Grief


By Layla Dunlap

Chris passed away from a rare cancer that stemmed from a long battle with Crohn’s disease. We met on May 13, 2007. I think we were both a little unsure of each other at first, but by July that summer we were connected at the hip. I was madly in love with him and he was the man I was going to be with forever, hands down, no question about it. We weren’t that gushy with each other but I think it’s safe to say that he felt the same way.

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I am not one who cries often or easily. When the most important person (besides my parents) in my life died I didn’t go through what counselors, therapists, etc. call the “stages of grief.” Instead, I did what was right, I pushed on and talked about Chris’ death with the most positivity I could muster. Only my mama and very close friends would’ve seen or heard how devastated I was after Chris died, and that didn’t happen very often.

A couple of years after Chris’ death, a friend asked me if I ever still thought of Chris.  Was she crazy? Hell yes, I still thought about him. It bothered me that someone would think that I could forget him. It made me feel like I came off as a cold person, someone who could easily blow off the memories as easily as they were made. This has stuck with me ever since the visit with my friend. So, here it is, five years after his death and I am speaking out on what it’s like to lose someone that your truly love with every muscle in your body. Someone who made me a better person.

The scientist in me likes numbers. Chris has been gone for five years.

5 years = 260 weeks

260 weeks = 1820 days

1820 days = 43,680 hours and

43,680 hours = 2,620,800 minutes

2,620,800 minutes too long without him. One minute is too long without him. Time is a tricky thing. People say time has a way of making a death easier to cope with. Some days it’s true. Other days, time slaps you in the face, “Wake up! He’s gone.” Chris’ death is my go-to timeline for which I remember significant events, meeting people, vacations,etc. that I was apart of. It is always before or after Chris died. I wish it were a different event that I reference my life around.

Some days it feels as if five years has flown by. I stop and wonder how time has slipped away so suddenly. “What if I forget him, or all the little details,” I wonder, knowing that’s absolutely never going to happen. Other days time drags on and on. I relive every moment that occurred from the time he found out about the cancer until he passed away comfortably in his childhood home. I need to know that it was real and that he will not be coming back. Those days I like being sad, laying in my bed crying my eyes out, going into a deep morbid hole. This sadness is so heart wrenching that after it passes I feel relief and strangely enough, even a little enlightened.

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I’ve dreamed of Chris occasionally. In each one Chris has come back to life. Just like that, he is back as if nothing happened. And in each one I am always searching for Sandy, Chris’ mom, to tell her he’s alive. The nights I dream of him I don’t want to wake up.  And when I do wake there is the split moment when I think he really is back. When I realize he isn’t I always think to myself, “wouldn’t it be cool if he could come back to life?” And for a second I think that he actually could. Chris would think I had lost my mind if he heard this idea.

Five years later, and I remember more about Chris and our relationship now than I did a couple of years ago. I miss him. He had a way of making everyone around him feel good. He had a great smile and laugh. And watching him in the outdoors, whether it was hiking, kayaking, climbing, or birding, you wanted that same experience because he was having so much fun. He made me feel like I could do anything. I trusted him with my entire being and he made me feel safe. There have been a couple of hikes that I could swear he was on the trail with me. These were beautiful hikes, where he and I would have stopped and talked about how lucky we were to experience these wild places. From now until the day I die I will always think of C. Street leaning over my shoulder, viewing the world through my eyes. This keeps me going many days, especially these two years of grad school. He would be so proud of me. He would give me so many high fives and do a crazy little dance.

If there is one positive thing that I’ve gained from losing this amazing, good-hearted man, it is the family he left behind. I am so incredibly lucky to have Dave, Sandy, Lizzie, Jeff, and Brian in my life. Only we can know what going through that tragic experience was like, and we will have that bond forever. I am glad I have them to lean on and I’m absolutely positive they feel the same way. They are stuck with me and I am stuck with them. Chris would be so happy to know that we have remained close.

My sweet 91 year-old Mamaw and I were talking the other day and she said something that really touched me. We were talking about dying, as she is very forthcoming on the topic, and she said, ‘we don’t know what’s on the other side after we die. There are lots of theories, but no one can really say for sure. But one thing is for sure: how could any place be as beautiful as the world we live in?’ and then quickly added, ‘minus the people.’ Chris would have agreed with her. He enjoyed this earth more than anyone I’ve ever known and lived every day to the absolute fullest.

It feels good to get this out on paper.

What do the next five years hold? Where would Chris and I be if he were still here? One thing is certain: I will still think about Chris every day and share memories with my friends and family. Yes, there will be sad days but the next five years will hold more adventure and happiness for Chris’ family and me in this big beautiful world.

C.Street, always with us!

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2014.  Glacier County Honey Co.  All Rights Reserved to Layla Dunlap.

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The smoke detector chirped during nap time last week.  I snatched it from the wall and pried out the batteries, silencing the shrill shriek that for ten years now has caused me to break out in a cold sweat that stinks of fear and rotting nightmares.  I shook the chill off and congratulated myself that Maggie Rose, 3, and Howard, 1, were still sleeping, and proceeded to my desk to root around for fresh AAA batteries.

And then the phone rang, and the UPS man had a question, and a group of lovely Texan tourists stopped by for a tour of the honey extracting plant, and nap time was over, and I was elbow deep in honey and wax, plugging a plug out of the pump, and two days later I scurried over to my desk to print an invoice and there it was, two out of three batteries missing from its innards: the smoke detector.

The breath caught sharply in my throat and I thought to myself: Howard, what have I done?  Am I starting to forget you?  Am I not being careful enough with the lives of my children and my husband and myself?

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The next day, down at Hillhouse, I caught a pan filled with vegetable oil on fire, and I couldn’t find the fire extinguisher, and Honeydew and I tried to calmly discuss the fire-smothering-merits of baking soda versus baking powder, and as the panicked bile in my throat rose along with the flames he finally wrapped his arm in a wet towel and flung the flaming pan out of the front door into the rain soaked yard.

And I again thought of my brother Howard, who died in a house fire just shy of his 20th birthday, on August 27, 2004, and berated myself for my carelessness.

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Earlier this month, Maggie Rose had occasion to attend her first funeral service, for the inspirational matriarch of the St. Mary Valley, Mrs. Ruth Johnson, who employed Howard in the summer of 2004.  Maggie Rose asked me why Miss Ruth, who lived to be 95, had died, and I told Maggie that all living things age every day, and eventually, everything and everyone dies, except the rocks, Chuck always says that only the rocks live forever.  As a three year old will, she persisted in this line of questioning, and I tried to to explain that although Miss Ruth’s family and friends were sad she had died, and would miss her, she had been lucky to live such a long life, and to become old.  I laughed a little at myself as I said this, as I was rubbing anti-aging glycolic acid into my neck as I talked to Maggie, who wanted to know if she would get old, and if I would, and Nan and Chuck, and her dog, and her doll, and so on and so forth until she asked about my brother Howard, if he would get old and die.

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Ten years in, my grief for my brother Howard can still t-bone my heart without warning – I just know I’ve been hit so hard I can’t breathe and Maggie’s innocent question sent silent tears streaming into my open, speechless mouth.  Luckily for me, Honeydew took over, and as we do every so often, tried to explain all of the different Howards in Maggie’s life to her — my uncle How/her uncle How, my brother Howard/her uncle Howard, her brother Howard/my son Howard.  Honeydew told her that Mama’s brother, Howard, hadn’t been lucky enough to get old and die, that he had died young, and that Mama missed him so much and would always be sad without him in her life.

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I’m gonna do better, Howard, about the smoke detectors and fire extinguishers and eating steamed broccoli and losing the last of the baby weight.  I’m gonna live just as hard and well as I can, and raise children who won’t know you but will, and climb every peak in Glacier that I’ve got the nerve to, and sit on their rotten tops and revel under the impossible blue tilt to the sky and miss the hell out of you.

And I’m starting to think, ten years in, that it won’t matter if it’s been ten years or ten decades, missing you won’t ever hurt any less.

Howard

2014.  Glacier County Honey Co.  All Rights Reserved.

Today, we should be celebrating the 29th birthday of my baby brother, Howard, instead of mourning 9 years without him. But I’m posting this picture of How and our Mom as a followup to my blog about going on in search of joy. So today, dance for Howard, and for the 20s that he missed. I am joyful that I get to dance, even if never again with his broad hands to steady me.

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Howard and Mom, May 17, 2004, at the wedding of Kray Davis and Mark Luxbacher, Bluefield, Virginia.

Although it didn’t take me long to realize that the “freedoms” of adulthood are just good marketing for the endless responsibilities that marriage, parenthood, and business ownership entail, most of the time I’m glad I traded the true freedom of my youth to take on the life that suits me.

But of course, there are moments like this morning, when I lay in tear soaked sheets, with the sky pressing down on my rib cage, and longed to return to that uncomplicated youth.  For me, that “time” is marked as clearly as the line defining Mountain Standard Time, though it is a date: pre-August 27, 2004, the day my youngest brother, Howard, died.

In the nine years since, I’ve spoken marriage vows under the Big Sky, laid a treasured grandpa to rest, given birth to two fascinating children, stood on top of Little Chief and wondered how the heck I would get down, frosted birthday cakes and chilled champagne to honor those I love who live still, experienced the magic that I think comes only with old friends, a blazing fire, and a guitar, and endured a pregnancy wherein every day I wondered if my baby had suffered a brain hemorrhage, and if I had been too selfish in wanting to give Maggie Rose a sibling.

Enormous highs, black lows, indeed, in these nine years.

There was a time in the immediate whiteout following Howard’s death that I feared I would never feel deeply again.  There was an even deeper fear on certain nights at 3am that I didn’t want to ever feel so alive again, that to insulate myself from future heartbreak was perhaps the path I should take.   Howard’s death crystallized the knowledge for me that to revel in joy, you’ve got to wallow in grief, too, and in that realization I remembered the only thing I retained from 7th grade science class:  every action in nature has an equal and opposite reaction.

I think I’m reflecting on these concepts not only because August 27th is an emotional date for me, but because I have dear friends who are new to the rage and terror of grief, and I long to rescue them.  Of course I cannot, and I know that to be able to feel those highs and lows again, a griever must get herself back on the so called path.  Friends will offer wine, and prose, and at times, a much needed glimpse at a map, but there is no substitution for the hard work of grieving.

It is worth it, though, and as I look back on the fuzzy years after Howard’s death, years that became clearer with each emotional risk I took — a new boyfriend, a move, a breakup, a career, a husband, another move, children — I will stand by the advice my mother once offered to me: go on.  It is worth it.  And though each anniversary will forever torture me with unanswered questions like the temperament of the wife Howard would have chosen, and the colors of his children’s eyes, I try each year to stop the tears and also acknowledge to myself new risks I have taken, and the new joys I have found.

I know that Howard would be proud that I’ve learned to look potential heartbreak in the eye while going on.  To those whose hearts are broken, I urge you to be brave, and to take comfort in the idea that grief this debilitating can lead you to its opposite in joy, if only you’ll keep walking.

Howard

2013.  Glacier County Honey Co.  All Rights Reserved.

We’ve written before about Chris Street, our beautiful bird nerd friend who died from cancer on November 12, 2009, shattering our hearts.

c street hawk

C. Street, as most called him, loved mountains without discrimination, but I had the privilege of getting to know him in Glacier’s peaks, and as such he’s become a part of that core group of people missing from my life that keep me headed into Glacier’s wildest places, again, and again. My own beloved brother, Howard, with whom I first witnessed the cerulean perfection of Iceberg Lake; Steve Lee, my co-worker at St. Mary Lodge who first whispered a few of Many Glacier’s off trail secrets into my open ears; and C. Street, Layla Jane’s boyfriend with whom I spent one of the most delightful August days of my life, exploring Floral Park and Sperry Glacier. I cannot think of the otherworldly views from Floral Park, nor the turkey and dressing from Sperry Chalet, without thinking of Chris. Nor can I gaze knowingly at the tip top of Going-to-the-Sun Mountain without remembering his infamous summit on my wedding day, a summit he made with such power that he was seated in the audience as I made my way down the aisle at 5:00 sharp.

Today, Chris would be 31.

I think I’ll spend at least part of the afternoon with my weathered topo and a notebook, scratching out a few routes to try for Chris, this summer. Until then, I’ll see him in every majestic raptor that Maggie Rose points to and I cannot name, and I’ll hear his innate kindness reflected back in Layla’s patient voice, over a glass of wine, and I’ll know that it’s not much, but we’ll never stop remembering C. Street.

2013. Glacier County Honey Co. All Rights Reserved.

I often write about Howard, my baby brother, who died eight years ago in a fraternity house fire at the University of Mississippi, especially on days that cause my heart to yearn all the more for his good judgment and ability to see the rainbows through the clouds, like on the anniversary of his death, and on his birthday.

Yesterday, I was happily too busy honoring his memory by hiking in Glacier National Park to write about him, though I penned many thoughts in my head as I traversed the Highline Trail with Maggie Rose on my back and family and good friends in tow.  I’ll get to the hike in a separate post, but it was a magical day to think about what would have been Howard’s 28th year — fall has cast the high country in that most golden, perfect light, and it eased the sting of his absence.

At day’s end, we returned to Hillhouse and gathered together with the rest of our crew at the memorial site that Jordan, one of Howard’s best friends, designed, built, and spent the last week installing:

Many days of prep work ensued, as the two pieces of the form — delivered via 18 wheeler to the Warehome — waited patiently.

Everyone helped, including Neil and Keith in their off hours.  Thanks, guys.

Loading one of the two pieces of the form onto one of the two beekeeping flatbed pickups.

Maggie supervising.

Loaded and headed down West Shore Road – the order of our entourage: the two flatbeds; me running with my camera and pushing the stroller wearing Danskos and blue jeans; Jody in the supersized forklift; Jordan in her rig.  Finally, I ran out of breath and stopped to take this picture:

The gawkers were many.

Arriving in the Big Field for installation!

I ashamed to say that I have not yet taken an awesome picture of the finished piece – they’re all too far away, or too blurry, or filled with people and equipment …. coming soon, I promise!  Just a reason to keep y’all coming back every couple of days or so, right?

But at any rate, to finish out Howard’s birthday, last night we all gathered together at the memorial site, drank a glass or two of champagne, and offered various toasts, all heartfelt and yet so vastly inadequate.

We wondered aloud if he would have gone to law school, and then begun working for the FBI, as he dreamed of doing, helping to keep this country safe from harm.

I wondered privately if he would have married a kind, clear eyed woman by now.

I wondered what he would name his children.

Happy 28th birthday, Baby Bro.

Brother Dear background / Howard and Joe-Dog, foreground

2012.  Glacier County Honey Co.  All Rights Reserved.

Dear Howard,

Last week, my Darling-Brother-In-Law was up here at Glacier County Honey World Headquarters and as always, he brought his guitar and kept us thoroughly entertained.  You would love him, by the way — sometimes when he is changing brake pads or oil out in the storage bay, and covered in grease — like you were the summer you worked for Bill Marshall, changing tires on semis — I get confused for a second, and think he is you.

But at any rate, one night we were sitting around, drinking whiskey and singing Corb Lund songs, and he changed keys and sang a Willie Nelson song about rainbows that I’d forgotten about.  I focused on the winsome lyrics, and for a moment I was transported back to those first days without you, all those mornings I woke up in my tiny apartment in Grundy, Virginia, staggered into the kitchen, pressed “brew” on the coffee maker, reached for the half and half in the fridge and saw it: your obituary, taped to my freezer. Like a coal truck running over my heart, morning after morning, the news: you were dead, and in the peace that often came for me in the exhaustion of first-semester-in-law-school induced sleep, I had once again forgotten.

Mom and Dad couldn’t sleep in the months — years? — after you died, and sometimes I envied their wakefulness.  In my mind, at least they did not have to learn of your death again, and again, though we all probably sullied most dawns with our tears. I remember feeling as though my whole body, and not just my eyes, would glaze over, as I read and re-read your obituary, every morning before class: I knew it by heart, but the brief words encapsulating your not-quite-twenty years on this Earth fascinated me in their starkness.

How can these words be all that we remember you by? I would think to myself.  How will I explain to my children the quiet confidence in your Southern accent, your chivalrous nature, your goofy streak, the way your blonde hair would stand straight up from all the static you created bouncing yourself to sleep in the back of the old station wagon? And a darker, deeply selfish thought: what I will I do when they no longer talk about you?  What about me?  Will I forget all those things that made you you?

But I haven’t had to sit by myself with my thoughts of you.  New friends and old come to Montana every July to  help us celebrate you, and to help us celebrate that your death did not permanently sideline any of us.  Yes, we are forever changed by your loss, but more importantly, we were forever changed by your love long before your loss, and that has become the lesson I kept.

But lessons aside, we haven’t stopped talking about you.  Recently, because of the crystalline mind of one of your best friends, Jordan Gravely, we will for the first time have a tangible place to sit and think of you.  Yes, your ashes catch all the different lights that Gretchen’s Mirror reflects back to us, but now there will be a place on the Mirror to tell tales of your mischievous charm, and all that love that keeps coming back to us.

As a Masters of Architecture candidate, Jordan had the opportunity to build on a full scale, and she decided to create a meditative piece inspired by you and your affinity for Big Sky country.

photo credit to PD Rearick

Isn’t it beautiful? Jordan’s original plan to move this piece, that she calls Hillhouse, fell through, and she eventually created a Kickstarter campaign in order to move it from Michigan to the Big Field.  She met her goal in just a few short days, and every time I checked the link to see if she was getting closer, I was overwhelmed by the love that friends, neighbors, strangers, still have for you, and all that you meant to this beautiful world.

To everyone who helped Jordan, I offer a painfully inadequate thank you.  Such tiny words for such a huge feeling.

Howard, eight years after your death, Hillhouse will stand guard over your memory in the Big Field, reminding me in my daily travels that you are not forgotten at all, and that we now have a place to gather, and remember you better in each July, and on August 27, September 19, stormy Tuesdays, still Sundays, and beyond.

I was lucky beyond words to have you as my brother, and I am lucky, still, in your friends, some of whom I’ve yet to meet.

Oh, how I wish I could slip my hand into yours for one more dance across Charlie’s sticky floor.

GRD, baby bro.

Love, Court


2012.  Glacier County Honey Co.  All Rights Reserved.

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