It turned out to be an exquisite day in so many ways -- bright, sunny, warm and breezy -- though it certainly didn't begin that way.
On that Saturday in May, a number of us were headed to Northern Wisconsin to witness the wedding of a dear friend, someone I’ve known, and with whom I have laughed, for more than 30 years.
Driving to the event from Chicago, another friend and I stopped briefly along our route to grab a quick bite in Madison, though I was not prepared for some of the feelings I faced there.
It was in Madison, you see, that my sister had been living when she died unexpectedly, less than four months ago. I’d only been back once since her death, when our family and friends held a celebration of her life the month prior.
The trip through Madison this time around had nothing to do with my sister, and I now suspect this bothered me on a subconscious level. The skies that morning were also overcast, with a damp chill lingering in the air. Though Madison looked as full of life as ever, it felt utterly empty without Beth in it.
Later, as we made our way out of Madison, we passed Ella’s Deli, a special place I’d visited numerous times with my sister. One sight of the outdoor carousel was all it took to fill my eyes with tears, remembering all the times we’d brought our kids there to eat as we talked and laughed for hours on end -- about motherhood and, most of all, about life.
As my friend drove and my tears began to fall, I stared out the passenger-side window of the car, feeling heartbroken and surprisingly angry about it all.
We’re supposed to keep talking about motherhood and life, I thought.
If you were still here, I’d stop by your place and introduce you to my friends and ask for your advice about the two dresses I brought for the wedding. If you were still here, I wouldn't just drive through your town, knowing we'll never speak again.
I just want you back, I thought. I just want things to be so different.
As I wiped my tears and tried to hide my sadness, my friend extended a hand, barely a word exchanged between us.
This is so damn exhausting for everyone, I thought, this overwhelming business of grief. We're on a road trip. This is supposed to be a happy occasion.
As we continued on toward the wedding -- and away from my memories -- I tried to stay focused on all the good in my life. And for the next few hours, it seemed to work.
# # #
The happy couple had reserved a block of rooms for wedding guests at Devil’s Head Ski Resort, near Baraboo, and as we all checked in, the sun began to emerge. My particular room overlooked one of the resort’s ski runs, a black diamond trail that was, at this time of year, now lush and green and dotted with wildflowers.
But almost immediately, more memories of my sister came rushing back. Looking out my hotel window, I wondered, Was that the ski run where Beth broke her leg when we were kids? I hadn't even considered our childhood trips when I booked my hotel room, and as I stood here facing the side of the mountain, I couldn't fathom why I had not.
Only now, as I write this, do I recall how I watched from a point higher up that ski hill as my sister wiped out while on her way down.
That was four decades ago.
Had I not witnessed her crash myself, I’d still have known how serious things were just by the sound of her voice as it pierced that snowy afternoon, calling my name.
Crying for help.
Before I could even reach her, I was using my own voice to yell for help -- but a ski patrol was already there when I got to her. In no time, Beth was pulled down the hill in a toboggan, then brought to the hospital for x-rays. Several hours later, back at the hotel, she bravely described in her tiny little voice how she’d suffered a lateral fracture of her tibia.
God, she was so brave.
We gathered every pillow on that hotel floor that night, propping up and elevating her leg, now in a cast, all while watching an episode of The Muppet Show on TV. She was testy and uncomfortable and frustrated with the situation, yet she'd still ask me so kindly, "Chrissy, can you please move over? You're standing in the way, and I can't see Miss Piggy."
I'd never been so relieved to hear her laughter that night, and it's that laughter I remembered as I looked out my hotel window while ironing my clothes, just before our friend's wedding.
# # #
The ceremony and the celebration were absolutely beautiful. Imagine joyful tears and laughter, music and hugs, brand new babies and fluffy old dogs. Imagine picnic blankets and parasols, seeing friends old and new, all with a glistening lake and wooded hills surrounding us. I felt embraced by nature and by the promise of new beginnings. The experience was pretty darn magical.
Following a long and lovely day in the sun, we dispersed back to our rooms, with loose plans to freshen up before the evening’s activities. The notion of a rare, Saturday afternoon nap sounded wonderful, and I couldn't wait to put my feet up and slip into a dream.
In my hotel room, I attempted to lie down and close my eyes. The problem was, my eyes wouldn’t stay shut. I felt so oddly unsettled in that room, so I finally decided to head out for some air. As I did, I left a quick note for my friends that read, “went for a quick walk.”
# # #
It took less than two minutes to reach the base of the black diamond ski run, where I stood staring up at the steep, grassy expanse.
For a moment, I just blinked and held my breath. Memories of Beth’s childhood accident were -- quite literally -- right in front of me. It was as if I was staring right into them on this otherwise glorious day.
For a moment, I felt guilty for having left my friends with little explanation, though I didn’t even have an explanation for myself. I had no idea how to face this uphill climb of grief, and I felt ashamed.
I couldn’t begin to describe my feelings, or to find the words I needed to ask for help. I didn’t know “the right way” to manage this mountain of emotions. All I could think was, For God’s sake, girl, this is such a beautiful day, and you have to stop feeling so sad.
I wish I'd known how to say to someone: I could really use a hug right now, though I don't know if that would have even helped.
I felt selfish for feeling so consumed with my emotions. I felt angry and cheated, having lost my sister too soon. I considered walking back to the hotel, yet I yearned to move beyond this horrible state of being.
And so, I decided to walk up that stupid hill.
# # #
I peeled off my sandals, crying softly now, and pointed myself toward the top of that run.
I doubted I’d even make it to the top.
Fighting my urge to lean over and heave sobs from my gut, I feared someone might see me and judge it as some sort of dramatic spectacle.
Thankfully, pockets of yellow wildflowers punctuated every few yards of the run, so I timed my crying to coincide with those pockets, leaning over to pull flowers while softly heaving my guttural sobs. Pulling clump after clump of those delicate wildflowers, I slowly made my way up the hill.
Just hold on until the next patch, I told myself. Then you can cry a little more. Just wait until the next patch of wildflowers, okay? You really can’t let yourself cry constantly...otherwise, you’re never gonna make it.
By the time I was halfway up the hill, I had a fistful of flowers and a racing heart – a combination providing a welcome distraction from everything else. Just keep looking for the next patch of flowers, I thought. Focus on the flowers.
When I finally reached the top of the hill, my feet were covered not only with dirt but with tiny “sharps” from the hillside weeds. And when I reached the platform designed for skiers exiting the chairlifts, I climbed up those wooden stairs, as well.
Reaching the top of the platform, I finally sat down, pulling my knees to my chest and panting, taking stock of the total mess that I was. I was covered in dirt and brambles and tears and snot and sadness.
I'd finally reached the top, yet I'd never felt so low.
And then I caught my breath as I took in my surroundings, exhaling openly and with a whimper realizing that this was, in fact, the very run on which Beth had wiped out as a child.
Of course it was. Of course it was. Of course it was.
And as I laid my forehead onto my knees, squeezing my eyes as my face completely crumpled, I heard a voice once again calling my name.
It was one of my friends, standing on the platform in front of me, his hands on his knees, panting like a wild animal.
And that’s when I finally lost it.
That’s when my ugly cry happened.
That’s when I stopped trying to hide my sadness, my mess.
That’s when I realized how much it means to be seen in this horror, this awful climb that is known as grief.
That’s when I let go of my pride, realizing the climb is like that of a hero’s journey in literature, involving a crisis of insurmountable proportion, one that changes its sojourner forever.
That’s when I knew life hands us moments that remind us of the things that matter most.
This was one of those moments for me. I realized things will never be the same. I realized things don't always go as they're supposed to. And I realized exactly what it looks like to have -- and to be -- a true friend.
As I sat on that platform, covered in dirt, my first instinct was to shield my face from my friend, who wore an expression of deep concern.
But then I remembered something he’d told me almost immediately after I learned of my sister's death: “For the next six months to a year -- you are not allowed to apologize for any of the feelings you will experience.”
And so, instead of using my energy to apologize, or to expound on how much less effective I am at speaking than writing, or how ineffective I've felt lately in most areas of my life, I tried to use my energy to describe what once happened to Beth on this mountain...and just how terribly I miss her now.
As I did this, my friend sat with me and let me have this cry -- the cry I needed and could not find until I’d climbed out of my own shell of resistance.
# # #
Soon thereafter, we walked down the hill, holding hands whenever it became too steep, saying little to nothing at all.
Here was a friend, giving me not only the space to climb, but also helping me to step back down onto new ground, all while doing so in the only way that truly matters: by showing up.
# # #
I know firsthand how grief's climb is brutally intense, and that it's often fraught with overwhelming uncertainty. Yet there is one thing of which I am absolutely sure: When you let your guard down and reveal the mess that is your struggle, the less alone you will travel in this world.
Despite my climb through grief that Saturday, the day remained exquisite. It was still a beautiful Saturday in May: bright, sunny, warm and breezy. My climb through grief didn’t take any of that away from anyone, including me.
And thanks to the love of my friends, I survived my climb on Saturday.
While there are surely more climbs to face in this process, I'm more ready than ever to face them with strength, and to be there for others facing climbs of their own.
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