Month: July 2019

Everything Changes (Even Your Face)

After the last two loss-filled years we’ve experienced, one lesson has climbed above the rest: everything changes.

Everything.

However, despite its claim to #1 spot fame for me in the Top 100 Lessons of Grief, I have tried to ignore it, despite its shouts.

 

Beneath the Borealis 07-22-19 Everything Changes (Even Your Face) Intuition

Shout it loud, but we ain’t listenin’.

 

Everything changes.

The impermanence of it all has not left me in some zen-like state of acceptance. Quite the opposite. Rather, the worry that the potential for change has brought for me has left me in a sort of Henny Penny “The Sky is Falling” frantic permanence. Towards The Chief, towards our family, our friends, our little Leto. I considered all of the potentials for loss and tried to make every interaction left on good terms. Live each moment like it’s your last (Less , etc. etc. you know the drill. I thought that perhaps my worry would safeguard us from more loss. Yet this had always been measured outwards, away from myself.

And so in all my worry, I had forgotten to fret about one thing: me, specifically, my face.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve done a great deal of worrying about my face, I did, after all, attend middle school and high school in which I’d say more often than not, that people were unfortunately judged first on the constructs of their face rather than the content of their character. I did my best to dodge the disses and watched as beauty unfairly bargained the way for those she bestowed herself upon to the front of the line. Yet, as the years went on, I felt a flip of the switch.

In my 20’s, the first thing one of my boyfriend’s mother said about me when she met me was “She’s so smart.” It made me cry. I realized the tables had turned and I was in a phase of my life where the content of one’s character actually did come into play. It made me want to be a better person, smarter and kinder.

After moving to Alaska and Falling in Love Naked with Cauliflower Armpits I found a further reprieve from the standards of beauty I still (despite smarts or kindness) felt confined by. Although I enjoyed the routine of putting on makeup, I no longer felt required to do it. The choice became mine.

And so, these last few years I’ve worried less about my face. I’ve aimed to embrace my “sparkle lines” as my girlfriend calls my smile lines that ring my eyes and watch the changes that take place as marks of memories rather than the marring of time.

 

Beneath the Borealis 07-22-19 Everything Changes (Even Your Face) Alaskan Couples

Smiles lines, for good reason.

 

I guess I didn’t worry quite enough.

Early this Summer, after a lovely night planning our wedding menu with friends over probably a little too much champagne, I decided to impress my husband-to-be with a little acrobatics. We were headed home and after crossing The River, we approached The Gate.

 

Beneath the Borealis 07-22-19 Everything Changes (Even Kennicott River

My last picture of the night. On The Bridge, leading to The Gate.

 

The Gate.

This gate is one I’ve opened and closed countless times. We all have. Early in the morning, late at night, multiple times a day. It was high time I spiced it up. “Riding The Gate” is a term my fellow friends are quite familiar with. It refers to when one is opening The Gate and jumps on for a ride. The arm swings open and once it hits its full extension, the gate post sends you back as the car drives through.

Yet I had something different in mind. Something reminiscent of elementary school and flips on the parallel bars.

I took a running start at The Gate and by the time I hit The Gate’s full extension, my speed was such that I didn’t do a flip as planned but rather catapulted myself forward…

Straight down some feet below into a boulder below.

My body went limp and I came to as I felt the reactionary force dragging me and my open mouth backwards through the gravel. I stood up long enough to feel my mouth fill with a metallic taste and the sides of my face grow warm and then cool and decided that I should probably lay down.

I said out loud, to no one in particular: “I’ll just lay down for a moment.”

Needless to say, I hadn’t stuck the landing.

The Chief rushed to my side as I tried to comfort him.

“It’s fine” I promised. “I just needed to lay down for a moment.”

He went into full WFR (Wilderness First Responder) mode, checking my vitals and my comprehension. I went into full bravado.

“It’s no big deal. I just need to spit these rocks out and I’ll be fine” I said as I started to get up.

“Julia, stay where you are. You are not OK. There is blood everywhere.”

At that moment, looking at him looking down at me, eyes wide with fear, I started sobbing. The bravado melted away. It was bad. I knew it was bad.

Other friends and acquaintances crossing the bridge pulled up behind us and ran in shock to our side. From the stifled gasps I could hear as they approached the scene I knew it wasn’t good. The Chief called the head Ranger of our park for backup and once he cleared me for a spine injury we decided to go back to our house to reassess. The entire group followed, all helping, all concerned, all planning our next steps.

We got home and I was determined to clean the wounds to see how bad it really was. The head bleeds a lot and I was still certain that a few bandaids later, I’d be on my way to bed. Our friends helped me warm water for rags. I wetted them and started to try to clear the embedded gravel from my face. The pain was excruciating. I kept trying but within seconds I started to feel like I was going to pass out. I was sick to my stomach from the pain. The Ranger offered to try as well and I sat on my hands on our couch so as not to bat him away in automated self-defense. He kept apologizing as silent tears rolled down my face. It was all we could do. We had reached the limit. We were done for the night.

Or so I thought.

“I’m calling the 24-hour hospital, I’ll let them know you’re on your way.”

The Chief nodded.

Huh?

Before I knew it, someone was making tea for me, another making coffee for The Chief as he fired up the truck and off we headed for a 5 hour trip into the wee hours of the night. Off to the hospital.

Well, this was certainly unexpected.

I waded in and out of sleep, the pain increasing with each opening of my eyes.

We arrived around 5 am to a team readied for our arrival. After trying for over an hour to numb the area (I am apparently one of those people who doesn’t respond to topical pain medication) I submitted to feeling more than planned for. Again, I planted my hands firmly under me as the doctor picked and scrubbed and irrigated everything from rocks all the way down to the glacial silt out of my face. Tears streamed, my stomach seized but a few hours later it was done.

The Chief took a 30-minute catnap as the doc finished the liquid stitches, leaning over me to spread the “good word” as he held the two halves of my face together while the glue dried.

5 more hours later, we were home. The Chief helped me into the shower and gently washed the blood and rock from my matted hair. He tucked me into bed and when I awoke, I thought for just a moment that perhaps none of it had actually happened.

My reflection proved otherwise.

 

Beneath the Borealis 07-22-19 Everything Changes (Even Your Face) Facial scarring

Good morning, sunshine! The morning we got home. Pre-shower.

 

A split second had changed everything. The face I had come to know and embrace would forever be changed though how it would be changed, I didn’t know.

Everything changes, even your face.

 

Beneath the Borealis 07-22-19 Everything Changes (Even Your Face) Facial scars in Alaska.jpg

The next morning. Swelling ensued.

 

About five weeks after the accident, the final stitches melted away, the final scab fell and I stood face to face with my new reflection.

Well, hello new me.

 

Beneath the Borealis 07-22-19 Everything Changes (Even Your Face) Injuries

My first look. Not so worried about those sparkles now, eh?

 

When I first saw the scars I thought “That’s pretty badass” and that has been the overwhelming response from the crowd as well (another is that I look like the ultimate Harry Potter/David Bowie fan). It looks pretty tough and while Alaska isn’t a bad place to look like you can handle yourself, it’s not always the me I want to present. What if I want to look gentle or kind? My blank slate had been slashed. Or has it?

I’ll be honest, my road to acceptance has taken some turns and I don’t think I’ve arrived yet. In truth, it’s been a lot like the road of grief. Apparently, the universe wasn’t fond of my Henny Penny self and felt I still hadn’t learned the Everything Changes lesson, the lesson of impermanence and gratefulness and grace. I’m trying. Some days I love my scars. Some days I forget that they’re there. Others, I’m bombarded with Yikes! What Happened to You’s and it makes me remember.

Sometimes, they fill me with regret, with frustration and self-punishment. Sometimes, I wish I could just wake up and I would be the same old me. Sometimes.

Mostly, the scars make me remember to be gentle with myself. To remember how fast everything can change in an instant. To be grateful that more damage wasn’t done, that my eyes and nose and teeth are safe, that my brain wasn’t too terribly shaken. Mostly, appreciate my scars for what they remind, what they warn, what they promise. Mostly.

Always, my scars remind me that this too will change, as does everything.

The other day, my first Icelandic Poppy bloomed. It was brilliantly, joyously red. It unfurled, beaming with brightness, hope, youth. By the next morning, the colors of the petals had ever so slightly faded. A few days later, the last petal, still beautiful but more muted in her brilliance, fell.

 

Beneath the Borealis 07-22-19 Everything Changes (Even Your Face) Gardening Poppies in Alaska

 

All good and bad come to an end. What is to follow, we won’t know until we get there but chances are, you will be better off for it. And, if you don’t listen and learn the first time, the lesson won’t fade but will instead find new ways to tell you:

Everything changes (even your face).

 

With love,

 

from Alaska

 

Beneath the Borealis 07-22-19 Everything Changes (Even Your Face) Families in Alaska II Malamute

 

// May you be gentle with yourself and not require too extreme of reminders. May you be gentle with those you love and those you encounter. May your last words to those you lose be words bred in kindness because it all can change and it will, in a moment. Let us aim not to let the fear of the future freeze our present. //

Six Funerals and a Wedding

Two years ago, although occasionally mired by a rainstorm or two, our life was pretty much rainbows and puppies, sunshine and ice cream. I’m not going to lie, we had it good.

 

Beneath the Borealis 7-8-19, Six Funerals and a Wedding, Couple photo

A Sunday kind of love.

 

I had somehow happened upon the life of my life, despite being tucked in the woods as he was, and we fit together seamlessly. I felt like the knight who had rescued Rapunzel (or however that went) and off we had ridden into the sunset.

 

Beneath the Borealis 7-8-19, Six Funerals and a Wedding, Christopher's Kingdom Sunset

Olive grove sunset

 

And then the sun didn’t come up.

Two years ago in August, we lost our dog Cinda Lou in a terrible, and preventable accident.

 

Beneath the Borealis 7-8-19, Six Funerals and a Wedding, Cinda Lou's Kingdom

Cinda’s Kingdom

 

Eight months later, the Chief’s mother died suddenly in a car accident the day before his 40th birthday.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 7-8-19, Six Funerals and a Wedding, Family portrait

Donna, Chris, The Chief & Mychal

 

Less than two weeks later, his grandmother Jane passed.

 

Beneath the Borealis 7-8-19, Six Funerals and a Wedding, Grandma Jane

Sweet Jane.

 

A few months later on a cold morning this Winter, I received a call that my godmother Ellen had passed away suddenly. She had gone in for routine surgery and never come out. She was a beautiful jeweler and we were designing the wedding rings she was going to make for us. Suddenly, she was gone. The news hit me so hard it took my breath away. I sat there catatonic as a meeting for work started. I just stared forward, numb.

Times were dark. It felt as if the world had closed itself off to us, as if we’d hit our limit on happiness. We had been so lucky. Maybe too lucky.

We waded through the pain and stumbled as we reached its new depths. We tried to hold one another close but felt alone. We fought endlessly, our anger at the world had nowhere to go in a tiny wintry cabin and so it found its way towards one another. Still, we remembered how it once was.

And then, a ray of sunlight.

 

Beneath the Borealis 7-8-19, Six Funerals and a Wedding, The sun will come out

Sunshine morning on the olive ranch

 

Somehow, almost suddenly, The Chief and I came together again. The anger lifted. We softened. I hadn’t realized how far we’d gotten from one another, how cold our new normal was. Grief has a way of sneaking you away from yourself, away from your loves without your even realizing. It leaves you alone.

Yet we could finally see we weren’t alone. Our sun was back. We cuddled again, sat entwined on the couch again, lingered in one another’s embrace again. The sadness was still there but for the first time it wasn’t blinding, we could see past it. We could find the beauty in what remained and the excitement for what was coming.

 

 

 

 

 

The Chief’s dad, Christopher was part of that beauty. We grew very close in the month and a half we spent together in California after Donna and Jane’s passing. His consistency made me feel so safe in a time where it felt like our world was collapsing and again he was there when Ellen died and it felt ready to collapse again. Despite the immense pain he felt in the losses, he always found a way to be kind. When issues would arise or plans would change he would simply, softly say “Ok, dear” in a way that made my hardening heart melt ever so slightly. He was a steady port in the storm and I clung to him.

 

Beneath the Borealis 7-8-19, Six Funerals and a Wedding, Christopher's Kingdom

Christopher’s Kingdom

 

Two months ago, he died of a heart attack.

The anniversaries of Donna and Jane’s passing had hit us hard in the week leading up to his death. One year gone already. Gently, we navigated through the reminders, trying to remember the good instead of fall deeply into the pit of sadness. Two days after Jane’s passing anniversary (which also happened to be her birthday and Cinda’s birthday) the call came.

The man who had become a beacon of hope for our newly blossoming family, who had tied us all together when the seams started to fray was gone.

He was a man full of surprises. As an ex-military man, full of discipline and prestige, I was intimidated by him at first. I would set alarms just to make sure I woke up “early enough” because I feared he’d think me lazy if I slept in. When I did manage to get up, the payoff was wonderful as I’d get to accompany him on his walks. Every day he walked the property to check on his thousands of olive trees and despite his love of solitude, he welcomed my presence to become part of his norm too.

 

Beneath the Borealis 7-8-19, Six Funerals and a Wedding, Take a walk

One of many family walks in the orchards.

 

He was methodical and principled and repetitious to a T but just when I’d think I had him pegged, he would surprise me again. He would send me random texts to say “Hi” or “What’s your weather like today?” with a picture of a bluebird morning at the farm. I once received a text from him with a picture of himself, sweaty as can be, in front of a hot yoga business. Since it was pouring rain, he couldn’t be outside and get his exercise and so, he tried something new. I loved that about him. He didn’t care what anyone thought, he didn’t have to stay put in any idea others had about him. He was his own person, through and through and I will forever wish he were with us still.

Despite his ashes in our living room, his death still feels unreal. I still expect a text from him to remind me not to worry, that he will do all the cooking at the wedding and to offer other help I didn’t know I needed. I still wait for a call to randomly check in and tell us he loves us.

 

Beneath the Borealis 7-8-19, Six Funerals and a Wedding, Christopher

C.E.K.

 

These days, the simple ringing of a telephone strikes fear in my heart. I feel fear constantly and picture death and destruction in even the safest situation. I fear for the family and friends I have, for our Leto, for The Chief, for myself. I fear for the worst for I know it’s face, I’ve stared right into it’s eyes and still it doesn’t back down.

Yesterday, the phone rang again, this time to tell me that my grandmother Gam had died.

I had just worked up the nerve to tell of the loss of my father-in-law, to write about him here, to tell his story and what he meant to me. I was not prepared to write two obituaries. It feels odd and unseemly to group two of the most important people in my life into one post, yet they are interwoven, all of our losses are.

My Gam is the reason I feel comfortable calling myself a writer at all, and only because she called me one first. She was the person I was most afraid to tell I was moving to Alaska because I was afraid she’d think I failed her. I was so wrong. She beamed at my choice, prized my passion and applauded my leap of faith. She once told me that if I loved The Chief, I had to love all of him. I hadn’t realized that this was how she had loved me, all along. She was smart as a whip, did the crosswords every day and could hold a conversation with anyone. She was an avid reader, a teacher, a lover of art and nature and jazz and a constant help to those in need. She stood up for herself in a time when women were expected to be quiet and continued that strength until she passed. When she had had enough of you, she would tell you “I’m ready for you to go”. She adored The Chief. He was the only man I ever brought to meet her about which she said “I like him”, with a special emphasis only she could put on “like”. I can hear her say it now. That was a very high regard. She gave us her blessing and when she found out The Chief was planning to propose, she immediately offered him her wedding ring. I wear it now and forever.

 

Beneath the Borealis 7-8-19, Six Funerals and a Wedding, Grandma Jeanne and us

Giving her blessing. Don’t mind the black eye, apparently it runs in the family.

 

I adored her. She was a force to be reckoned with and I will deeply miss her.

I hope, ever so much that these are the last obituaries I write for a very long time and that instead this place holds happiness in its tales of the Last Frontier. I hope with all my might that a phone ringing won’t always make my heartbeat quicken and that in every way I won’t always fear for the worst. I hope The Chief and I can continue in kindness and gentleness and hold tightly to the even keel we once had and that our wedding in September can move us forward, together in love and lightness. I hope our ancestors gather around us to celebrate in spirit. We love you.

I wish for you that you and yours are safe and sound.

 

Beneath the Borealis 7-8-19, Six Funerals and a Wedding, Giant Dandelion Wish

A giant wish.

 

With love,

 

from Alaska and a couple of hand holding, “don’t embarrass me, Mom” pups to make you smile.

 

Beneath the Borealis 7-8-19, Six Funerals and a Wedding, Husky and Malamute holding hands

Best friends caught in action.