant to be together forever. We. Just. Knew.”

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That brings us to now – April 17, 2016, what would have been our 12th wedding anniversary, stop 2 in my horrific springtime train ride through sadness – my 41st birthday on April 8, April 17 wedding anniversary, soon after – Mothers day with no John to honor me, and then the 2 year anniversary of John’s death on May 28.

The truth is – rough stretches like this still take me apart at the seams. I can’t breathe. Really, that’s not an expression – I cannot breath because there is some sort of 20lb bag of sand on my chest. I am black and empty inside. My sleep problems have not improved but rather have gotten worse again – often only 3 hours a night. When I lay awake at night, I think “How can I raise the girls without him. How can I continue without him. How will I find the strength to keep going through so much sadness. Why can’t the earth just swallow me up.” I have trouble seeing joy in my future and put most of my energy into making sure the girls are ok. If I can’t be happy, maybe they can. Yes, I feel the words bubbling up inside of those around me – “Happy kids need a happy mom. Focus on yourself too.” Don’t you see? I want that too, and I am trying, so hard, but it feels like I’m clenching my fingers around the smoke that drifts above my burned up life.

As I write these words, I ask myself – how will people receive them? Will they see my words as a cry for help? Or will they realize that, in a way, these words are actually a way of asking those around me not to help or worry more. Don’t you see? Don’t you know that, given the enormity of what I and my girls have lost, you cannot fix it? Don’t you realize that, no matter how many years go by and what sort of beautiful love I experience (even if I get happily married again), April 17 will still be a sad day? Because on that day the entire world and all the joy in it were open to me. On that day, all of my dreams came true, and now on this day I am reminded that all of those particular dreams are lost forever. It doesn’t matter that I have already loved another since John died or that I know that I will love yet another someday. None of that changes what I and my girls have lost.

You can’t fix it. All you can do is sit with me in my darkness, hold my hand, and wipe away my tears. For those of you who do just that, you are now my family. You and my girls are now my everything. You know who you are – you are the ones who keep me from drowning, not because you fix anything, but because you never diminish the magnitude of my loss, and –

You honor me just as I am.

and –

That is why I do not drown.

Thank you.

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Inside Out

It was the movie that gave me the idea – the idea of how I would bring new joy into our lives, the idea of how I would find a place where we could make new memories that were not tinged with sadness. But first, before I explain the happy part, we must take stock of the sadness.

My husband had died in an avalanche on May 28, 2014. I was left alone with an ocean of grief and a pile of different flavors of crushing burdens. Even more tragic, my (at the time) 5 and 9 year old little girls were left with no daddy. Over and over again, I faced my demons and tried to take the girls to do the things we liked to do as a family before John died – camping, hiking, outdoor bouldering, skiing. Sometimes it was a complete disaster, because there were too many reminders of the hole that was left behind. Other times the girls and I were able to move through the sadness and reclaim some part of our past, painful as it might be to continuously be slapped in the face with the fact that this future did not include John.

I realized early on that our 25 acres of forested land would always be a special and cherished tribute to John, even though many of the memories of our time there are now tinged with blue. A couple of months ago I wrote about our land in “On Fire”. The land was John’s baby. He wanted space – 20 acres at least, a creek, and thousands of trees. He wanted to be able to Build Shit and make truly enormous campfires. So, we made the dream happen. We bought the land, camped on it in our VW pop top, and eventually John spent a summer building a one room cabin by hand. Our happiest family memories happened on that land – the girls and I cuddling and swinging in the hammock; John crouching by the fire pit, flipping a pork tenderloin sizzling over the coals; Melanie climbing her favorite tree and never wanting to come down; the hot standing up sex John and I had way out in the field out of view, just after he had chainsawed up a tree; the huge rowdy multi day camping parties we would have with friends, the symphony of hundreds of birds every evening during their 6pm chatty hour, the chorus of millions of insects squeaking and buzzing during THEIR 8pm chatty hour, it goes on forever. The happy memories on the land go on for freakin’ forever.

After John died, it was hard to go back to the land, but at the same time going back felt like the absolute right thing to do. John’s hard work, love, and dreams were there. The girls would tell me “I have so many happy memories of daddy from the land. Don’t ever sell it, mama. When you die, leave the land to us, mama.” It was tons of work and emotionally draining to take the kids there without him, but still I did it, and the girls (though they missed him) truly delighted in being there, every time. I loved the land, but more importantly – I love my girls, and the land soothed them.

Then, several months ago, the land burned down.

Our 7000 trees burned, including Melanie’s favorite climbing tree near the fire pit and the 2 trees that held up our hammock. The sheds with our tools, shade structures, and outdoor kitchen equipment burned. John’s one room hand built cabin burned. The fence posts burned, and the hand-carved “Mul-Acres” sign that John put on the gate burned. Everything burned. It was August 2015, 1 year and 3 months after John died. WA state had been hit with the most horrific wildfires the state had seen in decades. It was the Okanogan Complex fire that took our land and many of our dreams. It was this fire that stole yet another piece of John from his little girls, and it was this fire that stole the rest of the childhood that they could have had frolicking in the forest. Oh how I wanted nothing more than a place where the girls could be free, where they could catch bugs with nets, get completely  filthy, and make s’mores until they vomit. The fire took away some of the little bit of joy and solace that we had left.

How is it that so much tragedy can hit one family in such a short time? How is it that one more precious thing could be taken from my girls? What was the universe trying to tell me?

I became completely panicked about the idea of telling them what had happened. Traumas are like concussions. For a while after you get a concussion your brain fluid is inflamed. If you get another concussion during this period of inflammation, brain damage is significantly more likely. After John died our hearts were scarred up broken puss-leaking organs that were in no state to cope with any more damage. What was I to do? Oh how I ached and agonized. I felt, deeply, that the girls would break in some new and permanent way if I didn’t handle this right. How would I tell them? When would I tell them? What could I POSSIBLY do to make sure they were ok? How could I stop them from believing that the universe planned to eventually take away every single thing that meant something to us?

Our grief counselor agreed I should not to tell them of the fire until I had a plan. So, I carried the horror alone. The terrible secret, my continued grief, and the impending continued trauma of my children mixed together in my belly as an overcooked toxic stew that I could not digest. I was left with near constant nausea. To make matters worse, Isabella and Melanie brought up our land on an almost weekly basis. We hadn’t been out there in months, but still – the girls were so fond of the land that it was common for them to talk about it all year. Isabella loved to have long conversations about the things she wanted to build out there – “Mama, I want to put a zipline on the land. Maybe it could connect that tree by the firepit to a tree down by the creek. Can we do that, mama?” Melanie loved to talk about an elaborate doghouse she wanted to build for Ellie – “Mama, lets build Ellie a doghouse on the land. I want it to have 2 floors and a staircase in between. Then, if we get a second dog, we already have the doghouse for 2!”

Those conversations fucking killed me. Week after week, I had to play along somehow, not ready to spill the secret. I’m truly amazed that I did not actually vomit as I spewed out lies. “Um… we’ll see. A zipline might be dangerous.” I told Iz, just to have her grill me about the risks and try to convince me that we really could do it in a safe way. Back and forth, back and forth. Lies and vomit. Horror and grief. The brave face I put on contorted my soul and pruned up my skin. I am a person who has strong gut instincts and has learned to follow them. For 3 months, I had no instinct as to how to handle this. I only had emptiness and fear. The answer wasn’t presenting itself to me. I absolutely ached to tell them, not for their sake, but for mine. Keeping the secret was poisoning me, but still – I waited.

Then, the answer came in the form of a Disney movie.

I first heard about “Inside Out” at The Healing Center, the place that the girls and I go for grief counseling. The Healing Center specializes in the “abnormal” grievers – meaning children and young adults – the people who aren’t _supposed_ to be grieving. They hold group therapy for young widows/widowers and for kids, meaning – Melanie (now 7) is in group therapy with other 6-8 year olds who have lost a mom or dad, Iz (now 11) is in a group for 9-11 year olds, and I (age 40) am in a group of widow and widowers age 30-60. Frankly, these groups are the only places where the girls and I consistently feel understood and not alone. At one point Jen, who runs Isabella’s group, mentioned the movie as a tool to help kids understand their complicated emotions.

I didn’t watch the movie right away but eventually found myself in Boston for Thanksgiving at my sister Juliet’s house with the girls, tired and distracted. I hated the chaos of traveling over a holiday, but couldn’t face Thanksgiving at home without John at the head of the table. Isabella was sitting on the couch, reading, wanting quiet. She was wearing exercise capris and her favorite workout shirt from the rock climbing gym. She did 80 different sports, but when she was home she wanted to be cozy with a book and unbothered by her sister. Melanie was bouncing around like the physical powerhouse she had been since birth. She had my disposition – caffeine flowed naturally in her veins and she never stopped moving. They did their usual sisterly dance – Melanie wanted Isabella’s attention, Iz ignored her, Mel climbed all over her anyway, Iz got irritated, Mel kept going. I was distracted, grieving for John, and wanted the conflict to go way. Let’s watch a movie! How about “Inside Out”? Why not. I turned it on, planning to work on my laptop while they watched, but the laptop ended up staying shut. I was mesmerized.

joy-and-sadnessThe movie centers around a girl named Riley whose emotions are personified as characters – Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear. When she is 12, Riley moves from her happy life in Minnesota to an unfamiliar San Francisco. Joy tries to keep Sadness from touching Riley’s old happy memories. She becomes frozen and stuck. Eventually, Joy realizes that Sadness is necessary and lets Riley truly cry. Riley is able to finally able to let go, be as she is, and open to making new memories.

I sat there as the movie ended, dumbfounded. I had all the answers I needed. I couldn’t stop the girls’ old memories from getting tinged with blue, but I could do everything in my power to make new happy memories moving forward. I can’t stop the sadness, but I can do my best to add joy.

So, I developed a plan, a plan to helps us find new golden memories together as a family of 3, a plan to balance out the blue-tinged memories of us as a family of 4. The plan involved a big financial commitment on my part and scared me. I was afraid I was being too rash. I wondered if people would think I was overspending and grasping at straws. Maybe I was. Maybe it didn’t matter. In spite of my fear, the plan grew inside of me like a new wet pink organ that was able to pump hope to my heart. I had many private bittersweet tears. I didn’t want to have to make a new plan, but I was also overcome with gratitude for the strength that I could feel coming back. The Holly I was before John died was a woman who took charge and made things happen. Holly was coming back. I was coming back, and – fuck you, universe. I was going to do this.

The plan took 2 months to execute. I continued to hold All Of The Secrets. Then, the big day came. I picked them up from school early with a fully packed car, including – a gallon of antifreeze, a snow shovel, board games, food (but no dishes or pots and pans), clothes (but no bedding), a big pile of newspapers, snow pants (but no skis), and 2 Kindle Fires. I walked them out to the car, asked them to hold hands with myself and each other (in a circle), and got down on my knees. I started gently, mentioning the land, hinting at how it wasn’t so easy for me to manage the land by myself without their dad – the long 5+ hour drives, being off grid without his help, chopping all the wood and cooking all the meals…. I told them how I had begun to wonder if maybe the land wasn’t a perfect fit for us anymore. And then I spilled –

“Remember the big fires last summer? “

They looked at me blankly and didn’t answer.

“Remember the big forest fires? Lots of sad things happened. Three firefighters died, some families lost their homes, and many acres of forest burned down. It was very sad for many people. Our land burned down too. What happened is really, really terrible. Others lost more than we did, but still – it is terrible.”

The girls looked truly shocked. Isabella’s mouth hung open and she began to rapidly blink her quickly flooding eyes. Melanie looked at me and inhaled quickly, the way she did when she was about to fall into a bottomless puddle of loud tears. I continued with my planned speech, hoping to hold things together before they totally lost it.

“Girls, we have had so much sadness. I cannot take all the sadness away. When you feel like crying about your father, or about our land, then cry. We need to cry. We need to feel the sadness that is inside of us. I have realized, though, that we also need to find joy. We cannot stop our old memories from getting touched by sadness. All we can do is honor that sadness while also making NEW memories together as a family, as our new family of 3. That is all we can do.”

So I told them we were going to watch “Inside Out” while we drove to “The place where we would make new memories.” I gave them each a Kindle Fire, because God knows that siblings can’t even share a tablet screen without fighting. Though they had watched the movie months before but I was hoping this time they might watch it in a new way.

And then, we drove. For 2 hrs and 45min we drove. Over Stevens Pass, near Wenatchee, and down into Leavenworth. I was excited but also exhausted because yet again I was doing everything by myself. I kept glancing back at the girls in the rear view mirror. They were solemn as they watched the movie, but also curious – something big was coming. Despite my exhaustion, I felt stronger than I had been since John died. Damnit, I’m doing this. My mama bear love for them was fierce and intense. I gripped the steering wheel and clenched my teeth. I’M DOING THIS. This is my life now. The only important job I have is to make sure the girls are ok. I WILL MAKE SURE THEY ARE OK.

At some point during the drive the movie finished. We wound through a tiny community called Ponderosa Estates over mostly-plowed snowy roads and pulled into a freshly cleared driveway. In front of us was an adorable wooden cabin with snow dripping off the roof and a large covered front porch.

“Girls, we are here at the surprise! Get out of the car!” I said.

The girls tumbled out, grinning. They saw how excited I looked and thus knew it must be something good. I held their hands again, in a circle as we did before the drive, and got down on my knees in the snow. In that moment, I was the strongest and most determined woman who had ever been born. I knew I was doing the right thing. No one in the world could take this from me. I wouldn’t say I was happy in that moment, because happiness is not something I have felt often since John died, but I was alert, in charge, victorious, and damn proud.

“Girls – this is OUR cabin. I bought this cabin for us. I cannot take away all the pain, but I am going to do everything I can to help us find new joy. This is a place for us to make new memories together. This is a place for us to be happy together. I love you girls so so SO much.”

cabin-first-visit-outsideThe girls proceeded to jump up and down and squeal with joy. I easily had not seen them that happy since before John died. I unlocked the front door and said “There are 3 bedrooms. Isabella – yours is upstairs to the left, Mel yours is upstairs to the right!” Oh the whooping and hollering. They explored inside joyously while I did all the work in the background. I got out my snow shovel, dug out the water main, used the shovel to pry the cap off, and turned the water on with a flashlight and a long forked tool. I unloaded the car, filled the cabinets with food, and made dinner. I used the newspaper along with some wood from the shed out back and made a fire in the wood stove. I explained to the girls that I had bought not only the cabin, but all the furniture/dishes/bedding from the previous owners too, because I wanted us to be able to glide right into joy. “Really mama? These couches are ours too?”

Of course, there were more tears over the lost land as the weekend continued, but the tears faded fast. Melanie said “Mama, I’m land-sick. You know, like home-sick. But still, the cabin is much better than the land. This is better, mama.” Isabella said “Mama, can we move here full time?” I said “Why would you want to do that? Our Seattle house is so much nicer!” To which she responded “Mama, I don’t care about nice-ness. I care about coziness. This cabin is very, very cozy. I don’t want to leave.”

I realized – not only is the cabin an opportunity for new memories – it is also an opportunity to be without ghosts. The cabin may be old with not-so-nice brown carpets and quite a lot of dust, but to them it is brand spanking squeaky clean new – no ghosts, no memories, no sadness, only opportunity. A clean slate. A chance to move forward.

We proceeded to spend an idyllic weekend together – building snow men, throwing snow balls, and sledding at the local “sledding hill” shown to us by the neighbors. I showed the girls the community center with a summertime outdoor pool just a block away and the river (also a block away) where we can go tubing once the seasons change. When it was time to pack up and go, they didn’t want to leave. “Please mama, can we stay? Please? Can we skip school on Monday? Just one day?” I smiled, said no, and did what I needed to do – turned off the water main, filled the toilets with antifreeze, locked up the house. It was true that I had no one to help me, but it was also true that I had chosen a destiny that I could manage solo. A shorter drive, a real kitchen, power and water. I’m not a harried widow driving 5 hours to an off grid forest with 2 young children. I’m a still-grieving-but-very-centered single mom who bought a cabin that she can manage just fine all by herself.

And you know what? I’m damn proud. I did good. There will be more challenges, more pain, more tears, but that’s ok. There will be joy too.

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Bear, Part 2 – Love Lost, Hope Found

I decided it was time to write the love story – the story where I fall in love again after my husband dies. The love had already happened – I had been seeing Bear for four and a half months and was a smitten kitten. Bear had watched me write volumes about my grief, but I had written very little about him and it was time.

It took me a week to write it. Bear knew what I was working on and kept asking how it was progressing. On a Thursday afternoon, a couple of weeks ago, the first draft was finally done. The story ended with our trip to Paris, a scene where he holds me, I finally open up about all of my fears, and I have an epiphany that maybe I was finally no longer alone in life.

I emailed the piece to Bear early that afternoon. At 7:30pm that night, he sent me a note saying “Awesome! I’ll read it tomorrow in between meetings.”

What? Huh? If someone wrote a love story about me, I would run to the bathroom stall and read it while sitting on the toilet if necessary. I wouldn’t be able to wait until the next day. I realized that this was yet another of many signs I had argued away. Signs that Bear wasn’t all-in.

Bear had been distant for a while. I told myself the distance was due to the walls I put up around my sadness, but my gut knew there was more to the story. He pulled away a month before we went to Paris, telling me how overwhelmed he was with his life – his 12 hr a day job, house repairs, his (genuine) need for 9 hrs of sleep a night, his exercise, his personal growth. Plus, there was our 11 year, 3 month, and 7 day age difference, which Bear had convinced me didn’t matter, but… maybe it did matter. Bear was just 5 years out of graduate school, 3 years into living in Seattle, and hadn’t yet found his full stride in his life. Isn’t that what your 20’s are for, anyway? Figuring out who you really are? In truth, I was also holding a bit of disappointment over Bear’s need for his friends to not know, before meeting me, that I was an age 40 widow and single mom (“I just want you to make a good first impression. We can tell them after you meet them and after they see how awesome you are.”). He flat-out insisted that we tell his parents that I was 38, telling me “They have a certain idea of 40. They watched that movie “This is 40” and joke about it all the time. It’s better this way. Trust me.” I told him that I wanted to be with someone who was proud to have me as his girlfriend, baggage and all. He insisted he was proud of me and couldn’t really understand that his actions and words didn’t match. Looking back on it, that was really when the fracture in our relationship appeared. Then, a month into this somewhat distant stage, we went to Paris and I thought it would be a chance to reconnect. We DID reconnect and I came home filled with bright shiny new hope, but maybe that beauty and love only really worked in fantasy land when we were away from all of the demands of real life…

That brings us to back to early January when I had written part 1 of the love story, several weeks after returning from our glorious European jaunt. Bear read the essay the day after I sent it to him, told me it was “just beautiful” but by then I was already deflated. I had been aching for him all week – because he was so busy we had agreed on only one date a week (though we used to see each other several times more than that). Sometimes (including this week) the ache would get so bad that I would have to actively focus on shutting down my rampant over-abundant sexual desire. I saw him that night, Friday night. I wanted him to come to a gathering at Bev’s house, so that he could meet more of my friends, but he had chores to do at his home and didn’t come over until 10pm. I was sad. My body felt that things were shifting. We fooled around a bit, but Bear wanted me to go down on him instead of having sex. I had gone off birth control, as I was having my tubes tied soon, and Bear didn’t like condoms. Didn’t he know that I was starving for more connection? I didn’t care about orgasming but had a need for him to be inside of me, to look into my eyes and kiss my neck and face while making love to me. I kept reaching an energetic tendril towards him, but he wasn’t reaching back. I was too sad to ask for what I wanted, so I satisfied him and then when he offered to pleasure me, I declined as I was just too low and my body had begun to close off. We set a 6:30am alarm and went to sleep in preparation to get an early start and hike Mailbox peak.

Bear and I had been taking various hikes together as part of his training for an upcoming climb. He wanted to climb Rainier, the mountain that took my husband’s life. I understood the call of the mountain – my summit in 2012 was one of the proudest moments in my life, and would have climbed it again if John hadn’t died there. So, rather than asking him to stay away from the mountain that is the source of my greatest pain, I stood by him. I bought him crampons, microspikes, and mountaineering boots for Christmas and promised to take him to some of my favorite icy peaks.

I woke up before the alarm went off, feeling heavy. Ugh. I was excited to get on the trail, not excited about the thick grey sense of doom that was expanding within me. Bear was sound asleep so I laid there for a bit, hurting. My grief for John has often manifested in my stomach as nausea or a sense of a pool of black tar in my belly, but my pain for Bear was different. In that moment, the skin covering the middle of my chest tightened, as if someone had pinched it with a clothes pin. It was time to get up, so I gently spooned Bear from behind. I kissed his neck, and whispered “I’m going to make our breakfast, sweetheart.” He mumbled sleepily, I got up, we showered, ate eggs on toast with chorizo and Beechers aged cheese, grabbed our gear, and hopped in my Subaru Outback.

We barely talked on the drive down I90. Bear could tell I was distant and was shutting down accordingly in his own way. I flipped through Sirius XM satellite radio stations and mulled over my intentions for the day. In fact, it was a gorgeous bluebird crystal clear day – unusual for January in Seattle. I had childcare until dinner time and was genuinely looking forward to kicking a snow staircase up the mountain. At the same time, I knew an icky relationship talk was inevitable. Ugh. We pulled up to the trailhead and loaded our packs – snow shoes, poles, microspikes, crampons, glacier glasses, buff, glove liners, summit mitts, softshell, hardshell. Oh how I love getting on the trail, ready to tackle the elements! Still, we barely talked. Bear was faster than me and began to listen to podcasts on his Android as he hiked ahead. I felt so terrible! How did we get to this place where there was so much love, but also so much disconnection? How would I tell him that I loved him too much, that I wanted more than he had to give, and that I needed to set him free? In an asbergic-way, I determined that a relationship conversation on the way up would derail our summit attempt, and that I shouldn’t say anything until we had begun our descent.

Oh, how glorious the summit was! I never tire of the 360 degree view from the top of Mailbox. Rainier was out, in her majestic and fierce-but-peaceful way, and I said my usual silent “I miss you, I love you forever” to my sweet John. Bear and I sat in the snow, mostly upbeat, feeling accomplished and endorphin-y, eating chicken and quinoa salad with beets and aged balsamic that I had packed that morning. Eventually, we plunged stepped back down the snow covered boulder field and made our way along the trail as it wound into the trees. We paused, sweaty, to de-layer, and that’s when I spilled. I started gently, asking him how he was feeling about us, and then tumbled into my feelings about how we were spending less and less time together, and how it felt like there just wasn’t space for me in his very full life. We both began to cry. There was no anger or blame, no negativity, just sadness and love. He told me how he was in a state of panic, never feeling like he could keep up with his life. I told him I understood, and that I could see that he was just beginning to forge his path. I knew that Bear wanted to be what I needed, but…wanting is not reality. Bear opened up about how torn he was – I was the kind of woman he had been looking for, but he wasn’t ready to find that woman yet. He had to find himself before he could find her. Still, Bear didn’t want to give up on us. So I asked one last question –

“Tell me this, sweetheart. Just answer right away, don’t stop and analyze. Tell me the truth. Ok?”
“Ok.” He said, a bit wary.
“When you think about us breaking up, is some part of you relieved?”
He paused
“Don’t over think it!” I insisted.
“Well, a little bit.” He said, and then quickly added “Just because then I would have time for all the house projects, and my job, and…”
I looked right at him and said “There’s your answer.”

After that, we barely talked for the 2 hours it took us to descend. I hiked ahead (I’m faster on the downhill) and he hiked behind. Nothing had really been decided yet… I knew Bear well enough to know that he needed space to chew on what we had already said. It became dark. I hollered back to check that he had a headlamp, and plodded along. The temperature began to drop and parts of the trail froze up solid. It would have been the right time to put on my spikes, but I was too sad and heavy to care. I slipped a few times, once going down hard enough that I could have really hurt myself, and in fact, I think I wanted to hurt myself, because maybe if I inflicted physical pain then it would cover the pain of the new tightness of my chest and the year-and-a-half old nausea in my belly.

We silently arrived back at the car, de-geared, and began to drive home. Eventually, as we sat in traffic on I90 by Mercer Way, he said

“I think you are right. We have to break up.”

We were quiet then. I began to cry as I drove. He held my hand. I asked him to stay the night so that I could be in his arms one last time, and I could feel that it was what he wanted too. He went home, showered, and came back after I had tucked the kids in for the night. We got into my bed and he sweetly held me and stoked my hair as I cried. We slept some, then made sweet love for the last time, slept some more, and in the early morn I crawled back into his arms to cry again. He cried too. My 7 year old, Melanie, woke up at 7:30am and knocked on the locked door. She said “Mama, what’s wrong?” I told her I would be out soon, which I was. She asked again why I was crying. I softly told her that Bear and I had decided to stop dating, but that we still cared about each other and no one was angry. Her face clenched up into a miserable frown. Melanie hadn’t spent a ton of time with Bear, but still she had become a bit attached to him. I had my maternal moment of panic, knowing that I had to manage not only my grief about Bear but hers too, and, grabbing at straws, said “I know you want me to find you a dad someday, sweetheart. Someday I will find somebody awesome, when it’s the right time.” She looked at me, crossed her arms, and said “Mama, BEAR was awesome.” “I know sweetheart. I know. I’m sorry.” Ugh. Blah. Bleah.

Bear got dressed and came out of the bedroom. Melanie ran to him, hugged his leg, buried her face in his clothes, and said nothing. My heart has so many scars. So, so many scars, because I carry hers and mine both. And then he left, and that was it.

Now, a couple of weeks after the breakup, I am sad but not heartbroken. I ache to have someone safe and kind to hold me, stroke my hair, and kiss my forehead; but that person doesn’t exist and my needs are not so extreme that I will reach for something unhealthy out of desperation. The fact is, alongside my sadness I am also surprisingly optimistic for the path ahead that I’m beginning to glimpse – optimistic in a way I haven’t been since John died. I have had many victories in these last several months. I found that – I have not shut off to feeling. I am still able to reach for deep connection, in spite of all of my darkness. I still have so much love and sweetness to give to a partner. I am still beautiful, and I am worth loving. In fact, as I sit here, typing these words, I observe how strong and stable I feel. I had a successful 4.5 month relationship, fell in love, celebrated him as an individual without needing to compare him to John, and was able to peacefully set him free once I knew we weren’t meant to be together.

I wouldn’t say that I’m a ball of sunshine at the moment, but I would say that I am peaceful, confident, and full of my trademark tenacity. I will grieve for Bear and will of course continue to grief for John into forever. In parallel, I will eventually love again – no question. It’s who I am. Even given my ocean of sorrow and continued struggles as a widow and single mom, I still believe – it’s worth it.

Love is worth it.

 

+++++++++++

Postscript – It is not my intention or desire to give a play-by-play of all of my relationships as I re-enter the dating world.  However, this was my first real love post-loss and thus was a huge milestone that I felt was relevant for those of you who are sharing my journey through my words.  Thank you, again, for sharing my tears and my victories.

 

Bear, Part 1

Falling in love has never been this complicated before.

When John died, I had no idea what dating would look like. When would I be ready? Would I ever be ready? Would a future love be able to let me love John and him at the same time? Early on in my grief process I became involved with a brilliant Silver Fox with ocean deep steely blue eyes. We connected deeply, but that is fodder enough for its own story. Silver Fox caught me before my heart closed down, before the tar of grief seized up the gears inside my chest. After SF there was a long drought, and then when I began dating again, I wasn’t all-in. I called it ‘practice dating’. I practiced flirting; practiced if, when, and how to present the single mom and widow baggage; and shared a few mostly lukewarm kisses. It was easy to meet men online and set up dates, but in truth I found that fantasy was better than reality. I would meet a man online; flirt with him; and allow myself to fantasize that he might be the sort of sweet, intelligent, and outdoorsy man that I could fall for. He and I might text in sexy ways, I would build him up in my head, and then I would indulge in fantasies that he would be the one to unfreeze my ice. I did this knowing that my fantasies weren’t reality, knowing that the man I had not yet met in person could never live up to the ideas I had spun in my head. It was safer that way. Sometimes I would delay the first date as long as possible, knowing that, once I met him in person, the fantasy would be no longer and my Masturbation Fantasy Rolodex would have one less entry. Some of these men lasted only one date, a couple lasted a bit longer, but still – my embers of desire seemed all but dormant.

Although I was plagued by apathy, I was not plagued by guilt. When John was alive, we talked about death quite a bit. John had strong premonitions, all of his life, that he would die young. He would look guilty when he mentioned it… as if some part of him knew he would leave me behind some day. John always told me, with great emotion, that he would want me to find love again if he ever passed. John’s running joke was that I would have to find somebody younger, because nobody older could keep up with my athleticism and voracious sexual appetite. That’s how it was – he would tease me, I would laugh, he would grab my ass, I would kiss him, and we were happy. The thing is – that was the past and it is not my future. There is another future for me – one that doesn’t erase or negate my history but rather builds on the lotus flower that blooms from the mud of my struggle and loss.

I was pursued by various men – interesting, kind, intelligent men. However, nothing stuck. On one hand, I felt so much desire for deep connection, but at the same time I was detached and shut off. I began to find comfort in my walled up sanctuary. The separation allowed me to let go of my expectations, which in turn allowed me to be more in the moment, and that’s when I met him.

At that time it was August 2015. John had been dead for 15 months, I was in a deep slump, and I turned to the mountains for therapy. I planned a trip to the Enchantment Lakes with my widow friend Laura, who lost her partner in the accident with John. We parked my camper van at the trailhead on a Friday night, slept, and woke up early the next morning to hike the whole 19 miles in one day. As she put on mascara that morning and I lined my eyelids with smoky blue, we joked about how the mountains were the only place where we cared about looking good, because the only men we were interested in were bearded mountain men.

All day we teased each other about the men we met on the trail. “What about him?” “You mean the dirty one who looks like he slept in his car? HOT!” We were both so broken, we didn’t expect to actually meet anyone… the chatter and fantasy was all we had. There was a group of 3 men we spent the day leapfrogging. I said – “They have beards, what about them?” Laura smirked and said “Cute, but they look a little young for you, Holly.” She was right. Too young, and probably too innocent to stomach all my pain. Back to fantasy, reality was too disappointing.

We finished the 19mile hike and the group of 3 men offered us a ride back to my camper. I was surprised when, a week or so later, one of them reached out to me. I’ll call him Bear. Bear and I flirted and he asked if I would like to meet for drinks. He knew nothing of my children or widowhood, only that I love mountains, have an engineering degree, and was 40. I hesitated, and all but dismissed the idea immediately simply because of his age – 29. Regardless of John’s teasing, I’ve never been into younger men. I like a man who is confident, established, someone who doesn’t need his hand held. I don’t want to deal with any drama, bullshit, insecurities, or games. I prefer men who know exactly what they want and where they want to go in life. My grief and status as a single mother only solidified this intention within me. What younger man could ever handle all my baggage and trauma with grace?

Having said all that, I couldn’t resist. I hated his age but loved everything else about him. Bear had a beefy but compact muscular body built up by years of competitive wrestling in college. He held a Masters in Biomedical engineering, loved hiking, backcountry skiing, sport climbing, knew how to use power tools, raised chickens in his back yard, and was basically my dream guy. For better or worse, athletic outdoorsy geeky engineers who have full gorgeous beards are my kryptonite. I was putty.

We met for drinks and he immediately charmed me with his words. Somehow, I was relaxed and at ease. I had felt so much resistance on all the other dates, so much tension, hardness, but all of the sudden that was gone and I felt like Holly again. I felt simply….present, and alive.

Eventually, I brought him home and shamelessly had sex with him all night. It was glorious, and afterwards every fiber of my being felt lighter than it had since before John died. Still, I was detached. I decided that an actual relationship with this man could not work due to our age difference. I set an intention to enjoy the night for what it was and not contact him again. Of course, Bear was my kryptonite. I didn’t reach out to him but he texted me the next day, telling me that my life philosophy was amazing, asking to see me again. I silently decided that there really wasn’t any risk in seeing him again. Since I already knew it wouldn’t work long term, I wouldn’t get attached.

Bear and I spent the next few weeks romping around. We camped, we hiked, we cooked, we discussed favorite books, we went to the ballet, and we had lots and lots of phenomenal the-sky-is-parting-and-the-angels-are-weeping sex. Part of me knew I was falling for him, but the rest of me put up protective walls. I allowed myself to focus on his age as the reason why we couldn’t be a couple. I objectified him, calling him my young lover, my bearded hottie. I saw my doctor (as I did every 6 weeks due to crippling insomnia) and was told that my color was much better, that I was looking healthier. I explained that I was having tons of hot sex with a buff, intelligent mountain man. At the end of the visit she said “My advice? Keep having sex with the hot beefcake.”

It was around that time that Bear called me on my shit. We had just had sex and were spooning – him behind me. He kissed my neck, nuzzled me, and said
“Can we talk about something?”
“Sure.”
“Why do you have such a problem with our age difference?”
Thank you sir, but may I have another? No seriously, there is something totally hot about a man who calls me on it when I’m stuck. He was direct, honest, but also kind as he continued to brush his beard against my neck and back. I softened into him and spoke my truth – that I had objectified him and focused on his age as a defense mechanism, because I was afraid of getting hurt, afraid he would break my heart. I still melt when I remember what Bear said next.
“Holly, don’t you understand, before I met you I thought I was going to have to settle. I thought I would never find a woman who was all of the things – outdoorsy, athletic, intelligent, loves sex, etc.. Then, I met you.”
“So, I guess, if you feel that way, then a few more wrinkles around my eyes won’t really matter?”
“Exactly.”
That was the moment I knew that our age difference really didn’t matter. It was also the moment that something really crazy and ridiculous happened –

I began to smile again.

Sure, I had smiled on many occasions in the 16 months since John had died, but they weren’t real smiles. I would lift the corners of my mouth for the camera when hiking with friends, or when serving my kids’ birthday cakes, but my eyes never sparkled and my heart center wasn’t lifting. The difference, once I welcomed Bear’s warmth into my heart and allowed myself to feel safe, was profound. Everyone noticed. People who didn’t know I was dating someone would comment that I looked different, better, brighter, some even used the word glowing. To be clear, my grief was still an ocean. I still lost my best friend and my children still didn’t have a father. Bear didn’t take away my darkness, but he did add a lot of light alongside the pain. I realized that it made no sense to wait for the pain to go away before I moved forward in life, because the pain was never going to fully go away. So, I allowed myself to get swept away by Bear, while also still often crying for the loss of John.

Bear watched me struggle with my ocean of pain and began to show me the depths of his beauty as a human being. About 6 weeks after we started dating, he watched me get spun up by an upcoming trip to Portland with the girls. Isabella was on the competitive team at the local bouldering gym and the Portland Boulder Rally was the first meet of the season. One of the ways that my grief-related PTSD manifested was as an adrenaline response when preparing to travel with the girls. John and I always used to pack up for trips together and he would do all the driving, because I hate driving. After he died, I would all but hyperventilate while packing for a family trip, because such trips slapped me in the face with the fact that we were 3 instead of 4. Bear watched my anxiety build, and said “Would you let me come with you, so that I can do the driving and help with the kids? Would you please let me help you?”

Bear showed up an hour before we were supposed to leave for Portland with his overnight bag and bright energy, the energy of someone who sweeps in and makes everything better. I was filled with stress – not because anything was wrong, but because that was my body’s chemical response to the trip. I took a shower and while I was showering Bear came in to pee. I pulled open the curtain and there he was – gorgeous beard, big smile, biceps bulging out of his t-shirt, hand knit mountain man beanie. Right then and there, while he was holding his junk mid-stream, the words came to me – “I would follow you anywhere”. These words didn’t come from analysis in my brain, they just sprouted naturally out of my chest. That was the moment I knew –

I was in love.

Or perhaps I should say – I was in LOVE!!! I didn’t tell Bear right away. I was so full of emotion (both joy and sorrow) that I feared it might overwhelm him. Even after we finally said those precious words to each other, I would try not to say them too often. Sometimes after we made love I would put my head on his damp and salty chest, close my eyes, and say it silently in my head over and over – iloveyou.iloveyou.iloveyou.iloveyou.iloveyou.iloveyou.

Even though Bear helped me and clearly wanted to be there for me, I did my best to protect him from the deepest darkness within me. Occasionally I allowed him to comfort me, but mostly when I fell into my pit of despair I would keep my distance. After all, these weren’t his burdens. I wanted our relationship to be about Bear and Holly; not about Bear, Holly, and Dead John. I became consumed with fear in a way I had never experienced before. What if he sees how broken I truly am and runs away? Will my grief, sad children, and complicated life be more than he wants to take on? If he does leave me, can I cope with yet another loss while still so fragile? If I tell him I’m afraid of more loss, will that make him feel boxed in such that he can’t leave me if he wants to?

There was the night that I fainted at dinner at a friend’s house. I was sitting up, eating roast chicken stuffed with ham and mushrooms, and all of the sudden I began to lose hearing and vision. My friends tell me that my lips went blue and my left arm was both bent and shaking uncontrollably. They dragged me to the couch and I came-to immediately. My doctor told me later that it was a vaso-vagal response, mostly likely brought on by the stress and exhaustion of my long haul as a widow and single mom. In that moment, however, we had no idea what it was – a stroke? A small heart attack? Bev said
“Give me Bear’s phone number. I’m calling him.”
I laid there on the couch, still woozy “No, don’t call him! He is in an airport about to get on a flight for work. If you call him, he will either cancel his trip and mess up his job or stay up all night worrying when he can’t help anyway.”
Bev looked concerned and said “Ooooh kay. You sure?”
“Yes I’m sure. Don’t call him.”

Then, there was the doctor’s appointment when I broke down sobbing. I had decided to get my tubes tied, mainly because the idea of a baby and 3rd C-section at age 40 put in a place of panic. I needed some control in my life, and had to make sure that my virile boyfriend didn’t impregnate me. Bear offered, a few times, to go with me to the consult, but I told him “No, I will be fine, I don’t want you to have to take time off work.” I was NOT fine, however. The doctor and I went through my reproductive history and general health – my 2 traumatic C-sections, my miscarriage, my year of post-partum depression, my PTSD and insomnia as a result of the death of my husband. The doctor and I both cried. I felt horrifically alone and needed a hand to hold. I went home and cried for most of the rest of the day.

I didn’t give Bear the chance to help. I was afraid to ask too much of him, afraid to over burden him. What if I leaned on him, and he said it was too much? What if I became too needy? If he saw all my hairline fractures, would he still find me appealing? In many ways I shut him out. I sensed frustration and sadness on his part due to my distance, but still I was too afraid to open the kimono.

After we had been dating for a few months, Bear and I embarked on a luxurious trip to Europe. We planned to base ourselves in Paris and take quick day trips out to both Amsterdam and Bruges. I had been holding back from Bear for a while, and hoped that maybe the trip would help us to connect more deeply. The first day started out so wonderfully! I took Bear to my favorite spot – Musee Rodin. We walked hand in hand through the gardens displaying The Thinker and The Gates of Hell. We looked at some of his earlier pieces, inside, and I told Bear of how much Rodin detested being commissioned for busts and sculpting what he thought to be frivolous details such as hats and fancy clothing. Later, Rodin would move to the simple naked body. He was scandalous at the time because he refused to even cover the genitals with fig leaves. Bear soaked it up, and then suggested we move on to Napoleon’s tomb and the Military Museum. There, the tables turned and it was Bear’s time to play teacher! He pointed out the traditional bayonets, which flanged out in all 4 directions. Bear said they were eventually outlawed by the Geneva Convention, because they made holes that couldn’t be sewn up. He explained why the ancient shotguns needed cloth to pack around the bullet, and how the concept translated to modern day pistons. It’s just so sexy when a man has things to teach me! They day felt easy, balanced. We were a happy couple, strolling in Paris.

The next morning, I woke up at 4am covered in sweat, the kind of sweat so profuse that the bed sheets become soaked and horrifically clammy. I was having another adrenaline response and instantly became filled with fear. Fear was like a thick heavy snake that slithered in through the wound of my broken heart and lurked inside of me, sucking up light and optimism. My brain knew that my various fears were irrational, but that awareness never mattered in the horror of the moment. When I became consumed by fear, I became despondent, icy, distant. I didn’t want to wake Bear, so I got out of bed and sat on the couch to cry. We were supposed to get up at 6:30 in order to catch an 8am train to Amsterdam. Eventually, as I sat there in the darkness, I realized that I had to make a different choice, regardless of the consequences. There I was, in Paris, with my awesome boyfriend, crying in the dark, not letting him in. Why the hell was I here at all if I was going to keep putting up walls? If I showed him my darkness and he ran away, what then? Well, at least then I would know, and I would be able to move forward, albeit through more tears.

At 6am I crawled into bed, woke him up, and cried my fucking eyes out on his chest. I told him how afraid I was. I told him I didn’t know if I could survive losing him, but that I was also deathly afraid that if I told him how much I really loved him then he would feel trapped. I revealed that I had known the whole time it was me holding back, that he had wanted to be there for me but that I hadn’t let him. I said I knew we couldn’t move forward unless I surrendered and told him of these fears, and that I did, indeed want to move forward. The whole time Bear held me tenderly. He stroked my hair slowly, over and over. He brushed his fingertips over my cheek and kissed my forehead. He enveloped me with his arms until I felt completely encompassed by his nurturing light. I said “When these fears come up again, I’m going to tell you.” And he said “Yes. I want you to. I want you to tell me.” I cried a bunch more, and then said “We should get up and get ready for the train.” To which he replied “Shhh. Not yet. Lay here a bit longer. We have time.”

By the time we got on the train, the snake had exited my body and I felt excited for the day ahead of us. Bear and I read peacefully on our kindles for 3 hrs, holding hands. We arrived in Amsterdam, hit Damstraat, and proceeded with our grand plan of inebriation before visiting the Van Gough and Rijksmuseum. After inebriation, bagels, and a visit to the flower market, but before getting to the museum, Bear realized his passport was missing! Pick pocketed in the market perhaps? Who could know, and we were not sober, so we put our two adled brains together to make one good brain, made it to a police station, filed a police report, got online to print out the forms needed for the consulate, got new passport photos, and then found a dingy guest house for the night. The consulate wouldn’t open until the morning, so we wouldn’t be taking a train back to our darling Parisian studio that evening. What a lovely team we were! It wasn’t a disaster, it was an adventure, and we were happily together. Sometime after the 2nd time we made love that evening and a 3rd time when we did it in the middle of the night, I said to Bear “There is nowhere in the world I want to be right now besides this shitty hotel room in Amsterdam with you.” “Me too Tiger, me too.” He said.

Our Amsterdam dalliance had cost us a precious day in Paris, but we didn’t care. We procured Bear’s emergency passport, hit the museums we had missed the day before, and zipped back to Paris later that night. By the end of the week, I said to Bear “Do you think we can bring this magic back with us to the real world?” “We can, Holly. We will!” I left Paris thinking to myself that maybe, just maybe – I am not as alone as I thought I was.

What will happen with Bear? I don’t know. In fact, in spite of our wonderful trip to Paris, our relationship began to show hairline fractures when we returned. What I do know now is this – I can love again and I can be loved again. I can experience joy and throw myself over the edge of the unknown. It’s true that I’m still a single mom. It’s true that I will never stop grieving for the loss of John and for the loss of my children’s innocence. There will always be parts of my life that I must navigate solo. Still, I’ve finally realized, that maybe, just maybe – there is joy in my future. My life is a story, and there are more chapters that have not yet been written. I am sad and I grieve, but I am also opening back up, reaching out. I have re-joined the land of the living, and that feels damn good.

Stay tuned for Bear, Part 2.

Chocolate

I stood upstairs at the wedding hall in my private room. I had found out I was pregnant just 10 days before. My dress had been fitted a week ago, but since then the pregnancy hormones had caused my boobs to grow 2 sizes and they popped up almost up to my chin. John and I had shared the wedding planning responsibilities 50/50, down to the little boxes of truffles that were favors for the guests. Each box held 2 pieces of perfection – one white, one dark. The white chocolates were filled with a lemon, lime, and orange zest infused ganache. The dark chocolates were filled with raspberry ganache, made by cooking down whole raspberries and integrating the sauce with dark chocolate. The chocolatieering had been a welcome distraction from less fun parts of the wedding planning. John and I would put on music – Pearl Jam when it was his turn to choose, electronica when it was mine. We would dance around, sleeves rolled up, wearing dirty aprons, and we would make chocolates. Molded chocolates were so much work, but oh – the glory. A properly made molded chocolate will snap when you bit into it and then ooze soft ganache. Crunchy, gooey, chocolatey, citrusy – all of the things at once, just like John and me.

It was Thursday, a couple of weeks ago – 11.5 years after our wedding. John had been dead for over a year and it was past time to clean out his cedar lined nightstand. The bottom drawer contained his prom photos. He was skinny with a big shuck of auburn hair and a goofy buck toothed smile. Under the photos was a tiny white box containing our wedding truffles. Cedar is supposed to repel moths, is that right? Not in this case. The chocolates were half chewed and covered in the remnants of the long gone pests. What would the chocolate taste like after sitting in that drawer for 11 years? Dry and crumbly? Would it taste more like cedar, or more like the long departed moths? Then, I was hit with the nausea that has become so common since the avalanche took him. My stomach clenched and became a dark pool of maggot filled tar. I contemplated eating the chocolates, guessing that they couldn’t make me feel any sicker. I fell into the walnut brown leather reading chair at the end of the bed and put on my “sad songs” play list – “I’ll follow you into the dark” by Death Cab For Cutie, “Just Breathe” by Pearl Jam, and more. The music opened up in front of me and became a never-ending landing strip for my tears. That day the tears were hot, wet, and full of a silent horror. Hysterical tears are the tears of “this can’t be true”, but that day the tears slid down my face with full, quiet awareness of the fact that – this IS true. He is dead, he will always be dead, and my children will never have a father. Music, tears, horror, cedar, prom, moths, chocolate, nausea. All of the things.

Still, I eat chocolate. Recently my 10 year old, Isabella, was crying for her dead father. I tried to console her, but how could I fix the fact that she has lost everything? So I brought her some of my precious hand dipped salted caramels. She was surprised when I brought her the chocolates, because everyone knows the special caramels are off limits. I said to her “Sometimes I miss your father so much I feel like I’m going to drown in a pool of the blood that flows out of my broken heart. I can’t fix this. Nothing can bring him back. Sometimes all you can do is soothe yourself in little ways while floating on the ocean of grief. Sometimes all you can do is eat chocolate.”

So we ate chocolate. For a brief moment we weren’t mother and child, but rather 2 people whose hearts were broken, 2 people who needed chocolate.

chocolate

No Anger, Only Love

Dear John –

I’m writing this letter to tell you that I’m not angry with you for dying on a mountain. I’m not angry, because I understand you, because I reach for the same things you reached for.

This past spring, after you were already dead, I climbed up Asgard pass. I

peter-asgard
Peter on Asgard

had climbed Asgard in the summer when it was rock and dirt and found it to be a different beast when covered with ice.  My buddy Peter and I climbed it late in the day when the snow was slushy, camped on hard snow pack in our zero degree bags, and then tried to descend the next morning.  The slush had hardened into a horrific steep sheet of ice during the night, and I had a lot of trouble getting purchase with the side points of my crampons.  I plunged my ice axe in, over and over, so that I had something to hold on to if my feet slipped, but that gave me little comfort.  The run out was bad, bad enough that if I’d known how icy it would be, I never would have climbed it without a harness, ice screws, and a professional guide. From where I stood, there were about 1500 vertical feet of drop (over about 4000 feet of linear slope) to the bottom of the pass. There were no gradual plateaus that would slow me down if I slipped. The only thing between me and the lake at the bottom was bunches of hard rock. FUCK. I remember when I climbed Rainier on a guided trip led by Matt Hegeman. When talking about various mountaineering accidents involving multi-thousand foot un-arrested slides, he would say “And that’s when he [she/they] took the ride of his life.”. Of course, Matt is gone now too. They found your body once the snow melted out, but they never found his.

 

Oh the guilt I felt as I careful picked my way down. FUCK. Get me off this ride. If I take a slide and die, everyone is going to shit all over me – “She’s the mom who took too many risks after husband died and left her kids orphans.” FUCK. Then it happened – I lost my feet, my ice axe didn’t hold, and I screamed as I began to take the ride of my life.  OH FUUUCCKKKK.

In an instant I assessed the situation and decided to intentionally slide towards a pile of rocks.  Ideally, I would be able to slam my feet into the rocks and stop.  If I wasn’t angled right, my body would hit the rocks instead and I would likely break something.  If I missed the rocks and kept sliding, I would most likely…join you and Matt.  I was lucky and was able to stop myself with my feet on the rocks, but then things got much harder.  I had slid into a steeper section, a section that was too dangerous to go down facing forward.  I determined that the only way I was going to get safely down was to climb backwards, meticulously kicking the front points of my crampons in with my face towards the slope and my back towards the view.  And so I did just that.  The ice was so hard, I had to kick my front points in 3 times to make each step stick safely in the ice.  Kick-kick-kick, pause.  Kick-kick-kick, pause.  Using only my front points meant that my calf muscles were constantly engaged, and they burnt out horrifically, to the point where I would have started crying from the pain if I thought it would do any good.  I frequently couldn’t get my ice axe in because the ice was so dense, so I would jam it down over and over until it mercifully penetrated the surface.  Sometimes it would plunge through the ice so suddenly, my body would slam forward and my face would hit the ice too.

There was one particular moment when I stood there on my front points, feeling like I had nothing left. I wanted so badly just to lay down on the ice and weep, but I knew – regardless of how exhausted I was or how much pain my calves and shoulders were in, I had to dig deeper to find the strength to finish. Giving up was not an option.

The truth is, those horrific 3 hours made me feel more like myself than I had felt since you died. When I’m on a mountain, the world becomes very simple. I need to keep myself fed, hydrated, warm, and in one piece. When I’m faced with various objective hazards on a climb, my focus becomes razor sharp and I feel completely alive. There are no phones, no traffic lights, no children I need to nag to do their homework, no dishes to wash. It’s just me, the mountain, and the elements. Most people don’t understand our need to climb.  Afterwards my Asgard pass climb, people looked at me strangely when I showed them my bruises and joked about the failure of Peter’s new ultralight tent.  We only slept 2 hours because snow blew in the whole night and our zero degree bags weren’t warm enough.  “Mountaineering is the art of suffering” was something you told me many times with a smile.  The desire to suffer for a summit was something we shared.  The sunburnt eyeballs, the scabs, the horrifically sore muscles, the frostbitten fingertips – it’s all worth it to us Mountain People.

This is all my way of saying – I’m not angry with you for dying on a mountain, because I understand you.  I understand your need to climb mountains, because I climb them too.  I understand how alive and real you feel when standing on top of something big, looking down on the clouds, because I reach for that feeling too.

After you died, part of me still believed I could keep climbing if I was careful, but the Asgard pass trip made me realize otherwise.  Now that you are gone, I’m not allowed to die.  If I die, our children will be orphans.  Just as I lost you, I also lost my dream of continuing to climb big icy glaciated peaks.  I’m the one who was left behind, and that is where I must remain – behind, here, on this planet, while you soar in the sky with the mountain gods.

Still, I’m not mad.

I’m not angry, because it could have been me instead of you.  I remember all too well the avalanche that swept behind my climbing team when I was ascending Rainier with Matt on the Kautz glacier in July 2012.  If the mountain had crumbed in that way 20 minutes earlier than it did, I would be dead and you would be the one left here to face the horror.

I’m not angry, because the man I married was a rough and tumble Mountain Man.  When we met, you had already summited Mt Rainier twice. I will never forget the story of your first summit at age 22 Your team ascended most of the mountain, slept, woke up at midnight, summited by 6am with headlamps, climbed all the way down, drove home, and then (after a shower) you smoked a joint and went to an all-night dance party. That was my John – a man who walked among the clouds and pulsed in a crowed of sweaty earthly bodies, all in the same day. You were not meant to be tamed.

Once we had children you settled down a bit, but still – the wild mountain man was always there. I felt him, hungry and stir crazy inside of you during the years when our girls were so little and neither of us had much time to explore the outside world. You became overweight, depressed, and seemed almost resigned to a life that wasn’t yours. Once our youngest was out of diapers, I supported you in getting back out there, in going back to the mountains that called your name. I look back on that time as the time when you found your light again, the time when you got back to being yourself – the bearded mountain man, the trail warrior who embraced the suffering in the name of a summit. I never loved you more than when you were your beautiful, banged up, filthy self.

It’s true that this passion of yours eventually lead to your death, but still – I’m not angry. You didn’t wrong me. You never lied to me about the risks. You always included me in the decision. You supported me in my own climbing. You taught me that loving someone means letting them follow their dreams. You showed me that partnership is about loving and supporting your other half as a whole package – not a bunch of bits and pieces that you can pick and choose from.

I’m not angry because, even though you are gone, you still send your love to me. Yes, I’m widowed. Yes, my life of grief and single parenthood often looks like one big shit show. Still – the beams of your love nourish me. I’ve never been more loved than I am now. No one can ever take your love from me.

If I had died on a mountain, you wouldn’t be angry either. That, too, is a gift. In fact, your soothing compassion and forgiveness is what gets me through the day-to-day reality of my new life. When I struggle to be present for the children through my horrific grief, you do not judge me. You watch me, look down on me, and say “Oh sweetheart, I wouldn’t fare any better.” We support and honor each other all the time, even though one of us is dead and one of us still walks the earth.

I tell you, over and over, that I’m not angry, because I want you to be free. I feel you, soaring up above Mount Rainier with the Mountain Gods. Enjoy the glory, my love. Someday, when it is my time, we will meet again.

Always yours,

Holly

Sweet Melanie

The scene still haunts my grief addled brain. Me – standing up in the living room. The kids – age 5 and 9, sitting on the dog clawed white leather couch, facing me. I told them their father was dead and then we all screamed and cried hysterically as one would expect us to. No mother should have to say such things to their children, as no children that young should have to hear those words.

A year and a half later, the numbness and hysteria is gone, but the horror is not. Even now – if I let myself imagine, just for a moment, what it would be like if John came back to help me raise the girls, I instantly become nauseous and feel like I’m re-living that night all over again. I flash back to the phone call from the Ranger telling me of the avalanche, the calls I then had to stoically make to John’s family, the conversation with the kids on the white couch. Can it really be true? 18 months later and I still wonder – is this really my life?

Holly-comforting-melanieThe good news is that Melanie (now 7) opens up to me about her feelings. The bad news is that her pain breaks my heart all over again every day. When I put her to bed in the evenings, I always climb in with her for a bit. Partly because she wants me to, but partly because I’m also in need of the touch and warmth. Typically we lay on our sides facing each other. She wraps her arms around my neck while I bury my face in her hair, and we chat.

Just now, 2 hours ago, we had this conversation, verbatim. This is a very common conversation for us to have when I’m putting her to sleep. She initiates these conversations completely out of the blue, not me.

===

“Mama, I don’t want you to ever ever EVER die.”

“I won’t die until I’m very old, sweetheart.”

“…and I don’t want you to ever leave me.”

“I will always be your mom and I won’t die until I’m old”

“No mama, I mean – I don’t want you to be alive but gone where I can’t see you.”

“I will go on trips at times, but we will always spend lots of time together.”

(pause, snuggling)

“Mama, what if you marry someone and after a couple of years you find out he isn’t a good dad?”

“Hmm. Well, someday if I get engaged, then that man and I can live together for a while before the wedding, and if he isn’t a good dad, I will find it out before we get married. I won’t marry someone who isn’t going to be a good dad to you.”

“But, won’t that be rude, if you tell him you will marry him but change your mind?”

“Yes Melanie, but I would rather be rude than marry someone who won’t be a good father to you.”

“Yeah mama, because I need a good dad. The best would be my real dad, but he’s dead. I miss Dada.”

“I miss him too, Melanie. Every minute of every day, I miss him.”

(pause, snuggling)

“Melanie, I love snuggling with you. Your skin is so soft. I love kissing your cheeks.”

“Your skin is soft too, mama.”

“Not as soft as yours. My skin hasn’t been as soft since your dad died.”

“Let me feel.”

Melanie strokes my cheek gently with her fingertips

“Mama, I think your skin is softer than mine.”

(pause)

“Mama, I get saddest about Dada at night. Every night I get sad.”
“Me too, Melanie.”

“That’s why I come to your bedroom in the middle of the night. Sometimes I don’t even know I’m getting up. My body just gets up because it is so sad.”

“I know Melanie, but still, you have to try to stay in bed.”

“Ok Mama.”

“One last kiss and then goodnight.”

I get up and walk quietly to the door in the darkness. Melanie starts whimpering.

“Mama…. Daddy. I miss Daddy.”

“I know Melanie. Just try to sleep. Goodnight. I love you forever.”

“I love you forever too, Mama.”

===

I am alone. I am loved by so many people, but still – I am the only one holding this space. I hold my grief, her grief, and Isabella’s grief. I use the little bit of strength I have left to be calm and nurturing while her words rip my heart apart. My poor darling Melanie. So young, so innocent, so sweet, so powerless. I ache for her, I ache for Iz, I ache for myself, and I ache for John for not being able to watch his beautiful girls find their way in the world. No one can fix this. When Melanie cries in the middle of the night, that’s all on me – not on my MIL Mary, not on my aupair Camila, not on John in the sky – it’s on me and only on me.

This deep and profound alone-ness has been a theme for me as of late. I go to a lot of group therapy, and this seems to be a theme for other widows as well – year two is lonelier than year one. No more numbness, just a sadness and desolation that stretches into forever. He’s really not coming back.

Still, I have gratitude. My brain has distilled all of the horror and reminds me repeatedly – only a fiercely strong tiger mama could survive all of this. The wounds of my trauma are like claw marks on my belly, exposing ribs and entrails, but still – I do not succumb. I bleed, I pace, I snarl, and I spend hours every day licking up the caked and dried blood, but I do not succumb. I am not graceful, gentle, or selfless every second of every day, but I know that my most important job is to protect my cubs, and I do just that. I hold them. I cry with them. I set up college funds, drive them to group therapy, and do whatever I need to do to take care of them. Even though we often bicker, argue, and take our grief out on each other; still – I can tell that they know I will always be there for them. I may not be very fun to be around, but I’m tenacious and my dedication to my children flows through every fiber of my being.

Thank you, John for giving me these beautiful children. Thank you, universe, for bestowing me with this unending strength. Thank you to my community that continues to let me be as I am – broken, but also beautiful in my brokenness

Sterilze Me

I should have known I would crash at the Doctors office. How could I not? Still, I didn’t ask anyone to go with me, mainly because I’m done being so needy and broken.

At age 40, I’ve decided to get my tubes tied. Birth control isn’t something I’ve had to worry about for a long time. A few years after Melanie was born, John had a vasectomy. Now John’s dead, Melanie is 7, and I’ve re-entered the dating world.

note-from-melanieI’ve never before been so afraid of getting pregnant – not even when I was in college and a baby would have ruined everything. Now the idea of another child reminds me that my life isn’t what I planned and triggers panic attacks about my true alone-ness. I had been feeling good about the consult I had scheduled at Swedish. I’m taking charge! I’m recognizing my limitations and taking steps to own my future. I’m making a smart decision. Still, I woke up sad and lonely. I packed my kids lunches and found this note in Melanie’s lunch box. The pain never seems to go away.

It wasn’t until I was in the exam room later that morning that my eyes began to brim. The doctor walked in and, though I was sad, I instantly liked her. She had short, spikey hair, a smooth face, no makeup, and was very trim with angular features. She wore a crisp button down shirt tucked into tailored dress pants with beautiful masculine/feminine wingtip shoes with high heels. She had a masculine wedding band and seemed unapologetically (but not flamboyantly) gay in a way that made it a non-thing instead of a thing. I was safe with her.

We began to go through my reproductive health history. I detailed my 2 traumatic C-sections – one after 40 hours of labor, the other after 30. I explained that my uterus had almost burst the second time – when they opened me up they said my uterus was paper thin around my old scar and they couldn’t cut there because it wouldn’t have even held stitches, so they had to give me a second scar. I told her of the allergic reaction I’d had to Phenergan during my first labor and how I had gone into convulsions and John thought I was going to die. I mentioned the abdominal herniation I’d had both pregnancies, and how my belly muscles still weren’t put back together, limiting certain forms of exercise. Finally, I told her of my miscarriage in 2006, leading to a traumatic D&C under general anesthesia. Side note – D&C stands for Dilation and Curettage – they open you up and scrape your uterus out so that you don’t have the trauma of hemorrhaging chunks of your dead baby into the bathtub. I still bled for 20 days afterwards. 20 days.

Then, my general health history. The extreme stress, panic attacks, and PTSD-like symptoms since his death. The insomnia leading to a level of exhaustion that seems almost life threatening. For some reason I didn’t mention the fact that, 3 weeks ago, my lips went blue and I fainted at the dinner table, only to be dragged to the couch by my frantic friends while my horrified children looked on. Maybe part of me was afraid that, if I seemed too fragile and weak, then she wouldn’t let me have the surgery.

She was thorough, but also kind. She maintained her composure and professionalism as she wiped her eyes. 18 months later and my ability to make strangers cry is intact. We discussed my ongoing work with my regular doctor to address the health issues that have arisen in my time of grief, and I could tell she was confident that I am receiving solid care. Finally, she said

“I’m just so sorry. I can’t even imagine. I don’t know what else to say.”

And then I said what I always say – that there is nothing else to say besides “I’m sorry.” I was grateful that she didn’t try to offer me a solution or bullshit words of hope. She looked at me with heavy eyes, honored me in my sad place, and I felt understood.

After all of that, there wasn’t any uncertainty between us. My body should never carry another child. My uterus could burst. I’d have to get cut open again. My abdominal muscles would rip open wider. It wouldn’t be safe to carry a child after 18 months of averaging 4 hours of sleep a night. I’m stripped bare, empty, and my reserves are all gone. How could I ever manage single parenthood to 2 traumatized fatherless children while caring for an infant and processing my continued grief? Sterilize me, and do it as soon as possible. Give me some certainty in a life where I feel powerless.

It was then, near the end of the appointment that the tears finally spilled over the edge of my lids. Why hadn’t I brought anyone with me to hold my hand? If John hadn’t died, I wouldn’t have to get sterilized. If he was alive and I had an important doctor’s appointment, he would have come with me. He wouldn’t have let me say no, he would have insisted on coming. I’m so tired of crying alone, yet I’m also painfully aware of the fact that widowhood is a very solo journey. Only I can find my new future.

As the appointment wound down, she told me I would receive a call from someone who would be able to get me on the surgical calendar. She looked at my old file from when I’d been to Swedish years before, and said “When we call you, should we use the number on file ending in 4132, or the number ending in 6915?”

My body became 20lbs heavier yet again, and I responded “Use the number ending in 4132. The other number is for my dead husband. You can remove that.”

She deleted his number from the file, and I was reminded yet again – I am alone.

On Fire

Does it ever feel that way to you, as if you are watching yourself from the outside, asking “Is this really my life?”? I felt a bizarre detachment that day in August. My husband was still dead, my young girls still fatherless, I had just learned that the Okanogan wildfires were closing in on my 25 acres of forest, and I was anticipating a hot date with a gorgeous bearded biomedical engineer I’d just met.

Purchasing the land was John’s idea. John was a crazy-smart, cigarette smoking, fire eating, adrenaline-junkie mountain man who worked for Microsoft to pay the bills but didn’t wrap his identity around his job. We had met at Burningman in 2003 – him, 30, with neon orange hair, me, 28, with light-up fairy wings. John taught me that falling in love means throwing out all your rules and his arms became the only home I ever needed. He proposed less than 4 months after our first fateful all-night walk and by 2008 we were married with a 3 year old – Isabella, and another one (Melanie) in my belly. We had already camped all over the state in our VW pop top and John often lamented how unfortunate it was to have to camp in tiny spots in public campgrounds with miniature barely-there fire pits. He longed for space, trees, and big fires. He sent me an email from work one day, out of the blue. He told me how he wanted a piece of land for our own, how he had looked at hundreds of listings online, and that we needed at least 20 acres if we were going to be able to truly find solitude.

John wasn’t frivolous and rarely came to me suggesting spontaneous unnecessary large purchases. I knew immediately that it was one of those moments that I should surrender to and didn’t debate the practicality of it all. John picked out various parcels for us to visit and soon we owned 25 acres of land in Okanogan. There was a muddy creek for the kids to stomp in, sheds to hold John’s tools, a perfect clearing for a fire pit, endless chipmunks for our sweet pooch to chase, and approximately 7000 pine, larch, and douglas fir trees. We didn’t have any of the money and couldn’t get a loan for the land since undeveloped land is considered ‘risky’, so I handled getting our primary home refinanced. The bank handed us equity and we bought the land outright.

Nursing infant Melanie, out in the woods.
Nursing infant Melanie, out in the woods.

Months later I was cut open and Melanie was born. I was both surprised and not surprised that John wanted to take the baby out to our land. I was hesitant to be out in the woods, off grid, with no running water right after having had a C-section. John told me he would take care of me, and he did just that. He brought us out to the land with a 5 week old Melanie and handled everything while I sat under the trees in a camp chair cuddling my tiny babe. It was cold, so I swaddled her in several blankets and pulled up my bulky fleece jacket to nurse her. I wondered – how did Eskimos nurse their babies? Perhaps there is a niche market in warm jackets with nursing slits, for mountain women who don’t want popsicle teats.

5 week old Melanie, all bundled up inside our campervan.
5 week old Melanie, all bundled up inside our campervan.

Milksickles and all – I fell in love with that man all over again that trip. He chopped the wood, built the fires, chased a delighted Isabella, and cooked our meals over the fire pit. The first night, as we sat by the fire, John looked at me with the sweetest softness in his eyes and said “I love you, babe.” Sure, he told me he loved me all the time, but this moment burned into my memory because of the incredible gratitude that poured out of him. I knew then, on a cellular level, that I had made him the happiest man ever, and that I was supporting him in exactly the life he wanted to lead. Every time we went out to the land for years to come, I got one of those extra special I-love-you’s under the stars the first night. It wasn’t conscious on his part, but rather a beam of adoration that flowed directly from his chocolate brown eyes into my soul.

Isabella on our land, 2012, age 7
Isabella on our land, 2012, age 7

Oh how all four of us frolicked on the land over the years. The kids climbed trees, chased butterflies, and built small forts out of sticks and logs. I learned how powerful and strong I felt when chopping wood. We invited our friends and held various camping parties, including Barry and Maja’s 150 person outdoor burningman-style wedding with an entire goat on a spit. John wielded the chain saw and taught Isabella to fish in the lake nearby. We were happy.

cabin-in-progIn the summer of 2012 John began to build a one room cabin with the help of his childhood friend Michael. They spent endless hours framing the walls, installing windows, constructing roof trusses, hanging the door, and stapling roof shingles. They drank beer as they worked, blasted Pearl Jam through a Goodwill stereo plugged into a gas powered gennie, and generally enjoyed being two dudes swinging hammers out in the woods. Oh how sexy John was when he was truly himself. I liked him best when he was dirty and sweaty, power tools in hand, rocking out to his favorite tunes.cabin-almost-done

The last time we were together on the land was May 2014. John was 40, I was 39. He planned to depart early to embark on a technical climb of Liberty Ridge on Mount Rainier. He had been training for this climb for almost a year – ice climbing with a private guide in Colorado and hitting the trail 2-3x a week with a 65-80lb pack. I asked him, a few times, to slip off into the woods and have sex with me before he left, but he was distracted and busy and it didn’t happen. I remember thinking, as he drove away that Sunday, that if he died then I would be mad that he had turned me down for what would have been our last time together. There was no reason to expect him to die, but all that week, after he left, I was haunted by an image of myself alone with the girls.

Two days later, on Tuesday, John was able to text me from the climb.

John – “At high camp. Hard climbing today. Bad forecast for tomorrow so may hole up for the day. The guides will make a call early in the morning. I love you.”
John – “Tell the girls that I’m doing fine and that I miss them. I miss you too.”
Holly -“I love you and am proud of you.”
John – “Thanks babe.”
John – “Our high camp.” (attached pictures of the group)
Holly – “What a bunch of hot mountain men! Any vertical ice climbing yet?”
John – “Not until the summit bid, right at the end. Some very steep snow today through with nasty exposure. We were short roping. Started yesterday in the rain and very sloppy slog into camp one.”
John – “I’m the oldest guy on this trip! Ok, I’ve got to melt some snow so I can get some sleep. I love you babe!”
Holly – “Love you tons.”

Then, Wednesday, the next day –

John – “Still on it. Totally epic. We are doing a bivy at 12,500′ right now, took two hours to dig tent platforms. Totally variable conditions, lots of belayed pitches. Took 7 hours to get 2000′ elevation today. Cold strong winds. The guides are doing an awesome job of keeping us safe. Weather is supposed to improve tomorrow and we will top out the ridge at 14,100′ and probably descend all the way unless someone has issues.”
Holly – “Wow! So you might be home tomorrow night! I’m so happy for you.”
John – “We will see.”
Holly – “I love my mountain man.”
John – “I love you too! In my bag, holding the stove melting snow.”
Holly – “Enjoy the summit tomorrow, babe. You deserve it.”
John – “Got to power down now, I love you.”
Holly – “I love you forever.”

I didn’t hear from John the next day, Thursday. I assumed that he was exhausted, having summited, and that the team needed some extra time to descend. I had a Friday evening steak celebration dinner planned – he would walk in the door soon – ravenous, dirty, stinky, and happy. I stonily began to cook the meal when I got the call – Search and Rescue helicopters would be dispatched in the morning. On Saturday, Search and Rescue spotted an exposed hand sticking out of the snow and gear strewn about on the Carbon Glacier in a direct fall line from where the team had been camped. There was so much rock and ice fall in this area, they could only safely view it from the sky. It was determined that, during the night, an avalanche swept the entire team of 6 off the ridge, 3300 feet straight down. The were killed instantly, marking both the most tragic accident on Mount Rainier in 33 years and the beginning of my horrific journey into widowhood. Three months later when the snow began to melt they recovered 3 of the bodies, including John’s, but the other 3 were swallowed up by the glacier, never to be found.

It was hard to go back to the land after John died.

It was the July 4th weekend, 2014, 5 weeks AD (After Death). I almost hyperventilated and vomited while packing up – where was my partner for the campervan-dance? I was the gatherer, he was the tetris king – making sure that the sleeping bags, camp chairs, tools, propane tank, kids, and dog would all fit. I packed up through tears and somehow got myself and the girls (by then, age 5 and 9) across the state. When we arrived, it was after dark. The girls couldn’t even run around and play due to the complete blackout, but still they were SO thrilled to be there! They said “Mama, I love you” unprompted, over and over, which is what they do when they are feeling bright and happy.

I put them to sleep in the top bunk of the camper and then sat out by the fire pit alone. I didn’t light a fire, as cows had kicked the fire pit stones around. So I sat there, in the dark, gazing up at the beautiful stars. Then it hit me – I was NOT alone. John was right there with me. I began to cry and his soul wrapped its arms around me. I felt him thanking me, over and over, for taking the girls out to the land, for continuing to raise them as he would want me to raise them, for going camping and hiking with them even though it’s so much harder to do now that he is gone. I was swept away by all of the love that he showered on me in that moment. I realized that, even though John is dead, he will always be there for me. So, while his energetic arms were wrapped around me, I leaned my head on his chest, sobbed, and let him comfort me. He stroked my hair, soothed me, and told me he was proud of me for being so strong for our girls.

The girls and I spent the next few days hiking, hammock swinging, and rebuilding the fire pit. I saw him in everything out there – in our beat up old campervan, in the cabin that he and Michael had been building together, in his beer bottle caps left in the dirt from previous trips, and in the stars that came out so brightly at night, the ones that he and I had gazed upon together while we snuggled up by the fire.

The girls and I went back to the land several times. Over a year later the girls were age 7 and 10 and I was 40. We were no longer hysterical and numb, but still swimming around in a cold and stormy ocean of grief. Shortly after our last trip in July 2015, I began to hear of the fires in Okanogan county. I did nothing and for a long time did not allow myself to consider the idea that the fire might be near my particular parcel of land. It was as if my body had no more space for pain, so I embraced ignorance. Then, there was a day, in late August, when an alarm bell went off somewhere in my limping, grief-addled brain, and all of the sudden I had to know. So I opened up the online fire maps, and saw with horror that my land was surrounded on 3 sides by fire. My body knew. That was Saturday. By Monday my 7000 trees and my husband’s hand built cabin were gone. Burnt. Obliterated.

I told all of my friends and then had to listen to their words of hope.

“We will help you re-plant in the spring.”

“Don’t forget about the firefighters and the people who lost primary homes. They have it worse.”

“All part of the cycles of life in the forest. This could be a tremendous learning experience for your girls.”

Ok everybody, stop right here and let me tell you how I really feel. I don’t want your hope. Fuck hope, and fuck perspective.

On the day that I find out that my land has burned down, I don’t want to hear about replanting or about all the things my children will learn. My children lost yet another part of their father, and you can’t make that ok for a 7 and 10 year old. The seven miles of dirt road out to my plot will be covered with fallen burnt dead trees for years to come and it will be a long time before I can even drive there. My children have lost the rest of their childhood on the playground their father created for them.

So, I do not want your hope. In fact, on that day that I lost my land I felt a level of detachment that I hadn’t experienced before. After all of the trauma, brokenness, and fragility; after over a year of constant nausea, night after night of Melanie sobbing into my neck for her dead father, and a year of Isabella’s anger at the world; I was done. I watched my land burn as if I was a spirit floating in the sky, unattached to the physical world, and I longed to run away. Certainly, at that point, once my land was incinerated, if I didn’t have children then I would have sold everything, thrown on a backpack, and gone anywhere but here. My life was taken from me, and except for my children – there is nothing for me here. You can argue with me that I still have so many things, but then you are offering hope, and remember – I don’t want your hope. I want you hold my hand, stroke my hair, honor my tears, and sit with me in my darkness.

Oh how I was suffering, and let me tell you – everyone around me suffered too as they tried to cope with tolerating the joyless Hardened Ice Queen. I needed an escape. I needed to be touched.

I needed to get laid.

In fact, it had been a very long time since I had been truly touched by anyone. Sure, I had been on some dates. I flirted, practiced presenting the whole widow/single mom baggage, and shared a few kisses; but no one seemed safe and my legs remained tightly clamped shut. My whole body became one angry tangled mess of hardened muscles. I tried every method to release the steam – extreme exercise, in-home massages, acupuncture, and spa vacations. These soothing methods kept me from some sort of worse rampage, but still – I was hard, dark, cold, and miserable. I joked that I was going to make a sign I could hold up in the air when I was especially intolerable, stating “I Would be WAY less grouchy if I was getting laid. SO SORRY.”

So, that brings us to Monday, the day my land was finally overtaken by fire, a couple of days before my first date with the new Bearded Hottie (BH). BH and I had met a couple of weeks before on the trail. We both happened to be hiking the same through-hike in the Enchantments – 19 miles, 6300 feet elevation change, 13 hours. He had a straw hat, wooden staff, a hunter green button down shirt, and beefy forearms. I was surprised when BH contacted me afterwards, wanting to meet for drinks. He made me laugh with his playful flirty texts and we boasted to each other about the ridiculous number of hours we spent exercising. I was tired of wearing my widowhood on my sleeve and decided not to tell him of my burdens. I wanted to pretend that I was simply a young, beautiful woman, with no horrific war wounds, going out on a first date.

On Wednesday I dressed myself in smoky eyeliner, a tight white tank top showcasing my toned climbing shoulders, a black skirt, and my favorite sassy knee-high burgundy leather Fluevog boots. We met at the bar and drank Manhattans as we chatted about our shared love for both mathematics and chopping firewood. I let it slip that I had kids, because it felt like a lie not to, and then changed the subject. Our time together was easy and I felt like the vibrant woman I used to be. I decided to bring him home and have sex with him on the first date, something I’d never done before. So there we were, standing in my bedroom, kissing. He pulled back, looked at me, and said “I’m not looking for anything serious.” I said “Good. Me either.” BH took off his clothes and I found myself looking at the most muscular, chiseled man I had ever been with. OH MY GOD. The universe doesn’t hate me. The phoenix had risen from the inferno of my land and was about to burst right out of my pelvis.

Somehow, BH managed to play into all of my fantasies without me telling him what they were. He easily picked me up, carried me to the bed, and transformed me from a heavy 150lb piece of muscle into a weightless stargazer lily whose petals were about to open. I shyly told him that I sometimes had trouble orgasming and that if he found it frustrating then I didn’t mind ‘helping’. He looked at me with dismissive amusement, smiled confidently, and said “I’d like to try.” He began to kiss me softly everywhere, the way you kiss someone when you have all the time in the world, the way you touch and caress someone when the lovemaking is about the journey and not the destination. BH eventually made sweet love to me and I fell asleep on his chest as he gently stroked my hair. How did he know? Soon after, at 1am, my youngest wandered down from her upstairs bedroom and knocked on my locked door as she often did at that time, crying for her father. I threw on clothes, snuck out of the room without revealing my sleeping lover, sang to her and comforted her until she was asleep in her own bed, then went back to my locked bedroom. I snuggled up to BH, burying my face in his neck. He stirred, hooked his knuckle under my chin, tilted my head back for another kiss that lasted forever, and then made love to me again. We slept more, woke up, and had sex for a third time. I heard the kids begin to wake up and I giggled delightedly as I instructed him to climb out of my egress window and step down onto a cooler in my back yard.

At Wild Waves, feeling awesome.
At Wild Waves, feeling awesome.

I fed the kids breakfast and threw them in the minivan for a promised trip to Wild Waves. Once we arrived I staked out a lounge chair by the wave pool and sent them off to explore. I laid there, glowing, feeling nothing short of delicious, and realized I hadn’t felt that alive since before John died.  I ran the numbers and estimated that, in terms of in-home massages, counseling, and expensive colorful Michael Kors purses; BH had performed about $4,350 worth of therapy on my body. I decided not to contact BH or expect anything of him. To attach to a follow-up date would be an attachment to potential disappointment, and I had no more space for such things. BH had given me months worth of material for my Masturbation Fantasy Rolodex, and I wanted to mentally draw on the juiciness of that blissful night of hot sex for a long time without the memory being tainted in any way. It’s not that BH wasn’t appealing – in fact, he was all of the things I would want – funny, whip smart, outdoorsy, athletic, and kind, not to mention ridiculously hot. For those reasons, I detached even more from any future connection. Our amazing night together would remain one perfect, uncomplicated memory.

I laid there for hours, at peace, while my children floated back and forth, telling me of the rides they had been on, asking for more money. Then, there was John, smiling down on me, as he used to do on our land.

“Holly, you needed that.”

Then, he started laughing at me! My own dead husband was amused by the image of his icy wife melting into a puddle. I didn’t know whether to be embarrassed, or grateful for his playfulness.

“Holly, you were a terror. Everyone will have an easier time being around you now.”

And then I began to laugh too. He was right. Thank you, Bearded Hottie, for blowing oxygen on my cooled off embers. You helped me to lose myself and to remember that I may be a widow and a single mom, but I’m also a woman – a pulsing, vibrant, hot mess of a caged tiger who needed to be let out to play. I didn’t need words of hope, I needed to be in the moment and get burnt up in the flames of passion with you. I thank you, my dead husband thanks you, and everyone who has had to suffer my reign of terror thanks you. All of the sorrow in my heart is still there, but now there is a little light alongside it, and for that, I couldn’t be more grateful.

The Nightstand

It was just a couple of days ago – Thursday, October 29 – 1 year, 5 months, and 1 day since John died.

Things had gotten much better over recent months – the girls were firmly entrenched in the new school year, I began to love cooking again and had thrown myself into a year-long Memoir writing class, and in general we were having many joyous moments. Still, the thread of sadness wove through, as it always will. Just the day before I had asked Melanie “Are you happy today?” meaning, “Did you have a good day at school?” She immediately replied “Well, no I’m not happy, because my dad is dead. I will always be sad that he is dead. Besides that I’m ok.” And that’s how it was.

Thursday morning I woke up feeling heavy. Halloween was coming and John always loved taking the girls out in their costumes. I got the girls to school, spent 2 hours sitting at Les Schwab while they put new tires on my Honda minivan, and then went home. I had an hour to kill and decided to make myself clean out John’s nightstand.

The nightstand is one of the few untouched areas left. The clothes went first – in those first few horrible days I spent long stretches of time prone on the floor of the walk in closet, weeping into his Pearl Jam t-shirts and blue jeans. I knew that couldn’t go on, so I had friends come help me box everything up a week after he died. The couch went next – every time I walked into the living room I thought I might vomit as I saw his ghost of a body in his favorite seat, filling the bum indentation that was there. Friends carted it away and Mellington helped me shop for a new one – something of a completely different color and shape. That’s all I cared about – that it was different.

Eventually, with help, I worked through the bathroom drawers, his office, and various other parts of the house. I was never able to do it alone because I would get stuck crying while holding various objects. Some things were thrown away, some donated, some placed in special spots around the house, some given to the girls, and some boxed up for me to open some day as I was ready. The goal was of course not to eliminate John, but to make the home manageable for us energetically.

Still, I didn’t touch the nightstand or the garage. The garage had been made into a woodshop that was filled with all of John’s beautiful tools. John once told me that he bought the house for that garage, and when we were married we joked that it should go in our vows – “Thou shalt not put a car in the garage.” The garage was his shop, his creative spot, his unabashed mancave. I often sat in the garage, after he died, crying for his lost dreams. Poor John. He made such a beautiful life and doesn’t get to enjoy it. I gave in to a strong instinct to keep the shop as it was, and his mancave became my mancave. In fact, it was the only place I could truly be alone, as, in my home with 2 children, John’s mother, and an aupair, all of my privacy had completely eroded. My life wasn’t my own any more, but at least in the garage I could be quiet, sit in the sawdust with John’s tools, and be left alone to feel and cry.

John's first Rainier climb, 1996
John’s first Rainier climb, 1996

The garage would remain a shop, but the last item in question, the nightstand, was more than overdue. I opened the bottom drawer and grief seeped out like a low hanging cloud of dark smoke. There were John’s High School prom photos and pictures from his first Rainier summit. Oh, my sweet John. I tried to think about what to do with the pictures, began to cry, and put the photos back. My poor girls – their dad will never see them off to their own prom. His poor mother, who lost her pride and joy. Poor, sweet, John – who died on his favorite mountain. And then there is me – left to pick up the pieces without my best friend John by my side to hold my hand.

I cried my eyes out for at least an hour – missing him, willing him to come back and save me from this horror, and feeling heavy. Then I wiped my face off and went to my friend Rob’s house. We had plans to debone 2 full chickens, side by side, while watching a video of the master himself – Jaques Pepin.

We made Jaques proud, stuffed the deboned chicken dresses with ham and mushrooms, roasted them, and sat down with our kids for a lovely meal. I had maybe 1/3 a glass of wine but for some reason found it completely unappetizing. By this time, I was hangry, having been too distracted with the pictures and grief to remember to eat a full lunch. I felt off as we ate, and thought about excusing myself to the couch to lay down. I said nothing, though, because I didn’t want to attract attention to myself and was tired of always being the needy one in the room. Then, suddenly, my temperature spiked. I broke out in an intense full body sweat, my ears started to ring, and my vision started to go. I remember thinking “Oh shit, someone better notice what’s going on, because I’m already too far down this hole to communicate or help myself in any way.” Suddenly Rob and Julie were grabbing me by the arms, dragging me to the couch. Julie told me later that my lips had gone blue and that my left arm was bent, shaking, and twitching, rattling my plate. As soon as I was on my back on the couch, the episode was over.

I curled up into a ball and began to silently cry. I wanted to howl and moan, over and over, “I’m just SO TIRED. So, so tired.” I didn’t have that option though, because my kids were there and Melanie was especially disturbed. She often reminds me that I am her only living parent and that I can’t die, because if I die then she will be an orphan. Knowing that I would pay a heavy price if she became frantic, I smiled at her, told her I was fine, and suggested that we serve dessert. Then, Camila got the kids home while Julie, Bev, and Rob spent time taking care of me and examining my basic functions to make sure I hadn’t had some sort of mini-stroke. I was able to walk around fine, and except for a slight headache and even deeper than usual exhaustion, I felt pretty normal. I had a strong urge to remind Bev where the one signed copy of my will was, but stayed quiet because I knew the reminder of my fragility would stress everyone out.

My friends got me safely home. I went to bed alone holding significant fear that I wouldn’t wake up. My brain knew the fear was irrational, but my heart said “Screw you, brain. People die all the time.” I slept about 2.5 hours and then woke up, as I often do. For over a year after John died I only slept 2-4 hours a night. These days I’m lucky to sometimes get 5. I climbed out of bed and into a reading chair, put on music, and began to cry my fucking eyes out. Since it was 2am, everyone was asleep, and I was thankfully finally allowed to fully cry without worrying that my children or friends would become frantic. I sobbed, I wailed, I howled, and in general I allowed myself to feel all of the misery that was inside of my body at that very moment. I felt completely alone in the world and exhausted to the point of collapse. My grieving children need me, what if they lose me? I can’t keep shouldering all of these burdens by myself – they are too heavy. I cried for 2 full hours, and sometime around 5am I was able to collapse in bed for a couple more hours of sleep before getting the girls up for school.

I want to get off this ride.

I sat there in the middle of the night, wrecked and miserable, and that was what kept coming back to me – GET ME OFF THIS RIDE. It was as if I was a little girl again, on the roller coaster at Canobie Lake Park. I remember the first time I rode the big coaster – my car left the station and started climbing up the first big rise, getting ready to drop while we all screamed with joy. The pit of my stomach fell out on the way up, because I was young and the ride was perhaps a bit too much for me. I became nauseous and no longer wanted that joyous free fall. I wanted to get off the ride. But – there was no getting off.

Last year, I had a similar experience during a spring climb of Asgard pass.

I had climbed Asgard in the summer when it was rock and dirt but it was a different beast when covered with ice. My buddy Peter and I climbed up it late in the day when the snow was slushy, camped on a hard snow bed in our zero degree bags, and then tried to descend the next morning. The slushy snow had hardened into an icy crust overnight, and I had a lot of trouble getting purchase with the side points of my crampons. I plunged my ice axe in, over and over, so that I had something to hold on to if my feet slipped. The run out wasn’t good, and if I took a slide there would be damage. As sharp as my foot spikes were, they just weren’t grabbing the ice and eventually it happened – I lost my feet, my ice axe didn’t hold, and I screamed as I took a slide. In an instant I assessed the situation and decided to intentionally slide towards a pile of rocks. Ideally, I would be able to slam my feet into the rocks and stop. If I wasn’t angled right, my body would hit the rocks instead and I would likely break a bone. If I missed the rocks and kept sliding, I would most likely break many bones or worse. I was lucky and was able to stop myself with my feet on the rocks, but my trouble didn’t end there. I had slid into an even steeper section, a section that was too dangerous to go down facing forward. I yelled up to Peter to take a different path down. I knew that the only way I was going to get safely off the mountain was to climb down backwards, meticulously kicking the front points of my crampons in with my face towards the slope and my back towards the view. And so I did just that. The ice was so hard, I had to kick my front points in 3 times to make each step stick safely in the ice. Kick-kick-kick, pause. Kick-kick-kick, pause. Using only my front points meant that my calf muscles were constantly engaged, and they burnt out horrifically, to the point where I would have started crying from the pain if I thought it would do any good. I struggled to get my ice axe in because the ice was so hard, so I would jam it down over and over until it finally penetrated the ice. Sometimes it would suddenly plunge through the ice so quickly, my body would slam forward and my face would hit the ice too. It was the most stressful mountaineering situation I’d been in and I wanted to give up.

I wanted to get off the ride.

I remember one particular moment when I stood there on my front points, feeling like I had nothing left. I wanted so badly just to lay down on the ice and weep, but I knew – regardless of how exhausted I was or how much pain my calves and shoulders were in, I had to dig deeper to find the strength to finish. Getting off the ride was just not an option.

Just as now, I cannot get off this roller coaster ride of grief, loss, and single parenthood.

Holly-comforting-melanieRecently, Melanie sobbed against my neck for John as I was putting her to bed, and she said “Mama, when Camila puts me to bed, I don’t cry. I save all my tears for you.” Regardless of how exhausted I am or how little sleep I get, when my children wake up in the middle of the night crying for their dead father, it is I who must attend to them. When my children delightedly talk about which friends they want to invite out to our 25 acres of forested land next summer, it is I who must smile and hold the horrific secret that the land has burned down, because the therapist says the children aren’t ready for more devastation. It is I who must set up the college funds and makes sure the lights stay on. I have so much help, but still – many burdens can only be carried by me.

Sometimes I wonder how it is that all of this suffering has not broken me and then I realize – I am breaking. I saw my doctor on Friday, the day after my lips went blue at the dinner table. She said I did not have a stroke but rather I had a vasovagal response, which means my brain lost oxygen for a bit and I fainted – probably in response to the exhaustion and to low blood sugar. I am breaking. Two weeks ago I vomited, while hiking, because I had pushed myself too hard for how broken I am,but not nearly as hard as I used to push myself. This past summer I almost fainted from heat exhaustion twice while carrying a heavy training pack on the trail. In June, when I climbed Mount Adams, my heart raced and ached when I was at altitude in a way it never had before. These sorts of things never happened to me before John died. The hairline fractures are busting open, and I am breaking. All I want to do is disappear into a cave for a month with a headlamp, some books, and my favorite pillow. I need to rest. I need to sleep 24 hours a day for weeks. I’m cooked. I’m done. I want to get off this ride.

But, I can’t, so – I don’t.

I don’t give up, I dig deeper. Many of my reserves have been stripped away, but still – I find threads and wisps of strength tucked away in remote crevices of my beaten down body. I am a warrior, and when warriors have been in the bush for weeks with little food and water while dragging their wounded and dead comrades, they keep going. I keep going. I don’t know how this story ends, but I know that my girls need me. So, I wake up every day setting an intention to nurture my tired body and to forgive myself when I struggle.

I am struggling, but I am also succeeding. I hold my grieving girls when they cry and am able to be fully present to wipe away their tears. I keep them busy and engaged and they are finding joy alongside the pain. I’m finding joy alongside the pain too, and it feels good. If you see me laughing, then laugh with me. If you see me break, then hold my hand and kiss my forehead, but know that you can’t fix it. This is a ride that I can’t get off.

That brings us to today – Sunday morning, 3 days after I opened and closed the nightstand, 3 nights since I fainted. Melanie is asleep in my bed, having crawled in with me at 2am. Just now I walked into the bedroom after working on this piece, needing my laptop power cord. Melanie stirred, reached her arms out, and said “Mama, can we just snuggle and read all day today? Nothing else, just snuggling.”

Yes Melanie, we can indeed snuggle, and for that – I’m grateful. I survived. I woke up this morning and wasn’t dead. I might even have the strength to tackle the nightstand again today. If I open the drawer and need to close it again, I will cry a bit, forgive myself, and then go get more of those delicious kiddo cuddles. My work here isn’t done, and frankly – I’m glad the planet isn’t ready to lose me just yet.

John's High School Prom, 1991
John’s High School Prom, 1991