About Grief

“No one should be this happy.”

On February 19th, 2016, those were the words I kept repeating to Andrew. It was a beautiful and unseasonably warm day in Knoxville, and we had just found out we would be moving to Denver. We opened the windows and spent most of the day dreaming about our new life, so thrilled that we were going to have a new adventure in the beautiful state of Colorado!

We spoke with our families who, for the most part, shared our excitement. When I called my Babci’s (Polish for grandmother) house, my uncle told me she was at the hospital getting a stress test. I didn’t think much about it, and I was able to tell her the good news later in the day. I believe her exact words, peppered with disappointment, were, “Denver? That’s so far. I’m just so worried about everyone moving so far away.” (My cousin Angela would be moving to South Carolina in the coming weeks, and the way my Babci saw it, there was just no need for that).  I had learned to deal with her disappointment in my living “too far from home,” so I wasn’t surprised at her response, but I was a bit sad knowing that I wouldn’t be able to visit with her as often as I had in the past.

During our time in Knoxville, Andrew and I had developed a close friendship with Kerry, one of the women in my cohort. She had also matched for her internship in Denver, and this was truly the cherry on top of our already huge ice cream sundae. That evening, we all celebrated with our Knoxville family. Even looking back, it is so difficult to put into words my feelings that weekend. We were over the moon and so giddy with excitement.

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The next few days are a bit of blur. But at some point, I found out my Babci would need to have surgery to have stents put in her heart. I wasn’t terribly worried, I figured it would be a routine procedure, no big deal. Then on Tuesday, my mom let me know she was being transferred to Pittsburgh and would be having bypass surgery the following day. Not sure what to do or how to approach the situation, I spoke with my Aunt Ginna who happens to be a cardiology nurse. “I don’t know if you should come home or not, but this is very serious.” Although when I talked to my Babci, she acted as if everything was fine, putting on her all too familiar brave face and telling me I did not need to make the trip home.

This struggle of deciding whether or not to go home had been a familiar one over the past few years. I had lost one of my grandfathers in 2013 and the other in 2014. I can still remember so vividly the struggle of deciding whether or not to drop everything and go home or wait and see. As it turns out, I was surrounded by immensely supportive people who knew how much I valued my family and encouraged me to go home to see my grandfathers in their final days. I will hold onto my gratitude for these individuals for a long time, as having the opportunity to be present when my grandfathers took their last breathes will always be some of my most treasured moments. These moments were filled with so much love and peacefulness that ultimately made my grieving easier. I felt content knowing that I had learned a lot from my grandfathers and that although they were no longer alive, the lessons they taught me would always be part of me.

After much debate, I decided I would drive home as I would have the opportunity to see my Babci in person prior to her surgery because it wasn’t scheduled until Wednesday afternoon. On Wednesday morning, I drove to Pittsburgh with my parents and my Aunt Theresa and stood in my Babci’s ICU room. We laughed and joked that day as if nothing was different. She occasionally made comments about things we would need to know if she didn’t make it through the surgery. Trying to keep things light-hearten, I asked if she had any big family secrets she needed to tell us.  Prior to being taken into surgery, she insisted on calling all of my cousins and my aunts and uncles that weren’t able to be there that day. She said “I love you” to each and every one of us. As I hugged her for the last time, I wanted to tell her how much of an influence she had been on me, but I couldn’t get the words out.

The surgery went well and we were all hopeful that evening. On Thursday when I got to the hospital, she was still connected to the breathing machine and couldn’t talk. However, it was clear that she knew I was there and she was even able to squeeze my hands. My uncle came a couple hours later and she kept motioning to us by trying to put her hands together, but neither of us could figure out what she wanted. She continued to try to get us to understand and finally I understood– she wanted us to pray! Upon my realization, I said, “Of course, how could I have been so stupid?” And she gave me a look that could only have meant, “Seriously, I could have knocked you in the head.” We spent the next hour praying together. This was our last real interaction. She was present and alert, and even though she couldn’t talk she was there with me, just as much as I had been there with her.

As a child I was pretty emotional. I cried a lot and pretty much everyone in my family was annoyed by my relentless feelings. Not my Babci though. She would talk to me whenever I needed her. She was so present for me throughout my entire life. She genuinely cared about what I thought and how I felt. My favorite place in the world was sitting in her living room talking about life. As a child she babysat me while my parents were at work, and my favorite summer memories include time spent at her house with my cousins. When I was old enough to drive, my dad required me to pay $3 in gas money every time I wanted to visit her, something we both thought was ridiculous, but it just gave us another way to bond. Andrew and I spent many Friday nights in high school sitting at her house building puzzles and talking with her and my Dziadzi. I would sometimes joke that she was my soulmate. I don’t actually believe in soulmates, but I certainly believe that she understood me in a way no one else in this world ever will. Trying to capture her role in my life and the importance of our relationship is hard, sometimes feelings can’t be put into words.

On Thursday night, the doctors found a blood clot in her leg and did another surgery. A big chunk of my family was at the hospital on Friday, and unfortunately we didn’t get to spend as much time with her. By Friday night, I was pretty tired so I decided that on Saturday I would sleep in and go for a run before going to the hospital again. I drove to my Aunt Ginna’s house Saturday morning because the two of us would be driving up together. When I walked in time stopped for a moment, as my Aunt Ginna told me my Babci had died.

The tears came and they wouldn’t stop. I was devastated. One week ago, my life was perfect. I was over the moon. And then in a flash I had lost the most influential woman in my life. Granted I didn’t need her the way I did when I was a child, but I wanted to continue sharing my life with her. I wanted to see the look on her face when I told her I was pregnant. I wanted to hear her tell me I lived too far away. I wanted to sit in her living room together. I wasn’t content and peaceful the way I had been when my grandfathers died. What I was experiencing is something I wasn’t prepared for– intense unrelenting grief.

Being a psychologist in training I had learned about grief. I knew what it looked like and the ways in which it could impact someone, but nothing prepared me for what I was about to experience.

It’s hard to remember the first few days following her death. I do remember feeling so grateful for everyone who reached out to me during that time. Another one of my most vivid memories was saying goodbye to her at the funeral home before driving to her funeral mass. I was clutching her arm so tightly because I didn’t want to let go. As Andrew and I waited in the car for the procession to begin, we prayed the Divine Mercy. As I cried, I tried to embrace the last prayer.

“Eternal God, in whom mercy is endless and the treasury of compassion — inexhaustible, look kindly upon us and increase Your mercy in us, that in difficult moments we might not despair nor become despondent, but with great confidence submit ourselves to Your holy will, which is Love and Mercy itself.”

I was having a difficult moment, but I was struggling with believing my Babci’s death was indeed God’s will. Logically I knew I needed to accept her death, but emotionally, I just couldn’t see past my own sadness.

Andrew and I drove back to Knoxville after the funeral, and I was looking forward to getting back into my routine. But it wasn’t as easy as I had anticipated. I woke up in Knoxville feeling like if I moved forward with my life, I would be forgetting her. It was as if time was slowed down and the entire world had turned grey. And I was so tired all the time. There were days I couldn’t get off of the couch and I couldn’t seem to regulate my emotions. The smallest things would make me inconsolable. I hated the way I felt and I was worried that my sad attitude was going to push everyone around me away.

Determined to find some peace, Andrew and I decided to go for a hike in the Smokies. I was convinced that some cold, March air would surely do the trick. I was certain that I would connect with her and feel like myself again. The hike was beautiful, the air was cold. I felt grey and sad. Not one ounce of joy. I was so frustrated with myself for not being able to find peace and continuing to feel upset. This wasn’t me. It was as if I was outside of my own body just watching myself go through the motions of life.

I was back at school, but everything felt like an immense effort. Walking to my car was exhausting. Doing anything more than the bare minimum was out of the question. Looking back I’m not sure how Andrew was able to handle all the crying that was happening. At some points, he had no choice but to call in reinforcements. To those friends who sat with me in those dark moments, thank you. After about a month, slowly but surely, I started seeing color again. I started feeling happy again. Bit by bit, I was becoming myself once more.

The grief of that first month was heavy, it was ugly, it was selfish. But it also gave me a new found understanding of what it means to experience grief and depression. It was painful and I wanted it to end, but no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t get rid of it. Over time, it was less suffocating and came in waves. The sadness would hit randomly and with every new thing that happened. As we were preparing for the move to Denver, I kept thinking about how I wanted everything to stay just the way it was when my Babci died. Somehow moving and changing my life would mean I was accepting my life without her and that did not feel right.

My mom, aunts, and uncles were cleaning out and selling her house. The home where I had my favorite childhood memories. My safe place. The place where no matter who you were or what you had done in your life, you would be loved. That was tough for me to process, the last little bit of her I felt like I had.

As my birthday approached, I didn’t want to celebrate. I had that same eerie feeling that if I moved forward happily, I would be diminishing her or the importance of who she is to me. As I walked into work, the Tuesday before my birthday, I reached into my pocket and pulled out one of her handkerchiefs. Stitched in bright red lettering were the words “Happy Birthday.” That one hit me hard. A perfect combination of happy and sad tears, but for one of the first times since her death, I felt connected to her again.

Andrew and I made the decision to spend the holidays in Denver. A huge part of me didn’t want to face a holiday without her. I was still trying to find a new normal. A place where I could hold onto her memory and the lessons she taught me, while still moving forward with my own life. I watched home movies, I listened to voicemails she left me. I prayed.

My Babci wasn’t perfect. She had a temper that could catch fire in an instant. She had strong opinions that she always shared, like it or not.  She was the strongest woman I have ever met. She often held the weight of our family on her shoulders, but never stopped loving each and every one of us. She was the glue that held our family together, a true matriarch. She was thoughtful and tried to make each of us feel special. She took her love of recycling to the extreme. She never shied away from having meaningful conversations with me. No matter my question, she gave me her genuine answer. She taught me what it meant to be a strong wife and mother. She taught me about life. She is the reason I want to be a grandmother some day.

As we approach the 1 year anniversary of her death, I still find myself hit by waves of grief. I still find myself searching for a way to ensure that I don’t forget her. Time has helped. And deep down I know I will never forget her. But there is still a desire to share my experience as a way to keep her as an important part of my life.

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The End.

Days 35-53

Since he finished the trail on May 26th, Andrew has been bugging me to finish the blog. Nearly 4 months later, I’m finally going to appease him.

I think the most logical place to start is to discuss why I didn’t finish the blog back in May. There were a couple reasons: 1. I was busy finishing my dissertation and living my life and 2. I didn’t need it anymore. What started as a way for me to process my experience, and let’s be real, my MANY feelings, had served its purpose. I had reached a point were I didn’t need to get a bird’s eye view of the situation. I was comfortable with the hike, and after working through some of my own emotions, I was able to fully support Andrew.

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Not surprisingly, my memory from the last few weeks of Andrew’s hike is a little blurry. But thanks to Instagram and a few vague memories, I think I can piece it back together. Here goes. After his dad dropped him off at the trail again, Andrew was trying to complete 30+ miles a day in order to catch up to Patches and Pony. His legs were starting to feel it and he had experienced several rainy and lonely days in a row. On the other hand, my life was going well. I was enjoying my time with friends, consistently working on my dissertation, and feeling positive about the future. When Andrew tried to call me on a Thursday evening to explain how awful things had been and get some support, I missed his call. Luckily, his dad saved the day and offered to put him up in a hotel for the night, where he was able to dry out all of his belongings. When I finally called back, we were able to Facetime and I did my best to encourage him and communicate the confidence that I felt. He could do this. We could do this. We were doing it. We had come so far, and he would make it to Harper’s Ferry. Luckily, he caught up to Patches within the next couple days and things were looking up for him again.

My parents came to town over that weekend and with their help, I packed up about half of the Knoxville apartment that would not be making the journey to our much smaller apartment in Denver. It was a great visit and on Monday they drove a trailer of our belongings, that we clearly didn’t need, back to Steubenville. The following weekend, I picked Andrew up from the trail and we traveled home. I had a bridal shower/bachelorette party and one of our good friends was being ordained. We had another car ride to catch up, and our families were all together at a cook-out when we finally made it to the Ohio Valley. It was great to see everyone and we both enjoyed the weekend.

That Sunday, we stayed at a hotel and planned the rest of the week. Andrew would be finishing the trail on THURSDAY! How could this be? I wouldn’t even have to wait a week to see him. I was so excited. I was also panicked. My dissertation was suppose to be finished by the time he made it back to Knoxville, and I knew for sure that would not be happening. Nevertheless, I did my best to finish the analyses and enjoyed some terrible reality TV and last minute cuddles alone with the cats. Then on Thursday, I made the drive to Harper’s Ferry and hiked the final mile of the trail with Andrew.

Summing up that last mile is hard. Andrew was definitely in better shape than I was and I felt like he was running, I could barely keep up. Also, despite my attempt to look semi decent, I was sweating more than I had expected. But none of that really mattered. As we walked together during that last mile, there were so many unspoken feelings. This journey had not only been meaningful to us as a couple, but we had both grown as individuals. I felt proud of Andrew. I felt proud of myself. I felt happy that the trail happened and that it was over. I felt excited about being together again. I felt sad that this chapter of our life was over. As we took the final steps on the AT, Andrew began to cry. Much like how the trail started, we shared something so special and indescribable in that moment. So much love and growth were palpable as we stood there on a bridge staring at the river, finished with the AT.

Solid Ground

Days 27-34

Andrew, Patches, and Pony met up with another hiker named Easy E and they had become something of a fearsome foursome, continually putting up big miles. Service had been spotty and we weren’t able to talk as frequently, but we were both holding up pretty well.

Andrew and I had originally planned that I would be picking him up to take him home for a bachelor party on Thursday, May 5th. But as it turns out my schedule worked out so that I was able to get off early on Wednesday, which also happened to be Andrew’s birthday. The crew would be camping close to a main road and I was going to have the opportunity to experience a night on the trail with them and meet the hikers I had heard so much about.

The closer it came to Wednesday, the more insanely excited I became. I packed up their list of requested food items, an Oreo cheesecake birthday cake, and drove 3.5 hours to where they were on the trail.

As a side note, I was shocked by the amount of food they requested for only 4 people.

  • 12 pack of Beer
  • 12 pack of Root-beer
  • 4 Hot n Ready Pizzas
  • 2 bags of Doritos
  • Tortilla Chips and Guacamole
  •  6 Jr. Bacon Cheeseburgers
  • Snickers Bars

When I first got to their camp, I felt a little like I was invading their space. It was clear that they were excited to meet me and to tell me about their experience on the trail, but they also had a routine and a comfort with one another that I was shaking up . Eventually, I began to feel more comfortable as they chowed down on all of the food, continually thanking me for bringing it. Pony was definitely the most talkative, and I now understood why Andrew had named his stories “Ponytales.”  As we sat around the campfire talking about their life on the trail, I felt so grateful to have the opportunity to meet these guys and to share in some small part of the trail. I also felt a little sad knowing that these 3 would be continuing on and that when Andrew returned to the trail, he would be hiking without them.

The next morning, we packed up Andrew’s stuff and headed to West Virginia. Given our lack of ability to communicate the days before, we had a lot to catch up on in the car. I was able to share how things had changed for me. It was also so nice to just be in the same place together again. We enjoyed the next 24 hours, as Andrew did laundry and repacked his trail stuff. Then on Friday  I dropped him off with friends for the weekend and headed back to Knoxville. The goodbye seemed a little easier this time.

I enjoyed a Kentucky Derby party with friends on Saturday and Andrew’s dad took him back to the trail on Sunday. I felt a little disconnected from him after not having much communication over the weekend, but I knew he only had 400 more miles to hike and then we would be on our way to Denver. The countdown was on.

 

ATurning Point

Days 20-26

On Sunday as my dad left, I decide I was going to stop pressuring myself and start doing things that I would enjoy. I started by going to a Barre class with Caitlin and Jerika. On the way back to my house, I explained to Jerika my new plan. She was in full support and asked if I wanted to go hiking at Ijams, a park nearby. Given my new philosophy, I decided to go. As we drove there, Jerika asked how I had been feeling about my Babci, who passed away unexpectedly at the end of February. It would be an understatement to say that her passing was difficult for me. She was an amazing woman that I admired more than I can say. Losing her changed me. I looked at things differently. Andrew leaving had distracted me from the pain of losing her, but I appreciated Jerika bringing it up. Because my Babci had been so influential in the development of my faith, our conversation naturally went in that direction.

As we walked at Ijams, our conversation continued and we ended up sitting on a bench for a while. It is hard for me to describe how much these few hours meant to me. Jerika was so supportive and so genuinely interested in my experience with faith, my Babci’s death, and Andrew’s hike. She was helping me to better understand my reactions by listening and being genuinely curious. That night I was so grateful for my friendship with Jerika. I was starting to understand myself and my reactions to Andrew better, and bigger changes were on the horizon. I could feel it.

I had also been going to therapy because of how challenging losing my Babci had been and in anticipation of being away from Andrew. And on Tuesday, I had a great session. I shared my rough weekend and I was able to fully understand how and why I was reacting in such a negative way. Much of my reaction was related to my family of origin. It was so relieving. For the first time, I felt like I had a choice. I could choose to react differently with Andrew. It was truly a turning point for me. I had an inner peace that I hadn’t experienced since Andrew left for the trail.

Having a handle on my own experience allowed me to be fully supportive of Andrew because my own stuff wasn’t getting in the way. He had still been hiking with Patches and they had recently joined up with a guy named Pony. They continued with their big miles and made it to Damascus on Thursday where they took a short break to resupply and do laundry.

Meanwhile, I had dinner with Andrew’s cousin April on Wednesday and on Thursday, I went to visit my cousin, Angela, in Columbia, South Carolina. Ang and I went to the zoo and relaxed watching movies. Something had truly changed for me, and I couldn’t wait to see Andrew and tell him about everything that was happening. His decision to hike the AT was allowing me the opportunity to grow in ways I wouldn’t have if he wasn’t hiking.

I was also allowing myself to fully take in the love Andrew was expressing. On Friday, he posted a photo about the trail and the ending line was so meaningful. “No matter the distance, the trail always leads back to you.” Talk about tears, the good kind this time.

Bear Sightings

Days 14-19

On Sunday, we drove to Newfound Gap. I was dreading the goodbye and was quiet most of the way. Once we made it to the place we had been so many times before, the tears came for both of us. Saying goodbye this time was harder than the first time. This time we knew what the next few weeks would feel like. Andrew assured me that every step he took was one step closer to coming home to me. With that in mind, I drove home in the typical traffic of Pigeon Forge, ran stats for my dissertation, enjoyed a beautiful evening run, and finished a puzzle with Kerry. I received a voicemail from Andrew indicating he was having an emotional and tough day, but there wasn’t good enough service so we weren’t able to talk.

Aside from the difficult goodbye, the first part of the week was relatively unremarkable. I received some awesome pictures from Andrew. He had met back up with Patches and the two were enjoying each others company. Things were going well for both of us.

I was even dealing with some of my own anxiety. Since I was a small child, I have had extreme anxiety at night. I’ve rarely lived alone and for most of my life I’ve actually slept in the same room with another person. My sister, college roommates, and now Andrew. When I’m alone, I usually engaging in checking behaviors as an attempt to reduce the anxiety. My fear is irrational and I could even tell you that in the moment, however if you’ve ever experienced anxiety it can be difficult to fight. I had checked closets, under the beds, in the showers, etc.,  every night while Andrew was gone, and it helped, but I still hadn’t been sleeping well. As I was driving home Monday evening after hanging out with friends, I decided that I would not check. And surprisingly, I didn’t. I was so proud of myself. I was conquering this fear! I didn’t check Tuesday or Wednesday either.

However that high didn’t last long, Wednesday night was awful. I had a lot of trouble falling asleep and I tossed and turned all night, and on Thursday I felt the impact of poor sleep. I was exhausted. I was teary and I was having trouble holding it together. When Andrew called, I lost it. We had a short conversation and afterward I was falling apart. I was at work and needed to stop crying. I was angry at myself for feeling upset at all. As I was trying to get myself together, I texted Kerry. Luckily, she was there and was able to help distract me from my endless thoughts. The worst part of this cycle was how hard I was being on myself. I just kept thinking, “There are people in the military whose partners are deployed, and you can’t handle two months. How ridiculous and selfish are you?” Unsurprisingly, these thoughts weren’t helping.

On Friday morning Andrew saw his first bear, and this sighting, although peaceful,  foreshadowed our afternoon and evening. It had rained all day on Friday and he was soaked, and because Patches had some family in Johnson City, the two were able to get a break from the trail and dry out. I wish I could say that I handled this better, but I didn’t. I was angry and jealous. Andrew was getting a break. He was getting to stop the pain and just relax. I hadn’t had that chance. I had to make sure our lease in Denver was signed. I had to rush to get my dissertation finished. I had to pack up our home in Knoxville. If I wasn’t working on something, I felt guilty. There was a constant pressure. Not to mention, Johnson City is only an hour and a half from our home, so I could have seen him if I knew he was planning to take a break. And ashamedly, I took out my anger on Andrew. I was awful and my words were unacceptable. He vacillated between trying to understand and support me and his own anger. I was surrounded by friends and I was trying to find comfort with them, but it wasn’t working. My dad was also coming to town later that evening and I knew if I could just hold it together until he arrived things would be better. I couldn’t. My emotions were all over the place, and despite knowing that everything I was saying was hurtful, I couldn’t stop. I was being selfish because I was in pain. I felt hurt and was pushing Andrew away because I was afraid that if I shared my vulnerable feelings, I would be harmed or rejected. That evening as we tried to get through it, things were shaky. We both acknowledged it was a terrible day and hoped the next day would be better.

Saturday morning I still felt off. More than anything, I felt like I was failing. I was failing to support my husband, I was failing to hold up my end of this agreement, and I was failing at being the person I wanted to be. Luckily, my dad had brought his bicycle to town and so we met my friend, Caitlin, and as we ran he was able to go for ride. It was so helpful to be outside and to process my experience with a friend. I expressed my deep frustration with myself and shared the guilt that I had regarding how terribly I was handling things. She validated how challenging the past few months have been for me and shared a message Andrew had sent to a group of my friends that morning. His message was so genuine and expressed such gratitude. It also conveyed his deep understanding for our current situation. Finally, I softened. I allowed myself to acknowledge his deep love and commitment to me. I allowed myself to acknowledge how deeply I missed him. In this time of chaos, if he were here, he would have been my comfort. The one place that would be safe while everything else around me felt like it was falling apart. I had certainly taken this for granted.

In reflecting on these “rough days,” I’ve learned so much. It’s true that many people have things much more difficult than I do. Many people have to be away from their spouse for months at a time, but I needed to be kinder to myself. This is a challenging time in my life and I miss my husband. Feeling guilty and trying to push away the very real pain I was feeling would only result in more frustration and anger. I had an opportunity here. I could continue to deny my feelings and push Andrew away or I could experience the pain and allow him to see how vulnerable I felt, which would ultimately bring us closer.

excitement AT home.

Days 8-13

Monday was a good day. Andrew called during lunchtime while he was at the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) in North Carolina. He told me he would send a picture because, “[I] would love it.” He was right, the picture made me wish I was hiking alongside him. But after Sunday, I promised myself that I would be more supportive, so I kept my feelings of jealousy to myself. Later that night Andrew got his first trail name, Ultra. It seemed his big miles were a big deal. He was excited, but personally, I was a little disappointed. Sure, Ultra was appropriate given his big miles, but I expected something a little more creative.

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On Tuesday evening, Andrew let me know that if he covered a good amount of miles on Wednesday he would make it to Newfound Gap on Thursday, one day sooner than we had planned. This meant he would be taking a break in Knoxville from Thursday evening until Sunday morning. I could barely contain my excitement! He told me several times that there was no guarantee because he did not want me to be disappointed. I heard what he was saying, but I couldn’t help but get my hopes up.

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As it turns out, Wednesday was one of Andrew’s best days on the trail. He met another fast hiker, Patches, and the two of them hiked 30 miles together. Andrew also got a new trail name, Lava Monster. This name, courtesy of Patches, was based on Andrew’s red, orange, and yellow shoes and his ability to charge up big mountains. I was much more impressed with this one. Wednesday was a good day for me too. I couldn’t help but think one of the reasons Andrew had pushed himself so far that day was because he wanted to get home just as much as I wanted him to be home. And that thought made me even more excited, if that was even possible.

On Thursday, I went to school feeling a bit emotional. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was going on, but I took comfort knowing that I would see Andrew later that afternoon. Around 2pm, I made the drive to Gatlinburg. Andrew had hiked some familiar parts of the AT and passed by Clingman’s Dome and Newfound Gap. He got a free ride into town from a local church and hit the Donut Friar, consuming 4 donuts, prior to meeting me. When I pulled into the parking lot, he was actually jumping up and down. He was just as excited as I was and I could barely contain myself. When I got out of the car, we hugged and were both crying, as Andrew kept saying, “I’m so happy to see you.” I brought him a change of clothes, but surprisingly he didn’t smell too bad.

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The car ride home on Thursday was great. Andrew repeated the same phrases over and over. “I’m so happy to see you.” “I’m so grateful for this opportunity.” “Everyone is so kind.” In between those phrases, he shared the details of his time on the trail. And because the 4 donuts weren’t enough, we stopped at McDonald’s and he downed more food. As he talked, it was striking how much this experience was already changing him. He told me how humbling it was to carry everything he had on his back, about the kindness of the trail angels, and how his faith in humanity had been restored. He was also excited about how far he was able to push himself physically. He was doing more miles and the hills were easier than he expected. It was the downhill that he found most difficult.

I was changing too. Even though my own anxiety and fear had increased after Andrew left, I was working on it. I wasn’t where I wanted to be, but I also knew I would have more time to fight the fears while Andrew continued his journey on the trail. So for the time being, I would just enjoy the security of Andrew being home.

It was so easy to fall back into our old routine and in many ways it felt like Andrew had never left. He was eating everything he could get his hands on, including an entire container of guacamole in one sitting and the biggest breakfast I had ever seen. We were watching our favorite TV shows and talking about our move to Denver. We even spent Friday afternoon searching for and leasing an apartment. The hardest part of Andrew being home for me was going to sleep. I didn’t want to lose any time with him. I didn’t want the next day to come because I knew that was one day closer to Sunday. One day closer to saying goodbye, again.

Up and Down Emotional Mountains

Days 3-7

Surprisingly, I was hearing from Andrew everyday, sometimes more than once. He was feeling strong and so was I. We were both still riding the excitement that comes along with any new adventure. I was also receiving so much support from some wonderful people in our life.

Then on Friday, all at once, I got my first dose of sadness. Andrew called in the afternoon, and he was so happy and feeling so strong. He had met a couple of other fast hikers (20+ miles per day) and he made it to North Carolina. Things weren’t as rosy for me. During that conversation, the tears came and they wouldn’t stop. He didn’t have much time, so we got off the phone and I tried to get myself together. The tears just wouldn’t stop. Although I don’t like admitting it, I was jealous. Jealous that Andrew was having an adventure while I was in Knoxville fighting with my dissertation and scooping cat poop. He was meeting new people and seeing breathtaking views and I felt left out. I wanted to blame him for my negative emotions- he was selfish, this pain was his fault. Logically, I knew that was ridiculous, but those stupid tears just wouldn’t stop. Luckily, I found comfort in friends that night. They let me have my feelings and reminded me of the millions of sacrifices Andrew had made for me. We were living in Tennessee because I was in graduate school. We were moving to Denver because that’s where my internship would be. It was my first low day. It started with sadness and jealousy, but ended with good friends, good wine, and good feelings.

On Saturday, I woke up to some comforting words from Pope Francis:

“Love trusts, it sets free, it does not try to control, possess and dominate everything. This freedom, which fosters independence, an openness to the world around us and to new experiences, can only enrich and expand relationships.”

These words were the reminder I needed. They couldn’t have been more appropriate for my current situation with Andrew. Later that morning I went to my first barre class with a friend.  As we were driving home, she asked how I was feeling and all I could say was grateful. Everyone in my life was so willing to go out of their way in order to help me through this first week of the trail. We are surrounded by an incredible group of people who deeply care for us. Even the couple that sits in front of us at mass on Saturday asked me where Andrew was. This, I thought to myself, is what life and love is about.

But after a high, usually comes a low. And that low was Sunday. Andrew called around 11am, and I was in a bad place. It had taken me hours to clean things that we normally would have cleaned quickly if we were doing it together, and I was dreading all the work I needed to do on my dissertation. He was at a Burger King in North Carolina, moving fast, and excited to talk to me. Embarrassingly, I was angry and short with him. I cried during most of our conversation and was pushing him away. After I hung up with him, I decided to go for a run. As I ran, I knew I was being ridiculous again, but I couldn’t stop myself. Who does this? Who leaves their spouse for two months?  How is it so easy for him to be away from me? On and on. I stopped to go to the bathroom and Andrew called again. Foolishly, I continued to be short, and he was frustrated and feeling helpless. We had talked before he left for the trail about the likelihood of me being angry and resentful some days. We hadn’t really talk about how we would handle it. So as my parents would say, we had a “discussion.” At the end of the call, through gritted teeth, I apologized for being so mean and told him how much I loved him and how proud I was of him. Before I finished my sentence, he said firmly, “I know.” Those two little words meant everything. He knew. He knew me. He knew I was acting a little crazy, but he was able to hold onto how much I loved him despite my behavior. Even when I’m embarrassed by the way I act, he sees through it. This is why I married him, this is why we are such great partners. This is why I wanted him to hike the AT.