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.

Somehow, someway, our children have managed to imbue us with the jolly Christmas spirit, and I’m personally feeling merrier than I have in a long while.  As I’ve written in years past, Christmas/Hanukkah/whatever-you-celebrate-in-December, is marketed as joyous, but the twinkling lights can be hard to bear when you’re grieving, or lonely, or just plain grumpy.  For me, the past nine years were somewhat dulled, stolen of the season’s sparkle, as the calendar turned to December, and I faced down my brother Howard’s looming absence.

But now I have a full on, walking, talking, singing, counting, tantrum throwing, cuddling, kissing, apologizing, hugging, dancing, cookie decorating toddler.

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And she’s obsessed with Santa and his reindeer.  And suddenly Honeydew and I have not only cut down and decorated an enormous Charlie Brown tree for our house, we’ve strewn the porch in twinkling lights and added two smaller trees, garland tagged with Christmas cards, AND a wreath to frame the door.  In the bathroom, a snowman my aunt Sissy made years ago smiles next to the soap.  In Maggie’s room, the tiny tree that stood watch during the Advents of my youth glows on the nightstand.  In the kitchen, some of my mother’s Christmas Spode graces the table, and tinsel adorns a few random elk sheds.

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Maggie whirls about the house in the kaleidoscope glow of the tree.  Howard alternates between beaming and gaping at it all, and tries to eat the sparkling lights.  And the dog’s fur.  And does eat lots of guacamole.  But I digress.

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I know these magical, child fueled Christmases are very few, and it won’t be long before I look back on what sometimes seems to be an endless cycle of waking long before dawn to pour beeswax candles and ornaments under the cover of starlight, and running back and forth from the shop to the house to make hot chocolates, change diapers, kiss boo-boos, and running back out again to attempt to bottle honey with my youngest in the Baby Bjorn — I don’t recommend this procedure, for the record — and the constant labeling and boxing and shipping and printing and interruptions — baby is hungry, toddler needs a book, baby needs a nap, toddler needs a kiss, baby needs to be held, oh wait it’s dinnertime!  But there’s still 500 pounds of honey to go!  We’ll come back after bedtime and finish, okay?  Sigh.  Okay.

Yes, all is merry and bright around here.  And I am grateful for this season of my life, as exhausting as it is.

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2013.  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.

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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.

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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.

The day after the 4th of July/Hillstock crew climbed up Napi, we decided to put our feet up and drink in the views from the Big Field.

Just kidding!

We loaded up all 16 or so of us, including Nan and Chuck — as my parents shall hereafter be known on this blog, in the post-Maggie Era — AND Maggie Rose, and proceeded to scramble up into the basin above Apikuni Falls, in Many Glacier.

Isn’t Many Glacier ridiculously beautiful?

I’ve been there more times than I can count, and the above picture still causes me to shake my head in happy wonder that this really is my backyard.  Seeing Sherburne Reservoir dead calm and glacial blue below Mts. Wynn, Cracker, Siyeh, and Allen (left – right) takes every bit of the sting out of March’s many disappointments.

Once we had passed all the tourists en route for the falls — including a crazy woman standing on the trail telling everyone who passed her about “the glacier you can touch!” just past the waterfall — we pulled ourselves up into the Apikuni Basin.  From there, some of us decided to pick our way up the cliff bands guarding the Natahki Lakes, on to the summit of Mt. Altyn, and down through the scree to the Many Glacier porch.

Others of us decided to pick our way up the streambed coming down from Apikuni Ridge and an unnamed peak, with no particular goal in mind but to soak up the perfect stillness of the day, and the easy companionship of each other.  As the one hauling the nearing-30-pounds baby, I figured I’d get a half hour in and be heading for the porch, myself.  But somehow, my lungs kept expanding and my quads kept their steady course up, up, and up, and without really thinking much about it, several hours later I found myself just shy of the top of the unnamed peak, drinking in phenomenal views of the Many Glacier Valley, my favorite part of the park.

I found a cozy rock and shared a leftover hot dog with Maggie Rose, and sat in silence for a few moments, reflecting on Maggie’s unusual delivery and my subsequent hospitalization for salmonella, and the resulting despair I felt last July, when I wasn’t entirely certain I’d ever be able to even do another Hot Buns Hike, much less climb a mountain.  And yet there I was, on top of the mountain with the Hot Buns, my parents, and the baby herself.

Hot Buns: JC, Claire, Michy, Nan, LJ, me, Maggie Rose, Pseudo Sista

When Layla and Claire returned from summitting the unnamed peak, the Hot Buns posed, including Maggie Rose, for whom we waived the 20 mile hike requirement for membership.  Perhaps the mountains in the background, with Mt. Gould at slightly right of center, can give you an idea of just how far up this gorgeous ridge we walked.

Claire’s surprise visit was a highlight of Hillstock for all of us.  Come back soon, honey.

Brother Dear’s panoramic i-Phone app is providing us with all sorts of entertainment this summer.

After the Hot Buns got their photo shoot on, a quiet reverence again settled over our group, and I know I wasn’t the only one whose thoughts turned to the young men we’ve lost entirely too soon, and some of the reasons we keep hiking, through arthritis and asthma and heartbreak.  Those men are always with us, in the mountains.

2012.  Glacier County Honey Co.  Some photo credits to Sanford Stone and Layla Dunlap.  All Rights Reserved.