Monday, September 22, 2014

Everybody's got a mountain to climb.

The weekend before Emma died, my friend Christin and I did an amazing hike in Rocky Mountain National Park, taking the Longs Peak trail to Chasm Lake.  The trail was long and steep, plus we definitely felt the altitude - Chasm Lake is almost 12,000 feet up, more than double the altitude we're used to.
Chasm Lake, at about 11,800 feet.  Atop that sheer diamond-shaped face is the summit of Longs Peak, at about 14,200 feet.
But it was spectacularly beautiful.  Warm, but not too hot, sunny, clear, with astoundingly gorgeous views in every direction.  The walk was hard - it's a legit hike - but it felt good to feel our hearts pound and our muscles burn and our lungs work for every bit of oxygen.  We had a lovely lunch sitting on a boulder by the lake, and talked for the entire 7 hours we were on the mountain, about books and life and children and men and travel and everything else that came to our minds.
The trail up to Chasm Lake.

By the end of the hike, I was sore and tired and my knees and feet ached and my legs were like heavy stumps.  But I still felt amazing.  It was a perfect Colorado day, when you really appreciate the gift of living here and of being alive and healthy.

A week later, when I was in New Hampshire, all I wanted to do was hike in the mountains again. Instead of standing around in a funeral home, I wanted to feel my heart pound and my muscles burn and my lungs work for every bit of oxygen.  That level of exertion is the only thing that has ever provided a physical antidote to that "cold metal ball in my chest" feeling that comes with depression or anxiety.  Or intense grief.  I just wanted to walk and climb for miles, so that the heat of feeling alive could push that cold metal ball out of the way, where it could bounce down the trail behind me before falling over a cliff and shattering into a million pieces.

So in that spirit, I took the kids up to the mountains this weekend to hike a trail off the Guanella Pass Scenic Byway. The aspens are changing color, so it's a great time to get outside and see some beautiful scenery.

At first, the day was a little frustrating for me, because I still had the craving to do a hard hike, but we were on a gentle, easy path that didn't gain much elevation, plus the kids were far more interested in dragging around enormous sticks/logs, climbing on rocks, and playing in a mountain stream.  Meaning I spent a lot of time watching them rather than hiking.  I didn't exercise, or exorcise, the way I wanted to.

But it was an exquisite day.  Sunny and warm, and the aspens were such bright yellow and gold that they looked lit up from within, particularly against the evergreens.  We splashed in the water and threw rocks and sticks and climbed around near a waterfall.  It was lovely being with my children as they enjoyed outdoors and got wet and dirty and dusty and tired.

While we were out there, I kept looking up at the cerulean sky and thinking of Emma.

Can you see us or feel us missing you? Are you up there? 

But deep down, I knew she wasn't.  I don't believe in God or heaven or angels or ghosts or any of that stuff.  I can see where it would be comforting to believe in all of that, but I can't make myself believe in something just because it might make me feel better.

Still, it's kind of nice to engage in magical thinking once in a while.

That kind of magical thinking is what makes me want to summit Longs Peak next summer, and scatter some of Emma's ashes from the heights of the Rocky Mountains when I get there.  So that when I make another pilgrimage to the mountains and look up at the sky, maybe a tiny piece of her will be up there after all.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Everything I need to know about life I learned from a 17-year-old girl

At some point on Friday afternoon, Josh called me while my dad and I were at the Kohl's over in Seabrook.  My dad needed new khakis because the pants he was wearing were old and ratty-looking and my mother was threatening to throw them away.

"I need you to do something for me," Josh said.

"Of course.  What do you need?"

"I need you and Mom and Dad and Sam to collaborate on speaking at the funeral.  The rabbi is out of town and so I want to put together a program of about an hour - people can talk about Emma and tell stories.  Our side of the family, Lori's side of the family, her coaches, that sort of thing.  So you guys could do about 10 minutes or so."

"You got it."

So I started to think about what I was going to say.  At that point, we had already been spending the bulk of our time at Josh's house, which was in "permanent open house" mode - crying and hugging and talking about Emma.  How horrible it was, how incredible she was, how much she was loved and admired.

And we also talked about how inexplicable and incomprehensible it was.  How could this happen to her, after she survived the accident?  How could her family go through this again? She got better.  It wasn't fair.  It wasn't right.

I didn't want what I said at the funeral to be a rehash of those conversations.

That night, when we were hanging out at Josh's house, he handed me a letter that he and Lori had received from one of Emma's teachers.  She talked about what a great kid and great student Emma was, how kind and generous she was to others, and how much she enjoyed having Emma in her class.

She also talked about Emma's college essay, which the teacher had reviewed for her and given some feedback on.  Emma's essay was about her accident; what had happened, how she had recovered, and what she had taken from it as her life moved forward.  The teacher's feedback was that the essay focus less on the accident and more on the recovery, because the recovery was Emma's story.

She was absolutely right.

Emma's story was about recovery and strength and perseverence.  After her accident, she had to relearn speaking and walking and functioning.  It was hard work, both physically and psychologically.  She pushed to get stronger, to regain agility, to be a great student again.

And she was doing all of this in her early and middle teens, which is a time of life when most of us feel awkward and unsure of ourselves and self-conscious anyway. Some of her old friendships suffered.  So she made new ones.  She had to cut her long hair off because some of it had been shaved while she was hooked up to machines in the hospital.  So she dyed it pink.

She had always been an athlete, and was bummed when she wasn't allowed to snowboard anymore.  Eventually, she started playing lacrosse again, and eventually became the goalie for her high school's girls varsity lacrosse team.  She knew it was risky.  When you've suffered a traumatic brain injury, it's not exactly intuitive to play a sport that involves hard rubber balls being flung at your head.  Or to surf or snowboard again.  But she did anyway.

What a badass.
Being an athlete was part of who she was, and she was determined not to let the accident defeat or define her or be an excuse to not go for the things she wanted in life.  She was going to study and work to become an engineer.  She was going to play lacrosse.  She was going to surf.  She was going to snowboard.  She was going to keep working.

This is what I talked about at the funeral.  That Emma understood that life can be risky and scary, but it has to be lived, and that if you're not living for the present and the future, you're not really living.

Vivir con miedo es como vivir a medias.

The only way to deal with this awful tragedy is to live as Emma did. We are sad, but we can't use her death as an excuse to stop pushing to achieve greatness, to be stronger and better and kinder.  The only path is to live deliberately and fully, as she did.

Only then will we be truly honoring her.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Stop all the clocks

The most surreal part about the whole thing - other than that Emma is dead at the age of 17 - is that both times I got the news in the same manner, in the same place, at the same time of day, from the same person.

When Emma had her accident four years ago, I was sitting at my desk at work at about 4:30 in the afternoon, Denver time, when the phone rang.  It was my dad, who told me that Emma, my niece, had been hit by a car and that nobody knew if she would live or die.

But she did live.  She survived, and she worked incredibly hard to recover and regain her strength and to get on with her life.

She had dodged the bullet.  Her card was supposed to have been pulled from the deck.

But it wasn't, apparently.

Because there I was, four and a half years later, sitting at my desk at work at about 4:30 in the afternoon, Denver time, when the phone rang.  It was my dad, who told me that Emma had been killed in a car accident.

No, I thought to myself.  I've gotten this call before, and I know how it ends.  She doesn't die.  It turns out OK.  He's got it all wrong.

But the other part of my brain, the powerful part that remains firmly rooted in reality, understood. Somehow, in the cruelest twist imaginable, she had survived only to be taken again, for good.  

It feels ridiculous to even try to explain anything.  It's all the same platitudes you've heard a million times about the death of a young woman at that thrilling time of her life when everything is starting to happen.  It's the worst thing imaginable for a family.  My brother Josh and his wife are devastated beyond anything I can comprehend.  My mother and father are crushed by the loss of their first grandchild, and by the pain that their wonderful son is enduring, and will continue to endure for the rest of his life.  My brother Sam and I are heartbroken by the pain that our brother and our parents, whom we love with everything we are, are going through.  And for Josh's wife, Lori, whose grief is so intense and bottomless. And for Emma's sisters, who, after barely getting over the trauma of her accident four years ago, have been blindsided by another trauma even more unspeakably awful.

For our beautiful, wonderful, precious Emma, who was, quite simply, one of the best people I ever knew.  For the life she was so excited to embark on, but now will never experience.

I know everyone is a great person when they die.

But in Emma's case, it's really true.

From the day she was born, she was a bubbly, funny, sassy ray of sunshine.  She was the first grandchild for my parents, the first baby born among my brothers and me, and she was a shining star for us.  A happy, spectacularly gorgeous baby and toddler.  A sweet, affectionate, smart little girl who took care of her younger sisters.  The preteen who was atypically agreeable at a point when most kids are surly and pushing at boundaries.
5-year-old Emma hanging with her baby sister, Lydia.
Dancing with her at my wedding.
In Detroit for our Grandpa Leo's 90th birthday.
With the cousins and sisters who loved and looked up to her, at Sam and Camille's wedding.
Even her response to her accident was remarkable, but so very her.  She recovered, and then she worked.  She worked and worked and worked to get stronger, to succeed in school, to be a good friend and daughter and sister, to be a great athlete.  College lacrosse coaches were interested in having her play for them.  She decided she wanted to go to the Naval Academy, and she survived the first grueling cut of applicants after taking their initial entrance exam.

 And she was growing into such a fantastic young woman.  In meeting with the people who have been congregating at Josh's house since she died, I keep hearing these stories about how she would see someone at school who was shy and eating lunch by herself, and Emma would go and sit and eat with her.  She befriended a classmate who was timid and self-conscious, and encouraged her to not be afraid to be herself.  Her coaches and teammates loved her for her attitude, her work ethic, and her effervescence.

I think the accident imbued her with a preternatural gratitude for life, and a level of maturity about the tenuousness of our existence on Earth that most 17-year-olds can't begin to approach.  She knew how lucky she was to be alive and healthy, and she was determined to live every moment to the fullest, appreciate the beauty around her, be kind and open to all, and give and receive love without reservation.

She was truly a good, sweet person,  growing more overtly comfortable in her own skin, more overtly kind and generous with each passing day.  She was loved by all of us, and by her friends and teachers and coaches and employers and teammates and everyone else she encountered.

Emma's last instagram:  "Loved the sunset last night #sunset #beautiful"
I loved that girl so much.
To say that it's all so grossly unfair is the goddamned understatement of all time.

We went to the funeral home to see her today.  She is going to be cremated, so this was it.  The last time we would ever see her again.

She looked so peaceful.  We all took turns talking to her, stroking her hair.  I kissed her goodbye.

She was cold and her skin was waxen, but I needed to see her and touch her.  As awful as it was, I needed to see her like that to help hammer home the truth.  It's too unfathomable otherwise.  I needed the punch in the gut.  And I got it.

She is gone.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Leavin' on a jet plane, don't know when I'll be back again

The trip to my parents' house last Thursday provided yet another example of why I'm either the luckiest or unluckiest bitch on the planet.

It's been a while since I've had a good travel snafu (or near mishap).  I guess I was due.

Our flight out of Denver was at 4:40 in the afternoon. I picked the kids up early from school and headed to the airport.  We got to the satellite parking by 3:20 and were at the Frontier check-in counter by 3:35.  Earlier in the day I had checked in online and paid for my checked bag, so all I needed to do was enter my information in one of their kiosk thingies, hand my bag over, and we'd be on our way.

Easy peasy, plenty of time.

Except that when it was my turn to go to the kiosk thing-y, it didn't work, and I got an error message telling me to find an agent to help me.  Problem was, a number of other people had had the same issue, so all of the available human helpers were occupied with other customers.  By the time someone was available to help me, it was 3:55.

The lady was grumpy.  She entered my information into her system, gave me a look like I was a complete moron and said, "you missed the 45 minute cut-off for checking a bag.  I can't check your bag."

I mustered all of my calm and said, "well, I've been trying to get someone to help me for 20 minutes. I was here with plenty of time, but the kiosk didn't work.  Can I gate-check my suitcase?"

"No, we don't allow gate-checking."  This statement was made with huffing and eye-rolls.

Game on.

"Then you're going to have to figure something out.  I was here in time, I've already paid for the checked bag, and the only reason there's a problem is because your system is incredibly inefficient.  Make a call or do what you have to do, but my bag is getting on the plane."

She huffed and puffed and generally acted like a brat, but she made a call and found out that there was still time for my bag to make the plane.  She checked me in and gave me my boarding passes, but not without a parting shot.

"They're not going to hold the flight, you know," she sneered.

I gave her the stink-eye, took Josie and Zeke (who was wearing a red Ninja Turtles eye mask) by the hand, and said, "come on, kids.  We need to rush if we're going to make the plane."

Josie got really nervous and was half-crying as we trotted toward the security line.  "I want to go to Mimi and Papa's!  I don't want the plane to take off without us!"

"Honey, we're going to make it, but we need to hurry.  Don't cry, sweetheart, just walk fast!"

We were taking off from the A Terminal, which is attached to the main terminal and has its own security line.  So we wouldn't need to take the train to a terminal or wait in the big huge security line that serves the B through E terminals.  That was a good thing.

Except that the TSA people working the A Terminal security line must have all needed naps, because while the line wasn't long, it moved slower than molassas in January.  I started watching the minutes tick by on the clock on the wall.  I was tapping my foot and imploring the agents that I was going to miss my flight, but they ignored me.  When we got into the security line, I had 15 minutes before the gate would be closing.  By the time we got through it, after I had to reach my arm all the way into the little covered area that the bags pass through after running through the scanner (but before they're easily grab-able - I was surprised nobody yelled at me), we had 4 minutes before the 10 minute cutoff when they close the gate.

I gathered up my tote bag, the kids' backpacks, and all of our shoes, and said, "kids, we're not going to put our shoes on.  We have to run.  RUN!  RUN!!"

We must have looked like lunatics.  I was barefoot and the kids were in their socks, and all three of us were sprinting over the moving sidewalks (those things HURT without shoes) and trying to get to the gate.  At one point someone yelled, "YOU DROPPED A SHOE!"  I ran back and picked it up.  We were all getting winded and feeling somewhat panicky.  "Zeke!  Go left!  GO LEFT!  It's A38!  Hurry!"

We finally got to the gate.  There was nobody there and the door to the jetway was shut.

At this point, all three of us lost our fucking minds.

The kids started hurling themselves around, practically rending their garments and gnashing their teeth, screaming and crying that they wanted to go to Mimi and Papa's.

Josie wailed, "NOOOO!  Don't let them take off without us!  I don't want to miss the plane!"

Zeke cried, "It's not fair!  IT'S NOT FAAAAAAIIR!  I want to see Mimi and Papa!!!"

I threw everything on the ground, yelled "GODDAMMIT GODDAMMIT GODDAMIT!" and proceeded to pound on the jetway door with both fists.

This went on for a minute or two.  BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG.  Crying children.  More banging.  More crying.  More banging.

A guy passing by said, "there's a customer service desk on the other side of that wall, maybe they can help you."

I rushed over to the desk and loudly said, "IS THERE ANYONE WHO CAN HELP ME GET ON THIS FLIGHT?"  I'm sure I sounded like a complete asshole.

The kids were still going nuts.

"HEY!" the guy yelled.  "They opened the door!  COME BACK!!"

We ran back to the gate and the door was open and an agent was standing at the counter.  I gathered up all of our stuff (we still weren't wearing shoes) and we went over to her.

Continuing the trend of utterly unhelpful and extremely snotty Frontier agents, she made a face at me and said, "I don't know if you'll get on the flight.  Your seats might be gone."

I figured that they wouldn't have opened the door if there were no seats left, so I held my tongue.  She picked up her phone and called back to the plane and asked if there were three seats.  I guess the answer was "yes," because she took my boarding passes, but not before giving me another lecture about being late.  I yeah-yeah-ed her and we ran down the jetway and onto the plane.

They had given away our seats together, but in the very back row there were 3 seats, 2 on one side of the aisle and one on the other, that they hustled us into.  The kids settled in next to each other and got out their coloring books and crayons.  I collapsed into my seat across the aisle from them.

I bought everyone DirecTV access and they watched cartoons and I watched the US Open.  The flight attendants were lovely, and when I thanked them, they thanked me for being so nice.  I gave them a confused look.  One of them said, "you could have pitched a fit when you got on the plane and saw that we had given your seats away."

I laughed.  "I pitched the fit to get on the plane.  Once I was on, I was happy to sit wherever you told me to."

They gave us free drinks and snacks.  Given that I was relieved not to have been arrested and/or missed the flight entirely, I was gratified by the turn of events.

When my parents picked us up at the airport, everyone was smiling and hugging and kissing each other.  Josie told my mom, "Mama threw a fit and got us on the plane!"  She sounded very proud.

Damn right, baby girl.