After a particularly dark April, in early May I gave myself a tiny bit of permission to feel better. I was over the guilt, self-harm, hangovers, anxiety, and tunnel-vision of dark clouds. It is easier said than done, this permission to heal – especially when gloominess had become my warm blanket, darkness had allowed me to not look at myself, and self-harm had given me the ability to hide my anger in sloppy camouflage.
In order to make this shift, I had to make a commitment to the hardest person for me to commit to – myself.
I knew that this work would have a benefit outside of simply my own well-being (when you’re in pain, sometimes your own well-being just isn’t enough). When I feel clear and in-touch with my truth, I also feel closer to you – your memory and your spirit. I have less isolation and more connection. I have less doubt and more faith. When I believe in me, I believe in you. We were like that in life, and in death, that remains.
So I did the things that make me feel healthy. I went to yoga every day; sometimes two or three times a day. I did a cleanse. I stopped drinking alcohol and started drinking vegetables. I abstained from settling into my well-marked dent on the couch and avoided media overkill. I woke up and went to sleep at decent times. I allowed the sun to shine on my body. I looked into the eyes of animals and happy people and let them in rather than hating their joy. I carefully avoided situations and relationships that would plummet me into the wrong direction. I gave myself a mantra, “Let your light shine.” I repeated it all the time.
These practices may sound simple: health, exercise, nature, surroundings, affirmations, rainbows, unicorns, blah, blah, blah... But when one is coming from intense grief, it’s not easy to do the right thing.
The day I chose to get better, I told my roommate Kevin about my decision.
Kevin, the one person who was there that night. The one who has seen me in the darkest ruts of this grief. The one who has held me day after day, night after night, week after week, month after month while I scream and wail. The one who has taken emotional beatings from my misdirected anger and confusion (and still claims to like me). The one who shares the same space as me. He is a constant reminder that I am not the only one missing you. He walks the same halls of ghostly memories. Like me, he still can’t move your shoes from beside the door or box up a single one of your items. He too turns the doorknobs that weren’t supposed to open to the emptiness that is now cast on the other side. He too suffers unexpected triggers, tears, and panic attacks from what we witnessed that night. Kevin, bound together by trauma, walls, and deep love for someone who's no longer there. He's often the only person I can stand to be around and the only one I'm willing to let see me in this state.
When I told Kevin about how I was going to allow myself to heal, I could see the relief on his face. But because he’s smart and forgiving, he looked at me and said, “I am so proud of you. And know that if you sidestep or slip backwards, it is OK. It's a process.” His words were like a dare to the perfectionist within me. Don’t screw up. Prove that you can heal. So I tried my damnedest.
I had a trip to Hawaii planned at the end of May. Throughout my ‘healing process’ I set my eyes on the approaching trip as a pending deadline. I wanted to be in the best possible head-space when I got there. I had several days planned to spend with family in Honolulu – which I knew would be both lovely and exhausting. After, I had several days planned to travel on Kauai – alone – which was absolutely, fucking, horrifying.
I arrived to Honolulu feeling strong. I felt connected to myself, to nature, to family. I saw my big brother, who I admire more than I have ever expressed – and who reminds me more of you than anyone else I know. I spent time with my nieces, who I unfortunately never truly have taken the initiative to build deep relationships with. I took hours each day to spend alone, preparing myself for the upcoming solo travel. I went to yoga everyday and opened myself up to new teachers, albeit the short stay. I lived in each moment, truly. I ate enough raw Ahi for the both of us. I watched as my niece graduated from high school. I allowed nostalgia to creep into my veins. I allowed bittersweet tears to flow as my mind drifted to the festivities that we would never get to celebrate, and the family we will no longer create together. I let the anxiety attacks wash over me and drag me as though I was a surfer caught in the undertow. But I knew that I would rise up and take another breath. I told people (and myself) what I needed. Moreover, I was actually able to see and define what I needed. I was proud of myself.
The moment I arrived in Kauai, I knew I’d made the right choice in going there. I had feared the trip. Why would I choose to visit one of the most romantic honeymoon destinations in the world on my own, buried in grief? I hate being alone – especially when I hate myself. But, by the time I got there, I didn’t hate myself. I loved myself.
On my drive from the airport to my hotel in my rental car, multiple serendipitous things happened. A song I was thinking about played. A funny metaphor I was daydreaming about spelled itself out in front of me. Time felt like it stood still. I drove too many miles in too short of time, without speeding. As I drove, I admired the lushness of the island around me. The islands of Hawaii are young in comparison to so much of our Earth. Luscious verdure blossomed from black volcanic ash. The island is a phoenix. As I studied the beautiful landscape, I could see the plants breathing – inhales and exhales through the murmur of the wind. It was nearly a psychedelic experience. The whole island whispered, ‘Life!’
I woke up with the sun and spent my days basking in her light. I breathed heat into my body and let it warm my bones; they had become brittle through the bleak winter. I swam in the ocean without the fear I had always carried while submersed in her. I surrendered to her power and vastness. As I swam, I asked you to be with me. “Show me a sign that you’re here too,” I hoped. Amidst the waves and current, I relinquished a need to control myself. I watched schools of colorful fish careen in perfect formation, cautious of the food chain and allowing the undertow to guide their path. I swam amidst a group of three sea turtles, each weighing more than I and probably double my age. I yielded and I witnessed. I tried to learn what they had to teach me, “Slow down. Lie low. You have time.” I dove down deep and swam far out. Deeper and farther than any other snorkelers I saw. It was not an attempt to be perilous, but an acceptance that I was a part of something bigger. I gave the ocean a proposal of my curiosity and need for wonder. I let the pressure build in my ears, clearing repeatedly so I could dive further down. I explored dark caves and cold crevices far under the surface. I thought about you as a man. You had sensitive sinuses and chronic ear infections. I knew you wouldn’t be down that far with me if you were still alive and swimming along my side. I felt grateful that you could be there with me in spirit instead.
At one point I realized I’d been in the water for a very long time and was more tired then I'd realized. I made my way towards the shore, but the best route was hidden from my perspective. As it often it. A shallow reef was quite close and waves were breaking upon it. I had to use powerful strokes to swim through a narrow channel and avoid getting slammed onto the coral. I’m a strong swimmer and had already made peace with the ocean, but it was a rush. I arrived on the shore, somewhat beached. I was winded. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something large on the sand. I rubbed the salt out of my eyes and blinked a few times. A very still, very large seal had also washed up on the shore, just feet away.
My heart sank. Lifelessness is too familiar for me these days. Unfortunately, my loss has caused me to assume the worst. Tears welled. How could this dazzling experience, so fueled in the reminders of plentiful life, end in me lying on the sand with this giant, perished creature? Moments later, the endangered monk seal lazily flapped his flipper onto his belly and rolled onto his back. He was sunning himself on the sand. He was warming his chilled bones, just like I had been. And he too, had let life take him for a ride.
I chose to believe in all the signs. The wave I shared with the seal, the lesson from the turtles, the shocking bright color of fish set against what seemed to be such a deep and dark canvas, the wispy seaweed, the growing coral… it was all so abundant. Each element, pulsing to the beat of the great ocean’s heartbeat. By slipping into the mystery of what is below I became more connected to what’s above.
I noticed a new-found comfort in solitude while embraced by the island. But it was because I wasn’t really alone. More like, alone, but with training wheels. The island was throbbing with life. From a buzzing mosquito to a couple of chatty tourists on their third mai-tai, it was a constant reminder how how very not alone I was. And yet, when the bugs buzzed and travelers talked, I found myself needing more space away from them, and into me.
I read a book about a twisted love story in the midst of a magical circus. It set the scene for my own spellbinding narrative. I rode on a helicopter to get the birds-eye view of this fantasy island I was having a love-affair with. I visited secret enclaves and deserted beaches. I hiked eight menacing miles to a three-hundred foot waterfall. When I got to it, I stripped down and jumped in the cold pool it poured into. I swam directly under the pounding chutes of water and let the pure island water cleanse my soul. I swam with your ashes cupped in my palm to that spot under the falls and I sprinkled them around me. They sparkled in the water as it baptized me and carried you.
After several days, I boarded my plane back to the mainland. Albeit many shades tanner, I came back a lighter version of myself. I felt radiant. And for the first time in seven months, I felt joyful. My joy didn't arrive as a result of my solitude. It arrived because I felt you were there with me. I knew it. I saw life and it reconnected me to the big picture.
I came home on a Friday. I hugged Kevin tightly when he picked me up from the bus. Despite the joy of my solo adventure, I had missed my best friend. That night, I danced with friends at Red Rocks to two of your favorite funk bands. You were there too. I heard you in the music. I felt you in the raindrops that fell on my skin. They had evaporated from the waterfall in Kauai and traveled east to land on me, a glittering reminder of the cycles.
I thought my story would stop there: A recap of my therapeutic journey. An advertisement for the healing values of Hawaii. A happy ending. But it doesn't.
Once you are reminded that you are indeed alive, life takes you for a ride.
Early Saturday morning, after the night of dancing at Red Rocks, Kevin opens my bedroom door. He starts speaking in sobs. I register the panic in his tone before my eyes even opened. There had been an emergency with his 3-year old nephew. He was near death. Kevin needed to fly home immediately.
There has been a pattern for Kev and I through this traumatic saga. Often, when I'm up, he's down. When he's feeling strong, I'm falling apart. We know that we can count on the other to be a shoulder to cry on, a set of ears to listen without judgement, and a hand to hold when we need comfort.
As I was off frolicking through palm trees and coral reefs, Kevin had been struggling through a dark place in Boulder. By the time I got home from Hawaii, he was ready to have his ally back. So when the call came in that morning and Kev arrived at my doorway in tears, the first words out of my mouth were, "I'm coming with you." "Thank you," his voice broke with a hint of relief. We've been through death together once and it has nearly killed us. I wasn't about to let him go through it again – much less alone.
And so life grabbed by the shoulders and dropped me off five-hours later in the Oklahoma University Pediatric ICU at the bed of a child – intubated and in a coma.
I hadn't been to a hospital since the night you died. The sound of an ambulance or the flash of a siren can throw me into panic. And yet here I was.
Kevin's nephew, Bennett,
struggles from a rare mitochondrial disease called Pearson's Syndrome. Among other things, it makes his kidneys
and immune system struggle severely, leaving him extremely susceptible to
infection and illness. Over the last year, little Bennett has had his
left foot amputated after a small scratch grew to massive infection on his big
toe, chemo and a bone marrow transplant after a leukemia diagnosis, and more.
The week before, while I was still in Hawaii, Bennett had been admitted to the
PICU after a cold had turned to pneumonia. That Friday night, as Kevin and I
had been dancing with our friends in Denver, Bennett had thrown up and
aspirated (inhaled) it into his weakened lungs. He was hanging on by a thread.
Kevin's family had simply hoped he would make it in time to say goodbye. We
did, and so far have had no need for goodbyes.
Over the next ten days, Bennett made improvements like a game of chess – for every step forward, it seemed like a step back. But, while he remains intubated and heavily sedated, it seems the child will make it. Even though during my time with him I only got to know him through his vital signs, his PICC lines, and his medications, I can see that he is a fighter.
Much to my surprise, being at the hospital, at the whim of others and as a stronghold for those who needed one continued to help me in my own healing. I felt necessary and helpful – which is comforting to me. And also, I continued to see life. With every heartbeat on the screen and every squeeze of his blood pressure, I watched Bennett pull towards living versus dying. I watched family, community, and faith join hands in support and prayer for LIFE. I spent time with Bennett's six-year old sister, full of sass and questions. She whizzed through the ICU like it was her playground. She had a sick brother for a long time; this is what she knows. This is the norm. And yet, amidst the life-support machines, the blur of nurses changing shifts, the schedules of doctors making rounds, the adjustments of medicines – blood pressure this, heart rate that, glucose up, calcium down, oxygen here, sedative there, IV in, fluids out – amidst it all, I saw the strength of life. Life sustained.
We all have our shit. My struggle is mine, and mine alone. Each person has their own version. They are all hard. They are all incomparable. There is no measurement system for how we can define challenge. We never know where life will take us and how it will prove its points. I experienced it in the sacred paradise of Hawaii and also in an Oklahoma ICU, life can teach the same lesson both in heaven and hell. We are impermanent – but we are given the opportunity to fight. Yet too much fight will confront us with where we can fall short. So then, we must open to the wings of grace. We can never guess where we will end up – and sometimes an unexpected path will turn out to be exactly where we need to be. Connect – to people, to the self, to belief. Connection is the foundation of mankind. Don't underestimate the complexity of life's weaves, its entanglements, its relationships, its journeys, its battles, its beginnings, its endings, and its sustainability.
After a week in Oklahoma, my flame began to flicker as I burnt my candle from both ends. I wore myself out of being supportive and strong. I tricked myself into thinking I could spent days on end in a hospital, suppressing my own grief, and not reliving my own trauma. I heard a woman sob a terminal diagnosis to a family member as I used the bathroom stall next to her. I stood in the stall quivering, wearing her sadness as my own. Wanting to be a comfort to her, when I was out of comfort for myself. At one point, I found myself in the hospital chapel, crying to the book of Genesis as I looked for answers in places that I'd not looked. But like anyone, I can only give so much until I need to turn back to me and refuel. I see life around me – blossoming, growing, sustaining. But the reality of the loss of your life doesn't fade: it remains a constant. Just like the oxygen in the air I breathe, your absence is within everything.
I'm back in Boulder at our home now. It seems like so long since I've been here. I was scared of what it would be like to be back home, as my very concept of what home is has been challenged. And yet, thankfully, our house feels comfortable. It always does. It's filled up with your stale, but loving breaths, trapped.
It's raining. I'm going to stand outside and let the rain spill over me, charging me back up with its immortal cycle of glittery drops.