An anniversary

So…it’s January again. It’s not my favourite month. For so many years, January has meant loss. It started with the death of my husband Craig and then continued, year after year – nephew, uncle, parents-in-law, parents, brothers – gone one by one in the early months of the year.

Ten years – of loss, yes –  but as many to reflect on what remains and learn to treasure it. We endured the worst we could imagine and we lived. Life did go on – in rich and unexpected ways. Craig’s loss shaped and refined each of us and his presence in our lives is a current that continues to bear us.

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So here it is one more time: Craig’s signature symbol of defiance. He took to wearing such colourful tie dyed t-shirts as his own sign of hope in the face of a terminal illness. I’ve posted this bright little square for a number of years now in his memory – and as an encouragement to others to share that defiance and hope. Kick at the darkness until it bleeds daylight. Find the crack where the light pours in.

I’m posting this a little early. Tomorrow morning I’ll be boarding a plane, winging half-way around the world to meet my daughter in Bangkok. We’ll observe the anniversary there – on January 31. Years ago, we reflected that Craig would have hated to be the cause of sadness year after year, so we began to look for ways to make the day a celebration. I don’t yet know how Kyra and I will mark the date, but there will be tie dye. And hope. Stay tuned.

Celebrating

This post is totally outside any chronological structure I should be imposing on the tale of my Annapurna adventure, but the reason for that will be clear as you read down. Today I’m taking you to the Thorung La pass – the crown of the climb.

At 5,416 metres, the Throrung La pass is the goal of the Annapurna Circuit. Everything is up until you reach that point and everything is down from there on. The days leading to the pass are all about preparing for the crossing – carefully pacing your altitude gain to allow for acclimatization, monitoring your body’s reaction as you ascend: are you sleeping normally? do you have an appetite? headache? nausea? Regardless of your symptoms (or, in my case, lack thereof) you will still feel as though you are slogging through mud. Putting one foot in front of another will be the best you can manage – you are, after all, operating with half the oxygen that would be available to you at sea level. You can see why reaching the small island of prayer flags surrounding the sign that announces that you’re at the Pass becomes a sort of pilgrimage.

I gave a lot of thought to that in the months leading to our departure. The pass is adorned with strings of Tibetan prayer flags that climbers have carried with them, along with photographs and silk scarves, signs and countless memorial objects tucked into the colourful mass of flapping fabric. I knew what I wanted to leave there early on – but it wasn’t until the last days before our crossing that I understood why.

Tucked into a pocket of my backpack I carried a six-inch square of tie-dyed fabric from one of my late husband’s t-shirts. Craig wore these bright shirts in the dark days of his cancer treatment as a testament of hope, and they remain a symbol of that nearly nine years since his loss. I didn’t exactly understand what a prayer flag was or how they were suspended at the site or if hanging a tie-dyed one was some kind of sacrilege, but I thought I’d figure it out. Along with the fabric, I had an old film canister from Craig’s photo equipment, into which I had tucked a small photo of him. In some vague way I believed that I would leave these objects at the pass, magically end something and be granted permission to start over. In the end, another act entirely took shape.

In the days leading up to the pass, I found myself constantly mentally consulting Craig. If he were here, if we had done this together – how would he have framed this scene? How would he have engaged these people, what would he have seen that I was missing, what would have caught his imagination? And as always throughout the last nine years, I found that trying to see through his eyes stretched me a little bigger, moved me to listen instead of chatter, called me to look a little deeper.

Two days out from the pass we reached the town of Manang. Members of our group went looking for material for their various tributes; I quietly purchased a package of small prayer flags, added my bright fabric to the string and, reflecting on the previous few days, penned an inscription on the square. Two days later, stumbling through the snow, half-blinded in the Himalayan sun, I added my prayers to the mound of remembrances strung across the pass.

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When you first endure the loss of someone dear to you the heaviness of it seems unbearable – like struggling to lug a backpack up a mountain pass, gasping for the oxygen that is just not there. In time, the weight becomes something more comfortable, like a stone always in your pocket, something you turn over and over and can never let go of. And finally, one day, you reach into your pocket and find something bright that you bring out to shine in the sun – a celebration of how incredibly blessed you were to have that person in your life, how their memory continues to call you to be so much more than you were, so much bigger, so much better.

Today, November 24th, would have been Craig’s sixty-third birthday. Somewhere high in the Himalayas, a small flag dances in celebration on the chill mountain air.

Happy birthday. wp_11_24b

June 15, 1985

I’m off on a completely unrelated tangent today.

When I was younger, I can remember my grandmother counting off the years of each wedding anniversary. My grandfather had been gone since I was in elementary school; I clearly recall saying to myself, in thoughtless teenage conceit, “you haven’t really been married all those years…!” Thank God I never, ever said that out loud.

I was so wrong. 

Today is my own wedding anniversary. Like my grandmother, I still count the years. What I did not understand as a teenager is that marking joyous events in your life will continue to bring joy, even when tinged by sadness. My husband’s passing over seven years ago does not change the fact of our marriage nor the myriad reasons to acknowledge and celebrate a wonderful day. In bereavement class I was told that with the death of a spouse, a marriage does not end – it changes. I know this to be true for me. Craig is still intimately entwined in the details of my daily existence; I believe this will always be true.

Our wedding twenty-nine years ago fell on the day before Fathers’ Day. My dad never grumbled that we had stolen his thunder. Rather, he thought it the best present ever. The two anniversaries – Fathers’ Day and our wedding, continue to coincide, a mix of sweet and sad now that both Craig and my father are absent.

I’ve lost track of my grandmother’s tally – I wonder how many years she’d have been married now? Today, Gramma, I’ve been married twenty-nine years!

Happy Anniversary. Happy Fathers’ Day.

Coming down the aisle with Dad

Coming down the aisle with Dad

Craig and me and the Springbank Dairy Countess

Craig and me and the Springbank Snow Countess