Today is Father's Day. It's always a tough one, not because of some estranged relationship with my dad, but because of the date itself. On Father's Day 1995, a day when families get together at parks and restaurants and lakes, my friend spent the day with her parents and boyfriend and little brother, and she died jumping into a cold lake on a hot summer's day.
She was 17. I was 14. From then on, I was never the same.
Fast forward many years since 1995, and I'm attending Colorado State University. As part of my Master's degree, I am to conduct my research in New Zealand. Prior to getting there, I took my friend up on his offer to visit Japan where he has family and friends. While the trip was absolutely amazing, it was so fun that it overshadowed the loss I was feeling from losing my cat, Freyja, a week before the trip. I had her since kittenhood, being my furry sidekick for over a decade. When I left for Peace Corps was dad was ecstatic to be Freyja's caretaker for what would turn out to be her final years. My dad had grown so attached that it wasn't in my heart to get Freyja back when I returned from 4 years abroad. That cat had become as much his as she was mine. The hardest part of losing Freyja was receiving the sad news from my dad, who could barely tell me between sobs how he found her in her final resting place in her favorite spot under the bush.
After Japan I flew to New Zealand to begin 8 months there in the middle of the vast ocean. The first moment I got, I jumped on facebook to announce my safe arrival. Instead, I saw my feed plastered with the announcement of a friend's tragic death. We worked together at REI and her smile brightened my day every time I saw her. We spent Christmas together. She was one of the people I didn't get a chance to say goodbye to. She drowned from a rafting accident on the river. She was 26.
A month passed and I was doing my best to stay focused on my research in New Zealand. Some days I wouldn't leave the house where I was living as an AuPair, except to take the daughter to dance class, or buy groceries, or meet up with my research team. One day I opened my laptop to get some work done, and saw an email from my mom telling me my childhood friend was found dead in his apartment. Disbelief. How could that be possible?
Not only was this too much to process within a month of my friend's rafting accident, and my cat before that, but the tragedy ran deeper than that. He was the little brother of my friend who died on Father's Day 1995. Now 2014, both gone at ages 30 and 17. My brain went silent. Shock. Disbelief. Nothingness swimming through emptiness.
Three days after hearing of the news of my friend's death, another one. This time a friend from California who lost her battle with cancer. She'd left behind her husband and infant son.
She was 33. There was an immensity to the chain of deaths that my brain couldn't understand. My brain went offline. Shock. Disbelief. Nothingness swimming through emptiness.
By now my body was feeling it. I had been rock climbing and running to stay sane, but my lower back was screaming. I blamed it on the hours I was spending at my computer. I invested in massage therapy, cranial-sacral therapy, and palm-reading. I tried it all, and was told my lower back was knotted to the extent it appeared as fused vertebrae. When the cranial-sacral therapist felt for pulses in my sacral vertebrae, there were none. She recommended I stop running and climbing, as those were exacerbating the problem. I didn't tell her I had a snorkeling trip planned for the Great Barrier Reef, as I couldn't bare eliminating that once-in-a-lifetime experience. In Australia I stuck to my travel plans and felt the weightlessness of the salty water as I snorkeled for two days. Once off the water however, my body recaptured the lower back pain. And now I seemed to be rocking. As if I'd never left the ocean, my body rocked back and forth in smooth undulations. When I closed my eyes I had no proprioception, and would lose my balance and teeter off the chair. At the conference in Sydney, I was translating for the Spanish-speaking participants, and promptly lost my voice. As the end of the month drew to a close, my body tensed as it waited for more bad news that had been arriving monthly. No news came, but my body was a hot mess.
Voiceless, hunched over in pain, and unable to climb or run, I returned to New Zealand to finish out the final months. It was sheer willpower. It was numbing myself to my pain. It was blind focus on the task at hand - finish this degree and move on with my life.
My departure from New Zealand couldn't have been more chaotic. At the airport my carry-on was overweight and I was directed to cargo via a short busride. Shipping a carry-on to the States was more than my plane ticket, so I left cargo with no solution, only to find two men outside holding a dying seagull that was enmeshed with fishing line. WTF. Holding back tears for that dying creature, I knew once the floodgates opened there would be no turning back. At check-in again, I threw out books and clothes and souvenirs, feeling my face and body writhing in pain and sorrow that I couldn't hold in. The sobbing strengthened with each toss of an object into the trash, and I knew my journey home to less friends was inevitable, and the grieving had begun. Grieving from abroad is challenging. There is no funeral to attend. No mutual friends to share favorite memories of the departed. No real sense of place or time, as everything feels surreal and too distant to be reality. It was almost as if my brain couldn't process the news from so far away.
"Grieving from abroad is challenging. There is no funeral to attend. No mutual friends to share favorite memories of the departed. No real sense of place or time, as everything feels surreal and too distant to be reality. It was almost as if my brain couldn't process the news from so far away."
I wrote my mom this email from Western Samoa, a snapshot into the grief process:
"Hi mom, just sweating in Samoa and loving the heat. I'm staying at the Pasefika Inn in Apia to transcribe my interviews. The dorms were booked so they gave me my own room with bathroom for the same price. It's the first time in a REALLY long time I've just had time to myself. It's exactly what I needed.
My last day in NZ was to be expected. I just finally hit my breaking point, with the realization I'm heading home and there will be three less people. (Four if you count Freyja.) As you know, I haven't grieved properly, since it feels so distant being in NZ. It's finally hitting me and all the pressure from the thesis has been too much to hold in my grief.
Things are looking better, including letting my body release the pain it's been holding in.
I love you. Off to Fiji on Friday, LA on Monday, Denver on the 26th, Mexico on the 29th."
What I didn't tell my mom was that I could hardly function. I had gotten on a bus with my laptop and day bag to see the other side of the island of Samoa, with no plan besides transcribing interviews. As I sat on the hot bus for hours, wondering when it would leave, if ever, and locals looking at me in bewilderment, I couldn't remember the last time I ate. Or drank water. I was seriously unprepared for anything, let alone hoofing it across a foreign country on public transportation with my heavy laptop and having no clue where I was going. While I've traveled across the world before, I recognized I was in poor shape to be savvy, find lodging on the fly, immerse myself in local foods and customs. I still had Fiji and Mexico ahead of me, and hours of interviews to transcribe for my thesis data.
With no idea how much longer I'd be waiting for the bus to leave, I removed myself from my sweaty seat. I walked back to the hotel feeling defeated and so very far from home. I spent the evening repacking and taking inventory from the disaster I'd experienced at the New Zealand airport. I unpacked bags of rocks. Yes, rocks. My carry-on was weighted down by rocks that I'd collected from my walks on the beach. Yet when I was told my carry-on was too heavy, I was so out of my mind that I'd tossed books and clothes. Why didn't I toss the rocks???!!?!?
I was past the point of laughing at myself. I was in disbelief at my illogical thinking.
So I gathered myself up, showered, ate, and went for a stroll with my collection of rocks.
I walked along the ocean, feeling its vastness, feeling the complete lostness of where I was in the world, trying to orient my mind and heart to the pain and numbness of grief. My body ached. My voice had returned, but my body was still rocking. My soul hurt.
I retrieved the heavy pile of rocks from my bag and listened to my heart. I had no clue how to grieve. How do I do this? Wordless, my hands began forming a heart of rocks at the edge of the Pacific Ocean. The heart of rocks took me one step closer to healing my own heart - feeling the pain of being human, honoring those who left this world too soon, and starting to listen to the guidance of what my mind + body + heart + soul were telling me.