Crash

Aaaannd….. crash.

Not a car crash. An emotional crash. A swan dive off a cliff. A collision, head first, with an energetic brick wall. Rewind to last Saturday, 8 days ago – I had just come home from a very serene and grounding week at a wellness retreat when grief descended and knocked me on my ass – just like that. The kids were on play dates, my husband was still dead, and I walked into a completely empty house. Crash.

In fact, I had been feeling more ‘up’ than ‘down’ for about a month. My friends were excited and relieved to witness my ‘good’ streak. I could tell they were getting attached, and I feared how they might react when it ended. Just a week before my crash, I had been at dinner with a friend, speaking of some sadness. He said “But…. But you were doing so well!  This is terrible! I thought you were doing better!” I said “I AM doing better, but even if I’m doing better, I’m still going to be sad sometimes!” I began to wonder if it would be easier to hide the low patches from friends, because if they saw me low, then they might think I’m no longer healing and would get stressed out. When my friends get stressed about my state of grief, I fill with their anxiety, and then I spiral farther downward.

I was not at all surprised to crash after a month of feeling better than I had felt since before John died. You see, it doesn’t matter how many lovely hikes I take, how many hugs I get, or how optimistic I am about my future path. John is still dead, my very sad children still don’t have a father, and the pieces of my life are far from put back together. I don’t want to never feel sad, because… because that would feel more wrong and scary than it feels to cry the tears that are the other side of true love. I spoke to a widower friend of mine recently who called it a “delicious kind of sad”. This is a statement that most of you won’t understand, but one that is not uncommon among widows(ers) who are at least a year or two out (there is nothing delicious about the sadness in the first year, let me tell you). You see, in the pain, there is beauty. In the open, raw, and vulnerable place one is in when one cries from the bottom of one’s soul, one finds new depth. When I cry, I am more connected to John and to the love that we shared, I am more real, and I am less paralyzed. Do I want to cry all the time? No way – I want to experience joy too! Do I want to keep crying, at times, for my sweet John and for the loss of my children’s innocence? Yes, I do – for the rest of my life, in fact.

Once I hit my brick wall, I did what I often do – I went up to my roof deck and sat in the Adirondack style wooden love seat that John and I often sat in together. This particular chair had been finished with linseed oil by John in his shop. He had stained about 8 chairs and love seats years ago, and this one is the only one left that isn’t broken or already at the local dump. I can see John’s mountain from the roof, and I stared it down as I paced clockwise circles around the 400 sqare foot geiko fleck surface. It’s become an unintended ritual – I land in my Dark Place, go to the roof, cross my arms, face the mountain, talk to John, cry, pace clockwise circles while my brain spins on various topics (the kids, future career paths, fears about dating), listen to music that makes me cry more, square off to the mountain again, etc. My aupair and my children know – when I go to the roof, I go there to be alone.

So there I was – on top of my roof, but also at the bottom of my well. I paired John’s portable Bluetooth Bose speaker with my phone and played my standard bottom-of-the-well playlist. Play these songs if you like, but just listen to them and feel the words in your own way, rather than watching the videos which present them in a specific way.

Broken Record by Shakira
I Will Follow You Into the Dark, by Death Cab for Cutie
Just Breathe by Pearl Jam
The End by Pearl Jam
Part of Me by Black Lab

I played these songs and I cried my fucking eyes out. I cried because I’m a single mom. I cried because, regardless of what I do, my daughters lives will never be what they could be if their amazing father was still here. I cried because it is excruciatingly painful to never be touched, and because there is no one to hold me and tell me that everything will be ok when I wake up with fear and anxiety at 3am. I cried because, simply put, I MISS HIM. Even if I get happily married again someday, I will still miss him!

It’s not that I didn’t have dark moments during my ‘good’ month. I was hit by grief many times and cried on average once a day. However, doing ‘better’ meant that when grief knocked me over, I usually bounced back in an hour (instead of 1-n days). When I cried, it usually wasn’t a whole body sob but rather was more of a quiet time to weep. When the dark cloud of sorrow descended this past Saturday, I hoped that would continue to be the case, that I would bounce back quickly as I had for the last 4 weeks, but instead I spiraled down for a full 8 days.

The next day, Sunday, I was still in my pit of despair. The girls and I had a whole day together. I tried to make it fun – I took them shopping for dresses for an upcoming wedding and out for jumbo pretzels and fancy crepes. Still, I cried on and off all day, because full weekend days when I’m alone with the girls trigger me. Weekends used to be a time for all day excursions with John, and now weekends remind me that we are 3 instead of 4.

On Monday, I cried because I spent hours cooking with a friend, and it was only the 2nd time I’ve cooked with someone since John died. We made a Mexican mole, a dish that John used to love, a dish I happily made every month when he was alive, a dish I hadn’t made even once in the 1 yr and 2mo that he’s been dead.

On Tuesday, I tried to soothe myself by going on a hike to an alpine lake. I sat there alone on an exposed tree root, eating my packed lunch of beet salad and chicken, gazing at the water, remembering times I had been there with John. I cried because I will never again share the Pacific Northwest trails with him, I cried because I couldn’t text him cute pictures of our sweet pooch swimming around in the lake, and I cried because I am still struggling with my decision to leave my weighted pack behind. I had watched other hikers with heavy training packs branch off to a harder trail and felt jealous. They weren’t broken as I’m broken. They are getting stronger while I’m getting weaker. I’m not a Badass Mountain Girl anymore. The time on the trail did give me some moments of peace, but the lack of a heavy pack meant that I didn’t get the endorphin rush that will often negate some of my depression.

On Wednesday, I cried extra, because it was Melanie’s 7th birthday. I woke up feeling like I was going to vomit. Seven years ago, I labored for 30 hours without pain medication. Seven years ago, Melanie was born via emergency C-section after my uterus almost burst around my old C-section scar. Seven years ago, John was the most wonderful husband and was everything I needed him to be during my recovery. I finished wrapping her gifts in the early morning, crying as I signed them “love Mom” instead of “love Mom and Dad.” I took her to the bakery to pick out her cake and bought her a maple bacon bar, telling her it was a gift from her daddy in the sky, because nothing says John like a meat covered pastry. That afternoon we held her birthday at a friend’s pool and I did my best to hide my unhappiness, but still it was written all over my face. I couldn’t bring myself to fake a smile and sit next to her as she opened her gifts, so I let her grandparents sit with her while I watched from across the yard. I sat there, miserable, watching her joy in being in the moment, remembering just the night before how she had yet again clung to my neck and cried for her dead father, reminding me “Mama, I KNEW he shouldn’t climb that mountain. I told him not to go. If he had listened then he would still be here and I would still have a Daddy.” I have not yet met a widow or widower with young children who does not agree – kids birthdays are crushingly painful reminders of the enormity of what we have lost.

On Thursday, I cried as I packed up our bags to get on a flight to San Diego to spend time with family. I cried because I’m tired of family vacations with 3 and not 4, I cried because I we are traveling to the first wedding I had been to since John died, and I cried because traveling solo with 2 kids is a ton of work even in the best of times.

On Friday I was down but didn’t cry much, because apparently I was saving all the tears for the next day.

That brings us to yesterday, Saturday, the most horrific day, the day of my brother Greg’s wedding. On this day, I went to my lowest, darkest place. Everyone who is grieving or has grieved will tell you – grief comes in waves. I had hoped that the week-long wave was about to end, but instead it was to be followed by a full-on tsunami. There I was, at the first wedding I’ve been to since John died, the first wedding I’ve been to without him by my side in 12 years. Already in a fragile state, I interacted with my brother JR for the first time since before John died 14 months ago. JR didn’t come to the funeral, because he said it would be better if instead he brought a couple of his kids for a fun weekend later in the summer, to perk my girls up. We had a long planned sibling reunion (there are 6 of us) scheduled for a month after the funeral. JR canceled his and his kids attendance at the last minute, saying that “It won’t be fun given what has happened” and “It might be hard on my kids.” YOUR kids? The energy of death is hard on YOUR kids? What the fuck about my kids whose dad is DEAD? My children were in fact very disappointed that JRs kids weren’t coming, because that meant the reunion was all boring adults and no other kids. It would have been a bright spot for them, a healthy distraction, but JR took that away. As for the “fun weekend” he would fly to Seattle for later that summer – never happened. After the text I received, 13mo ago, telling me he wasn’t coming to the reunion, I received zero calls, zero emails, and zero texts. That brings us to yesterday. He arrived, smiled, and said “Hey Holly. How are you?” His kids said to my kids “We haven’t seen you in years!” At which point, I said nothing but my heart broke yet again. My inner voice said “How am I? How the fuck do you think I am? My husband is dead and in my darkest time you completely abandoned me. I needed you. You could have invited my girls over for holidays so that they could be distracted by your fun pack of kids. You could have visited. Death makes you uncomfortable, and you were a coward.”

I did not desire a confrontation, especially in such a public and joyous (for everyone else) setting. I said none of the above inner-voice words out loud and instead excused myself to go to the bathroom. I stood there, by the bathroom, pretending to stare at a mural, crying behind my sunglasses, and my hands began to literally shake uncontrollably. I tried to calm myself down so that I could return to the pre-ceremony gathering, but I could not, so I just stood there, for 25 minutes, continuing to cry silently. Just as the ceremony was about to start, I went back and slid into a seat. I wept through the procession and vows, and then made my way to the reception where I was to sit at a table with all of my siblings including JR. It was my intention to remain calm, composed, and to create no conflict. I sat there for 15 minutes but could not hold it together and went to the bathroom to cry in a stall. When I couldn’t stop crying in the bathroom, I went down to the waterfront by myself. I sat there, alone, and cried some more. These tears were not quiet tears, they were not sweet delicious tears of beautiful depth, they were horrific exhausting whole body wailing sobs. I cried because my brother, who I had idolized growing up, abandoned me in my darkest hour. I cried because I love JR and miss him. I cried because I was there all alone. I cried because my husband is dead. I cried because when John was alive, he would have protected me and taken care of me, but instead there was no one to wrap his arms around me and tell me that everything will be ok.

I accepted that the tears were not going away and texted my loving sister Juliet. She said she and her sweet husband Michael would keep an eye on my kids. Isabella and Melanie were having fun with all of their cousins, who will filing them full of candy. I wanted that joy for them. Even given all my sadness over JR, I was happy that my kids were enjoying his kids. The fact is – JR isn’t a bad person and had no intentions to hurt me, he’s a human being with his own demons – his own long standing discomfort with death, his own burdens and challenges that come with all the energy it takes to raise 6 kids that were born in just an 8 year spread. So, I let things be as they were. My kids were happy, I was at the bottom of my pit, and it wasn’t going to help anyone if I spread that darkness around the party. I sat there, sobbing, for over 2 hours, and missed the entire reception. Juliet was kind enough to bring me my dinner on a plate and there was a bar accessible outside, so I got tipsy and kept crying. Eventually someone I didn’t know walked around the grounds calling my name, and told me that Jean, the bride, was asking for me because she hadn’t seen me the entire evening. I wiped my face off, walked into the party, and cried in Jean’s arms. Then I grabbed my kids and left.

Today, Sunday, I’m still crying. I cried into my Pho, remembering how John always said that Pho is the best hangover cure. I cried into my frozen yogurt as my kids happily told me how much fun they had had with JRs kids at the wedding while I had been (unbeknownst to them) crying down by the beach. Once again I find myself shivering, alone, on a raft in my dark and stormy ocean of grief.

The good news about the waves of grief is that waves, and even tsunamis, are eventually followed by lulls. It’s been a terrible 8 days, but still – I have hope. Still, in the big picture, I’m getting better. I no longer want to die. I believe I will find love again someday, whereas for the first year I could not envision the possibility. In fact, these days I am happy quite a bit of the time, just not this last week! I am deeply comforted by the concept of impermanence. This too shall pass. Every day is a new day. Of course the first wedding I went to alone was going to be hard. Of course my first interaction with JR after not hearing from him in so long was going to be painful. I don’t have to go through those particular firsts again. I surfed the wave. I cried the tears I needed to cry and allowed others to care for my children when I could not. I woke up the next day still glad to be on this planet.

Is this particular wave of grief over? Don’t know yet. What I do know, is that I have fun and exciting things planned. Next week, I’m going on a 6 day campervan road trip with my college buddy Jared to a wedding in Montana. It won’t be the first wedding after John’s passing, and I won’t be alone. I already know that I’m going to have a ton of fun and laugh my ass off with college friends I haven’t seen in years. I’m going to swim in a reservoir, hike the local trails, soak at a hot spring, tour Yellowstone, and dance in the barn at the reception – Montana style. Will I cry? Sure, I cry almost every day, but I already know – there will be much more joy than sadness. I reach for that joy, I reach for my future, while honoring that, though the tears will become less frequent, they will always be there. That’s ok – it’s all worth it. I have no regrets.

Beast of Burden

In a way, my journey with a heavy pack started from my horrific bout with post-partum depression.

Holly and Isabella
Holly and Isabella

There was nothing that John and I wanted more than a baby, but we had paid a heavy price. Labor hadn’t gone well – 40 hours with no pain medication, life threatening complications including an allergic reaction to a drug that put me into convulsions and made me lose touch with reality, and then a devastating emergency C-section. My mother and I had had an enormous fight a couple of weeks before and were barely talking. My friends hadn’t had babies yet and didn’t know how to help. John and I were very alone. There I was with my new baby – cut open, traumatized, sleep deprived, nipples scabbing and bleeding after a difficult first month of nursing, feeling my mother’s anger towards me from afar. It’s no wonder that I fell down to the lowest place. For the rest of our 10 year marriage, John and I were to call that time “The Dark Year”.

The day Melanie was born
The day Melanie was born

When Melanie was born 3.5 years later, I was determined to not fall into the same traps. I had my work cut out for me – another difficult labor, this time 30 hours without pain medication, and then another emergency C-section when they began to lose her heartbeat. After cutting me open they said “Normally we cut along the old C-section scar, but your uterus was so paper-thin there, we didn’t think it could hold the stitches you would need to be put back together. If you had labored any longer, your uterus would have burst and you could have died.” John brought me home, took care of me in every way possible, and I set an intention to not have another dark year. There were a number of things I decided to do differently, one of which is that I decided that I would get outside and exercise more. As a yoga teacher, I certainly exercised plenty after Isabella was born, and as an outdoorsy family I had hiked at times with Isabella on my back, but I knew I needed more consistency this time around. I didn’t have a lot of childcare, so I was going to have to execute on this new plan with Melanie in tow. I set a schedule for myself – I was going to hike 2x a week, rain or shine, whether or not I’d been up all night nursing. Just 9 weeks after I had been cut open, I strapped Melanie to my chest and began. Oh I was so tired and it was so hard! I focused on one easy trail (Tiger Mountain) and it took me 8 months of hiking 2x a week before I could make it all the way to the top. When it rained, I wrapped a jacket around us such that Melanie’s little head could poke out. When it was snowy and icy, I put microspike traction devices on my boots so that I would not slip while carrying my precious Melanie cargo. When I was exhausted and depressed, I went anyway, holding myself to the schedule. These hikes were the best possible thing for me. I always ended in a better mood than I started. I didn’t even have to sacrifice time with my baby. If she was hungry, I could sit down right there on the trail to nurse her before continuing with my hike. Often, she would sleep against my chest, gently rocked by my steady gait, happy to be nuzzled against mama. If she cried, I would sing to her as I plodded on. We were happy.

Hiking with Melanie
Hiking with Melanie

I continued to carry Melanie on my hikes twice a week until she was 2 years old. By that time, she was no longer in a pouch on my chest, she was in a serious framed hiking carrier with deep pouches for diapers, water, food, and other gear. I took her on even longer hikes and let her out of the pack at times to toddle around in nature. Melanie plus the framed pack plus water and gear edged up towards 50lbs. I had become strong again and felt healthy. Around that time, Melanie became more of a kid and less of a baby. She wanted to move more. She didn’t want to be stuck in the pack and began to pull my hair and holler in my ear when she was bored. I put her in a French pre-school a few mornings a week and began to hike solo while she played with her new friends and learned darling French songs.

While my hikes without a Melanie cargo were still lovely and relaxing, I found that I didn’t get the same endorphin kick without the 50lbs on my back. I didn’t sweat as much, work as hard, or get that lovely blissful high I had become addicted to. So, I began to hike with sandbags and gallons of water in my backpack. That’s right, I voluntarily weighed down my pack to make the exercise more rigorous, wanting the endorphins, needing the endorphins. People noticed my large pack on the trail and kept asking me “Are you training for Mount Rainier?” I said no, thinking to myself “Not training, just combating depression.” Then, after a year or so of hearing this question on the trail, I thought to myself “Why the hell not? Sure, I AM training for Mount Rainier!” My Mountain Woman self was born and I was to spend the next few years training intensely and climbing various peaks around Washington state and in the Alps.

My training at times bordered on obsessive. Actually, I can’t even give myself that much slack. I didn’t border on obsessive, it was completely and utterly obsessive compulsive. I allowed myself the luxury of a ‘light’ 50lb pack when I was tired but pushed myself to carry 60lbs when I felt decent. Sometimes I carried as much as 65lbs – 43% of my body weight. I carried this heavy load on 6-8mi hikes 2-3x a week to the point where the skin would regularly get sanded off my back in large patches by my backpack. I didn’t slow down, I just bought huge roles of moleskin and kept going, joking with friends that all the training in the world couldn’t negate the laws of physics and friction on my skin. I wore my wounds like badges of pride.

The fact is, that even with these minor amounts of suffering, I was happy. Endorphins were my drug. I was strong and so alive! The strength I built allowed me to summit Mount Rainier, Mount Adams, Mount Baker, Mount Stuart, and Mount Saint Helens. I found peace and clarity when standing on a glorious peak, above the clouds, looking down on the world. John swelled with pride and loved calling me his Badass Mountain Girl. Still, I took it too far. When I was scheduled to climb Adams for the first time in 2013, I had a horrific head cold and went anyway. I dragged myself up the mountain, coughing and wheezing. Halfway up, I was pelted by a hailstorm with no shelter. I had to curl into a tiny ball on the ground for 30min to reduce my exposure to the bruising ice. Still, I went to the top, and after I got home I had walking pneumonia for a month. I continued to train and in fact continued to over train. I carried heavier packs than I needed to carry more often than I needed to carry them.

I began to wonder, a couple of years ago, about the symbolism of the heavy pack. Why did I choose to make myself suffer more than necessary? What burdens was I carrying? Did the pack represent some sort of energetic burden I had in my heart? Some sort of burden that I was manifesting as physical weight on my back? Why was I so critical of myself on the rare occasions when I lightened my pack to a ‘mere’ 40 or 45lbs? When I felt the instinct to lighten my load, I would tell myself that I was a wimp, that I was lazy, that I didn’t know how to suffer like a good Mountain Woman. No one was ever more critical of me than I was of myself. I had plenty of ideas as to the meaning of it all, but still I kept over training, I kept bagging peaks, and, although I suffered more than I needed to, I also experienced a lot of joy. Mountains brought me peace and happiness and I kept going.

I kept going, in fact, until the day that John died in an avalanche and everything stopped. Unable to eat, I lost 10 pounds in 8 days. At most I was able to sleep only 2-4 hours a night, and in fact it would take over a year before I could get as much as 5 hours some (but not all) nights. In the first 3 months after he died, I lost 25% of my hair and literally feared I would become bald, as I heard could happen in extreme cases of stress. Before he died I was comfortably able to carry 60lbs 8-10 miles in a day. Six days after he died, I could barely hike 4 miles with no pack at all.

Granite Mountain, 60lbs, July 28, 2014 - 2mo after John died
Granite Mountain, 60lbs, July 28, 2014 – 2mo after John died

Being the hardass obsessive compulsive warrior woman that I am, I was determined to get back on the trail and regain my strength. I began to train again, and 2 months after he died I carried 60lbs up Granite mountain – a brutal and steep trail. Although I made the summit, I was slower and weaker than I had been when climbing Granite in the past. I continued to hike with a heavy pack twice a week in addition to my regular yoga, bouldering gym, and running practices. The hikes were a bizarre oxymoron of incredible joy but also haggard exhaustion. Almost all of the emotionally ‘good’ days in that first year after loss were hiking days, so much so that everyone jumped through hoops to make sure I had childcare and could get away. When I hiked, I didn’t want to die. When I was in the mountains, I found glimmers of hope. When I sat by myself on various peaks, I connected with John’s soul. At the same time, these hikes with a heavy pack drained reserves that I didn’t have to spare. I was always slower than I should have been and made excuses, to myself, that it was just that one time, that I would do better once I got a good night of sleep. I stopped noting my round trip time, because it was too disappointing. I kept going and continued to be soothed by the beautiful Pacific Northwest, but the literal spring in my step was gone. I had been running on adrenaline, and adrenal fatigue began to kick in. Still, I kept hiking with the heavy pack.

The funny (or not funny) thing is – after John died I had even less justification for the necessity of such rigorous training. Most mountaineering can be done with a 45lb pack or less. You really only need the 50-60lb pack for technical climbs of big mountains, where lots of extra safety gear is needed – harnesses, ice axes, snow pickets, extra bottles of fuel to melt snow for water, and the many extra layers of warmth that are needed when you are sleeping on ice. These big, technical glaciated peaks had been my true love, but John died on a glacier. Within days of his death my children and Mother-In-Law made me promise that I would not climb Mount Rainier or other dangerous glaciated peaks again. I was no longer allowed to climb the mountains that called my name, no longer needed to train with that heavy of a pack. Regardless, I couldn’t let it go. I came up with lame justifications for my heavy load. If I stopped carrying such a heavy pack, I would get fat. I needed to carry the heavy pack so that I would be able to carry extra if I was out with friends and someone didn’t want to carry their stuff. I had to be able to carry a huge load so that I could take my kids out backpacking and let them go sans-load. If I stopped carrying such a heavy pack, then…then I wouldn’t be John’s Badass Mountain Girl anymore.

I carried the heavy pack for over a year after John’s death, making excuses for how slow and haggard I was, making excuses for why I couldn’t stop.

Then the day came, a month ago, when I was to finally have the chance to climb a big mountain again – Mount Adams. Yay for Mount Adams! At 12k feet, Adams is the second tallest mountain in Washington state, dwarfed only by Mount Rainier, the mountain that took my John. Adams was a perfect gift because it was huge and snowy but non-technical (no glaciers or avalanches). It was a mountain that I was still allowed to climb without risking my girls becoming orphans.

Except, it didn’t really pan out that way. My true exhaustion and depletion reared its ugly head and on the climb my anatomical heart physically hurt. I thought it might beat out of my chest. My brain flashed to a recent conversation with a young widow I had just met. Her husband was jogging up a hill in the heat when he had a coronary episode and dropped dead. Later they discover he had a congenital heart defect. In fact, perhaps due to some dark foreboding, just a month before I had sent a frantic email to Bev and Nika, telling them where the one signed copy of my will was, stating guardianship and trustees should anything happen to me. It began to occur to me – I could die. My kids could become orphans. According to Elizabeth Harper Neeld (author of The Seven Choices and expert on grief and loss), a widow(er) is over 2 times more likely to die in the first 2 years after loss, either from a car accident, or illness that takes hold when one’s immune system is weakened from grief, or in my case from perhaps a heart attack.

Still, after that Mount Adams climb I stupidly kept carrying the heavy pack! I had a 93 mile Wonderland trail trip planned, and had to stay in shape! I kept hiking unhealthily through brutal heat! I couldn’t give up, because then I would have to face my ridiculous fears. Here, I will list them so that you can laugh at me. I’m afraid that if I don’t keep carrying the heavy pack, then…
..then I will get fat.
…then I will be lazy.
…then I won’t be impressive anymore and people won’t think I’m interesting.
…then my muscles will atrophy and I will be a big fucking wimp.
…then a will be a big loser 40 year old over the hill widow.

But really, I have to face the biggest fear, the fear that I kept saying was silly but really is much less silly than all the other fears.

I’m afraid I will die and that there will be no one to care for my children and Mother In Law.

So, I canceled my Wonderland trip. I finally gave up. Part of me hated myself for doing so, but part of me knew it wasn’t giving up, it was giving in. Instead of going hiking, I went to a wellness spa, and the last straw was the acupuncture session I received mid-week. I told the therapist that my husband died last summer and that I’m exhausted. She smiled kindly and began to take my various pulses. Her face became genuinely concerned, and she said

“Your heart and kidney pulses are almost non-existent. Your spleen, where stress and anxiety are held, is hard, jaggedy, and too full. It feels like your brain is too active, like it never stops. Would you say you push yourself too hard?”
“Yes”
“Your session is scheduled to end in 50minutes, but I would like to work on you as long as possible. Can you stay later?”
“Yes”

She put needles in various places, turned the lights down, and left me alone to cook. I immediately began to cry, partly from continued grief, but mostly from relief. Crying while getting acupuncture is a funny thing! My hands had needles, so I could not move them! Tears rolled down my cheeks and into my ears which were covered in needles, so I could not touch them! It’s ok to laugh. It was such a funny place to be! Crying, covered in needles, tears in my ears, powerless! There was nothing to do but surrender, so I did.

I took a long walk afterwards and cried a bunch more, but also felt very peaceful and grounded. It came to me –

I was carrying the heavy pack all of those years in preparation for carrying the heaviest load I will ever have to carry – that of a widow with young children, that of woman who gladly told her husband that she would care for his mother if anything ever happened to him. I am the matriarch. It is all on me. I must be strong for everyone. If I fall apart, there is no one to pick up the pieces. For years, I have been training for this role. I have been training to be able to suffer on the trail and still keep going. These burdens are no longer encapsulated in sandbags and water jugs that go in my pack, they are on my shoulders, and I am not allowed to put them down to rest. I must put the physical pack down so that I have the strength to carry the energetic load of a widow, a single mom, and the head of household for a traumatized family. I let go of my 60lb burden and my Badass Mountain Girl ego so that I can begin to restore the reserves I will need to stay alive and remain on this planet.

So, I put down my beloved custom made high capacity Dan McHale pack with purple and green straps. I will continue to hike, because mountains bring me great joy, but I will do it differently. I commit to not carrying any extra weight (beyond what is bare bones necessary for the activity at hand) through the end of 2015. No more sandbags, no more extra water jugs. Amusingly, I just could not convince myself to put down the heavy pack for a full year, only through 2015. I start with where I am right now, and I say it out loud so that I don’t back away from my promise. It’s time to let go of being perfect, time to be a human being, time to surrender, while also admitting I still haven’t fully let go. My work is far from done, but that’s ok. I’m putting down my pack for a while and setting an intention to remain on this planet for many years to come. For today – that’s good enough.

Backpacking with the girls, 3 months after John died
Backpacking with the girls, 3 months after John died

Badass Mountain Girl or Pampered Princess?

John and I never climbed the really big mountains together, which is fortunate, because there was theday when he didn’t come home. If I’d been with him, I wouldn’t have come home either.

Statistically speaking, mountaineering accidents are rare. In fact, it is said that you are more likely to die driving the roads around Mt Rainier than climbing Mt Rainier itself. Still, we knew we couldn’t take the chance that our girls would become orphans if one avalanche or slide took out our whole rope team. So, we played switch hitter. Sometimes John was off climbing, sometimes I was. It was easier that way – we didn’t have to scramble to find childcare and our burdens of worry were lighter. In fact, climbing was hugely bonding for us even thought we did much of it separately. We would train together – taking our little girls for family time at the bouldering gym or taking them out on weekend hikes while he and I carried 60+lb packs. We would stay up late strategizing before one of us had a big climb and then stay up late breaking down the achievements and mishaps of said climb after it was done. We would spend hours debating the pros and cons of various pieces of technical gear. I might say “My new crampon-compatible La Sportiva boots are surprisingly comfortable, but I’m just not sure they are stiff enough for ice climbing or insulated enough for Rainier.” Other times he might say “I saw some yahoo struggling to melt snow (for drinking water) with a tiny little Jetboil while I was sitting pretty, melting snow easily with my MSR Whisper Light.” Climbing was something we shared, whether we were on the trail together or not.

As the summer of 2014 approached, John and I made lots of exciting plans. How would we fit in all the joy we were reaching for? John had his climbs, I had mine, we had family camping trips to plan, father-daughter trips with John and each of the girls, and of course the mundane realities of work and household duties. It would be a busy, but wonderful, summer. John and I scrambled to get each of our important climbs on the calendar – 2 different Rainier climbs for John (Liberty Ridge and the Kautz); Rainier, Adams, and the Wonderland trail for me. In fact, the schedule happened to settle in such a way that John would return from Liberty Ridge on a Friday, we would spend the evening together, and then I would depart the next morning with 3 of my climbing buddies for Mount Adams.

Of course, John didn’t come home that Friday evening. I cooked the surf and turf celebration dinner I had planned for his arrival, because, well, my kids needed to be fed. I deflected their questions about his return, telling them he was a bit delayed but would be home soon. In a numb haze, I continued to meticulously pack up my gear for my Adams climb, all while knowing but in no way accepting that Search and Rescue helicopters would be dispatched in the morning.

It turned out that by that Friday evening John had already been dead for 2 days and everything in my life was going to change.

Instead of climbing Mount Adams the next morning, I sat at home on the phone with a Ranger from Mount Rainer. I listened as she told me that a helicopter had spotted the team’s gear strewn about on the Carbon Glacier, 3300 feet directly below where the team was camped. They could only view the fall area from the air, as there was too much rock and ice fall to make ground travel safe. I was told they spotted an exposed hand, but no bodies.

Instead of climbing Mount Rainier in July, I spent countless hours reassuring my frantic children that I would never again climb the mountain that took their dad’s life. Melanie would cling to my neck at night, sobbing, begging me through tears “Mama, no climbing big mountains. Dada is DEAD and I need at least one parent here. No climbing mountains with avalanches, mama, EVER.”

Instead of hiking the Wonderland trail in August, I acknowledged that trauma had ravaged my physical body and had robbed me of my incredible strength. For a while, I was not able to eat without fear of vomiting. For months, I was not able to sleep more than 2-3 hrs a night before waking up to my terrible reality. Grief filled up my chest like a pool of dark heavy tar, and it became obvious that I didn’t have the 8 day, 22,000ft elevation gain/loss, 93 mile hike in me.

Instead of spending the summer climbing, I spent the summer planning a memorial, crying, caring for my hysterical and traumatized children, and wading through the horrific 2+ hours a day of death related paperwork and administration that would ultimately take me over 6 months to complete. I lost my husband, I lost my body, I lost my summer, I lost myself.

I often tell people that year 1 after loss is about numbness, hysteria, and day-to-day survival. Once you have stabilized, dealt with the horrific paperwork, and learned to keep breathing through each day, then you hit year 2. Year 2 after loss is about moving past day-to-day and into the rest of your life. What now? What kind of career do I find now that I am the sole breadwinner? How do I begin to reach out for joy in life again after spending a year laying on the floor sobbing? How do I cope with the fact that, a year in, I only miss him more. A year in, as I now fully realize that John is never coming back, I must manage the deep, dark, all encompassing loneliness that settles in. This is forever. My other half is gone forever.

In a way, for me, Year 2 started a bit early – April 17, what would have been my 11th wedding anniversary – 10 months and 20 days after loss. I had to do something to cope with the day, so I decided to climb a mountain, or rather 3 mountains, with my friend Selena, who also used to be one of John’s climbing partners. We climbed up Granite mountain, chatted with other hikers at the top, then post holed down the other side through deep snow and ascended back up to the summit of West Granite, where we were alone. It was a glorious bluebird sunny day. We proceeded to strip down to softshell pants, sports bras, and glacier glasses, and sat on our packs so that the snow didn’t give us popsicle bums. The clear skies allowed for the kinds of views that cause your entire world perspective to change, and we sat there gazing upon the glory that is Mount

Selena on Granite Mtn, Aptil 2015
Selena on Granite Mtn, Aptil 2015

Rainier. Selena said to me –

“It was just about a year ago that I did this hike with John. He was training for Liberty Ridge, so bright and excited. He really only talked about 2 things that day – his upcoming climb, and how much he loved you.”

Of course, I hold onto any crumb of love that comes to me from John these days.

“How did you know he loved me so much?”
“He had that glistening sparkle to his eyes when he talked about you. You know that glisten – people have it when they are really truly happy, when the happiness jumps out through their eyes. He was just so happy with you, Holly. It’s not something you are imagining post-loss. He really, really loved you, and he was so happy because you supported him in climbing these mountains. He was truly happy.”

Then, Selena and I went quiet. We sat there for a full hour. I crossed my legs, adjusted myself so my body was squarely facing Mount Rainier, closed my eyes, and dove in.

“Hi John. Happy wedding anniversary.”
“Oh, Holly.” I felt his soft crinkly eyes gaze down on me as I began to weep.
“I miss you so much, John, I can’t stand it.”
“Shhh….”

I accepted his shushing and allowed the chatter of my mind to quiet. I opened my eyes and found myself face-to-face with the incredible radiance of the mountain that claimed my John. My chest began to ache, but I realized that it wasn’t so much from pain as it was from an incredible energy exchange that was happening. I literally felt John pouring light and strength into my heart center. It burned and I had to press my hand firmly over the area so that my chest wouldn’t explode. For a full 10 minutes I simply allowed John to brighten me, nourish me, replenish me, unconditionally love me. And then something incredible happened, something that proceeded to last for almost the entire hour I was there –

I felt happy.

Yes, happy. For that hour, I felt a true joy that I hadn’t felt since John died. I felt alive. I felt how the whole world is open to me. I felt free, up there in the clouds. Life became simple – me, the sky, the snow, Rainier, and John. Finally, I heard his voice again inside my heart. What he said was very simple – that this time ahead of me was to be a time of both great joy and continued sadness, and that it was up to me to embrace life and have fun whenever I could.

Selena and I eventually hit a third peak (Granita). There was no set trail down, so we bushwhacked through slide alder and tried not to break anything when post holing through the thin snow covering boulder fields. On the way down I made a clear decision – I decided to have a fucking awesome summer of mountaineering. I lost my summer in the mountains when John died, and damnit – I was going to reclaim my Mountain Woman self this time around. I wasn’t going to be the Grieving Widow all the time anymore, I was going to be Holly, the Badass Mountain Girl, and I was going to have a ton of fun doing it.

So, I made a bunch of plans, including Mount Adams in June and the Wonderland trail in July. My super fit mountain woman friend Morgan agreed to climb Adams with me, and there we found ourselves on the morning of June 6 – standing behind her black Prius, at the base of Mount Adams, dividing up the shared gear, packing up our 50+lb packs. And then, it happened again, as I was stuffing John’s 4 season Northface tent into my huge custom McHale pack – I felt happy. Not just a little happy! I felt bright, joyous, and truly excited to be alive! I wasn’t dreaming of the mountains taking me so that I could float up above them with John – I was dreaming of climbing them, and coming back down to be with my girls.

Morgan and I eventually threw on our packs and began to ascend. Though our loads were heavy and the heat was brutal, we were in great spirits – making crass jokes and telling climbing stories. Still, just a few hours in, I began to struggle. The heat made me feel faint and I had to rest more often than I should have. Morgan was very patient, and we continued to make our way up. Once we reached about 8k feet, something very scary happened, something that I have a hard time admitting even now. I began to gasp for breath and my anatomical heart began to physically ache and race as if it was going to beat out of my chest. My leg muscles pumped away and were just fine, as I’d been training with a heavy pack all year, it was

Tired but happy on Mount Adams, June 2015
Tired but happy on Mount Adams, June 2015

my heart that was the issue. It did not in any way feel like grief or sadness – I was happy, in a good mood! It felt like deep, undeniable exhaustion on a cellular level. I have never before or since had that experience – I could feel the organ of circulation inside of my chest and it HURT. I wondered – is something really bad about to happen?

I’m embarrassed to say – I kept climbing. When my heart began to race and ache and I gasped for breath, I would stop and rest, and then I would continue until it hurt again. Climb, rest, climb, rest – Morgan was an angel of patience. We reached high camp at Lunchcounter, cleared a snow platform for our tent, and settled in for the evening. In fact, we were still in a great mood, laughing, chatting up various bearded mountain men camping nearby. Sure, I’d been slow, but still – it felt absolutely fantastic to be up in the clouds, away from it all, looking down on the world. I glanced around camp and enjoyed (rather than being saddened by) how much of John was all around me – his 20 yr old bomber 4 season Northface tent, the custom made high capacity backpack with purple and green straps that he had surprised me with one Christmas, his banged up aluminum pot used for melting snow for drinking water, and the La Guryeve crampons he had lovingly bought me before my first summit of Mount Rainier. We ate a feast of ramen and energy bars, slept, and then started for the summit in the morning. Most of our gear was left at high camp, so our packs were light and we were still in a good mood.

The bliss of the summit - Morgan and Holly, Mt Adams, June 2015
The bliss of the summit – Morgan and Holly, Mt Adams, June 2015

Perhaps because my pack was lighter, or perhaps because I had adjusted to altitude, my heart did not hurt on day 2. However, I was embarrassingly slow, in fact perhaps as much as 50% slower than Morgan. I let her race up to the summit without me and trudge on behind at my own snail pace. And then, a couple hours in, there was my John! I felt him playfully hopping from summit to summit – Mount Adams, Mount St Helens, Mount Hood, and back around again. He laughed and I was reminded that my husband was and is an adventurer – both in the flesh on this planet and now in the afterlife. Then I noticed a jet airplane off in the distance and watched John leap towards it, grab onto a wing, and go for a wild ride, all while grinning down on me. He said “Holly, I’m happy, and so are you!”

I made the summit, one foot in front of the other, and Morgan and I made our way down. I was happy but often felt faint from the heat. We went home and I meditated on what it all meant. Did I train enough? Yes, I trained all year. Training wasn’t the issue. If I had trained more, I would have exhausted myself more. My body didn’t need more exercise, it needed rest. I had to finally admit that the grief and sleep deprivation had inflicted extensive damage on my physical body.

I knew I had a brutal Wonderland trail trip coming up in just 5 weeks – 8 days, 93 miles, 22k feet elevation gain and loss, heavy 55lb pack, brutal heat. This was a trip I was supposed to do last year, a trip I wanted to do this summer as part of reclaiming my Mountain Woman Self, a trip John would have been proud of me for accomplishing. The voices in my head began to compete –

Nurturing Holly: “I am completely fucking exhausted, I shouldn’t go.”
Hardass Holly: “Don’t be a fucking wimp. Pull yourself together.”
Nurturing Holly: “I’m worried I’m going to collapse.”
Hardass Holly: “You are a warrior. Push through.”
Nurturing Holly: “But, I’m just so TIRED.”

Back and forth, back and forth, all month. Hardass Holly continued to win out, because Hardass Holly usually wins out, and I kept training at least twice a week with a 50-60lb pack. On two different occasions I almost passed out from heat exhaustion. I continued to have serious reservations. I began to fantasize about cancelling the trip and going off by myself someplace where I could rest. I dreamed of a quiet retreat or spa somewhere with cool white sheets, soothing views of mountains, good books to read, no cell phones, and many hours to sleep. I was ashamed of this fantasy, told no one, and continued to push on.
Less than 24 hours before I was supposed to depart for the Wonderland trip with Nika (my bestie), Selena, and Bri, I went to dinner with D, a dear kind friend. I did not tell D about the spa fantasy but did tell him that I wasn’t excited about going on the climb. He was truly surprised, because of how much he knows I love the mountains. I told him of how I had struggled on Adams, of how little I had been sleeping, and all of the sudden, right there at Tallullah’s café on 19th and Mercer, I burst out crying. I hate crying in public. D said

“You should cancel your trip.”
“No, I can’t. People are counting on me. I’m sure I’ll be fine once I get on the trail.”
“Holly, why don’t you cancel your trip and let me send you to a spa as a treat.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“I want to do it.”

I fought D for a while. I’m a warrior, not a wimp. If I go to the spa, I’m a Pampered Princess and not a Badass Mountain Girl. D kept pushing back. I consulted my BFF Nika, my Mother in Law, and various friends, and the consensus was clear – everyone has been really worried about my deep exhaustion and all parties would be relieved if I didn’t do the Wonderland. My MIL actually almost cried real tears, in fact, about how concerned she has been about my health. Bev said “Maybe it’s time to stop being a warrior.”
Before I surrendered to the idea, I asked myself one more question – what would John think? Am I still John’s Badass Mountain Girl if I go relax instead of crushing the Wonderland trail? And then it hit me –

John is dead.

I will always love John. He will forever be the great love of my life, the father of my children, and the man who gave me everything I ever wanted. I feel certain that I will always have a deep connection with his soul and know that there are important wishes he had that I will continue to honor. However,

I don’t want to be married to a dead guy anymore.

John’s not here. Maybe I’m not supposed to be John’s Badass Mountain Girl any more. I’m not the Holly I was before I met him and I’m not the Holly I was when I was with him. I need to find a new Holly, and in fact, I can already feel her emerging. Just as the lotus flower blooms from the mud, I can feel green tendrils of life poking out of the decay that is inside of me, the decay that is the life that I had with John, the life that was full of joy but is now gone. These sprouts will not blossom if I do not rest, if I do not repair the damage that grief, stress, and sleep deprivation have done to my body. I do now what has always been the hardest thing for me to do – I surrender. I give in. I let go.

So here I am, at a beautiful wellness center. My villa has cool white sheets and views of the mountains. Last night, I slept 8 hours. The last time I slept that much was 10 months ago in my campervan, after Julie and I hiked 18 miles in a day through the Enchantments. Just an hour ago, I went to a “Meditation and Poetry” workshop. The teacher read the following poem, which seemed to be just for me –

          When despair for the world grows in me
           and I wake in the night at the least
           sound in fear of what my life
                     and my children’s lives may be,
           I go and lie down where the wood drake
           rests in his beauty on the water,
                     and the great heron feeds.
           I come into the peace of wild things
          Who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.
           I come into the presence of still water.
           And I can feel above me the day-blind stars
                     waiting with their light.
           For a time I rest in the grace of the
           world, and am free.

          -Wendell Berry

I go and lie down where the wood drake rests and I rest too. I rest in the grace of the world and I am free. I lost my summer, my body, myself, but all of these things can be found again. I will find myself, I am finding myself. I still love mountains and am still planning to have an awesome summer, but I set a new intention to be gentler. I admit that I don’t know what the future holds and guess what – I’ve gotten to the point where that’s exciting, not depressing. I am alive, I am loved, and the whole beautiful world is open to me. Thank you D, thank you Nika, and thank you to all of you who continue to hold me. My husband may have died, but I did not die. I am opening, exploring, blossoming, and truly glad to still be here on this planet with all of you.

Building My Castle

Yet another sleepy drive. How is it that I haven’t crashed the car yet during this last year of sleepless grief? I keep thinking – “It’s only a matter of time… hopefully when I do crash, no one gets hurt.”

I’m in the middle of a 6 hour drive back from Smith Rock. My two girls, Isabella and Melanie, have been starved for 1:1 attention since their father died, so I decided months ago to take each of them on a few mother-daughter trips this summer. This time I have Melanie in tow, and she is content and quiet in the back seat listening to Taylor Swift on Bose headphones. I’m starting to doze off, as I often do, and begin to dig my nails into my leg, stretch my eyelids wide open and slap myself across the face, trying to stay awake.

I’d sleep more if I could, but I can’t. Since John died, I have rarely been able to sleep more than 2.5-4 hours a night. I wake up after a few hours, inevitably begin to spin mentally on all of my burdens, fill with anxiety, and can’t go back to sleep. I’m seeing professionals about it and have tried various remedies (both pharmaceutical and not), but still – sleep eludes me. None of the remedies seem to calm down the fear that fills me when I wake, the awareness that I’m completely alone and everyone is counting on me. My 2 little girls and my Mother In Law – they need me to hold it together. They need me to provide for them. I cannot fall apart, because if I do, there is no one to pick up the pieces.

For whatever reason, I begin to mentally review a book I just finished – “The Enchanted” by Rene Denfeld, which moved me in subtle ways that are hard to express. The story revolves around a few men on death row and the death penalty investigator that is looking into one of their cases. The investigator (referred to as “the lady”) does not try to prove the innocence of her clients, but rather investigates to see if there are extenuating circumstances which warrant converting the death penalty into a life sentence. She says that, in order to hear their real story, she builds them a castle, so that they feel safe. She says “Even monsters need castles.”

And then it hit me – I need a castle! What if I build a castle of safety and calm in my head, a place I can go to when I wake in the middle of the night, a place where I will be comforted and soothed back to sleep? As I drove, I began to build such a place.

The castle isn’t really a castle at all, but rather a deliciously cool roomy dark cave. The bed is small (unlike my bed at home) and on a thick platform of heavy rich mahogany with 4 heavy posts rising at the corners. By the bed sits a man, in a chair. This man is not John. He has thick black hair, a black beard, and soft forgiving eyes that look like two calm silver-blue lakes. With a rich rumbly voice, he tells me to lie down in the bed. I feel safe, because it is instantly clear that this man wants nothing from me. Once I’m tucked into the bed, he asks me to tell him my worries. I list them, one by one, and he writes them down in a notebook. With each transcribed fear, he says nothing and isn’t in any way dismissive, but smiles at me in a fatherly way, as if to say “You amuse me.” In fact, his quiet amusement helps the burdens to fall off my shoulders, one by one, as I realize that some of the worries are about things that are solvable and that other don’t need to be solved that day.

When I’m done, he puts the notebook aside and begins to comfort me. There is nothing sexual about his actions and I feel completely safe. As he sits by the side of the bed, he strokes my hair, caresses my cheek, and kisses my forehead. He senses the moments when my body begins to tense and allow the fear back in, and instantly says “shhhhhh” before the hardness can take hold of my body. Eventually I sleep, and I sleep well.

I went home and tried it that night, but alas – it didn’t work. It felt too contrived. I layed there in bed trying to imagine my cave and this soothing man, but the whole time I knew it wasn’t real, and that fact just increased the depth of my sadness. I began to muse that it might not be so healthy to create an alternate world. I wondered – is this what you hear about abuse victims doing when they can’t handle their current reality – they create a place of escape to go to while being abused. Is this all crazy making? Is this me trying to run away in my mind?

Yet again I went to the bottom of my well – despondence, darkness, aloneness. This man who soothes me but does not demand anything from me does not exist. I am not to be comforted, I am to suffer. I am truly alone.

It happened that a week later my friends Scott and Bev were holding a small joint birthday party at Scott’s penthouse apartment. I arrived and joined everyone on the deck, but soon my wave of darkness hit. Everyone there was happy and I was not happy, so as I often do – I felt alone. I left the group and went into the living room and be physically alone as a reflection of how I felt in my heart. I cried a bit, quietly so that no one would see. After a while, Katie joined me on the couch. Katie has a sweet smile and adorable bright eyes that make her look perpetually young. She told me of her sadness and I told her of mine. We were suffering for different reasons but still – in our humanness, we were the same. Eventually others joined us and the group moved to sit on some cushions on the floor. My dark passenger came back and I went to my distant place – the place where I am at the bottom of a well, looking up at a prick of light in a world that isn’t familiar any more. There I was with friends who love me, who would do anything for me, but still – I had allowed myself to get sucked downwards.

Katie looked up at me, from the cushions on the floor, and said
“Come, lie down.”
I moved down to the floor.
“Put your head in my lap. May I stroke your hair?”
“Yes, please. How did you know?”

I surrendered to her nurturing hands easily. She stroked my hair, scratched my scalp, rubbed my temples, massaged the stress out of my forehead and eyebrows, and softly caressed my cheeks. After about 15min, I became restless, because I assumed she must be getting bored and that I shouldn’t demand too much by continuing to lay there. She felt me begin to stir and said

“Shhh. Relax. I’m enjoying doing this for you.”

Feebly, I dropped back down, exhaled, and let all of the tension go. I surrendered fully, and that sweet girl rubbed my head for an entire hour, asking for nothing in return. I went home and descended easily into a deep sleep, sleeping longer than I had in months. When I woke up, I felt peaceful and soothed.

Katie, how did you know? Universe, did you send her to me? I am loved, and I am not alone.

I’ll say it again more for me than for you – I am not alone, I am loved, and the world is still beautiful. Thank you Katie, and when you need me, I will rub your head too.

Imprisoned in my Sanctuary

I am inside a cabin, standing in front of the door. My 6 year old daughter Melanie’s hand is in my hand. The cabin is at the WP_20150531_08_29_07_Probase of Mount Rainier. My Mother-in-Law Mary and 10 year old daughter Isabella are also in the cabin.

The cabin is old and beautiful – Douglas fir beams, pine subfloor, cedar siding. I had spent the morning chopping wood with my favorite oak handled maul so that we had fuel to fill the cast iron woodstove. It was warm, cozy, and familiar, but also small – just one room. No privacy, no escape except out of that door. I reach for the knob with my free hand.

“Don’t go, Mama.”

I love mountains. I love looking at their jagged snowy peaks from afar and love even more when I’m on top, looking down on the clouds. The bigger the mountain, the longer the journey, and often the more gear that is needed. The heavier the pack, the bigger the reward. After descending a mountain, I look back at it and say to myself – “I climbed that. I did not take a gondola, helicopter, or use a Sherpa. My own two burly piston-like legs took me there. “

When I look down on the world from the summit or look back at the mountain after descending, I feel omnipotent. I realize I can do anything. I feel deeply how the best things in life involve some suffering along the way.

Melanie stops me before I can turn the knob.

“Don’t go, Mama. Stay here. Dada died on Mount Rainier. You can’t die.”

Of course, while mountains make me feel powerful, they also remind me of all I have lost. My sweet John, taken in an avalanche last year. His team of 6 climbers was swept off a ridge, 3300 feet straight down onto the Carbon Glacier. They did not suffer. It is I who suffers.

Despite Melanie’s resistance, I can’t help but open the door and gaze through the doorway at this mountain that calls to me every moment of every day.

“Mama, stay here. I need at least one parent here, and Dada is dead, so you have to stay here.”

“Melanie, I will be careful. I will not die until I’m very old.”

“That’s what Dada said, Mama.”

As she squeezes my right hand tighter, I open the door with my left. Oh how glorious Rainier is! The cool blue glaciers crisscrossed with 100 ft deep crevasses and halo of clouds – fierce and peaceful all at the same time. It has never been hard to understand my husband’s love affair with that mountain. He told me so many times during our 10 year marriage that when he died, he wanted his ashes spread in a crevasse high up on this glorious peak that he had gazed upon for his 40 years on this earth. Mount Rainier was home for his heart then, just as it is home for his soul now. He almost got his wish, in a way. His body remained buried in ice and snow on the Carbon Glacier for 3 months before a helicopter spotted him and plucked his remains off the mountain. Now I have his ashes and have to wait until I can bring them back to his desired resting place. I want to go now, but I have to wait until Melanie will let me.

“Mama, only mountains with no avalanches. Why do avalanches have to exist, Mama?”

Melanie’s hand grounds my right hand here while at the same time my left hand reaches up to John in the sky. He shines his light down on me and waits for me, but does not pull on me as Melanie does, because he and I both know that it is not my time to ascend. It is my time to shoulder the family responsibilities here on earth. Still, I keep reaching and dreaming of being with him. It’s such a lovely and intoxicating vision – John and I, swirling above Mount Rainier, dancing with the birds, watching over the mountain, soaring into eternity together.

“Mama, I don’t want you to die and go to heaven EVER.”

I have climbed Mount Rainier before. A friend of John’s told me of the day that John received word, from afar, that I had had a successful summit. He had never before seen John so happy or proud. John grinned and told him “That’s my badass mountain girl.” I set an intention to climb Rainier every summer until I was too old for my legs to carry me to the top. John decided to do the same, but we were not destined to do it together. We knew that if we climbed on the same rope team and tragedy hit then our girls would be orphans.

“Mama, Mount Rainier is dangerous. You can NOT go.”

When will she let me go? When can I leave the cabin? How long do I let her hold my hand? Do I wait until she lets go someday, or do I get to choose when I pull my hand away? I want to climb the mountain.

Alas, I close the door. Is this warm cozy cabin a sanctuary, or a prison? Do my children ground me, or are they an anchor? It is a sanctuary and it is a prison. My children ground me and they anchor me.

I stoke the fire, feed the family, and tuck the kids into bed. I sleep for 3 hours. As has been my rhythm since John died, I wake up, remember that he is dead, and can no longer sleep. I want to get up, leave the cabin, and gaze upon the stars that twinkle above the mountain, but I must not wake my children and so I just lay there in the dark. I reach for him. His soul swoops down. He presses his forehead against mine and allows me to run my fingers through his full coarse auburn red beard.

“Sweetheart, I want to be with you.”

“I know, babe, I know. But it is not your time. “

“Will you wait for me?”

“Do you have to ask?”

“No, I don’t.”

“Thank you for staying behind to care for our children and my mother. You and my mother need each other.”

“Anything for you, babe.”

And just like that, he flies back up above the mountain, where he belongs.

I will return to this cabin every summer until it is my time to walk through that door and climb the mountain. That time is not now. Wait for me John, and I will wait for you.

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365 days of loss

I woke up this morning at 3am and began to sob into my pillow while moaning my husbands name. John died a year ago WP_000220today.

All month I have been especially weighted down by the anticipation of May 28. All of the books, therapists, and fellow widows say the same thing – the 1 year mark is emotional, heavy, excruciating.

Why? Why is it so hard?

Today is hard because it has been a year and I’m still broken.

It’s been a year and my ache for him only deepens and widens. I miss him. I miss his full red beard. I miss that soft spot on the top of his right cheek that I always used to kiss, because that spot was never scratchy with stubble. I miss his tattered and beloved collection of ~15 different Pearl Jam t-shirts. I miss the way he used to squeeze my behind at every opportunity, and the smile he gave me when I squeezed his. I miss how he sauntered around a pool table in tight blue jeans.  I miss the big slabs of juicy meat that he used to cook and the soft moans of happiness that he made when consuming said delicacies. I miss his quiet confidence, the way he would put me in my place when I was being too uptight, the way he would get me to laugh at myself. I miss the way he used to look at me when he walked in the door after work – so happy to see me, still adoring me, still wanting me after 10 years. I miss how his strong torso looked when he chopped wood and how his rippled legs looked when he marched ahead of me on the trail. I miss coming into our bedroom after an early morning run to find him and one of our darling girls in our bed – asleep and cuddling. I miss our playful and abundant sex life. I miss the huge campfires he used to build, how hot he looked when he was on a ladder swinging a hammer, the way ‘babe’ rolled off his tongue when he spoke to me – “What’s for dinner, babe?”, “How was your hike, babe?”, “I love you, babe.”. I miss how cute he found me in leg warmers and pig tails. I miss him in every possible way. I even miss the stuff I didn’t like, because all of it was part of John and Us, and because he loved the Holly-package right back – all of the good along with all the faults and imperfections.

I continue to have bizarre (or not bizarre, if you understand grief) conversations with myself in my head. What would I trade for one more day with him? Would I trade 10 years off the end of my life? Yes, I would. Growing old without John is unappealing anyway, so a 10-yr shorter life in exchange for one day to touch his face and nuzzle into his beard seems more than fair. Other times I find myself dreaming of what it would be like to be with him – both of our spirits soaring free above Mount Rainier. Will he wait for me? Yes, he will. Earlier this week I sat on top of Mount Si, and 2 birds flew by – one in front, the other 15 feet behind, close but not too close. They were connected but yet a bit apart. I thought – that is us! He’s just a little farther ahead of me in life. Someday, when it is my natural time to pass, I will be a bird too and will follow him into the sky. It filled me with joy in that moment, to watch the birds and to allow myself to believe that he and I will eventually roam the skies as a couple again, above the mountains that we adore. I will never, ever stop wanting to be with him.

Today is hard, because all of the numbness has worn off. The numbness of true grief can last months, if not almost a year. Why? Because, should you fully feel the enormity of your pain right away, you might literally die from the hurt. In fact, I still often feel my organs will shut down because of all of the horrific darkness inside of me. Other widows tell me – “I can’t even remember the first 4 months, because I was so numb.” or “The whole first year was a fog” or “For six months I just kept telling myself that he would come home tomorrow and I would wake up from this nightmare.”. In “The Year of Magical Thinking” Joan Dideon wrote about how, after her husband died, she kept all of his shoes for months (even after getting rid of his clothes and cremating him) because “He was going to come home and would need his shoes.”

The first year is filled with much numbness, but also much hysteria and a simple focus on day-to-day survival. I bounced between a numb “everything will be ok” kind of place and “OH MY GOD my husband is dead, my children will never have a father, and I am completely alone.” Some days I would wake up so broken, so literally nauseated from the horrific awareness of my loss, that all I could do was set the intention to keep breathing. Believe it or not, sometimes “just breathing” took all of my energy, because it often felt (and still feels) like I’m choking on the grief, like the grief is so big inside of me that there is no room for oxygen. I’ll never forget how, every day for months, I cried as I drove the girls to school, because John used to drive them to school. It was all I could do to get through each day.

By the one year mark, I have figured out how to survive. I have found a “new normal” with the girls. I have hired an aupair and assisted my Mother In Law in retiring, so that I have help with the girls. I have learned to drive without crying (most of the time). I have gotten through the 6 months of 2+ hours a day of death related paperwork and administration – an exhausting and horrific process given the lack of a will, the lack of a body (no death certificate), and the ridiculous bureaucracy that goes along with insurance companies and the Social Security Administration. I still cry multiple times a day, but – I am surviving.

Now what? It’s been a year. What do I do with the fact that I only feel more sad and despondent over time? Therapists and other widows tell me – year 2 is harder than year 1. You get through the numbness and hysteria, you get your day-to-day survival mechanisms in place, and then – you have to face the rest of your life. Now what? Day to day life still ebbs and flows, but John isn’t here. I have all the help I need with my kids, but that doesn’t fix the fact that at night my 6 year old Melanie clings to my neck, crying, begging me to marry someone else so that she can have a dad again. I look ahead to the rest of my life, and it looks empty. JOHN IS STILL NOT HERE. My hurt, my ache, my sadness – they only continue to grow, they are not yet shrinking.

In fact, over time I have become less hopeful. In the first few months after John died, while I was numb, I often thought to myself “I will love again some day. I will marry again. I have so much capacity to love, I can keep loving John and some day love someone else.” Now, I’m much less optimistic. I believe I will love again, but find myself detaching from the idea that I will ever again enter into a life-partnership. It’s easy to love, much harder to make a life with someone, much harder to find a true partner whose puzzle pieces will fit together with yours over years and decades. John and I were partners, accepted each other fully, and were committed through anything. I had my happy ending and that happy ending – ended. I no longer believe I could have that kind of true beauty and comfort again. Don’t try to talk me out of that feeling. Part of my brain knows that happiness is possible, but my heart doesn’t agree and those feelings (be they irrational or not) are my reality. I sit with my feelings, as dark and pessimistic as they are at times. In “When Things Fall Apart” Pema Chodron says:

“Rather than letting our negativity get the better of us, we could acknowledge that right now we feel like a piece of shit and not be squeamish about taking a good look. That’s the compassionate thing to do. That’s the brave thing to do. We could smell that piece of shit. We could feel it; what’s its texture, color, and shape? We can explore the nature of that piece of shit. We can know the nature of dislike, shame, embarrassment and not believe there’s something wrong with that. It’s better to take a straight look at all our hopes and fears.”

I feel like a piece of shit. I don’t run from the stink. I don’t shut my eyes to the mess. I lean into my grief because there is no other way. I will feel all of my feelings, as horrific as they are. Running from the pain would mean running from myself, and it would mean running from joy. Joy and suffering are 2 sides of the same coin.

Still, there is beauty in all of the horror. I could not possibly be more grateful to have experienced True Love. I have no regrets. I would not trade my 10 years with John for 50 years with anyone else.  My relationship with my daughters has only grown deeper and more resilient.  Through my pain, I feel more connected to every other human being on the planet. Sometimes I wonder if anyone has ever been this lonely and I realize – yes, they have, and maybe even more so. I am alone but not alone. I feel empathy for others in ways I never have before. I am becoming a more beautiful person as I walk my path and live my truth.

When John died, a friend set up a Facebook support group so that I could ask for what I needed and members could pitch in©2015 Wenmei Hill. 238 people joined the group within weeks. Two-hundred-and-thirty-eight-people. Some of them I had never met before, but they heard of my struggle and wanted to help. Not only that, but a core set of friends went above and beyond had have been there for me every single day – from day one to day 365. Nika, Bev, Julie, Danielle, Juliet, Rose, Mary, Mellington, Darryl, and Cynthia – not once have you judged me, not once have you tried to dictate my path, not once did you turn from me when I needed you. When I called for you, you asked me how high I needed you to jump, and then when I was crying too hard to answer, you jumped anyway. The world is a beautiful place.

I still feel lucky in life, and in my broken state – I am only more beautiful.  John – I love you forever and beyond.

Alone

I am alone.treehouse

This past weekend, I took my 2 girls and my Mother In Law Mary on a 4 night camping trip to our off-grid land in Okanogan. The very last time John and the girls and I were together as a family was on our land this same weekend last year.

Every time I get ready for a camping trip, I’m painfully reminded of the John-and-Holly Campervan dance. I was the ‘gatherer’ – picking out the girls clothes, gathering the headlamps, making a pile of the boots/rain gear/pillows/sleeping bags. John was the errand runner and Tetris king, buying blocks of ice and groceries, packing the cooler so that it would stay cold for 5 days without having to buy more ice, arranging everything in the camper so that somehow there was still space for our bodies among the gear, food, propane tanks, and other tools. It was a familiar dance, one we could do with almost no words.

Now, I am alone.

Sure I have the help of my au pair Camila and my MIL, but it’s not the same. I woke up at 3am on the morning of our departure, packed for a while, got the girls to school, finished packing with Camila’s help, and then got on the road with the girls and Mary. John used to do all of the road-trip driving, because he loved to drive and because he was a better driver than I am. I hate driving, always have, and loved that I could relax in the passenger seat. Of course, now all the driving is on me. I sat up there, driving the huge campervan for 5+ hrs, miserable, tense, exhausted. It’s illogical for the driver to be the depleted stressed out grief-stricken woman who can only sleep 3-4 hrs a night due to anxiety, but that doesn’t matter, because there was no one else to drive us. I am alone.

As usual, the girls were SO delighted to arrive. They love our land. They feel free there. John and I used to joke that we knew how happy the kids were by how many unprompted spontaneous I-love-you’s we got. That evening, there were many such happy outbursts of love. The kids wanted to be there.

On my end, the land symbolizes peace, but it has also come to represent burdens, hard work, and dashed dreams. Without John’s help, it’s a ton of effort to make a trip like that happen for the girls and Mary. Without John here, there is much less joy and much more work. My MIL Mary is a beautiful human being who spent time with the girls when I was busy setting up camp, read Melanie to sleep every night while I built up the fire, and had the intention to help me in every way she could, but even her undying spirit cannot compensate for her tired and grief stricken body. She doesn’t replace John. No one replaces John.

A few of John’s friends decided to build a treehouse for the girls, as a tribute to him, because it’s the kind of thing he would have done for them. I almost wept with gratitude at the idea, because this is exactly what my girls need – more adult men who are role models, who care about them, who do the kinds of things that John would have done, things that I wouldn’t do. But then, there was a mishap and, during construction, Isabella fell from the treehouse – 10 feet down, landed flat on her back on uneven/sharp ground. Based on her symptoms, she seems to have a cracked rib and something seems wrong with one of her arms – it hurts when she moves it, but there is no visible trauma on the outside. As I ran over to the tree, in a panic, once I heard the scream, I was reminded – I am alone. Still, the girls are happy. After she recovered, she begged to go back and continue to watch the treehouse construction in-progress. Children are amazingly resilient.

I woke up at 4am on the last morning, with anxiety as usual, and began to quietly pack up camp while everyone slept. There is always so much to do when we host guests on our land and when projects are in motion – lumber and tools to put away, camp kitchen and tables to break down, power generator to be run dry of gas and stored, sheds to lock, sun shade to break down. My poor MIL – she woke up, ate breakfast quickly so that she would be ready to help, and then promptly got heartburn and had an asthma attack. I am alone. Friends helped break down her tent (and more) while she sat and rested, so that I didn’t have to do everything, but still – I am alone.

We had a plan on the drive home to have Mary sit in the back and read to Melanie while Isabella sat up front with me. Often when the girls are together in the back they will squabble, and this would fix it. Poor Mary got carsick, though, and couldn’t read, so I had to listen to Melanie ask every 5min “Are you feeling better yet, Mammie? Can you read now?” Melanie is nothing if not persistent.

We got home and Mary found she was running a fever. I told her to go rest instead of helping me unpack (she goes downhill fast if she doesn’t care for herself while sick). I tried to get Isabella and Melanie to help unpack and unload, which they did a little bit, but Isabella’s body was genuinely hurting a lot from the fall the day before and so I gave up and did it myself. I am alone.

The dead-husband, sick-MIL, and injured-Isabella combo threw me against an energetic brick wall. There I was apaper cranesgain, at the bottom of my well. So I played my sad music, wept for a while, and then made dinner for the girls, because I had no choice. I asked Isabella to set the table and gave Melanie a bowl of beets to carry in.  She promptly dropped it – broken glass, beets, and olive oil all over the dining room floor.  I’m amazed that I didn’t burst into tears again.  I held it together, cleaned it up, made more beets, got the kids fed, and then set an intention to end the evening with something fun.  So, after dinner I suggested we play Uno while eating tortilla chips and sour cream. The girls were delighted and said “That was so fun, mama. Can we play cards and eat chips as a family every night?” Then, Isabella sat and made paper cranes. She told me that her class was making over a hundred paper cranes in honor of John, and that on Thursday (the anniversary of his death) she was going to get to bring them all home. She said “Mama, my teacher Mrs. Quinn is so nice. It was her idea.”

I left Isabella to work on the cranes so that I could put Melanie down for the night. From her bed, Melanie grabbed my neck extra tight and said

“Mama, I don’t want you to ever leave. I don’t want you to ever go to heaven.”

“Melanie, I’m not going to die until I’m old.”

Then she became almost frantic

“Mom! That’s what dad said, and he still died! I need you, mom. You CANNOT die.”

“I will be very careful, Melanie. I will make sure I don’t die.”

“NO climbing big mountains, Mom.”

“Ok Melanie. I will be safe.”

then, she immediately launched into this (again, somewhat frantically), as if she had been thinking about it for a while –

“Mom, what if you get married again, and then divorced, and then we will be EXTRA SAD.”

“Does that scare you, Melanie, that I will get divorced?”

“Yes mama (almost crying). Because then I will have lost a dad and a step-dad. Then I would have to get a step-step dad.”

“I could just not get married again.”

“No mama, you have to get married again. If you don’t get married again then how will I get a little baby brother or sister?”

“Melanie, I’m not having any more babies.”

And then Melanie’s face clenched up in pain and she literally began to sob.

“Mama that’s not fair! I need a little brother or sister. Mama why not? Why?”

So I just held her. I tried to distract her, saying that really we never know what will happen.  I grabbed at straws and appeased her by saying that maybe some day I will marry someone who already has kids, and those kids can be her brothers and sisters. It was painful on so many levels, because I’m not even sure I ever will get married again some day, because I’m reminded again of just how alone I am.

I have so much help and love – my friends, my family, my MIL, my au pair. But still, all of that together does not equal John. I am alone, and no one can fix it. I settle into this loneliness, meaning – I accept that this is my path alone and that there will not (and should not) be a savior who will fix it. I sit with my loneliness. I don’t run from it, I’m not numb to it, and I do not reject it, because the loneliness comes from love, and because the only way out is through.

I am sorry for all of you who must continue to see me in this state. I know you all want to fix it. I know you feel helpless. I know it isn’t fun to spend time with someone who is often so depressed. Thank you to those of you who continue to honor my path, who continue to love me, who continue to sit with me in my darkness.  Last night I was so low, I just wanted to text someone and say “I hate my life” or “I can’t imagine ever being happy again” or “I miss John so much I want to puke”.  However, I did not send any of those texts, because – what does someone say in response to such dark grief bombs?  I shield people from my darkest moments more than they realize.  Still, while I was in my dark place, wanting to express my true feelings to someone but not feeling able to, a message came in on my phone through Facebook.  It was my friend Charles, who I haven’t seen in months.  He said “It’s going to be a tough week. Know that I’m sending you lots of love. If you need anything, just shout.”

Thanks Charles.  I didn’t need to shout.  Your little bit of love was right there when I needed it.  I am completely alone, but still – I am loved in my state of alone-ness.   I am held.   I am despondent, but also fiercely strong.   I am going to make it through.  I repeat that, more for myself than for all of you – I am going to make it through.

Warrior

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I am a warrior.

When I was 16, I received my black belt in Shaolin Kempo. I remember the day my teacher Evan taught me to break boards – “Aim not for the board, Holly, but past the board, so that your force goes through.” He put me in the adult classes and, because there weren’t any young women black belts, I sparred with big, strong, older men. I learned early on that their limbs were longer than mine, and that if I let them keep me at arms length then I would lose. So, once a match started I became a tenacious animal and would get right in close before my opponent knew what hit him. I would pummel him at such short range he couldn’t get at me with his longer and bigger body, and most often, I won. Warriors don’t stay on the surface, they lean in and move through.

When I was 18, I went to MIT. My true love was math, but I decided to major in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering partly because there were a lot of jobs in the field, but mostly because it was known to be one of the 2 hardest majors at MIT. That was my way – to take the most challenging path and fight my way through. When you are a fairly intelligent person, you can skip the hardest problems in High School and still get an A. At MIT, however, on a daily basis I faced problem sets that were more challenging than anything I had experienced. I learned that the only thing to fear is fear itself, meaning – I had to completely let go of any emotions relating to things being “hard” and could not let myself be intimidated by any problem. So, as other students did, I found my way – I would take a difficult problem, break it into sub-problems, solve some sub-problems myself, work with other students in the class to figure out other sub-problems, see the TA during office hours for help with sub-problems that the other students and I couldn’t solve, and then stitch all the sub-problem solutions together for one big long solution to the original problem. It was normal to have 10-16 hours of homework a day. I slept very little, and in fact there was a saying at MIT – “Work, Sleep, Play – choose 2.” I left MIT with a BS in CS/EE, but I’ll always tell people – what I really took from that amazing school was the ability to solve problems. MIT taught me that warriors face the impossible without letting fear or emotions stop them from persevering

When I was 20, I met my illegitimate half-brother, Greg, for the first time. My father chose to deny his existence but my mother told me of the scandal once I was old enough to ‘understand’. Greg found me, called me, wanted to meet his siblings. My father told me to turn my back walk away. I was told that if I validated him then he might come after the family for back child support and it would be my fault if we lost our family home. As expected, this warrior said “fuck you” to her parents, flew across the country, met her wonderful half brother, and then dealt with the carnage. I was called a family traitor for years. Turns out, Greg only had love and needed no money. My other siblings eventually met Greg, but they did it later and more quietly and were not called family traitors. It is the warrior that blazes the trail that gets shot in the chest.

When I was 21, after graduating a semester early from MIT, Microsoft relocated me out to Seattle. Warrior Holly charged right in and developed a couple of nicknames – Tiger Lady and The H-Bomb, among others. I continued to take no prisoners. I was often given projects that were big sticky messes and I would turn them into finely oiled machines by using my MIT approach – don’t get overwhelmed, break the problem apart, solve what parts you can, recruit help and advice for the parts you can’t, keep digging in, make it happen, don’t give up. I worked very long hours, but it wasn’t a big deal because it was still easier than MIT. After a couple years and a couple of fast promotions, my boss (who worried a lot about my workaholic nature) said “Holly, you don’t even realize… you could literally work half as much and we would still love you.” I knew how to be a warrior but didn’t know how to let go.

I developed serious carpal tunnel and repetitive strain injury from constant computer use. I began to lose use of my hands. I couldn’t open doors or jars without pain. In fact, to add insult to injury, I couldn’t even masturbate without pain. I saw various doctors and physical therapists, but still – I couldn’t let go. Warrior Holly pushed through and was awarded an extremely prestigious position working directly for a Group Vice President who managed a division of 10k employees. It was a grooming job – the job they give to the up and comers who they want to make into someone important some day. My arms continued to ache every single day. I struggled with daily tasks. When I carried a grocery bag home, I hung the handle loosely over my arm instead of grabbing it with my fingers, because my hands barely worked.

When I was 25, I had an image of my future. I saw myself having babies that I would not be able to hold because my arms wouldn’t work. I said “enough”. I quit my job and decided to take a year to travel by myself. My grandmother said “how frivolous of you, to quit your job and not work.” Others said “How could you give up such a prestigious job and opportunity?” My father called me up and said “Holly you should have talked to me before quitting. I would have listened and helped you to figure out how to make it work.” My father has a large ego and delighted in bragging about my achievements, so it was painful for him when I gave the job up. I said “Dad, you didn’t call me to listen. You called me to tell me what to do.” As was my way, I followed my gut. Warriors follow their own path without needing anyone else to understand.

When I was 26, I traveled the world. I spent over a month in India by myself – doing yoga, sitting on beaches, being chased and almost eaten by wild dogs, getting harassed by locals who were shocked to see a white woman by herself, and riding a motorbike on rough roads between rice paddy fields. I spent 6 weeks in Thailand laying in hammocks, visiting ruins, training in Thai massage, learning to pound out my own curry paste, and watching sunsets. I ran all over Greece and Turkey and also visited people I cared about all over the US. This warrior woman walked the earth by herself, without fear. Or perhaps I should say – there was fear, and I faced it over and over. Fear did not own me. Warriors become even stronger in the face of fear.

When I was 29, I had a baby with the man that had become my husband. Labor did not go well. When I was in early labor, a family member was visiting. We had conflict, she yelled at me, my labor stopped, we had to ask her to leave. My body was never able to go back into labor naturally. Once I was 2 weeks overdue, they induced. My body was confused and did not take to the unnatural interventions. I refused all pain medication, because I always do everything the hard way. This warrior labored for 40 full hours without medication before they started losing the baby’s heartbeat and cut me open. I was devastated and promptly fell into a very dark year of post partum depression. Sometimes warriors get beaten down, but they always get back up.

When I was 33, I began to climb mountains. In fact, I had just been cut open for the birth of my second child, but still – 9 weeks after my second C-section I was hiking up a local trail with my baby strapped to my chest. I was determined not to succumb to post partum depression again and hiking was going to be my path away from the darkness. I hiked with Melanie twice a week. I made myself do it even when I had been up all night nursing, even when I didn’t want to go. Warrior mama wasn’t going to give up. I liked hiking and decided I wanted to climb Mt Rainier some day. Once Melanie went to pre-school I didn’t have a baby strapped to me when I hiked, so I filled my pack with sand bags and water bottles. Eventually I was hiking regularly with a 50-60lb pack. I took a 10 day mountaineering class in order to learn self arrest, glacier travel, and crevasse rescue. I joined a guided trip on Rainier to attempt the summit via the Kautz glacier, but we were turned around at 12k feet because of crumbling conditions and 2 avalanches that we narrowly missed. I was mad. I wanted the summit but knew that that day wasn’t the day. This warrior wasn’t going to let it go. When warriors fail, they lick their wounds and try again.

I went back a month later and had a successful summit via the Winthrop glacier. I limped home with scabbed and bleeding ankles. My friends said “Oh your poor feet!” to which I grinned, shrugged, and replied “It’s just skin. Skin grows back.” It was the hardest thing I’d ever done and I was drunk with endorphins and euphoria for days. I vowed to climb Rainier every year.

When I was 39, I became a widow.

An avalanche on Mount Rainier took my husband and the father of my children off Liberty Ridge, 3300 feet straight down onto the Carbon Glacier. In an instant, I became broken and lost my life as I knew it. In my darkest hour, I’ve found that being a warrior means all the same things that it meant before –

Being a warrior means that even though I’m beaten down, I get back up. When I wake up sobbing in the morning and my dark passenger of grief tells me that I will never be happy again I still get out of bed and face my day through the tears, ache, and despair. Being a warrior means that I keep breathing. The pain of my loss often fills my chest so completely that I feel I will choke on it, vomit it up. I cough and sputter on this rancid smoke from the battle field, but still – I keep breathing.

Being a warrior means that I do not regret being on the front line and taking a bullet to the chest, because in this case the front line is true, unconditional love. I loved with every fiber of my being and it is because of this beautiful, tender, all encompassing love that I am so ripped apart. Being a warrior means knowing that some day I will be ready to love again and will volunteer for the front line that storms the castle, even if it means my heart will take another bullet. Warriors take a bullet and get back up. I get back up.

Being a warrior means softening and accepting help. When a warrior is down, she lets her squadron carry her off the field and tend to her wounds. I’m damaged, broken, wounded from the greatest battle of my life, a battle that isn’t over and will never be over. Warriors are so tough and strong that sometimes it kills them to admit they cannot do it all, but I admit it – I cannot survive this journey alone. When I am so filled with grief that I can barely care for my children, I allow others to care for them. When my traumatized children cry and beg me to marry someone else so that they can have a father again, I hold them. Afterwards, I let someone else hold me as I sob and break down from the pain of knowing that I cannot give my children their innocence back. I hang my vulnerability and needs out in plain view. Every single day I am almost crippled by the instinct to harden, to shut off from the rest of the world, but I don’t give in. I soften. I open. I let you tend to my oozing and raw wounds.

Being a warrior means that I do not shrink from the challenge, no matter how hard and scary it might be. I go to all the hard places, the places I went to with him. I go to our favorite trails, our favorite campgrounds, and gaze upon our favorite mountains, even though doing so fills me with so much grief that I feel I will literally vomit. However, I do not let fear or grief own me. I face these spots that remind me of all of my pain, because they also remind me of all of my joy. On my wedding anniversary, I climbed a mountain that gave me a full view of Mount Rainier – the mountain that took John’s life. I sat there, for an hour, gazing on the mountain that is both my husbands death bed and the place where his soul now flies free. I meditated with my eyes closed and opened my heart to his soul. I allowed him to fill me with light and love, so that I might have the strength I need to keep getting up every day. I do not let my fear cause me to run away. Running away from grief would mean running away from John.

Being a warrior means that I lean in and move through the pain, rather than locking it up inside. I cry all the tears, write all the words, and feel all the feelings. I do not stay on the periphery of my opponent, I lean in to the center. I do not aim for the board with my palm, I aim through the board and allow my force to flow through. The way out is through. Being a warrior means being true to my path. I sit in my darkness even if none of you understand my ways or can cope with sitting in the darkness with me. Being a warrior means knowing that life is messy and that one can’t always be graceful through it all. I face the mess. I face the rest of my life, not knowing where it will take me.

Being a warrior means baring it all. I stand before you, naked, on top of a mountain. Having been on the front lines, I’m bullet ridden, bleeding, covered in filth, hair ripped out, with shrapnel buried in my burnt and charred skin. Some of you can’t handle me in this state and find it too overwhelming to be on the battlefield among all the gore. Still, I stand here on this mountain, naked, in my most damaged and horrific state for you all to see, because this is my truth – I am a warrior.

flying-sidekick

Sit with me in my darkness…

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The last time we were together as a family was Sunday, May 25, 2014. It was Memorial day weekend, and (as was our tradition) we spent the time camping with friends on 25 acres of forested land that we own in Okanogan. Our land was always a happy place. John would chain-saw up trees that had fallen naturally. I would chop the resulting rounds while friends sat around in camp chairs, telling me my muscles looked awesome. We would have huge fires, cook in cast iron dutch ovens right there in the coals, drink beer, swing in the hammock, hike daily up to a local peak, and watch the girls delight in being free to climb trees and play in the creek. Sometimes, John and I would sneak off during the day to have sex on a blanket or against a tree out in the woods where no one could see. We were living the life we wanted to live. We were a happy family.

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That Sunday morning the girls and I stayed on the land with friends while John left early to grab his gear and embark on a climb of Liberty Ridge, which he had been training for passionately over the previous 12 months. When he kissed me goodbye, he was full of life, bright, so excited about his upcoming adventure. This was something he had wanted for a long time. John was a mountain man and he was most alive and beautiful when he was pursuing his dreams. He thanked me, several times that morning, with great emotion. He thanked me for supporting him in all of the training, because it meant a lot of lonely nights when I put the kids to bed solo while he trained. He thanked me for supporting him in his mountain man path, because climbing has risks and we both knew it. He thanked me for honoring him and loving him as he truly was. The energy between us that morning was pure and beautiful John-Holly energy. I kissed him goodbye with the love and support of a wife who truly wanted her husband to be happy and he kissed me with the raw emotion of a man who felt unconditionally loved and supported exactly as the man he was.

John left for his climb and the girls and I finished our camping trip the next day. We went home, I stumbled over the mess of still wet/dirty clothing he’d left for me to handle, and we went on with our week. I brought the girls to and from their lovely school – a private Waldorf school – a darling place where the kindergarten is full of hand made wooden furniture, the students knit their own flute cases, and everyone is held with tender love – parents and children alike. I’ve always felt safe in the hallways there… I’ve always felt I could be my own true self with the other parents – geek-girl, granola hippy, camping obsessed, organic food eating mama. It was and continues to be a community that I call home.

The other parents excitedly asked about John’s climb all week. I told them of how it was the most technical route on Mt Rainier. On this route, vertical ice climbing is involved. On Liberty ridge, there is no turning back. It is a route that you can go up but not down, so climbers have to carry their full packs up and over the summit in order to descend the other side. Usually when you summit a mountain, you leave your heavy pack at high camp, have a light pack on summit day, and can turn around if you are too tired. On this route, once you hit the vertical ice, your 3 options are – summit the mountain, helicopter rescue, or death. John was climbing with phenomenal guides and I felt confident they would all make solid decisions. I’d climbed with the lead guide myself and held him in high esteem.

I continued to put a mostly genuine brave face that week, but had some nagging worries. There was a dark sense of doom that tried to descend on me that I mostly shoved to my subconscious. When I allowed it to enter my conscious mind, I analyzed it and tried to determine what terrible thing was coming but in no way allowed myself to think that said doom could possibly relate to his climb. I asked myself if the worst was going to happen – if John and the girls were destined to get in some sort of car accident… would I lose all of them? For some reason, though, a voice in me kept saying “That’s not the image. You don’t lose all of them. The picture is of you as a single mom.” I kept coming back to that – a vision of me alone with the girls. I told no one of this. I convinced myself that it was an irrational, fleeting thought, but the image haunted me all week.

On Wednesday evening, a few days after I last saw John, I received the following texts while he was on the mountain –

5/28, 5:32pm
John – “Still on it. Totally epic. We are doing a bivy at 12,500′ right now, took two hours to dig tent platforms. Totally variable conditions, lots of belayed pitches. Took 7 hours to get 2000′ elevation today. Cold strong winds. The guides are doing an awesome job of keeping us safe. Weather is supposed to improve tomorrow and we will top out the ridge at 14,100′ and probably descend all the way unless someone has issues.”
Holly – “Wow! So you might be home tomorrow night! I’m so happy for you.”
John – “I will have many stories!”
Holly – “I love my mountain man.”
John – “I love you too! In my bag, holding the stove melting snow.”
Holly – “Enjoy the summit tomorrow, babe. You deserve it.”
John – “Got to power down now, I love you.”
Holly – “I love you forever.”
5/28, 7:04pm

On Thursday I didn’t hear from him, but I told myself that everything was probably still fine. Cell coverage on the mountain was spotty. They would be busy. His phone could have run out of batteries. I had nothing to be concerned about.

On Friday morning and afternoon I didn’t hear from him. I continued to tell myself that everything was still probably fine. They must have needed an extra day to descend (due to fatigue) or there could have been a storm causing them to hole up in a snow cave for a day. He would be home soon.

On Friday at 3pm I picked the girls up from school. Another mom, Julie, asked about John. I smiled weakly and said I hadn’t heard from him, but that everything was fine and he would be home soon. Most of me still thought that was true – everything was fine. His battery was dead. They were in a van on their way home. He would walk in the door soon – all stinky and filthy, limping, with a huge grin on his face.

I had planned a celebration dinner for his return. After a big climb he would be animated and ravenous. We used to joke that my way of saying “I love you” was by cooking him lots of meat, and this was no exception. Surf and turf was on the menu – true decadence. I had marinated a flank steak over night in balsamic, soy sauce, garlic, jalapeño, fresh thyme, fresh oregano, and cumin. I had also pulled the crab meat from a whole Dungeness and integrated it into a white wine serrano ham cream sauce to be served over pasta. Lastly, I smothered broccoli with lemon sage butter. John would be happy to walk in the door and find me in leg warmers and one of my favorite silly aprons, cooking the meal with love. He would kiss me, squeeze me, throw the girls up in the air delightedly, and eat until his stomach was about to burst.

By 5pm, the worry I had held at bay turned into true alarm. I called up Alpine Ascents International, the guiding agency running the climb. I reached Gordon, the Director of Programs.

“This is Holly, John’s wife. Have you heard from the team?”

“We haven’t heard from them yet.”

“Well are you concerned? Are you worried? Shouldn’t they have called in by now? You must have something to say! What does this mean!??”

There was a long, heavy pause.

“Yes, we are worried. We are absolutely worried.”

“What do we do?”

“I have already called the rangers. No one has seen their team on the mountain since Wednesday evening.”

then…

“The rangers will be dispatching Search and Rescue helicopters in the morning.”

I hung up the phone, still not ready to absorb the implications. Stonily, I cooked the celebration meal and fed my kids. They asked where dad was and I replied that he was a bit delayed but would be home soon. We ate, I put them to bed, and then eventually went to bed myself. I was only able to sleep 2 hours that night. In the morning I called friends and arranged care for my children for the day, knowing that it was not a day when I could care for them myself.

In fact, I was supposed to depart that morning (Saturday June 1) to lead a climb of Mt Adams while John stayed home with the kids. John and I always climbed separately so that, if an avalanche hit or a whole rope team got dragged into a crevasse, our girls would not be orphans. One of my climbing partners, Joe, who was to be on Adams with me, agreed to stay with me all day so that I was not alone. I didn’t know what to do with myself, so we began obsessively cleaning the house. It reminded me of the time when I went into early labor with Melanie. Labor started gently and I began to scrub the kitchen floor, telling John “Once the baby comes, I’ll be busy, better to clean the house now!”

Around 10am, the first call came. The voice that I spoke to was soft, warm, gentle. A woman named Mary told me that she would be my communication contact all day as Search and Rescue progressed. They didn’t have any information yet, but she told me she would call me every hour.

Joe and I continued to clean. I got updates every hour and eventually the helicopters found something. When the 3rd call came in, around 2pm, I took the phone, went into my darkened bedroom, and sat on the chocolate brown leather couch.

“What have you found?”

“Holly do you have someone with you?”

“Yes, I do. I am not alone.”

Joe took my hand.

“We have not found the team yet, but we did find some gear. We do not know yet if it is their gear. The debris field is on the Carbon Glacier in a place of constant rock and ice fall, so we can only safely view it from the helicopter – we cannot get on the ground to investigate.”

“What does this mean?”

“We don’t know yet, but we do know that the debris and gear 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 Joe what she had said. They had not yet declared the team dead but in my mind it was a done deal.

“He’s dead.”

Joe tried to console me. He tried to fill me with hope. He suggested that maybe it was gear from another team, gear that could be months or years old. He stumbled over his words, so obviously reaching, so obviously stretched to find a way to put any sort of a positive spin on things.

At that point I became angry. Not at John or at Mount Rainier, but at Joe.

“What the fuck, Joe? They are dead. The gear is in a direct fall line from where they were camping on the ridge. No one can find their team on either side of the mountain. They fell 3300 feet straight down onto the Carbon Glacier. They are fucking dead, ok?”

Joe tried again to infuse some hope, but he only pissed me off. Why hope? How would hope help me? Why tease myself with the idea that he might come home? Why embrace ignorance for a few hours more? Why do people think they must say something positive at times when there is nothing positive to say? In that moment I hated Joe and his optimism, just as now (11mo later), in a way, I hate people who try to bring me out of my grief by reminding me of all I still have – my children, my friends, my health, my incredible strength, my memories.

Yes my children are a gift.

Yes my life is not over.

You know what? At times, when I am in my pit of despair, those facts don’t fucking matter. When I am swimming in my ocean of grief, I don’t want optimism and I don’t want silver linings. My husband is dead, and fuck you to anyone who wants to sugar coat it.

Recently I was hiking with a very sweet friend who had lost both of her parents a few years ago and had her own extended period of deep grief. When I was talking of my pain and darkness, she said –

“You know you won’t always feel this way, right? It does get better.”

“But, in a year or two, my kids still won’t have a dad.”

She hung her head. “I know.”

Another time I was chatting with a different friend about how, sometimes, I can’t imagine ever being happy again, even though part of my brain knows I could be. She said to me “I just hope some day you can take more joy in your children.” I said “You know what? I fucking hope so too.” Meaning, OF COURSE I want to take joy in my children. The fact is, that (until literally just the last month) I just couldn’t do so. I looked at them and saw that they will never have a father again. Oh how I wanted to smile for them and be bright for them, but my spark just wasn’t there. Much of my energy went to worry about the future – how will I provide financially for them and for my Mother In Law? Responsibility for the family is on my shoulders and my shoulders alone. My children are my greatest gift, but during my darkest moments, they have also been my heaviest burden. They remind me of all that I still have, but they also remind me of all that I have lost.

All you have to do is love me, hold me, listen to me, and let me cry. I could also use a handyman to swing a hammer around the house, but that’s another story. You don’t have to convince me I will feel better some day, will get married again some day, or that the joy I take in my children will make it all better. Don’t tell me that it will all be ok. My husband is dead, I’m a single (only) parent, and my traumatized young children will go through the rest of their lives remembering at every important milestone (and all the unimportant ones too) that they don’t have a father. I float on a raft, alone, on my cold windy ocean of grief. If you tell me it isn’t an ocean or that the shore is closer than it really is, then you don’t help me, you only make me feel more alone.

Sit with me in my darkness. The way out is through. I continue to move through. I am broken, vulnerable, weeping in every possible way. I am also one of the strongest people you will ever meet. Don’t be afraid of my darkness – sit with me and allow me to dive deep so that I can feel what I need to feel and cry all the tears that must be shed. I will survive. We will survive. I am a warrior, and though these wounds are still raw and oozing, they do not destroy me. I may still be at the bottom of a well, but I continue to reach for the light, and for the love of all of you.

chopping wood

40

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I never made a big deal about my birthday in my 20’s. In fact, I had a bit of distaste for people I knew who insisted on being fawned all over on their special day. Sure, your birthday is a time for people to celebrate you coming into this world, but do you really need everyone to kiss your feet and carry you around on a palanquin, as if you are a king or queen? I spent several of my birthdays in my 20’s comfortably alone. One year I spent that day solo in Florence – contemplating the majesty of The David and musing over the never ending frescos. Another year I was holed by myself up in a 5 star hotel in Delhi, avoiding the pestering vendors and rickshaw drivers after 6 straight weeks of constantly being harassed. When I turned 29, just 9 days before my wedding, I was in Paris with my best friend from college Rob, who was to wear a tux and carry a bouquet when he would be my Maid of Honor the following week. We celebrated my upcoming nuptials but my birthday wasn’t a thing.

For some reason, when I turned 30, for the first time I hoped for a bit more fanfare. I was a new mom – still recovering from a C-section 3 months beforehand, still breastfeeding my little Isabella. I was in frumpy mom clothes – red sweat pants, an open pink cotton button down shirt, and a nursing tank top smudged with damp milk. John made home made pizza, didn’t cook a vegetable or salad, and then after dinner went to the garage to get stoned with his friend while I stayed in and soberly nursed a hungry baby Isabella. Later that night he made no sexual advances towards me and instead went out with a friend while I went to sleep. When a woman is getting older, she wants to feel attractive and physically wanted on her birthday. My 30th was an epic failure, and after the fact John figured it out and felt terrible.

Here’s the thing about marriage – your success as life partners isn’t so much about the conflicts that you have, but about how you repair and recover. John and I didn’t always communicate well during times of conflict, but we always knew how to come back together. We loved and respected each other dearly and, once one of us realized the other was unhappy, we did what we could to make things better. We didn’t hold grudges and we didn’t try to punish each other. I was always able to let go of frustrations with him (and vice versa) by simply meditating for a few moments on all the wonderful things he did for me – all the nights when Isabella was crying and he lovingly took her from my arms so I could sleep, the way he waited on me hand and foot after I was cut open – bringing me meals on a tray and delicately taking the steri-strips off my incision. John was a wonderful husband, and any missteps were but brief moments in time during a marriage that was filled with wonder and joy.

After the debacle of my 30th birthday, John proceeded to throw me the most elaborate and wonderful birthday dinners every year. He would invite 20 of our best friends, spend 10-12 hours cooking an enormous multi course meal, and would always make sweet love to me later that evening. For my 39th birthday he made 11 Spanish dishes including seafood paella, clams cataplana, ham lollipops, mushrooms with garlic and white wine, and more. In fact, he went to so much effort, eventually I had to tell him to cook simpler banquets so that he would actually have time to spend with me during the meal, rather than being chained to the kitchen.

After my 39th birthday I posted the following note to my friends –

Thank you for all of the birthday wishes! I have to say this is by far the loveliest birthday I have had in years. I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what made it so incredibly wonderful. Perhaps it was the AMAZING 11 dish Spanish feast John cooked on Saturday for us and a number of our best friends, the 4 bouquets of flowers I was given and the super fancy multi layer cake that ex-pastry chef Sean made. Perhaps, though, it was so wonderful simply because I felt so loved. At this time in my life, I feel more total love coming to me (from many sources) than I have ever before in my life. In fact, I think that most of this love has already been there, but now I am finally able to fully receive it. I have come to realize that my heart has been covered in armor for years due to some past trauma that I hadn’t let go of. It has been painful to reach inside and allow myself to really feel the pain that is there such that I can finally let it go. As I often tell my yoga students – “We are all human beings, all of us feeling pain, all of us seeking joy.”. The pain I have allowed myself to feel has helped me to let go of my hard outer shell such that I can open more full to love and joy. Thank you to everyone who has been part of this process. Thank you for loving me, and thank you for being patient enough to wait around until I was ready to receive this love fully. I feel more loved than ever before, and I am filled with incredible gratitude for this gift.

John and I spoke at times, after my 39th, about what I might like to do for my 40th. He was determined to do something extra fantastic and special. He suggested maybe he send me on an exciting climb of Kilimanjaro in Africa while he stayed home with the kids, or perhaps we get childcare and take a luxurious week long vacation together. Because we had Isabella so quickly after getting married, we hadn’t taken a week together just us since our honeymoon. We didn’t settle on any one idea, but it didn’t matter – John would have made it amazing. I told him many times how happy I was to turn 40. Of course, 40 is the stereotypical age when a woman is “over the hill”, but I wasn’t worried about that. I told John that turning 40 was wonderful, because I was in the best shape of my life, had 2 beautiful children, a lovely home, and the most amazing husband I could ever ask for. I loved my life in just about every way, so why would I be unhappy about growing older? If growing older meant more of the amazing life that I had, then I couldn’t be anything but thrilled.

Now, John is dead and I’m not happy to turn 40.

Now, I’m an almost-40 year old broken widow who is a single mom to 2 traumatized girls.

Now, I’m single and I have to contemplate entering the dating scene as an “over the hill” 40 year old woman.

A widow friend of mine told me of her own recent first birthday after the loss of her partner. She said “It was horrible. I wish the day had never happened. For your birthday I’m going to make you a card that says “I hope your birthday doesn’t suck too badly.””

You see, my birthday is a reminder that, even though John is dead, life keeps moving forward. I am getting older, but John stays the same age. My friends will be holding a birthday dinner for me, but John won’t be there. John won’t be cooking me any special dishes, and after dinner, I will be going to bed alone. I have been wishing, for months, that my birthday would just disappear. I don’t want to celebrate a birthday without John by my side. I don’t want to become a stereotypical over the hill 40 year old single mom. I just want to disappear into the mountains and pretend I’m still 39.

None of you can fix this for me. Sure, you can make me dinner, hug me, tell me you love me, and pamper me on that day. All of those things help to soften the edges so that, perhaps, I won’t lay on the floor that day and drown in a pool of the blood that flows from my broken heart. But still, you can’t fix it. Things are going to get worse before they get better. Shortly after my birthday will be the first wedding anniversary that I celebrate without John, and shortly after that will be the 1 year anniversary of his death. Very dark times lay ahead.

I can feel how painful it is for many of you to watch me gasp for air as I fight the dark undercurrents in my ocean of grief. You all want me to get better, but that’s not in the cards right now. The way out is through – I will never get better unless I allow myself to feel and process the excruciating pain that is the loss of my wonderful John. Sit with me, hold me, but most importantly – be ok with me not being ok. I bring myself back to the words that I wrote after my 39th – “We are all just human beings, all of us feeling pain, all of us seeking joy.” Thank you to those of you who can sit with my pain, while also helping me to remember that there is joy to reach towards. I reach for it, but the journey through is long and exhausting. In some ways I have never been more alone, but at the same time – I don’t believe I have ever been more loved. John still loves me, and so do all of you. Thank you.