The narrative we have for death and loss needs to change, here's why.
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Valley by Magic Magic Roses
Tall as Cliffs by Margot and the Nuclear So and So's
Palmyra by Jolie Holland
Your Hand in Mine by Explosions in the Sky
This is How it happened: One night about a week before he left, lying beside him in bed knotted with anguish over the impending trip, you say to him, “Denali, what if this is the last time we ever get to spend together?” He clenches his jaw and stares up at the ceiling. “Don’t ever talk like that,” he snaps. There was no room in his mind for the possibility of tragedy. You resolve to drop the issue and gave him your full support until his departure.
The morning of his flight, you stand in the hall watching him gather huge duffel bags of climbing gear. He looks up to see the fear in your face and grabs your hands. “Our lives are just beginning and we will be together again before you know it,” he says. You run to the kitchen to grab a twist tie and wrap it around his wedding finger, you want to hold him a little bit longer so he might miss his flight, or convince him to change his mind at the last moment. You want so bad to spend your life with this man. He smiles at you, moves the ring you wear from your right hand to your left and his eyes say all that needed to be said.
When you drop him off at the airport, you kiss goodbye while warm tears trickle down your face. He wipes the tears from your cheeks and holds your head in his hands. “Don’t worry. You’ve said everything I’ve ever wanted to hear,” answering the question in your expression. You watch as he passes through security, gives a slight glance back and walks out of sight.
I fell in the love with Alaska the moment I glimpsed it’s dark peaks through a break in the clouds from my window seat, everything draped in blue as we chased the sunset north. As the year marker of his death approached, I was desperate to feel like I was moving forward in a straight path despite a year of spinning. I was called by some ridiculous notion to travel thousands of miles to mark one point in time as different from another, a bold sudden movement all the way to Alaska, all the way to the mountain he was named after, the highest peak in North America.
There’s so much space up there, it presses up against you, compressing people into one another, they huddle together filling up the void between them. I practiced telling my story to strangers, and somehow it wasn’t as shocking to the people up there, they seemed to recognize life isn’t a given. On the plane, an old Korean woman told me about the order in which things bloom in her garden, how she watches the sunset every single day and the similarities between traditional Korean culture and that of native Americans. At a bar in Anchorage, a pilot said, “we have a choice, we can do anything we want with the time we are given,” and I nodded in solemn agreement. My bus driver told me he was called to Alaska to see the great peak he called Mount McKinley just like me. He drives thirteen hours a day hoping to catch a glimpse along his route but has never, and will never, climb it. A train traveller told me about how much you learn about animals from hunting, about how to go from one job to another in order to never stop travelling.
Like a magnet, the mountain pulled the ionized water of my body, six hours on a plane followed by five hours by bus from Anchorage to Denali National Park, then another five hour bus from the entrance of the park to my campsite, just to sit below the sleeping giant hidden in the clouds. Whole conversations are made over what part of the mountain was visible and at what times, if it all. The whole thing shrouded in mystery as if we was underwater, my emotions rolling through me like rainclouds.
I arrived at my first campsite, Wonder Lake, in the rain, Denali is 30 miles from here, but you would never know it due to the poor visibility. I set up my tent, trying to stay as dry as possible dodging the cold drops that fell on my weary body. I set up my tiny backpacker’s stove under a communal overhang, and proceed to make a box of Annie’s Mac ‘n’ cheese with tomato paste and chicken from a can, just like he used to. For a moment I am transported back to the night we backpacked to Wildcat Canyon in Point Reyes when we were convinced we had seen a mountain lion, how I awoke from a fitful night’s sleep to him making pancakes on the beach. His easy smile always a sight for sore eyes. I wished I had paid better attention to how he did everything, all his little tricks and tools that made life outdoors feel just as comfortable as life in the city. I never had to help with anything. He did everything, sometimes even carried everything when he was training, and honestly, if I had tried to help I would have just gotten in the way. I would usually just sit around and point out all the beautiful things, ramble off profundities, speak in poetic circles about what it means to be alive. That was my role, and he rambled right along with me, our minds sizzling in unison.
“Are you cooking all for yourself?” a foreign sounding young blonde man broke my trip into the past. He was there with his girlfriend from the Czech Republic and when I looked up he had a confused look on his face. “Yeah, my partner couldn’t make it,” I answered politely, trying to put it in a way that would make sense. “Isn’t that weird?” he continued. “Yeah, I would never do that, not in Alaska,” His girlfriend chirped in. I just kind of shrugged my shoulders, I didn’t want to explain so I tried to play it off as if it wasn’t a big deal to me. We exchanged a few travelling stories and our plans for our trip, and I quickly finished my dinner and walked back to my tent in the rain.
That night, I imagined Denali sleeping beside me, filling up the remaining space in my two-person tent. His voice like a recording in my brain repeating things I’d heard him say over and over, but there hasn’t been anything new for almost year now, all that fluid dialogue had disappeared. I made my Mandala for the day beside my sleeping bag where he would have laid if he was there. Number 98, from wildflowers I collected earlier, as rain pattered in rhythms on my roof.
Finally, after all that reckless tearing across space and time, I had a moment of rest. But getting my mind to quiet is like trying to hold my breath, and after a year of spinning I have only just begun to catch it. There’s a restlessness to me that I couldn’t settle even all the way out there, a constant vibration of the heart, a churning in my soul. Perhaps I want to be bigger than my body by moving rapidly through space, filling up the vastness around me. Maybe I just want to fill up the terrible gaping hole he left in me. When I sit very still, at my center I can still feel a deep fissure. Through the seasons, it is muffled by the enchantment of falling snow, soothed by the melting ice, and blanketed in warm summer glow, but it is always there, haunting me. I busy myself with immediacies, distract myself with menial problems, but when all of that falls away, I can feel the quaking of a great well inside me.
The next morning I woke up to patchy rolling skies, sun filtering down through the moisture. I check and recheck my supplies, fill up my water and set off west, just me, my pack and the chimes of my bear bell, singing this “little light of mine” to keep my spirits up. There are no established backpacking trails in the park and I wondered where my heart would wander without a guide.
There I was, throwing myself into the wild just to feel, just to experience, a tiny drop in the pond wandering amongst giants. Walking these ancient quaking lands, for a moment I understand why the mountains called him. I imagine Denali and his Dad climbing along new and established routes, there was never an exact path, just up and up and up into the sky.
The wind picked up and I felt my heart beating in my chest. Oh! To feel my lungs expand and contract with life, Oh! To have my muscles ache with the pleasure of reaching beautiful places! A stupid little grin creeps onto my face as I pass the patterns of wildflowers along my path. I’m alone but he’s always with me. I sing his name in my smile. “Here I am,” I think to myself.
By the afternoon, the clouds have gathered menacingly once more and I quickly find a place for my tent. My moods follow the changing weather and are amplified by my solitude, no one to bounce them off of, they rattle noisily in my brain. My hunger, my exhaustion, the people I’ve meet, the colors in the sky, all sway me. I let them in, acknowledge them, and let them go. “Be still, heart open, eyes wide, receive these guests and wish them farewell as they go,” I remind myself. I have been hovering over myself since this time last year when everything I understood, everything I thought my life would be, all my plans were uprooted and tossed into the wind as if everything we had dreamt up were mere scraps of paper. The life we had built together was everything I knew and what was once shiny and bright was now shrouded in the most complete darkness. I felt as if I was looking through a prism, I kept taking pictures of the patterns of the pebbles on the ground, stared hopelessly into flowers and awoke each morning in disorienting tears. Simultaneously dreading another hour passing without him and wishing the time would just go by, I just wanted to go to sleep so I could wake up from the nightmare that repeated each day. I shiver with the thought of that time, the grief that crippled my tiny frame making the easiest of tasks impossible. It still shocks me that I can get up each day and he’s no longer laying beside me. It shocks me that time is allowed to keep going. I sit with it everyday.
I resolved it was wise not to question the mysterious forces of life and death but let them flow with me like wind in my sails, I let them take me. It frustrated me how caught up I’d get in the ins and out of being “okay,” like a fool wandering around with a mirror held out at arms length to guide me. “What is the point of being just okay anyways? What’s so wrong with feeling so deeply? Why is it so scary? Dive! Deep down immerse yourself in an ocean of feeling, let the currents of light and dark take you, let go, let go, let go!” I want to scream. And I do scream, no one can hear me. Awake and present, quivering with life. The sun pours over my skin and I can’t help but notice sun on summit of Denali, just a blanket of clouds between us, obscuring its base. It haunts me behind the gray, and I wonder if it is enough to just to know it is there even if I never see it. My entire life once existed between his arms, arms that can never hold me again. Now, my whole world is between my campsite and the peak I cannot see.
He was my rock, and he called me his anchor. But really he was the mountain and I was the sea, anchors holding the other in place, defining one another’s boundaries. Him, born of flame covered in ice melting to the sea. Me, cold and deep carving away at his edges. messages sent in the clouds blanketing the mountain in snow, sustenance from the rivers pouring back into me.
These kind of thoughts circled me like vultures those first two days alone. Then, just like that, the night of the 26th my mind went quiet. I had given everything and I was empty. The sky opened up and cried all night for him. I doubted I would be able to see his namesake peak that he had summited twice in his young life, as I feel asleep to dreams of his voice, his hair, his blue eyes. In the early morning hours something urged me to open my tent flap. I jolted awake, revealing the immense peak of Denali towering over me along with the entire range, glittering and radiant, a message from somewhere far away, not a cloud in sight. By the time I wandered off to make the last Mandala, the clouds had already began to settle back in. The mountain has its own weather system, just like I have mine.
The next day, I emerged from the bush a wild eyed mountain woman, dirt, wrinkles and scabs set deep in my skin but eyes that shone bright from my soul. The worst year of my life was over, things could only be better from here. The sharp pain that was my entire reality had begun to recede, the deep ache had flowered with joy just appreciating the time we did have. The photos of us feel like an entire lifetime ago. My life was blessed just to walk alongside his for those brief and brimming years. His beautiful soul can live on through me as I adopt his happy way of being. This what I wrote in my journal that day:
July 27th 2014
This tiny little life is just a quiet offering, to seek and bring light to everything around me, to point out all the wonder I’ve found to everyone along my path and everyone who reads my writing. That’s how Denali lived his life, and that’s how I will live mine. Our love lives on in the way memories and stories do, melancholy but profound, never to be repeated again, like the blue after image from staring at the sun. He pleasantly haunts me, reminding me of what there is to live for, it sparks inside me, making me wild.
I will not let myself become a victim of the past, all I have is right now. I cannot change what has happened, but I can make the most of what I have left. It doesn’t mean I do not know sadness, in fact I know it more intimately than most, but I no longer let it overwhelm me. I cannot fix this problem; I will go on missing Denali for a long time and that is okay. I’m learning how to exist with the world and not work against it, growing into the shell of myself and letting my voice sing, taking what I’ve learned and loved and continuing onward, knowing first hand both how beautiful and tragic life can be. It is so absurd and magical in this brilliantly quivering world under the sky above.
This is how it happened: I was staying at his aunt's house touring the gardens and flower farms in the area. You called and said you wanted to climb K2 again next year. You said I should come to basecamp and write, it would be my "residency." You said, instead of going to Berlin as planned let's go to Chamonix where you could work as a ski patroller. I wanted you to stop talking. We could talk about this later when there was a proper supply of oxygen to your brain. We could talk about this when you were not on the side of the mountain. "Lets talk about this in person," is what I said then stopped talking so you would stop talking. Sat phone minutes are expensive so you told me you loved me, which really meant you had to go. I didn't want to say it back. You were not the person I loved you were a person influenced by another person. A boy following unquestioningly behind your father. But I said it anyway. Those three words ended up being the last ones I said to you.
In the night you sent a message about how our plans are good and that you loved me and that we would figure it out. My grandma died the next morning. The message I sent to you said something about wishing you were here with me. I do not know if you got it or not.
I remember as a kid, playing superheroes with my little brother, he’d jump off the couch and announce his superhero name and his super powers, something like “Sharkman!” or “SpeedDemon!” Then I’d jump off the couch announcing my name as “FlowerVenom!” or CatPrincess!” just like in the movies. We’d explain our chosen powers to one another, back and forth, escalating in extremes and impossibilities, until the rules of the fight were established. Then we’d wrestle around the family room, jumping and kicking, just like they did in the movies.
Then at one point he’d be face down, since I was three years older and bigger than him. He’d play dead, I’d shake him saying “No sharkman No!” just like when someone falls in the movies. And slowly he’d reawaken, revived from the dead, and we’d fight more until one of us actually got hurt or required parental intervention.
At some point I realized that once someone dies, they can’t wake up. So when Todd would act out his death and revival scene I would try to explain to him, “No Todd, when you die you don’t get back up.” It really put a damper on things and it wasn’t long after that I grew out of that game.
But it’s not hard to see where he got the idea. We were doing our kid best to emulate what we saw in the movies. Again and again we watched the hero wake up from sure demise and overcomes unsurvivable odds. The hero never dies.
So it’s no wonder death is so hard for us to talk about. It is more unreal to us than surviving extreme violence. When our troops came home from World War II, instead of calling it an inability to deal with our emotional trauma, we called it stoicism. When George Bush said the time for mourning was over just ten days after September 11th we called it patriotism. When 21st Century medical technology is unable to save our loved one we blame the doctors instead of our own mortality.
But what happens when all of a sudden we are face to face with death? Something we have not talked about for sometimes our entire life all of a sudden confronts us. And as strange as it may seem, it’s not a matter of if, but when. Everyone you have ever met will die someday, and so will you.
As a culture, we will all have to learn how to grieve, either that or live out our days in denial of our emotions. As Brene Brown, author of Daring Greatly and Rising Strong, would put it, in denial of a “whole hearted life” and our “true selves.”
Which brings me to the photo of the starved polar bear above. Learning how to grieve and live beyond denial also means being able to look at pictures like theses and all of the horrific changes our environment is undergoing and allow yourself to feel all the emotions that brings up. I’m an incredibly emotional and sentimental person and images like this cripple me,
I admit that for a long time, I refused to even look at pictures like these. I had given up, I had resorted to “There’s nothing I can do to change this,” and so I stopped engaging with the realities of climate change. But when this image crept its way onto my facebook feed this week, I knew that simply “not looking” would never solve the problem.
Don’t get me wrong, I will still drive my car, take my showers and drink my cappuccinos, but I choose to “feel” and be aware of what we are doing to the Earth. I choose to mourn the thousands of lost species and creatures that once shared this planet. Denial will not save them. If major changes, on a cultural, economic and political level, do not come soon, we may all need to learn how to grieve these animals and environments. We will have to learn what it’s like for something to lost forever, because unlike in the movies, they will never come back.
The forget-me-not is the state flower of Alaska. And, it is no coincidence, it is the exact blue of hope. Summer's day blue by a mountain lake kind of hope, a hope that is lined with just a sweet bit of sadness. Because that is the nature of hope--it comes from a desire for things to be better than they are.
It is a slightly lonely blue, otherwise why would they name a flower such a thing? Forget me not. It says, please, keep me in your heart despite my absence, promise you'll still think of me after I go, miss me, long for me, feel pain for me. And I will go far away past were the land dissolves into blue. But that is a different blue, deeper, sadder, softer, further away, devoid of hope. An incapturable blue that changes into ordinary green, yellow and brown as soon as we reach it.
The blue of a forget-me-not can be held, put in a vase on our desk to be admired and sighed at as we write. But forget-me-nots are notoriously fleeting, they fall to their sides and droop in their containers if not properly cared for. That is the nature of hope. That is the nature of blue.
The desert was huge to us as suburban kids visiting our grandparents in Tucson. It felt as if you could get lost out on the trails that led around the golf course, the javelina and the jumping cholla always lurking. We had seen the cartoons, what could happen to a person if he was not careful around cactus or if he was in the heat for too long. Even after escaping the monotony of adult conversation to be out there, we'd return promptly without being called, panting as if we had narrowly evaded danger.
Where I grew up, in the suburbs of San Diego, the landscape is named for the dry thorny brush that covers it. Chaparral as far at the eye could see all the way to the ocean and as fear east as the mountains where oak and pine emerged. Dessert dry and covered in track homes. More than once, in the fall during Santa Annas, dry warm winds from the east would blow brush fires through canyons and neighborhoods all the way to the coast. We were evacuated once and relocated in a hotel by the ocean. They said the canyon across the street from our house could act like a chimney for the flames. I learned what was important that day. Photos and keepsakes, objects that held memories packed hastily into the car.
There were great orange globs of garibaldis off the coast of Catalina. There was the fish we caught as girl scouts, I watched in horror as it dangled and sliced at the hands of humans. Starting that day, age twelve to twenty, I became a vegetarian until I was so anemic it was hard to find the motivation just to get up for class.
There were the thin sliver outlines of fish on the backs of SUVs and minivans. Jesus fish. The once secret symbol now displayed in vast metal schools.Once I got tricked into gorging myself on goldfish in a David and Goliath lesson. I was pegged against a fat kid to win an eating contest, hands tied behind my back, visiting sunday school with a friend. I represented David trying to beat the overweight kid they named Goliath.
By high school, when prop 8 was on the ballot in California to make gay marriage illegal, I was vehemently atheist. Where I lived there was no access to "no on prop 8" materials so I made my own with sharpies and poster board. Community members tore down my signs and I’m sure my parents hoped my teenage rebellion wouldn't cause bad blood with our neighbors.
My father had his own private rebellion when he was my age, raised catholic in New Jersey. He stopped going to church when he was in high school against his parents wishes. Halfway through college he moved to California further deepening the rift between them. In an attempt to make amends my parents were married in a catholic church during which the preacher lectured them in the importance of church attendance.
When his mom died, we flew east, to sit in the leftover interior of a funeral home and listen to a monologue about wether or not she would go to heaven. Listen to some guy talk about some God I didn't believe in, instead of talking about my grandmother. The way she would rub your back, her endearing jersey accent, the red roses she grew in the backyard, all went unmentioned. Beyond her name, a quavering "Helen" inserted here and there, the funeral could have been anyone's.
I had no words with which to talk about the end of a life. There was no language for it. No way to reconcile an ending I didn't believe in. Until, in an English Literature Class, I was presented with the romantic poets for the first time. Thoreau and Emerson some of a different kind of God. In particular a poem by William Cullen Bryant called "Thanatopsis" meaning to think about death. Its a wild rambling two page bulk of a poem, that suggests heaven is no more than being put to rest in the earth that born us, to lay beside all who have ever walked this earth, to renter the cycle as something new: “Yet not to thine eternal resting-place shalt thou retire alone, nor couldst thou wish couch more magnificent. Thou shalt lie down with patriarchs of the infant world—with kings, the powerful of the earth—the wise, the good, fair forms, and hoary seers of ages past, all in one mighty sepulchre.”
Elated with the discovery, after dinner that night I shared it with my father with whom I'd often follow the tangled threads of my thoughts out loud. But perhaps the trip back east was too fresh, because all I can distinctly remember from that conversation was something along the lines of "Yes, but what happens when you are lying on your death bed staring into the unknown? Having religion at that point would make you a lot more comfortable."
The last time I saw my grandma she was in a nursing home, slowly losing ground she would never get back. She needed help to go the bathroom and to do just about everything. She did not have cancer, or heart disease, or diabetes, she just had infections. Infection after in infection and a prescription that was slowly killing her though her doctor didn’t know it.
We ate ice cream and cookies, and gossiped with the other ladies. The visit came as a surprise for both of us, I was in town for a funeral. One of Denali’s best friend’s, Zach, had died suddenly in a paragliding accident. I remember his girlfriend Becca telling me on a ski hut trip a few months before that in old age our taste receptors wear out, we crave sweets. She was in school to be a nurse right alongside Zach in pursuit of become a doctor. In the same hospital he died in.
My grandma’s last Christmas, nearly three years ago in Tucson, they could no longer make the trip out to our house in San Diego as they had every year since I can remember. My grandpa was the restless sort, always making some excuse, like getting gas or a bottle of wine, and would leave for hours on end in the middle of their visit to do who knows what.
Now I was the one making the excuse. I drove south on interstate 19 under the kind of clouds that make you wonder how such massive bodies float so effortlessly above you. They might crash down on you at any moment, the sun unable to penetrate their core forms a thin halo around them.
I was trying to return a necklace my parents had given me, a gold chain meant to replace the one my father gave me when I was 16. The original was lost to the sea in the uncaring recklessness of waves, by the uncaring reckless body it adorned, and the new one was not quite right. The delicate first chain glimmered on my collar bone like a thin snail trail, almost unnoticeable beyond the spark mirrored in my eyes. The quiet confidence of a father's love. But this new one was clunky, forced, nothing subtle about it. It would not do.
As I drove the miles of highway between my grandparents house and the nearest shopping mall, the question of my attachment to objects nagged. The possibility that what happened on the beach that day was meant to be. I was not 16 anymore.
I passed an old cemetery with rust red lava rock where grass should have been. The faded marble contrasted in more ways than one with red and green plastic trees, decorated with neon bulbs, plastic tinsel binding under the desert sun. Nearly every grave was covered in temporary holiday cheer, a multicolor carpet of christmas made in china.
There was something sad and desperate about it, all that ho!ho!ho! and baby jesus embellishing the dead. I thought of my own grandparents who had both been crippled by illness in the same year. Our family discouraged and sobered by it all, my mother driving out every other weekend to check in. All those drives back west to California after another visit, crying behind the wheel. And here was a culture that celebrated their losses in bright colors and flashy ornaments. It's hard to say what felt more honest.
After failing to find a replacement for the gift at the department store, I drove back scolding my self interest under that God riddled sky. I fiddled with the radio, scrolling through christian, country and mexican stations, when a talk show host declared from the static, "Rome will not fall in a day, and neither will America." They were calling for the end.
It was 2013 and the most popular apocalypse story was the fiscal cliff, which, like so many other news sensations, no one really understood but everyone feared. It seemed we were all slowly sliding over the edge of a deep ravine and it was uncertain if we'd be able to pull ourselves out, uncertain who would survive the fall. And after all the pitfalls of the year, my grandparents getting sick, the printing company my father worked for folding, I listened intently for confirmation.
But the end came in a much different way.
“Only ten feet off the ground,” I remember Becca repeating in shock, “That freak wind.”
I cried in the pews holding Denali’s hand as she spoke. I said things like, “If that happened to me I would never get out of bed.” How could I have known, only four months later, I’d be standing at my own podium of loss.
“Why him, and not me?” Denali asked from the passenger seat of the Subaru. After the long drive back to California, we sat helplessly in the car. Getting and out and allowing life to go on meant going on without Zach. There were no answers.
He wanted to visit the site where Zach died and pick a single blade of grass and put it in the center of an empty room. He wanted a ring of headphones hanging from the ceiling playing heavy ceaseless noise. He never got the chance, his loss existed only in the pages of his journal.
Becca and I lived together at her brother’s house in Santa Cruz. She lived with a ring Zach had made for her but didn’t have a chance to give. I lived with Denali’s paintings on the wall and words from his journals by my bed. She worked at a coffee shop, I worked at a florist. Our days a slow rotation between coffee and beer the way most people live between the sun and the moon. Time was vague, “Is it time for beer yet?” or “I wish it was morning already so we could drink coffee.” Both sleepless and exhausted. Sharing a bed with our dogs and watching bad television. Anything to take our minds off of the huge hole in our lives.
For a while she questioned whether she wanted to be a nurse. I guess it’s similar to the way I’d rather write than return to the art practice that once connected Denali and I. But the third holiday season since their deaths, she’s just a few tests away from completing her degree and has already been offered a job at a hospital.
Our Family drives out to Tucson once more, for Thanksgiving. All of southern Arizona seems to fall into a single valley as the family car zips past towering Saguaro and mesquite brush. Purple peaks rimming the lip of the valley.
Over dinner with my grandpa he instructs, "If you want to see your grandma she's in a box on the shelf." We laugh uncomfortably, "That's morbid, grandpa," I say relieving some pressure. By now I am well versed in grief.
Our last day together day we drive out to Madera Canyon, where my grandfather wants his ashes scattered along with my grandma’s. He can’t walk anymore so he stays in the car while we walk to the trailhead where there’s a view over Tucson and south, miles and miles of desert. The map says the local mountains reach nearly 10,000 ft. I do a quick calculation, the base camp of K2, the mountain on which Denali’s body still rests is over 7,000 ft higher. I wonder if I can see the spot where Zach crashed from here.
There is no way to write about my grandma, about how to grieve or memorialize, or anything really, without talking about Denali. I might take the high road, bow out, let my grandmother have her own space on the page. Finally mourn her in a way she deserves. But I can't, I'm not ready to. Denali died three days after her. He was 25. She was 83. Anyway, There’s something I want to say.
In the movie “Big Fish”, a dying father tells the story of his life, full of magic and tall tales so the son does not believe that they are true. He feels he does not really know his own father and what he did when he left the house on business trips. But after some investigation he finds that the stories his father told we're not that far from reality, and the embellished bits were what colored the events and the characters, what made them beautiful. In the end, when his father is in his final breaths he finally comes to understand, in a fantastical scene he breaks him out of the hospital and drives him to the river, carries him down and sets him in the water. The father turns into the huge fish of his tales.
Denali told me that he and his father cried together watching the film, huddled in their tiny tent, temperatures below zero outside. His father claimed the only reason his son needed a woman like me was because his family upbringing was so turbulent. His father was the kind of man that patted me on the head and denied anything thoughtful that came out of my mouth. In the end, his father died trying to catch the Big Fish, but in this case it’s the savage mountain, and brings his son down with him. In “Big Fish” the funeral is grand and beautiful. Sun glints in the river. All the characters from his stories show up. The son comes to understand who his father was. Denali never gets to that part of the story.
When George W Bush so famously said the time for grief had passed just ten days after September 11th, it was just the most recent incidence of a long line of denial. Denial of what’s actually required in the grieving process, denial of the benefits of said grief, and a denial of death in general. We talk about the return from World War II as a joyous time, we don’t talk about the newly widowed and fatherless. This "heroism" has carried us on through to the 21st century, even as old social taboos such as sexuality and race are finally getting discussed. It's time to talk about death as well.
Death reappears in hollywood, as beautiful women murdered, as blood turning the snow red. It appears as crosses on the roadsides. It appears as memorialized highways and RIP decals on cars. Where it appears and where it is absent points to where our true values lie. We do not think much of throwing things away when they can so easily be replaced.
And where the discussion is denied cripples us. Joan Didion describes her attention to acting “normal” after the sudden loss of her husband in The Year of Magical Thinking, obsessing over the ways in which her mind is and is not functioning properly in the months following:
"Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe their husband is about to return and need his shoes. We have no way of knowing... ahead of the fact the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaningless itself.”
We know the death to be a fact and yet we act as if there is something we can do to change it. We believe in fate and God and the afterlife in a way we never logically believed in the past. The mesh of reality folds in on itself and it is hard to know what is real and what is not. We move through violent spurts of emotion, simple tasks become hard, everything becomes strangely vivid and bright colors hurt the eyes.
There are no rules in grief, no centralized religion, no code of conduct, and as a result we all behave very differently. Some flail, others draw in. Didion studies herself like the supremely intelligent and observant journalist she is. Pulling from the accounts of others in grief alongside medical and psychiatric studies, she pieces together a new sort of logic for the bereaved.
Some individuals are what psychiatry now calls “resilient,” getting over the initial pain relatively quickly. Others have “complicated grief” affecting everything from diet and sleep, to social patterns and outlook on life. But the science is relatively new, grief has only been seriously studied in past 30 years, despite its place as one of the most basic human experiences. And I know from my own experience and research that the symptoms are as widely varied as species on earth. The five steps are only loose suggestions, steps are skipped and repeated. Waves come and go.
When Denali died, I got carsick for the first time. My sinuses were so clogged from crying I had a hard time of telling which way was up. Didion is incapable of writing, incapable of getting rid of her husband’s clothes. When writer Mark Doty lost his partner to AIDs he required message therapy in order to release the months of tension built up watching his husband die.
Science has found that the brain processes emotional pain in the same way it processes physical pain. It would only make sense then that extreme stress or grief would begin to manifest in the body. I developed a dull ache in my chest in the first days after Denali died that reappeared almost a year and a half later. After seeing both doctors and psychiatrists who were not able to help me, I realized the problem did not lie solely in realm of the body or the mind, but in both.
With the recommendation of a friend who had been in a traumatic car accident, I saw a message therapist in Santa Cruz. He’d have me lie down on his table as he pressed on different pressure points or gently placed a hand on my belly or back, and I’d just cry. Cry until I was shaking, sometimes violently, releasing muscles I had wound up so tight. But after the sessions there’d be an intense relief, as if the burden was something I didn’t have to hold onto so tightly, as if protecting my insides from further damage. It wasn’t until I went through these therapies that I was finally able to put my life back together in a healthy way.
“Grieving is a creative process” he once said, “and you do it beautifully.” It is not the language we normally use for grief. It was not how I had ever talked about. But it made sense.
It made sense in the way Monet is said to have painted the fading colors of his dying wife, that lover of subtle color shifts saw her beauty even as it was fading. Once you step away from the way people grieve in the movies or some idea of a social norm, you notice the strange distance of strict censoring religions that prevail culturally. If you are willing to look beyond this, there’s something beautiful that happens in grief. For a moment, or a few weeks, or a year, we have the opportunity to step back from the business of life and reassess. Things are paired down, you realize how thin the line is and ultimately what a blessing it is to be on this side of that line.
"The price we pay for keeping death at such a distance from ourselves is a great one; holding it so far from us we cannot see it shine," Doty wrote in Heaven’s Coast. My year of grief, though messy and painful, was one of the most poignant years of my life. I saw the beauty in everything, my world existed in what each moment offered. If I needed to cry I cried, if I was puffed up with joy, I let the joy emerge too. There was no need to held anything back. And though I would never wish my experience on anyone, I would highly recommend the dose of piercing gratitude for each moment that comes with it.
And yet, the prevailing word for how we treat the sick and the bereaved today is sympathy, connoting distance and pity. Sympathy suggests a separation from the one we wish to comfort, an inability to get down in muck and roll around alongside them. Sympathy instead of empathy. Even though we will all be that position at one point. Even though there is so much to gained from understanding the experiences of another. I would like to propose an alternative.
The Japanese word Kintsukuroi, meaning to repair with gold referring to ceramics, connotes there is a beauty to having been broken. A strength in displaying the fissures in your past. I have seen first hand how hardships and obstacles can be opportunities to be laced with gold. I've learned that scars are not something to hide, but marks of history and wisdom. Rethinking damage and repair in this way acknowledges how much stronger reinforced areas could become, how much stronger I had become, and how much more beautiful my life could become, with the majority of it still ahead of me.
Grief changes us, the way all struggles and hardships we overcome do. Whether it is for better or for worse, is all up to attitude. Lets have a conversation about how we can change that attitude as a culture with influences far beyond out own shores. Because sympathy does not do enough to embrace all the highs and lows of human experience.
Susan O’malley was a San francisco based artist, most well known for her iconic color grade posters with positive quotes and messages. Although the series entitled Advice from My 80-year Old Self: Real Words of Wisdom from People Ages 7 to 88, was just released this past month along with an exhibition at SF commision gallery, O’malley was only 38 when she passed away last year.
I know what it’s like for the most important person in your life to die suddenly. I was twenty-two when my partner, Denali, died. He had just graduated from the painting department at CCA and was actively pushing the boundaries of what painting meant. Often pushing it into collision with his other love: Climbing.
As is often done after a sudden loss, we looked to the materials of his life, our day to day objects, his clothes, his photographs, his art, for answers. In the things left behind we found something to hold onto.
In some moments the work almost felt prophetic. One piece, a highly realistic self portrait adorned with ski goggles and heavy parka on a white background, is meant to be displayed on the floor covered in ice. He died in an avalanche a few years after making it. Another more comforting painting depicts his body dissolving into blue, a color I now conflate him with.
But it gets complicated. Who does the work belong to? Where should the pieces be displayed? Who can see them? Which pieces mean what and to whom? What would the artist want?
I’m sure the same questions came up for O’malley’s family as came up for Denali’s. Especially since she was a more established artist, the question of “who does this belong to?” gets more complicated.
Perhaps there was a need to hold on to what little piece of her was theirs, as I felt about Denali’s work. So many of his pieces I had conversations with him about before they were made as he hashed them out in his mind. I watched them come into being and celebrated their display at his exhibitions, knowing intimately his intentions, how they evolved and resolved and how his feelings changed for them upon completion.
But that did not mean they belonged to me. No, now that he’s gone they belong to everyone. This is how an artist lives on. And ultimately, this is why an artist makes work in the first place. For it to be seen. For it to speak for the artist, beyond the artist.
I did not know O’malley, but friends who do paint her as an overwhelmingly positive and warm figure, and, like Denali, without an inauthentic bone in her body. Her work, her posters, were just like who she was. And in many ways, her work feels prophetic as well, but in a different way, more like messages from the beyond.
If you’ve walked Market Street lately, you might have noticed her posters displayed at bus stops where ads normally go. They say things like “You are exactly where you need to be” and “Do things for your heart.” A dose of joy for passersby, whether they knew her work or not. Her messages are ringing out beyond her, not just to the art community that loved her, but all of San Francisco.
I know how a life cut short alters the lives of so many around them, but I have learned from her story how it is also possible for a voice to live on. A life has the power to move others beyond itself the way art has the ability to gather meaning beyond itself. And for this, everyone that knew and loved her, and those worked so that her art lives on, should feel proud and honored to be a part of that. She lives on.
This is how it happened: “Shouldn’t you be worried about the weather?” I ask, always worried, always trying to think of what he hadn’t thought of, trying to protect him even though he was thousands of miles away. “No, the forecast says it is a small system that will quickly pass, the snow is like a mist really." A pause. "This is our window for summiting, we think our summit day will be the 28th, this Sunday.”
You were so caught up in the adventure you sounded like your father. It made you feel all the more further away. You are already talking about climbing K2 again next year. I managed an “I love you,” to signal the end of the conversation and said goodbye.
The details of what happened next were unclear. All the other climbers on the mountain had decided to turn around at Camp II (22000 ft) , due to dangerous snow conditions the season was over. But Marty and Denali decided to see for themselves what the conditions were like up at Camp III and continued up to around 23500 ft (we do not know for sure) climbing through areas of up to 8 ft of snow, then radioed down to basecamp when they decided to stop for the night. Marty was beaming with pride at the climbing abilities of his son who had been breaking trail for the team. In the night a massive avalanche ravaged through their camp, they were never heard from again. Their bodies were never found.