"Say what you have to say, and not what you ought."
~ Henry David Thoreau

Friday, September 23, 2011


After my sister died I inherited many of her things, including several household items.  Having things that once were hers incorporated into my home makes me happy. I especially love using her KitchenAid mixer, measuring cups and spoons, and green milk glass salt & pepper shakers. The salt & pepper shakers were something I often jokingly threatened to carry off in my purse because I loved them so much. Using them now never fails to bring a smile to my face as I remember the many times she made me eggs and toast for breakfast.
At first I was conflicted about taking my sister’s things and making them mine. I was more than a little hesitant about having reminders of her around me. Would they stir up sad memories and remind me of my loss? I couldn’t imagine having anything in my life as a result of her death that I’d be grateful for. Certainly I never expected that from her death I’d gain a new circle of cherished friends. 
Because Julie and I hadn’t lived together since I was 13 and she was 7, I knew very few of her friends. Except for a short time in her early twenties when she lived in Salt Lake City, Utah, we always lived in neighboring states.      
Sheridan & Julie - December 2009
About five months before she died, Julie visited me in Utah for the Christmas holidays. During that visit we spent an evening out with a longtime friend of hers, Sheridan. The two of them had worked together when Julie lived in Salt Lake, and had also been roommates for a while. They’d been friends for over a decade, and Sheridan lives only about 25 miles from me, but somehow I’d never met her until that Christmas visit. The moment I met her I understood why she’d always been one of Julie’s treasured friends. In May, Julie was in Utah for another visit, and we again met up with Sheridan. I still vividly recall our goodbyes on a sidewalk in downtown Salt Lake that evening. There were smiles, hugs, and promises to see each other again soon. 
Barely two weeks later, I was frantically trying to find a way to reach Sheridan by phone to tell her that Julie had died. It was a holiday weekend, and it took a day or two before she received my message. Even though I didn’t know her well, she had been such a good friend to Julie for so long I felt it was important that she was personally informed by someone in our family about Julie’s death. 
The next week was a blur. Even now, many details of the awful tasks I took care of that week are fuzzy to me. The day of her viewing and funeral was surreal. So many friends of hers introduced themselves to me that day. I knew very few of them.  After the service, I remember wondering to myself “What now?"  The entire week before had been consumed with the many details and tasks that come with preparing for a funeral. Now the goodbyes had been said, and I felt very much at loose ends.   

Julie & friends - East High School Prom 1994
That evening most of our family and many of Julie’s friends got together to eat, share memories, laugh and relax. That night was the first time that week that I felt like I might be able to survive such a horrific loss. Being surrounded by my extended family and many of Julie’s childhood friends was unbelievably comforting to me. Shortly before I left that night, I ended up at a table with a group of Julie’s friends from Pueblo. They all knew each other well, and were laughing and reminiscing about high school antics. They were strangers to me, but they quietly and wordlessly welcomed me into their circle. Earlier that day they had been “Julie’s friends” to me. By the time I left that night, I considered them my friends. 

Over the next few months we maintained contact via Facebook, mostly through public postings and comments on each other’s pages, but also through private messages. Of course, we bonded over our shared loss and love of Julie, but we also began to connect on other levels. Julie had many fantastic people in her life, and it was easy to see why she was friends with these women. Sharon, Leana, Keri, Joni, and many others are amazing women, people anyone would be lucky to have as friends.   
In September, four months after Julie’s death, a large group of Julie’s family and friends participated in the Race Against Suicide, a suicide prevention fundraiser in Colorado.  Leana and Sharon organized Team 808 for Jules, keeping everyone informed about details and designing shirts for the team. 808 is a reference to a silly moment in a car when Julie was in high school and noticed the time 808 on a digital clock looks like BOB. Bob was her all-purpose name for her future dream man. Seeing 808 on a clock was like sharing a private, inside joke--a reminder that her Bob was out there somewhere. 

Team 808

Sharon, Leana, Amy, Me, Sheridan
That race weekend further cemented the connection between all of us. Sheridan, who hadn’t been able to be at Julie’s funeral, flew to Colorado with me and joined us for the race. In fact, she showed us all up that day, taking first in her age division. We laughed, joked and talked with each other like we’d been friends for years. There were some tears, but the laughter and fun outweighed any sadness that weekend.   
A year after Julie’s death, we were all together again for a memorial service and the burial of Julie’s ashes. Once again, I was supported, comforted and loved by the same group of amazing women during an unbelievably emotional time.  Many of us ran the Bolder Boulder 10k that weekend, an annual race held every Memorial Day in Boulder, Colorado. It’s fitting that we connect and honor Julie through running races, since that was one of Julie’s main passions in life.    
My sister brought so much joy into my life. Losing her brought me unfathomable grief and pain. I didn’t think there could possibly be anything positive that would come from losing her. Gratitude just isn’t a word I thought I’d ever include in the list of many feelings her death caused me to experience. Yet, here I am, full of gratitude for the final gift she gave me--her friends, my friends, our friends. 

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Recovery, Goodbyes and New Beginnings

There we sat, three women in a crowded, noisy bar surrounded by out-of-town convention attendees letting off steam, and people loudly belting out karaoke tunes.  We probably looked like any other group of women out for a ladies night--talking, laughing, gossiping and catching up.  In reality, just a few hours before, I’d listened to one of the women, just 37 years old, read a heart-wrenching goodbye letter to her husband at his memorial service.  I barely knew the second woman, having only met her earlier that evening.   

The three of us have much in common, having been raised in typical, middle-class suburban families, attending neighborhood schools, never really wanting for material things or struggling just to get by.  The two of them had both been on their high school drill team, pretty, popular, well-liked girls.  In fact, they’d grown up in the same neighborhood my daughter now lives in with her dad, just several hundred yards away from my former home. 

I’d met A just two weeks before, a few days after her husband’s death from a heroin overdose.  He and my boyfriend, Mike, were longtime friends.  The three of them had all gone to the same middle and high schools.  Although I didn’t know her husband well, I’d spent time with him on more than one occasion.  He was an intelligent, delightful, funny, charismatic person--the type who made everyone feel like they were an instant friend.  I was looking forward to getting to know him better.  We’d spent a few Friday nights sitting side-by-side, chatting at the bar where Mike bartends on Friday nights, with Mike joining our conversations when he wasn’t busy.   Although he’d been candid and open with me about his many struggles over the last several years, sadly, I had no idea he was also fighting a heroin addiction. 

Since his death I’ve spent time thinking about the private, personal demons so many people fight.  It makes me sad to know that someone I knew was struggling.  Despite some of our recent honest, heartfelt conversations about his struggles, he didn’t reach out to me, or to anyone, to let them know he was falling and needed help.  Or perhaps, in his own way he did, and everyone missed the signals.  It’s so hard to know sometimes.  People we love deeply, and think we know well, die, alone, giving up the fight, whether intentionally or not.  Those of us left behind are left to wonder what more we could have done, and hoping somehow, somewhere in their hearts they knew they were loved by us, and wishing they’d asked us for help.

It’s also made me reflect about how seemingly small, inconsequential choices we all make can unknowingly set us on an unintended path in life.  First one choice, then another, leads in a direction, ending somewhere we never imagined.  The other night in the bar, we talked about that very thing.  Each of us came from remarkably similar backgrounds, were smart, savvy, college educated and had many options.  But here we were, all of us living lives we didn’t imagine when as girls we’d dreamt of what adulthood would be like.  We talked about things we had in common, but mostly we listened to A tell her story.  She’d made many small choices that ultimately led to her own heroin addiction, which she’s currently fighting valiantly, having been clean for over a year. 

I listened to her in amazement, the entire time wondering at which point exactly had her choices set her on a path so different than mine.  Life as she knew it is over.  She’d hit rock bottom over a year ago, and was still struggling to make sense of where she was, and where to take her life from here when her husband died.  Now the challenges in front of her are even that much more staggering.  Honestly, I was dumbfounded.  I had no idea what to say.  How on earth could I even begin to offer advice or wisdom?  I have absolutely no frame of reference for what she’s experienced.  Then I realized I didn’t need to offer advice or wisdom.  The best things I could offer her were respect, hope, and support. 

At the end of the day, despite the huge divide separating our current realities, we really aren’t that different.  She’s human, and humans make mistakes.  The great thing about it is she owns her mistakes, and is doing everything in her power not to make them again.  That’s deserving of my respect.  I’d met A expecting only to offer sympathy, but ended up with the opportunity to offer so much more.  As she said in her final letter to her husband, she’ll do everything in her power to make sure his death wasn’t in vain, and to beat her addiction for both of them.  I’ll proudly stand by her side, offering my support in whatever way I can.  

Friday, September 9, 2011

Six Motorcycles, Yellowstone, Six Men and Me

About two months ago, Mike bought a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.  When he asked me what I thought about him buying it, I think he expected to hear a list of reasons why it didn’t make sense.  Little did he know, I love riding motorcycles.  Not only would it be fun, the price was right and the savings on gas made sense.  We’ve had fun taking short rides close to home but were anxious to take it out on a longer road trip. 

Mike proposed the idea of riding to Yellowstone National Park for a weekend with a few guys from Foley’s MMA Training Center, the gym he teaches at.  I was all in, and looking forward to a relaxing weekend with friends.  I soon found out I’d be the only female in the group of seven going on the trip.  I was less than thrilled to discover this, especially since I barely knew two of the men, and two more were complete strangers to me.  After some reassurances and cajoling by Mike, I reluctantly agreed to go on what I thought was going to be a testosterone fueled guy’s weekend.  Still, I complained that I’d be bored and out of place, especially since the conversation was sure to center around motorcycles and MMA fighting.  Not exactly subjects I have much knowledge of or interest in. Plus, we were going to be tent camping in bear country, which made me super anxious!  My attitude in the days leading up to the trip was one of reluctant acceptance.  I was definitely going to be out of my comfort zone.

We all met up at Foley’s the morning we left.  The variety of motorcycles everyone would be driving was as unique as their personalities.  Mike’s decked out Road King was definitely going to be the most comfortable.  Everyone teased him about his huge old man cruiser.  He dubbed his bike the “old man starter kit”. Everyone was excited to hit the road.  We all loaded up, and with a huge roar of engines, we were off.  It’s hard not be excited by the sound of a bunch of motorcycle engines loudly revving up and heading down the road.  At least for me it is.  I couldn’t help but smile and enjoy the moment.  
Ready to hit the road.
The morning was beautiful, and we all cruised along at a good speed stopping for gas every 80 miles or so.  After only one wrong turn and about 20 miles of back tracking we made it to Jackson Hole, Wyoming.  We did the usual touristy things there, snapping pictures in front of the arch made of antlers, and stopped for food and cold beers at the famous Million Dollar Cowboy Bar.  After that it was back on the bikes and into Yellowstone.  

Jackson Hole

We checked into a campsite and quickly got camp set up.  When we checked in we were told that three Grizzly Bears were living about 400 yards down the road and to follow every precaution to avoid attracting them.  Yikes!  That didn’t exactly set my mind at ease.  After a good dinner prepared by our camp chef extraordinaire, Mike, we spent a nice evening laughing and talking around a fire.  So far, there hadn’t been a single conversation about fighting, and the bike talk had been minimal.  In fact, that night we had a rather in-depth discussion about religion and beliefs about life after death.  I was relieved at the ease with which we all got along and how easy-going and fun the group was.  

After an uneventful night devoid of any bear visits, we were up for breakfast, then packed up and hit the road.  We spent some time sightseeing in the park that morning, including time at Old Faithful.  The plan was to leave the park via West Yellowstone and ride over Bear Tooth Pass, then back into the park to camp for the night.  We ended up taking a different route that took us through Cody, Wyoming.  We rode over Chief Joseph Highway, which was beautiful.   We still hoped to make it up Bear Tooth and back, but it was getting late and storm clouds were rolling in.  Everyone had warm clothes, but not all of us had full-length rain gear.  

We decided to take a chance and took off in a light rain.  Within minutes we were in a torrential downpour!  I was soaked to the bone and very cold.  We continued on until we finally reached a service station where we could change into dry, warmer clothes.  After some coffee, and putting on dry clothes and extra layers, things were more comfortable.  At 10,947 feet elevation, Bear Tooth Pass is the highest elevation road in the Northern Rockies.  Needless to say, it was cold and windy at the peak.  After a slow, cautious trip down, we rolled into Red Lodge, Montana cold, damp, hungry and tired.   During dinner we decided to get a motel and stay there that night.

The next day we were all rested, warm, refreshed and ready to tackle Bear Tooth Pass again, this time taking time to stop and enjoy the scenery along the way.  The ride was incredibly beautiful.  The view of glacial lakes and big, open blue sky is truly breathtaking.  It’s one of those places that reminds me what a tiny speck I am in this vast universe.  About halfway up the pass, I realized it was August 29th--15 months since the day my sister died.  I was determined not to let the thought ruin the ride and my enjoyment of the scenery.  But the more I took in the beauty and the feeling of absolute freedom and happiness I had, the sadder I became about her loss. Finally, I gave in to the tears as I once again mourned that she couldn’t see her way out of the darkness in her mind, choosing death over life.  If only I could have been there to remind her of the many reasons there were to live, including heart-stopping moments like this one, in a place that felt like I was on top of the world. 

As my tears dried, we started our descent, ending up in Cooke City, Montana where we stopped for lunch.  From there we headed back into Yellowstone.  Up to that point, the only wildlife we’d seen were some squirrels and hawks.  All of us were anxious to see some more exciting wildlife.  It wasn’t long before we saw moose, buffalo, and elk.  Alas, we didn’t see any bears.  While I don’t like the thought of sleeping in a tent with the possibility of a bear attack, viewing one from a safe distance would be cool.  

Near the top of Bear Tooth Pass

The rest of the day was spent going through the park, stopping at various points of interest along the way.  Then we started the long ride home.  Ultimately, the day turned out to be very long, with at least twelve hours of it spent on the bike.  I was exhausted, cranky and longing for my bed and sleep.  I finally fell asleep hunched over on Mike’s back, making the drive awkward and nerve-racking for him, because he had to keep shifting me so I wouldn’t fall off.  Finally, after 1,000 miles in three days, at nearly 1 a.m. we made it home.  

Despite the long, less than fun end to the trip, I had an amazingly good time.  Not only did I not have to endure talk about fighting and motorcycles, I was hilariously entertained, and got to know   people I might otherwise wouldn’t have known.  Yes, buying the motorcycle was a good choice, as I was once again reminded of all the unexpected joy and great experiences that come when I step out of my comfort zone.     

Last day, ready to head home.