Journey’s end (fears and findings)

Welp, I made a rookie-blogger mistake by saying, “more tomorrow,” at the end of my last post. (I did start an entry the following day, but then… life.) Now I just want to finish  recounting the trip I made with Jamie so I can start writing about more current events, so here’s what I meant to say:

How awful is it that the threat of male violence shadowed me on this trip as much as the ansarithreat of bears? I don’t even like to admit that such fear influences my behavior (since I know that keeping women afraid is abear tool of the patriarchy, as depicted by Azis Ansari in one of my favorite-ever sitcom scenes, originally recommended to me by Kyle: http://fusion.net/video/229604/aziz-ansari-master-of-none-walking-home-women/). But let’s be real:  it is harder to pretend my feminist Wonder Woman cape will protect me (from men or bears) when I am alone in the woods with my daughter.

Because of this, despite the extraordinary natural beauty surrounding us, I spent an anxious night falling asleep with mace clutched in my hand while staying at Pole Creek Cabin in Big Horn National Forest.

Jamie was excited the cabin was completely isolated – high up on the side of a mountain in the middle of the woods, far from all other campsites. As we unloaded our supplies, we were moved by the generosity of previous campers who had left friendly notes, chopped firewood and cabin supplies we could use as needed.  But still, I kept fighting the feeling we were in the opening scenes of a horror movie where the hills had eyes and no one would hear us scream.  I kept reminding myself that I had always encouraged Jamie’s refusal to let fear dictate her choices, so I was trying hard not to talk about how worried I was. But I hated how alone and vulnerable I felt we were.

Then, after dark had fallen and Jamie had triumphantly built her first-ever fire without any help or fire starters, she trotted toward the car to retrieve the marshmallows for s’mores and gave a cut-off shout of fear before running back to me.

“Mom,” she said, her voice low and shaken, “there’s a white pick-up truck out there. I think someone followed us and is watching us.”

Before we’d left, my wife Renee had taken me shopping for mace, which I’d been carrying with me everywhere on the trip; I’d attached it to our car keys.  A therapist with whom I’d discussed my fears said it was smart, not paranoid, to have a safety plan for what we’d do if we felt in danger. So when Jamie reported her truck sighting, my hand closed around the mace in my sweatshirt pocket – the use of which was the extent of my safety plan – but I was discouraged to realize this did not really make me feel safer. I felt enraged, actually — infuriated that the threat men pose to women is  a specter everywhere women go, even in the deep forest on what should have been a night of sacred and open-hearted communing with nature.

I walked to the car myself and saw the pick-up truck Jamie had seen about a quarter mile down the dirt road.  I thought of shouting back to Jamie, “OK, I’ve got the gun now, don’t worry,” but then I feared that if the stranger heard me, he’d come to steal our (imaginary) gun.  I decided that rather than wait in terror all night, I would investigate, so I started creeping silently toward the truck – and as I got closer, I saw there was a tent set up, and a fire being built, and two figures who looked like a man and a woman working together to set up camp.  I relaxed a little.  Maybe there was a campsite closer than Jamie had thought; or maybe someone was camping illegally nearby.  Either way, img_20170630_203914782.jpgthe presence of another woman helped me feel more confident that the pickup wasn’t there for us and that it might even be useful to have someone within shouting distance if we had reason to shout.  But I still fell asleep clutching the mace.

In the end, we spent 12 days side by side in a crowded car with broken air-conditioning (and side by side in Kyle’s tiny tent), and still ended our trip saying lots of loving things to one another, so that feels like an accomplishment. We also figured out along the way that we wanted to spend more time in nature and less time driving, which prompted us to change our plans once we got to Yellowstone.  Prior to that, we were both a little stunned by how worn out we were from driving by the time we reached each national site. Even places we’d wanted to visit, like Crazy Horse National Monument, wound up getting just a drive-by, as we tried to maximize the time we’d spend at each campsite rather than on the road.  (Mt. Rushmoreimg_20170630_122839797_hdr.jpg got only a drive-by, too, but that was because we didn’t want to support the colonialism and genocide it represented; I felt guilty we chose not to spend $22 to see Crazy Horse.)

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I failed to execute the Vanna White presentation of our first Yellowstone sign; I was tired.

When we got to Yellowstone, the park was more breathtaking than anything we could have anticipated – even after days of driving through the jaw-dropping beauty of big-sky country mountains and forests.  Everywhere we looked in Yellowstone, there were steaming geysers, mountain ranges capped with snow, hiking trails, massive lakes, trees – whole forests of them, both dead and alive – creeks, rivers, and wild animals: bison strolling beside cars, elk lying on bison by the carthe island midway in a parking lot, a baby bear causing a “bear jam” (a traffic back-up caused by people ignoring all the signs not to stop on the roads when they saw wild animals).  We immediately knew we wanted to spend more time there than we’d planned, even though it meant scrapping the rest elk on the roadof the trip and doing triple the driving at the end – so I agreed to primitive camping conditions (Jamie scored us a first-come, first-serve campsite on Fourth of July weekend, but this meant we had to be in a site with no running water and pit toilets, not my favorite part of the journey.)  Nevertheless, I was glad to have four nights amid the greatest natural beauty I’d ever seen.

 

old faithfulWe saw all the sights, including the amazing Old Faithful.  We hiked the hardest hikes I’ve ever been on — and I believe we narrowly avoided being eaten by bears: A ranger had warned us we weren’t going to be loud enough, two little women, to keep away an aggressive grizzly, so on our last hike I sang at the top of my voice and shouted constant nonsense, including sing-roaring repeatedly, “I am a Mama Bear, too; you don’t hurt my cub and I won’t hurt you.” Despite this, we still saw a bear print directly on our path — and then in our footprints on the way back down, too, which meant the bear was literally right on our tail. Running was said to trigger a bear’s chase response, so after we spotted the paw prints, we went speed-walking back down the way we’d came, with me scream-singing the whole way.  We were trembling with adrenaline when we re-emerged and saw our car.

Most of our time in Yellowstone was a lot more relaxing than that, though.  I hiked up my first mountain; the views were absolutely breathtaking everywhere we looked. We read novels, swinging in the hammock Jamie had brought. We cooked hot dogs on a stick. We listened to music and laughed a lot. We wrote poetry.  We missed Kyle together. We prayed. We mostly didn’t have any internet access, which was a lovely forced break.  We cheered each other on as we talked about our dreams for our futures. And we spent our last night before Portland in a deliciously air-conditioned hotel.  (More on Portland itself another time.)

Since I’ve been home I’ve been starting to transcribe all of Kyle’s writing, including his journals, and here’s a passage Kyle wrote in 2014, just at the beginning of his heroin use, before he was truly addicted, as he rode a bus to a rehab in Plymouth, MA. He had shot up before getting on the bus in order to ensure he’d get medically detoxed (i.e., given more drugs):

“I had recently promised myself that no matter what, even if God forbid I relapsed, that I would never shoot heroin again. I decided my selfishness had to have some limit, and with all the headline-making amount of overdose deaths happening in Massachusetts, I couldn’t risk dying on Mom – she’d never recover. Jamie either.”

There is anger mixed in with my grief sometimes – and transcribing this passage really caused fury to spark in me.  Maybe Kyle is right; maybe Jamie and I will never “recover,” if by that Kyle meant we would never be the same. Of course we won’t.  But we are living, Kyle; we are doing it even though it is hard. We are living on with the blade you left in our hearts because even when we feel we’ll “never recover,” as I know you feared you would never recover, we won’t ever inflict on anyone what you inflicted on us.

Even on our happiest days, we feel the pain of grieving you. On our worst days, every fucking breath hurts because of you. But we are not letting your disease take any more of us out with you. We have learned from your example.  We don’t risk our lives escaping reality ; we take our meds and do our self-care and get the professional help we need to keep on living, even when we feel hopeless, even when we aren’t sure we want to.

IMG_20170704_195232436_HDRAnd sometimes, lo and behold, we find that we are not just surviving, we are thriving. It’s painful to see you knew what you were risking – not just your life, which you hadn’t adequately valued in years — but also our happiness (and the happiness of so many others)… yet you kept on using heroin until it killed you.  But rather than dwell on how painful that betrayal is, I like to imagine you can see us from wherever you are and are sharing in our surprise and gladness for every good day we manage to have.  Jamie, especially, has wisely surrounded herself this summer with the natural grandeur that fed your soul when you were clean and the love of friends you couldn’t feel buoying you while you were alive. I hope you can experience from wherever you are some of the love she’s getting, as it’s such a terrible shame how much of it you are missing.

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P.S. One last picture to summarize the trip: some blue skies, some grey clouds, some tissues in our car window reflection: IMG_20170629_135820171

 

 

Journey, Days 2 & 3, Staying Open

My daughter Jamie and I had a great time camping and hiking in the Badlands – but tears welled up for both of us over how much Kyle would have loved the freaky lunar landscape of rock climbing there.  Everywhere Jamie and I looked as we set up camp, we couldn’t help thinking of all the wild climbs Kyle would have wanted to take on the hundreds of rocky cliffs rising all around us. tree climbers 2 2012He and Jamie climbed a lot of trees and hiked a lot of mountains together.  This is a shot I took of the two of them climbing higher than I wanted them to in 2013, and below is a shot Jamie took of Kyle rock-climbing with her in Red Rock in Nevada in 2015. ky climb closeup 2015

And here are some shots of me and Jamie in the Badlands last week:

 

Had Kyle been there in the Badlands with us, I know he would have terrified me; I would have been – as I always was — powerless to stop him endangering himself, upset by the crazy chances he was taking with his life.  I would have refused to watch him climb, and he’d have teased me for being scared, assuring me he’d be fine.  Possibly he’d even have goaded his sister into following along and taking  foolish chances with him, which would have made me even more anxious and angry. I would have been praying he was as invincible as he imagined himself to be – and that Jamie wouldn’t try to keep up with him just to prove she could. I try sometimes to remind myself how terrible my constant, rampant fear was while Kyle was alive, but of course I still wish he’d been with us in the Badlands, even if I would have spent the whole day frightened – a perfect metaphor for how I feel every day now.  004 (Who knew I’d ever wish to feel such terror again, now that the worst has already happened?) The flip side of fear is hope; without one I no longer have the other.

Here’s a photo of one of the many times Kyle miscalculated the dangers while hiking, one of the many times he told me about a fall he’d taken,  sounding amazed at how lucky he was to be alive, lulling us all into thinking his luck would last forever …

Meanwhile, by the end of Day 3, my admiration for Jamie had grown to new heights: not only had she become some kind of Zen master, leading me in yoga routines and setting the most loving intentions for us, but she’d also turned herself into a skilled and expertly outfitted camper and hiker.  She gave me a pair of hiking boots and loaned me a pole and then took me up the Badlands’ steepest trail. (She was kind and patient with me when I started perseverating about a fear of snakes on that trail, too, given all the rattlesnake warnings posted all around us.)

 

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Jamie in a heart-shaped cave in the Badlands.
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Jamie looking out over the Badlands at the top of our climb.

The next night she named herself “Fire Goddess,” building a fire entirely on her own, spending 30 minutes gently blowing oxygen at the fire’s underside to help the flames catch.  The following night, she pitched the tent, rolled out our sleeping bags and set up the fire all by herself while I was getting food (earning my camping name, “Mama Bear.”) Jamie brought along a cook stove, a headlamp, a lantern, a hammock, art supplies, tools – everything we wanted or needed for the journey, she had it. She was so on top of everything that I found myself able to relax and let her be in charge of all the trip logistics – which I think is the first time I’ve experienced that since I became a mom. (Lovely! I could definitely get used to not being in charge of things!)

I mentioned to Jamie that she seemed to have risen to a new level of competence and self-confidence, and that I wondered if this had anything to do with her recently shaving her head – and/or if it had anything to do with her trying to fill some of the roles Kyle once filled. She’s always been a girly girl, and somehow, despite all my best feminist intentions, acting girly seems to have sometimes meant acting a bit ditzy and helpless.  (My mother does this with real skill, and I know that I have been guilty of batting my lashes and confessing my ignorance, too, to get help with everything from changing a flat to finding my way when I’m lost. I don’t feel like I’m acting, though; I really don’t think I’d be able to change my own tire, and I do get lost quite often.)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Jamie agreed that since shedding some of her girly-girl persona along with her long hair, she’d noticed others treating her as more capable, which has probably contributed to her viewing herself that way.  As a short-haired woman, she noticed, people expected more of her, which she liked.  She agreed that perhaps she had taken on some of Kyle’s roles, too, as she felt that if he were with us on the camping trip, he would have put himself in charge and she would have deferred to him. “I want to be independent,” she told me. “I want to know how to take care of myself.” She is rightly proud that after this most awful year, she is — and can.

More tomorrow…

Journey, Day 1

Yesterday was my son’s 27th birthday, the first June 28th in that many years without him in the world.  I cried several times the day before, particularly when reading my ex-husband Larry’s Facebook post, which quoted lyrics from Forever Young and ended with “Happy Birthday, son.”  larry and kyle turning 25Sometimes witnessing the pain of the other people who love and miss Kyle hurts as much or more than my own pain.  (This photo is of Larry and Kyle celebrating Kyle’s recovery and the new life he was launching in Amherst on his 25th birthday…Just two years ago, one of the many days when everything seemed possible.)

Fortunately, on the morning of Kyle’s actual birthday, I did have something to celebrate, thanks to the wise forethought of my daughter Jamie, who had insisted we start our road trip from Chicago to Portland that day.  She sent me a message in advance of the trip outlining the intentions she wanted us to set for the journey:

  • to be honest and authentic, naming our feelings when they needed attention;
  • to connect to a higher power through nature;
  • to stay present, practicing mindfulness and gratitude;
  • to stay open to new experiences, including unexpected changes in plans;
  • to practice self-care and body-love (hydration, nourishment, stretches);
  • to lead with loving-kindness in all our interactions with ourselves, one another and everyone we encounter along the way;
  • to honor Kyle every day.

How could I not be excited with an agenda as thoughtfully outlined as that? (Honestly, who even cares where we go if that’s what we’ll be doing?) Also, I marvel at how this list demonstrates how much growth can come from trauma and loss.  Jamie and I have had to work so hard to get through this past year that we’ve adopted many healthy new habits — daily yoga; more art, writing and reflecting; therapy; deep breathing; prayer; even flossing — or, as I sometimes say, “self care like a mother-fucking job.”  We had to build new spiritual muscles just to carry us through each day.

With all that said, I know we both feel a painful conflict between our relentless grief and our efforts to be joyful, present and grateful.  So one of the best parts of this trip, starting as it did on such a heart-breaking day, is how much our dissonance eases when we’re with each other — because no matter how much we are laughing, singing, dancing, and celebrating, we both know without having to say it out loud that we are simultaneously feeling deep grief.  Having our painfully discordant feelings silently recognized and reflected in one another is a comfort.

More specifically, yesterday was a long day of driving through flat midwestern plains — the longest drive we’ll have for the week.  But paying attention to all Jamie’s careful intentions made the day a pleasure anyway. Jamie packed us a cooler full of delicious fresh food, which we fed one another by hand in the car. Our stop for yoga overlooking a beautiful vista kept us feeling stretched and refreshed despite the super cramped car.  The sun stayed out until almost 10 p. m. (how is this possible?)– so I didn’t ever have to drive in the dark, even after 12 hours on the road.  And then, even though we arrived at South Dakota’s only gay bar an hour after most customers had left, we decided to honor Kyle by dancing as he did: fearlessly and for maximum fun.  Jamie danced with his spirit, and we missed him like crazy, just like we do every day.  Happy Birthday, son.

 

Ending

“The wheel of what if/ starts turning and never stops.” — Mary Jo Bang in Elegy

45th-hamp-seal-on-podium-e1498578760252.jpgToday is my last day of work at Hampshire College, my work home and community for the past nine years. I’ve packed my boxes (peanut butter, family photos, notebooks, cards) and written most of my goodbyes, but I am still supposed to ask about 10 more people to make a gift before June 30th – and just writing that phrase leaves me exhausted. I am such a diligent good girl that I have been continuing to present proposals and close major gifts right up until the last day, but I think I might have hit my wall, particularly with people I’ve already asked and am now supposed to nudge. Fuck it; I

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My always-positive boss, Clay (though just for 4 more hours), and my then-girlfriend /now-wife, Renee, at a Hampshire bowling party.

don’t have the resilience for follow-up; if I did, I wouldn’t be leaving this mostly excellent job.

My heart is beating hard at the idea that I will leave any assigned task unfinished. I cannot even imagine what retirement – with its lack of assigned tasks – is going to feel like. As I was writing this, the Hampshire Fund director sent me a list of 44 people she would like me to call this morning. I am laughing and shaking a little, both at how absurd that is and at how unable I feel to say no – or to make those calls.

Last night I packed for the road trip I’m starting with Jamie tomorrow; we are leaving Chicago on the morning of Kyle’s 27th birthday, the first of his birthdays where he won’t be getting any older. I am excited for this adventure with my daughter, and for the relief of not having to meet any more fund-raising quotas or professional expectations — but I felt sick with sadness as I packed Kyle’s sleeping bag and Kyle’s tent into Kyle’s backpack, and this morning I still have a sadness hangover just thinking about how I buried my face in his sleeping bag hoping for one last whiff of him. (There was none, but I’m still hoping when I unroll it to sleep in it, maybe…) We three loved being in nature together, and it is in his honor Jamie insisted we start our trip on his birthday; I hadn’t anticipated how hard it would be, how strongly I would feel his absence as we set out.

Later today – after friends take me out for drinks to “celebrate my retirement” at The Moan and Dove — I will go home and transfer some of Kyle’s ashes into a watertight container Jamie has asked me to bring her so she and Kyle’s old girlfriend, Steph, can sprinkle a part of him around the base of Mt. Rainier. The schism between festive celebrations and aching bottomless grief is particularly stark today.

At home, I have a photo of Kyle climbing Mt. Ranier wearing the pack I stuffed last night, kyle on mt ranierand I keep thinking that was the peak he reached in life: he was so proud to have done that climb, and in that moment he was literally on top of the world. (Here’s the photo where he’s reached the top, the one my dear friend Barb put at the end of his memorial video.)  What happened after he reached this peak to bring him so low?

I know his disease was inherited, a genetic time bomb that had already been set in motion. But why was it dormant then? Why was he able to live a normal, happy adult life – teaching and mountain climbing and drinking beers with friends and reveling in nature and bike riding and taking care of foster kittens with his girlfriend and giving speeches for City Year and planning to study neurobiology when he went back to school the following fall – only to descend shortly thereafter into insane crack addiction. I know the why- and how-could-it-have-been-otherwise questions are useless circles; when I catch myself getting caught in these loops, I must take a deep breath and shake them out of my head. But today my mind is stuck there.

I am reminded of Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy, a book-length poem to her son who died of addiction. There’s a line she wrote that haunts me, “The wheel of what if/ starts turning and never stops.” Here’s one of the poems in that book, though not the one I referenced: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/detail/49508

 

Beginning

_RLS6062Last year, 16 days after my wedding, my brilliant 26-year-old son died of an overdose.  (Poor kid carried the burden of everyone calling him “brilliant” all his life — and now here I am saddling him with that as a first adjective even in death. Here’s hoping he no longer minds; I hope we get at least that much of a break when we go.)

Everything in my life centers on my loss.  My life was split in two between the life I had prior to Kyle’s death, and this life where he is unbelievably gone forever and I am still figuring out how to proceed.  The me who is typing this is still evolving into her full humanity and has decided to do it out in the open with this blog – a blog I launched informally on Facebook in the early days and months, though without thinking of it as a blog; it just seemed like the only place to pour my feelings, a sympathetic community, witness to my ongoing pain. Having my grief seen seemed vital.

Having my son’s death be the most important and central thing that’s ever happened to me feels awful; I don’t want this to be true. I want to be a writer first, or an activist, or some kind of changemaker…  Yet if you are meeting me through this blog, the fact of my son’s death must be my first self-descriptor.  If I didn’t start with, “I am the mother of a dead son,” I’d be censoring myself, which I do enough in the real world. I want to try to avoid that on this blog.

I am other things, too, but sadly they all feel ash-pale in comparison to the throbbing colors of my new identity as mother of a dead man.  But I am also a wife – a newlywed, in fact – and a happy one, with a life full (still!) of romance and passion, love and laughter.  I know I am blessed beyond measure that this is true. I pushed myself to resume making love with my wife within days of Kyle’s death. I know she was surprised, but also grateful I could provide her this proof that the best thing in our lives was not going to be destroyed by the worst thing that ever happened to us. (And yes, it was the worst that ever happened to her, too, because the woman she married just 16 days earlier was stolen from her the day Kyle died and replaced with a relentlessly distracted reproduction.)

I am also still a mother to two alive children and three alive grandchildren: to a foster daughter, Amy, who is as old as my wife (which is the least complicated element in my relationship with that daughter) and to a daughter, Jamie, born two years after my dead son. See how Jamie is described in comparison to my son – and his death? She was always second, and always living her life in contrast to his, which is harder now that her brother is dead. Worse, she has lost her best friend, the person who knew her best (better than I knew her, though I’m getting to know her more since Kyle died, now that she and I are open to learning who she is rather than trying to push her toward being something imaginary.)

I am also undergoing huge changes on the other side of being an adult child: I am the daughter of an aging (and raging-against-aging) mom who just moved here to Western Mass. This is the first time we’ve lived closer than 2500 miles apart in more than 35 years.  We’re emotionally very close, and we visited one another several times a year all the years we were apart. But now she is 25 minutes away and needing a lot of help with getting settled in, which I want to give her, but which I am also finding overwhelming. My son was living with my mother when he died. (Apropos of nothing, just to make clear my mind is always finding connections back to Kyle, no matter the subject.)

Finally,  I have also been a fund-raiser for Hampshire College for nearly a decade, and have worked in some job or another, usually more than one at a time, for 40 years, but I’m retiring Tuesday (in two days) and I wanted to launch this blog before I went so I could tell people as I said goodbye that they should check out my blog..  So here you go: I’ve started.