Dirt and Sky

You are not enclosed within your bodies, nor confined to houses or fields.  That which is you dwells above the mountain and roves with the wind….”  – Kahlil Gibran

Grief is sometimes like a transcendent gaze; you look down at yourself and what you are doing as if you have been detached from your body.  You watch the movie of your life alone from the back row of a dark, dirty little theater, shoes sticking to the floor, afraid every time light pours in from the opening door, hoping to forever hide in the shadows.  Some days you just go through the motions with no empathy at all for the main character in this movie, you; at the end of a bad day you wonder how you even accomplished the “normal” things.  Everything is different now, and you search for something to hold on to, something real…

Running is real.  Working out, pumping the weights, pounding the pavement, blood coursing through wide open veins, heart pounding, big gulps of breath filling screaming lungs; life courses through you, and you cannot deny it, you can’t hide in the shadows from it.  And it feels good.  We rent these incredible instruments for a spell, these vehicles for our light that can do these incredible, immaculate things, that are capable of carrying us to the greatest of heights, and through the lowest lows.

So I use mine now.  Let the rhythmic footsteps and breathing transport me to a better place, calming my mind and quelling my fears.  Let the endorphins soothe the pain, physically and emotionally.  Let the cleansing breaths refresh and rejuvenate at the cellular level, and let the sweat carry away the built up toxins of grief…

The Earth is real.  Today my footsteps pound the white rocks and yellow dirt of the great wide open Sonoran desert.  A solitary wilderness trail winds through the prickly pear and mesquite and yuccas, and the flat expanse of the desert is bounded on all horizons by far off purple mountains.  Large lobed jackrabbits and striking black-throated sparrows flee my approach, and I admire them for earning a living in a place that is so full of thorns and sharp edges.

At the top of a flat mesa I pull off trail and stop running.  From this vantage point I can survey the entire Verde valley.  A brown river cuts through it, its’ cottonwoods providing an emerald green necklace against the tan rocks.  After being penned in for so long in a beige cubicle and bounded by all these new responsibilities, the endless horizon is freeing.

The ancient ruins of Tuzigoot are outlined on a bluff in the river valley below me, marking human time and connecting it to the timelessness of the heavens and earth.  Burial plots from 1,000 years ago attest to the truth of the cycle of life and death; my grief is nothing special.  Indeed it is a necessary part of life; so I’ve been told.  What I need to understand now is how to uncover the gifts of grief, buried under the layers of vegetation and dirt that have accumulated around a topic mostly ignored and forgotten, like the ruins before archeologists did the tedious work to excavate it.

It feels right to kneel on this mesa top, to feel the rock cut into my skin under the bright sunshine, to say a prayer of remembrance to those that have gone before me, to those that would normally be here with me.  Alone on this mesa top, I let the wind dry my tears.

But as I gaze down on this valley, on the life giving river, on the ancient ruins and the thorny bushes and a trail cut through the desert, my heart begins to stir.  Instead of bowing in prayer to what I’ve lost, I can’t help but feel grateful for what I have right now – this view, this body, this experience of being alive right now!  I raise my arms in gratitude as my soul reaches for the sky…

And the sky is real.  This big desert sky, picture perfect blue painted with white cotton ball clouds, so crisp, so clear, so free here in the desert; I drink it in, and it fills me.  I must run!  It is downhill, my strides stretched full; I take off my shirt and let my skin soak up the warm afternoon sun, and let the wind evaporate the sweat that courses down my forehead and back.  It is exhilarating; it is freeing; it is like flying!

For the first time in a while I experience joy, pure joy, and my heart and soul are lifted high into the desert sky!  I run much faster than my normal pace, for I want to feel my heart pound again, want to feel my lungs burn and my muscles ache; I want to feel alive again, living, not just going through the motions.  And if only for this brief, glorious run, at least I know it is possible again…

But that is reason enough to rejoice.  My mind fills with song, and I sing out loud to the rocks and the trees and the rattlesnakes…

I fell back alone on a gray Sunday morn

[Heart aches with memories that are] tattered and torn

I stumbled along ‘til I stood [with the wide open desert]

The wind it blew cold as my soul finally started to stir

Yeah the afternoon sky it grew feathery wings

Lifted me high above everything

As darkness descended I knew I had only to sing

I had only to sing, yeah, yeah!

La la la la la la la la la la…

(Apologies to Bill Deasy for taking liberties with his lyrics [in brackets] to his incredible song “Levi”. Thanks for putting emotions to music, Bill – this song leaves me rejoicing and singing along every time…

You Tube video for the song:

http://m.youtube.com/#/watch?v=Zglxy5d0biY&desktop_uri=%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DZglxy5d0biY

Mountains and Canyons

“Loss is nothing else but change, and change is nature’s delight” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Vacations are supposed to be fun, right?  Well this certainly hasn’t felt “fun” for me, after a long travel day, getting from Pittsburgh to Phoenix with two kids and four bags of camping equipment and food and clothes.  The details are endless and overwhelming on my own, and the preparation and planning and packing that went into this tenting vacation over the last few weeks have exhausted me.  All these tasks that I used to have help doing – well, those are mine now, mine all mine.  And I no longer have a co-pilot to help navigate, to referee fights, to find a good radio station or a place to eat or to drive a little when I need a rest, or just to smile and tell me everything is alright when my face starts to twitch and the blood starts to boil after making a wrong turn.

Apparently I have been taking these frustrations out on the kids; Trevor is the first to crack.  After another command for him to take care of something that mom used to do for him, he stops and screams at me.  “God dad, you’re so mean!  All you do is yell at me!  I hate you!”  He bursts into tears, sobbing.  Instead of patience, I react by yelling more, and I tell them that they can’t be 9 and 12 anymore, dammit, they’ve got to grow up and help more because mom’s not around and I can’t do it all myself.  “Dad I’ll be 10 next year” Trevor sobs, before diving into the tent and crying in his sleeping bag.

Oh my god how could I have said that to them???  I hate myself right now; god I’m never going to be able to do this, to raise two boys on my own without scarring them for life, without passing on all my faults and fears.  God dammit Debbie, why did you have to go and die and leave me with all this responsibility that I just can’t handle???  This isn’t fair!

We are tucked into a remote forested canyon between Sedona and Flagstaff, far far from home.  That’s something that usually sets my soul afire, traveling to remote, spectacular places, being in the wilderness, sleeping on the ground, breathing fresh air, and not being in my beige cube.  I thought it would be a great idea to bring the boys out here with me, to share in my love of the outdoors, do a little bonding, maybe a little grieving, or maybe to just forget about everything for a while.  But as the darkness descends and the temperatures drop and the boys quietly cry and do their best to ignore me, my idealistic plans seem to go up in the campfire smoke…

Feeling completely alone in the darkness of the forest, my fears and demons reign freely over my exhausted imagination, and my dreams are haunted by the fight, and my whole body feels the crush of the overwhelmingness of having to do everything myself.  Sleep comes fitfully…

But there are good reasons why I go to the wilderness.  The healing peacefulness that permeates these places is real, and we need some healing and peace now.  In the middle of the night I get out of the tent for a bathroom break.  I almost crawl back into my tent without noticing, but the stars are too brilliant, even for my exhausted mind.  Wow, with no light pollution, the night sky is just spectacular.  I stare for five minutes, taking it in, feeling something good starting to stir inside of me, until the cold forces me back to the tent.  Something lightly brushes my soul, and this little hint of peace provides incredible comfort.

The morning dawns spectacular – we’re tucked into a beautiful forested canyon, and the morning mist is aglow from the rising sun just peaking over the canyon lip.  It filters through the forest and makes my boys look like angels, silhouetted in the glow, hoods from their jackets pulled tight to ward off the chill, the exhaust from their breath like smoke from a fire.  Scents of ponderosa pine and campfire mingle, and the smells and scenery push any remnants of last nights’ fight deep into Oak Creek canyon.  Even a bit of that starry peace remains with me, and I sense it in the boys, too.  Nature at work…

Today we have decided to tackle a big challenge – we want to climb to the top of Mt. Humphrey’s, highest peak in Arizona at 12,633 feet above sea level.  I tell the boys it will be a challenge, but it doesn’t register with them, having never climbed that high.  Even when we spot the mountain peaking through the forest along AZ highway 89, Trevor says it will be easy.

I want to warn him, and Jake, that sometimes things that look easy from afar certainly aren’t when the boots hit the ground.  Like this grief thing.  We’ve been going to the counseling, and I’ve been reading books, and it all sounds so simple to work through.  Until you feel it.  Until the words on a page become the body blow that takes you down, when you really feel the emotional impact of the tremendous power of loss; that cannot be comprehended or shared with anyone else, it can only be felt.  The boys haven’t felt it yet, haven’t let themselves feel it, and I’m worried about that.  I haven’t fully felt it yet, either, and worse, I’m dredging up feelings of incomplete grief for my own father’s passing over 30 year’s ago.  So much imprtant work yet to do, for all of us…

We are on the trail by 9:30, and the hiking is fun, the spectacular fall mountain scenery, aspens afire in bright yellow, the sky brilliant blue, the clouds perfectly white.  It is all uphill, endless switchbacks through the forest, and we take frequent breaks.  I try to get the boys motivated to keep moving, knowing the best plan is to get up and back down as quickly as possible, since us lowlanders are not used to the lower volume of oxygen in the atmosphere as we climb higher.  But I want them to enjoy it, too, so just like everything that I’m learning about single parenthood, I have to try to strike a balance.

And three hours later my balancing skills are truly tested.  We’ve cleared the treeline, hiking now through volcanic scree and boulders, and the slope is much steeper, and the view spectacular.  Jake is going on adrenaline now, and wants the top, bad – his first taste of summit fever.  I want it, too, probably more than Jake, for these are the adventures that make my soul sing, but Trevor is starting to slow down and complaining of not feeling well.  How much do I push him, and Jake?  Certainly we will all face situations where you have to push through the pain to achieve your goal, and this is a great teaching opportunity.  But how do you know when to stop pushing?  Again, I miss my co-pilot…

Today is October 8, 2012.  It has been exactly three months since Debbie died.  I feel my progress through my own grief has come to a standstill, too busy with work and single parenting, and my lack of sleep disrupting even regular thought.  It seems we don’t even have time to miss her anymore, what with work and school and football and baseball and CCD.  But we brought mom’s hat with us, along with some other pink hats, to wear at the summit for our summit picture…

Finally we make it to a saddle between Mt. Humphrey’s and Mt. Aggassiz, at about 12,000 feet.  Trevor has been crying intermittently to stop, to go back down, and Jake has been less than kind in telling Trevor to suck it up and keep walking.  At the saddle the wind is funneled through the narrow opening between peaks at high velocity, probably 30-40 mph, and this high up, it’s cold, very cold.  The boys huddle in their jackets, but even then they are still cold.  I give Trevor my down jacket, and the oversized puff ball swallows him like the stay-puft marshmallow man – but at least he is warm.  I make the decision that this is as high as we go.  Jake protests, and is mad; Trevor wants to go now.  We compromise and stay for 20 minutes, enjoying the spectacular views from 12,000 feet, and have our picture taken with our pink hats on and say a prayer for mom’s grace and love and patience.  But the unceasing winds force us back down, not a moment too soon for T.

And poor Trevor is really starting to feel the effects of acute altitude sickness.  His stomach is quaking, and he can’t eat much at our lunch stop out of the wind.  I carry his pack as we start back down, but not too far from our break, poor T has to throw up.  Up comes lunch and breakfast.  Once he recovers enough, I try to push him down the mountain as fast as possible, knowing that is the only thing that will make him feel better.

But we have to stop 4 mores times on the way down for T to throw up, and Jake develops a throbbing headache that he says alternates between a sledgehammer and a regular hammer pounding his brain.  I feel it, too, though having done this before, I at least am prepared for it.  The going is slow and miserable for both of them, and I feel miserable for putting my kids through yet another discomfort.  God, what kind of parent am I?  My confidence takes another hit.

But we do make it down, one foot in front of the other, the way most challenges in life have to be tackled.  I am so proud of them right now, even though they aren’t proud of themselves yet.  The boys don’t notice that the aspens have been plugged in by the low electric evening light, spectacularly aglow in their fall majesty.  But I notice, and I take it in, adding to the peace of the stars last night.  There is a smile on my face…

The boys collapse in the car and are instantly asleep, before I even turn the ignition key.  I get down the remainder of the mountain as quickly as I can, but I cannot wake them in the parking lot of Denny’s in Flagstaff.  So we all nap, working off the hangover of another adventure that dad has dragged the kids into that hasn’t turned out quite the way I wanted.

But funny things happen when you survive adversity together.  Once down safely, and feeling better, the discomforts seem further away, the achievements more profound.  T throws up two more times in Denny’s, but then feels better, and a big pancake breakfast for him and a Grand Slam for Jake, and unlimited fountain drinks, and we are all feeling a lot better.  In fact, we can even laugh about it now, and I think it begins to sink in that, yeah, this was a good adventure!  We didn’t make it to the top, but we climbed to 12,000 feet, only 633 vertical feet from the summit, and that’s pretty impressive for a 9 and 12 year old.  I can see the pride on their smiling, dirty faces, and I can sense an appreciation for this adventure, maybe even an appreciation that their old man just might be able to take care of them after all.  Dare I say we’ve even bonded a bit???

It’s dark when we arrive back at camp, but tonight’s camp is so much lighter than last nights.  We laugh and regal each other with tales from the trip and zingers that T and Jake slung all day (where do they get this sharp-witted sense of humor?), tucked into our sleeping bags and cuddled together against the canyon.  I can’t help but think how ironic it is that the highest point in Arizona is so close its most spectacular low point, the Grand Canyon, separated by only 70 miles.

There is a real sense of camaraderie tonight, and a sense of peace and relief that comes from pushing yourself to your limits, and surviving.  I don’t tell them that this lesson can be applied to so many other things, and I certainly don’t bring up working through their grief.  But we talk openly of wishing mom were here, and how much we miss her, and even if it’s not the body blow emotions that need to come out eventually, it’s a start.  One foot in front of the other…

Wake Me Up When September Ends

Here comes the rain again, Falling from the stars

Drenched in my pain again, Becoming who we are

The lightning bolt this time came from the radio.  I thought I took only upbeat songs for my long morning drive to Akron that started well before dawn – I need to stay awake and focus on my upcoming presentations.  Figured Green Day was a safe bet, but here I am alongside the road, tears flowing as hard as the pelting rain in the dark night.  Forgot about this song, and it hit me like a ton of bricks…

It was a beautiful September day four years ago, a Friday evening, not a cloud in the bright blue sky, a crispness in the air hinting of fall.  Normally we’d be enjoying the end of another work and school week with the excited release of two days to do what we want.  But I remember that day spinning at the treetops, spiraling, not quite out of control, but certainly this couldn’t be reality.  We held on to each other, the four of us, two not even up to my chest, way too small to be experiencing this, all of us scared, devastated by the news delievered coldly, over the phone, to Deb – yes, you have cancer.  Stunned and stoic at first, the fear built in my head until it couldn’t be contained; I cried out loud in anguish, outside on this beautiful day, and held on to my family, my wife, knowing all too well that this wasn’t good, and for a brief moment my tears grew to unrestrained wails.  I’m sure I scared the shit out of all of us, especially my two boys, because I was scared shitless, so composure was quickly demanded.  But all four of us are shaken to the core…

I don’t know what Deb felt that day; I don’t know how she thought of that day looking back, either.  But certainly it scarred her.  Maybe the first time it was an anomaly, and certainly the odds were in her favor that she could beat this.  A round of surgery, radiation and chemo; certainly things will be looking up.  But two Septembers later, and it is a repeat, again another Friday, again another cold conversation with a rushed doctor heading out on vacation while we are left devastated, this September the news worse – it’s spread to the lymph nodes.

I didn’t notice it at first.  Jake and I had tickets to an upcoming Green Day concert; it would be his first concert.  We were listening to as much Green Day as we could to get psyched for the show.  Deb would always disappear without a word when this song came on.  I didn’t make the connection until later, when I caught her hiding her tears and I finally put two and two together.  We didn’t listen to this song again from then on…

But of course the cancer got worse.  The next round, it couldn’t even wait until September; we received the Stage IV news on a hot steamy summer August day, by far the most devastating and ominous of the three bell tolls.  By far the hardest body blow…

As my memory rests, But never forgets what I lost

Wake me up when September ends

This September, Debbie is no longer in pain, she is freed of her nightmares and the fears that accompany this disease; for that I am grateful.  But this September has been horrible for me.

The boys and I, we are still here, still trying to understand this, still trying to come to grips that life still goes on when there is no way it seems it should.  Look, there are people on their way to work, people smiling and laughing and carrying on as if nothing is wrong – but everything is wrong, everything has changed, and there is nothing good at all about this September, either.

The entire month is hell for me.  I can count on one hand the nights I have slept since late June.  I am learning all new jobs, packing lunches and doing homework and getting the kids to baseball and football and CCD and to school.  Most days I haven’t even 15 minutes to myself, or if I do, the to-do list screaming at me guilts me into cutting short any rest.  Worst, am I back to work, and the deadlines and pressures have not changed an iota; in fact they feel that much worse because I no longer have the time to do my job to the level of quality I have for the past 25 years.  I feel like I am failing at everything, my nose just a millimeter above the water, just one big wave away from drowning.  The culmination of this month from hell is September 26th, when I have two big presentations in Akron.  My sanity is held together this morning by shoestrings, and they snap when this song comes on…

Summer has come and passed, The innocent can never last

Wake me up when September ends

Where did the summer go?  Where did the spring go, or this whole year for that matter, easily the worst year of my life.  What has happened, why am I being tested like this, how much can I bear?  Wake me up when this entire year ends…

But somehow we soldier through the month, somehow I’m surviving still employed, the boys are doing well in school, and baseball season has ended and I have a week off in October.  At the vague edges of my consciousness I also aware of a growing understanding of the questions I have been asking, and recognizing that we are not the only ones going through hell, and that maybe you have to go through hell for reasons that won’t be clear for a long, long time.  It doesn’t make it any easier when you’re reduced to an emotional puddle and stretched bare to the universe, but you begin to feel that you will make it one more day, and that that’s an accomplishment to be proud of…