Crossing the Ice

Posted in Uncategorized on August 12, 2014 by Aubrey

All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.
–Julian of Norwich

View from our camp on the Muir Snowfield with Mt. Adams in the distance.

View from our camp on the Muir Snowfield with Mt. Adams in the distance.

An image of rugged glaciers is now seared into my mind’s eye. Our route passed through an other-worldly landscape of crevasses, immense ice canyons, and frozen sculptures of all imaginable shapes and impossible sizes.

We traversed Mt. Rainier’s steep slopes of snow and ice under the light of the full moon. I was transfixed by the magical, mesmerizing beauty of the stark terrain. And I was keenly aware of the dangers it offered on every side. Yet I did not feel especially afraid. When the way forward demands all of your mental and physical strength, it leaves little room for fear.

The ice is constantly moving and changing as it slowly marches down the mountain. It melts and refreezes. It forms steep pressure ridges. It breaks and shatters. It rebounds by building massive towers and swirling spires amid the craggy walls of icicled cliffs.

Gibraltar Rock towers above the Ingraham Glacier.

Gibraltar Rock towers above the Ingraham Glacier.

This world of ice is transient and temporary. The glaciers of Mt. Rainier are slowly but with surety approaching their own deaths. They could be gone in my lifetime or shortly after. Yet, even as they recede, their allure is dramatic and powerful. They are beautiful. They seem alive.

Most of the mountains I hiked this past year were shaped by glaciers. Long after they melted, the world still holds their footprints. And some day, who knows, maybe the glaciers will return. They have advanced and retreated many times before.

Climbers descending the Emmons Glacier above Disappointment Cleaver.

Climbers descending the Emmons Glacier above Disappointment Cleaver.

The ice is a paradox, temporary yet permanent, ever-changing even while frozen and still. It reflects our own existence–a reminder too that our entire planet, our universe, the living and the non-living, are threaded with this tension. All that we know, see, and touch is but a blink in the eyes of the infinite, while also timeless and profound.

Aren’t we so goddamned lucky to be aware of this blink? To feel, to love, to be alive, to grieve, to die, to suffer, to be born again… To take our perch on the mountain when it is our turn, and then to melt quietly into a new form, working our way back to the cosmic ocean from whence we came, when our moment has passed.

My rope-mates beginning their descent from the summit.

My rope-mates beginning their descent from the summit.

I risked losing myself–with Aubrey, with her cancer, and then finally, on these glaciers. I have felt deep pain and sorrow. I have agonized over the injustice of Aubrey’s suffering and lost years. At times, I have wanted to stop. But I have also watched the sun rise over the ice while looking out across hundreds of miles of mountains and forests. And I have shared a deep love with a good person.

The tragedy of an untimely death does not negate the beauty of a life well-lived. The pain we carry and the risks we take are but the price for each breath, for each heart beat.

When I could see the crater rim a few hundred yards away and I realized we were truly going to make the summit, I began to cry. I felt completely overwhelmed–my chest swelled with mourning and with joy, with yearning and with pride. I had crossed the glaciers.

Sitting on the summit after scattering the last of Aubrey's ashes.

Sitting on the summit after scattering the last of Aubrey’s ashes.

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A Thousand, Painful Steps

Posted in Uncategorized on July 28, 2014 by Aubrey

From nothing cannot be born something. From no one cannot be born someone. From something you cannot become nothing. From someone you cannot become no one.
–Thich Nhat Hanh

Sunset at Lunch Counter on Mt. Adams with Mt. St. Helens in the distance.

Sunset at Lunch Counter on Mt. Adams with Mt. St. Helens in the distance.

Before Aubrey died, I never had much interest in climbing mountains. Since her death, I have hiked to the top of ten. Half I climbed with my friend Aaron, who–along with his wife Kelly–has been present before, during, and after Aubrey’s death.

This weekend we completed our hardest climb to date: Mt. Adams. Each step was painful. Much of the last 3,000 feet was on treacherous, icy snow. Our progress was slow, and the altitude made me feel woozy.

But we kept going.

The icy slope leading to the summit of Mt. Adams.

The icy slope leading to the summit of Mt. Adams.

Climbing is a lot like grief. The way forward is difficult and sometimes excruciating. It is easy to be afraid. It is easy to feel like you won’t make it. It is easy to worry about all of the things that could go wrong.

You don’t get to the top of a mountain by being stronger or faster or better equipped. You get there by centering yourself, by stilling your mind, by focusing only on the single step in front of you. It is deciding, thousands of times over, to take one more.

When I think of the past year, it has been full of those moments. From the jungle in Guatemala, to the wildness of the Sierras, to the summit of Mt. Adams—I have been on a physical journey that mirrors the internal, spiritual journey of accepting death and accepting the continuance of life.

Aaron and I on the summit of Mt. Adams.

Aaron and I on the summit of Mt. Adams.

I have come a long way. During those first few months, I could barely get out of bed. At times, I wished I had been the one who died. Life felt so pointless, so empty. And now… I have started to date someone. I am applying for grad school. I notice myself laughing, relaxing, allowing myself to enjoy a good day again.

At moments, the steps forward have felt almost unbearable. I felt the universe was asking too much of me, that I could not go on. But each time I’ve managed to keep moving, I have somehow landed on solid ground despite my fears, despite my sorrow.

This journey is far from over. More grieving awaits. There will be more pain, more difficulties. But I have confidence that I can meet them–that my hardships will not overwhelm me. And I know these steps are also inseparable from joy and from finding healing.

In less than two weeks, Aaron and I will attempt the summit of Mt. Rainier. I am bringing the last of Aubrey’s ashes. I am nervous, a little scared even. But I am ready.

As I take each step, I have felt Aubrey’s presence. The more I dare to embrace life, the stronger I feel her with me. We think of grief as something that is horrible and awful. Parts are. But, at its core, grief is about letting go of our fears of death, separation, and loss.

It is about finding our way back to life and to a new connection with the people we have loved. It is about stepping through the pain and transcending our own mortality.

View of Mt. Rainier from Paradise earlier this month.

View of Mt. Rainier from Paradise earlier this month.

Reflections on the Anniversary of Aubrey’s Death

Posted in Uncategorized on June 20, 2014 by Aubrey

She delights in sickness and in health,
she delights in an early death,
she delights in old age,
she delights in the beginning,
she delights in the middle and the end.
–Second Book of the Tao

Mt. Banner at dusk.

Mt. Banner at dusk.

The only way to bring Aubrey forward is to say yes to life in all of its wildness. The future will be far different from the past. Yet as we grow in life, we grow in love. When we risk opening our hearts wider, we connect the future with the past and bring healing to both.

View on the approach to Donahue Pass.

View on the approach to Donahue Pass.

After Aubrey died I sometimes asked myself whether I would do it again now that I know all of the pain we would have to face together. My answer is always yes. If I could live an infinite number of lifetimes, I would choose to be Aubrey’s husband each time. Our society sometimes pretends pain and suffering can be avoided and that being comfortable is what matters most. But pain and discomfort can push us to new discoveries. Aubrey and I learned to lean into the pain. We learned to embrace it. And it rewarded us: it taught us to touch the sweetness at the core of life’s shortness.

Entering Yosemite via the Pacific Crest Trail.

Entering Yosemite via the Pacific Crest Trail.

My friend John Meyer planned the logistics for our backpacking trip to the Sierras. After a night and nearly two days of endless driving and hitching rides on buses and taxis, we arrived at a trailhead at the base of Mammoth Mountain in the Inyo National Forest. From there we hiked along the side of a ridge toward the high peaks that run north and south along the spine of the Sierras before crossing an 11,000-foot pass that led us across the eastern border of Yosemite National Park. We continued onward through canyons and valleys and across another high pass before we reached Yosemite Valley after more than 50 miles of walking through pristine wilderness. I lost count of the snow-capped peaks; the meadows full of wildflowers beginning to blossom; the stream crossings; the waterfalls of all shapes and sizes; the idyllic ponds and lakes; the forests of Ponderosas, Sequoias, and Cedars. Each mile brought new and stunning scenery.

One of countless waterfalls along the route to Yosemite Valley.

One of countless waterfalls along the route to Yosemite Valley.

I kept thinking about how much Aubrey would have enjoyed this trek. I kept thinking about how she and I deserved a chance to hike these mountains together. And then a thought struck me as I rounded a bend with a snowy peak high above and a clear, blue-green lake far below me: perhaps John and I hadn’t chosen this journey at random. Perhaps somehow Aubrey had led us here. Perhaps she wanted us to experience this awful anniversary in a place that, without doubt, would have brought her amazement and joy.

Snow-capped peaks towering above the trail as we near the Valley floor.

Snow-capped peaks towering above the trail as we near the Valley floor.

I spent most of the anniversary trying not to relive the moment of Aubrey’s death. I have revisited that moment enough times over the past year. I preferred instead to remember her as she was before that day: animated, laughing and smiling, kind and tender as she listened to family and friends. The world needed Aubrey’s spirit, and it still does. Those of us who loved her can keep her alive in our hearts. We can still cherish the moments we feel her presence near.

Nevada Falls near Yosemite Valley.

Nevada Falls near Yosemite Valley.

I will always grieve Aubrey. I will always mourn her suffering and death. A part of me will forever be broken because our life together ended too quickly. But I refuse to dwell on her death. Aubrey loved life. She helped me to love life. The experience of life, rather than the memory of death, is what will keep me close to her. To honor Aubrey is to live, to embrace the life within and around me. I accept this grief and this loss, but I will not let it destroy what Aubrey valued most: the here, the now, this precious lifetime.

Hope Stay Firm

Posted in Uncategorized on June 6, 2014 by Aubrey

Because of charity and love, man should never allow death to rule one’s thoughts.
–Thomas Mann

Aubrey’s most heart-wrenching moment that I witnessed in our nearly eight years together occurred the day of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. The pain and fear she felt over cancer and her own impending death never shook her as badly as the deaths and terror of that awful day. She could not comprehend such hate. She would be heartbroken again to know that a young student died this week in a mass shooting at her alma mater in Seattle.

Aubrey had no patience for conservatives who argued for guns at the expense of innocent lives. And it didn’t stop there. She had no patience for those who did not support gay rights, no patience for people who did not care about the poor, no patience for warmongers, no patience for those who didn’t appreciate feminism. In short, no patience for people who lacked compassion.

At one point before she died, she said: “I’m OK, but we have to help all the others in line.” I imagine her now running to the side of the dying, reaching for them, and helping them to experience the peace she felt in her final moments. It is our job to do the same for those who continue living. This is the only way I know to feel close to her now, the only way I know to feel like she and I can still be a team.

The anniversary is almost here. For the past two or three months, I have sometimes lost myself in remembrances of last spring. Some quality in the daylight will take me back to Aubrey’s side and the helplessness I felt as her life began to rush away from us like a swelling river tumbling down a long ravine. When your life’s partner quietly dies in your arms, you hold not only her death, but all death, all suffering, including your own. You understand in an instant what it means to be mortal, what it means to have an end. For a brief moment, the bullshit stops.

I plan to mark the anniversary somewhere in the high Sierras working my way down into Yosemite Valley. So far I have readied only one supply—a book of poems by Grace Paley, a poet from New York and Vermont. She completed the book at age 84 and died shortly after. When I pulled it off the shelf at Elliott Bay Bookstore, I opened straight to this page:

I called her phone rang four times
you can imagine my breath stopped then
there was a terrible telephonic noise
a voice saidthis number is no
longer in use how wonderful I
thought I can
call again they have not yet assigned
her number to another person despite
two years of absence due to death

A week ago, after yet another tragedy, I received several worried notes and phone calls about my plans to climb Mt. Rainier. I assured everyone who asked that we are taking a different route—one that is much less dangerous than the one that claimed the lives of the six climbers who disappeared.

But aren’t you afraid?

Yes. I am. I have always been afraid of climbing mountains. Yet that’s part of the point. I must learn to face my fears, not turn my back to them. How else can I honor a wife as brave as Aubrey? How else can I still believe in charity and love in a world that seems so empty of them at times? How else can I truly live while knowing so well that I too have an end?

Earlier this week, I had occasion to see the painting Tree of Hope, Keep Firm by Frida Kahlo. In part of the painting, she is lying on a hospital gurney, sick and bleeding, under a blazing sun. In the other half she is sitting upright, guarding her sicker self, and holding a flag emblazoned with the motto that gives the painting its title. A dark night surrounds her chair, and her face is set with determination as she clings to her flag. The portrait instantly took me back to every single hour we spent in hospitals.

For those who will soon be joining together to walk in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon—we walk not just to remember an anniversary and not just to remember Aubrey. We walk out of hope—hope that Aubrey and the others we have lost this year live on, hope that we who are still here can find healing, hope that our fears do not have the last word.

Why We Make Vows

Posted in Uncategorized on May 9, 2014 by Aubrey

I hope that, whether our lives are long or whether they are short, we will feel grateful for each day that we share as husband and wife.
–From a list of wishes Aubrey and I wrote for our wedding day, which my friend Andrea read aloud as part of our ceremony.

When you lose love, no matter the circumstances, you break. For a while, life has no wind in its lungs. You are too haunted, too weak to know how to love again.

Yet love continues. It finds the willing who are strong and ready. It finds the ones with courage. It nudges them forward and they become a reminder that healing is possible.

Tomorrow I will officiate the wedding of Andrea Lehner and Dustin Snyder. I have known Andrea for more than a decade now. We went through hell and good times together in Niger, and hell and good times in Seattle. When I think about her and Dustin making the same pledge to each other that Aubrey and I made, I feel hope.

We are a small part of something bigger than ourselves–a force that we each carry when we are able and that others carry for us when we are not. I often wonder where Aubrey is now. As I prepare for this ceremony, I find her in the words to be shared by good friends who aren’t afraid to say they will love each other for as long as possible.

Living Again

Posted in Uncategorized on April 18, 2014 by Aubrey

From the very beginning when they told me I was blind, I just tried to stay busy and pursue the dreams that I’ve always dreamt. One of them is to see the world.
–Steve Baskis, who lost his vision after a roadside bomb destroyed his vehicle while on tour with the Army in Iraq. In 2010, he climbed a 20,000-foot peak in Nepal with 10 other wounded veterans. He has since climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro and Yosemite’s Half Dome.

Yesterday marked 10 months. I had dinner with a friend who had good news to share–something that would have thrilled Aubrey. In that moment, I was reminded that the best way to honor Aubrey is to love life, our friends, and myself the way that she did.

I learned Steve Baskis’ story a couple of weeks ago. The bomb that blinded him also killed one of his close friends. His friend’s body shielded him from the worst of the shrapnel, allowing him to live. He wrestles with survivor’s guilt as well as the day-to-day frustrations of no longer being able to see–frustrations that, in some ways, parallel the angst Aubrey felt about losing her mobility and facing her mortality. Steve has never seen his own wife’s face because they met after he was blinded. He may never know what she looks like–instead, he knows her only by touch and the sound of her voice.

Before she died Aubrey told me that three days belonged to her: her birthday, our wedding anniversary, and the anniversary of her death. This year, I spent the first of those three days in Guatemala. Next up is the anniversary of her death. I am going with a friend to California to spend five days trekking through the Sierras and into Yosemite Valley before returning to Seattle to walk in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon with about 20 family and friends who wish to remember Aubrey’s completion of the race two summers ago. I feel Aubrey’s memory urging me back out into the world, her voice telling me to be brave.

On Tuesday, I was listening to KEXP when a request came in from a guy who was having a bad day at work and worried about his fiancé, who is fighting cancer. I could instantly imagine what he was feeling, and my heart broke. No one should have to deal with cancer—whether as a patient or a family member helping to care for someone with cancer. It is hell. But I hope he hangs in there, I hope he keeps going, I hope he and his fiancé find joy and meaning despite the many difficulties and uncertainties they face. We have to keep going. We still have dreams.

Climbing a Free-Fall

Posted in Uncategorized on March 22, 2014 by Aubrey

We could not fear too greatly for the end of love when we are the proof of its continuation.
–Molly Fumia

Even now, nine months later, I am bewildered by Aubrey’s absence. At moments, life seems stripped of all meaning. The life I planned is over. I am free-falling toward the unknown.

I put all of my hope into the still voice within, the one that, every once in a great while, pipes up and says, “Go this way.” It is the same voice that led me through her final days and then convinced me to fly a gospel choir to Seattle for her memorial. It doesn’t always make sense at the outset, yet it seems to know what it is doing. So I trust it. And for good reason: I either trust it, or I continue falling into the unknown without hope.

Last August when we were leaving the meadow where we had left Aubrey’s ashes at Mt. Rainier, I heard that voice: “You’re not done here.” As I looked up toward the summit, I heard a second voice, Aubrey’s. It was a memory of something I had heard her tell me several times after the cancer and treatment paralyzed her leg: “I always assumed that someday I would climb Rainier.”

I’m now part of a four-person team planning an ascent on August 4. That day happens to be the anniversary of the afternoon her family and I scattered her ashes there. I have one last, small handful of ashes that I have saved for the summit so that she can experience it too. If our roles had been reversed, if I had grown up wanting to climb Rainier, if I had died… I know that Aubrey would carry me the same way I hope to carry her. We loved each other, and that’s what love does. It doesn’t stop, even when all else does.