Heading Back from Hope

This Saturday morning, as I sat down to my ritual of tea and journaling, I was prompted with the question: What are you grateful for?

Today, I’m grateful to have a time and a place to grieve.

If you’re ready to turn the page now and head over to some kitten cuteness or lighthearted love, I get it. This post is two years in the making and still I cringe to write it because it makes it real. Know, there will be moments of levity here but grief, as we all know isn’t rainbows and kittens. Collectively, we’ve done a lot of grieving lately. The world has been a bit of a shitstorm (understatement) and if you’ve felt a bit at sea, you’re not alone. We’ve all been doggy paddling our way to shore. This weekend, I find myself finally arriving at one of many shores, one I’ve avoided: saying goodbye.

Nearly two years ago now, The Chief and I sat nestled in our cozy honeymoon cabin in Hope, Alaska. We were wrapped in a blanket of love and joy for what was to come. After a brutal few years, our wedding was like a golden ticket. We felt so held, so loved, and for the first time, truly the first time in years so…optimistic. That day, as we hiked about, we were giddy with hope. It felt as if a spell had been broken, we’d been released from our pain and engulfed in love long enough to see the other side and it was beautiful. We had returned to one another from our own solitary dens of despair. Everything was going to be OK.

Hope, Alaska

As we returned to the cabin, I remembered I’d seen my phone collecting messages throughout the day and finally decided to check them. There was a picture of an altar, candles lit. I scanned down to the text and saw the words “We heard about your friend’s passing.”

No, that can’t be right.
Does she mean my Godmother?
My Grandmother?
The Chief’s Mom?
Dad?
Grandma?
Grandpa?

She was wrong, I was certain but I called my girlfriend just in case.

She was right.

Jason was gone.

Jason Elser was the first man I met on our first foray into this town’s “nightlife”. He rode up on his 4-wheeler, dirty from head to Chacos, wearing a (previously) white shirt. He slowed to a stop as he saw us approaching and welcomed me to town with a grin saying something along the lines of “It’s summertime, gorgeous, we’ve been waiting for you all winter long.” He was every trope, every caricature I’d heard of Alaskan men and then some. A ball of contradictions. Hard and soft, all at once. Chivalrous and unintentionally misogynistic (though willing to be corrected or at a minimum, debated). Hardworking and hard playing. A joy and a beast, all wrapped up in the best intentions. He was the first person who would show up if you needed help, sometimes even before you knew you needed it and he offered his love without expectation or need for reciprocation.

Recycling in Alaska
“Julia, can I take some trash off your hands?”. That aww shucks posture.

One of my favorite stories about him spans my first summer. Nearly every morning that summer, he would call The Chief to check-in, often with a moral conundrum but the best was The Squirrel. Apparently, a squirrel had taken a liking to Jason’s yard and its early morning chitter-chatter was driving him insane. Lucky for us, Jason decided to call every morning to ask the same question: Is it OK to shoot the squirrel yet? And every morning they would debate it. I loved groggily listening, in and out of sleep, to their arguments back and forth. The Cheif, at first miffed by again being awoken, would suddenly be smiling as they debated.

He was like that: at one moment a thorn in your side, the next helping you pull it out. He effortlessly created tension and somehow equally smoothed it. He was push and pull all in one, all in love. I loved those mornings, hearing him, open and childlike. I loved how much Jason wanted to hear an opinion he didn’t share. He was endlessly curious about what others thought and how they lived and why. And while I’m pretty sure at least one squirrel met its end before he called The Chief, he made a promise that not a single other would die at his hands after they first spoke. His confidence in The Chief gave me confidence in our relationship, a budding bloom Jason nurtured every time he saw us with words of enthusiasm, pure joy for our finding one another. He shared in the joy of his friends and family, every success as if it were his own because to him, it was.

Best truck for Alaska
Our first road trip together. 10 miles long until we broke down.

Losing our friend, I lost hope again. Our world got very dark, very lonely, even in one another’s company. Heading back from Hope, my husband was once again far away. Our hands were no longer intertwined and our hearts became hardened, robbed of the elasticity our wedding had instilled. We returned to a town turned somber, a breakneck 180 from the elated state we’d all been in when we left. From a peak to a valley, in our little valley.

Kennicott River, Alaska

As a town, we grieved. We gathered that Fall and that Winter in his honor but something was missing. This weekend, nearly two years after his passing, we finally realized what it was: Jason.

Alaskan Dog
A classic Esler move. Asleep at the fire. Jason and Dog.

This weekend, we gathered twice more. Once to sing and howl our heartbreak to him, the other to bid him farewell. His beautiful family spread his ashes in the place that had been such a part of him. Now he was a part of it.

What can we take away from someone being taken away? For me, for Jason, it’s a reminder to step outside of oneself. To look around and fill a need, a want, a space someone needs help filling, even before they know they need help. It’s to spread a little more joy, to open your heart and to share the success of others. For me, it’s to dream a little bigger and break a few things along the way.

As I wrote this, there were a million ways to tell it. A million stories of you being all the way you, Esler. I looked back through photos, back through the years, through the days. I see so much of you, even when you weren’t in the photo itself. I see you in the shot I took of softball one day, in benches at the softball field and the 5-gallon garden buckets you left for anyone to take. I see you in the smiles on our faces as we held moose ribs up to our faces, the moose you shot and shared, always. I see you in the logs I stacked using the trailer you offered. I see you in the crack in my tooth from the first tree I cut down and the pride in your eyes as you made me tell you every detail. I see you stomping your feet to the music. I see you where you aren’t because you’ve always been here, a staple I took for granted. Your eye-roll-inducing antics, your smile, your ideas, your undying drive for building our community, your support of the young’ns.

We aren’t the same without you but I know where you are is better because of you. And although we aren’t the same, you brought us back together again this weekend. After a year of isolation, a year of dischord, you helped us come back to this family, your wild Alaskan family’s version of harmony that howls so sweetly. In your absence, you still brought us together. You helped us head back to hope.

I hope for you, Jason, wherever you are, that they welcomed you with a bear hug as big as you gave and said “Welcome home, gorgeous. We’ve been waiting for you all Winter long”.

With love,

from Betsy’s girl from California

Kuskulana Bridge

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