Chainsaw

My husband died on May 28, 2014, but we didn’t learn of his death until May 31. Today (May 31, 2016) is the 2nd anniversary of the day I had to tell my children their father was dead. The scene below still haunts me and probably always will.

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When the 3rd call came in I took the phone, went into my darkened bedroom, and sat on the chocolate brown leather couch. Search and Rescue had been dispatched that morning.

“Holly do you have someone with you?”

“Yes, I do. I am not alone.”

My friend took my hand.

“We have not found the team yet, but we did find some gear spread out on the Carbon Glacier.”

“What does this mean?”

“We don’t know yet, but we do know that the debris is in a direct fall line from where the team was. They were climbing on a ridge 3300 feet directly above the scattered gear.”

I hung up the phone and told Friend what she had said. They had not yet declared the team dead but in my mind it was a done deal.

“He’s dead.”

Within hours it became official. The team had been swept off the ridge. Everyone was dead. They could not recover the bodies. The story had already made international news. My children were not yet home. At 5pm, in a haze, I answered a knock to the door.

“Hello. I am from King5 news. Is Holly Patrick home?”

“I am Holly.”

“I am sorry to intrude during this time. Can you confirm that your husband, John Patrick, died in the Mount Rainier tragedy today?”

“Yes. My husband is dead.”

“I have a video crew down at the street. Can we come in and take a statement?”

I began to shake.

“In a few minutes someone is bringing my children home and I will be telling them that their father is dead. Please leave.”

Melanie (age 5) and Isabella (age 9) were away, unknowingly enjoying their last days as children of innocence. They arrived home soon after the reporter left, shepherded by family friends who already held the dark secret. I sat them down on the dog scratched sagging white leather sectional. I put them in the corner of the couch, away from John’s favorite seat, away from the spot still dented by the shape of his bum, away from his already-present ghost.

I said it softly, but simply, because my spirit had temporarily left my body. I was an empty shell with moving lips.

“Dad died on his climb. Dad’s dead.” I said.

We all started crying and screaming, as one would expect us too. Melanie yelled “My dad’s dead… MY DAD’s DEAD”. Isabella hardened and froze up. We all grabbed each other, hugging and sobbing. For an hour or so, we bounced between hysterics, frantic questions, and despair. Melanie said, with great concern, more hysteria, and saucer wide eyes –

“But… but Mama, Dada was always the one to use the chain saw when we were camping on our land. WHO WILL USE THE CHAINSAW?”

“I will.”

Melanie was angry, afraid. “But MOM, you don’t know how. You don’t know HOW to use the chainsaw!!!”

“Then I will learn. I will learn to use the chain saw. I will saw up the fallen trees, chop them into firewood, and make the fires. I will do it all.”

“Ok, Mama. Ok.”

The Ice Queen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And – the ice began to melt.

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

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

Barcelona, here we come.

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

Running Away

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I want to run away from all of these things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can indeed run away.

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

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

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camano camping

 

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.