I’m waking up.
I can feel it. And it is exciting, frightening, and painful.
Being a park ranger consumed my life: consumed all of my time, energy, and focus. Beyond the work day, it was also my primary activity during my off hours. Initially it was preparing to become a ranger while working as a seasonal: fitness training six days a week and inching my way through the very lengthy and in-depth application process. Then when I became a ranger it was continuing fitness training, adding firearms practice and martial arts, and researching and preparing campfire programs. And after things got real, my free time often was spent recovering physically from either a day-long defensive tactics training, or trying to catch my breath after the latest human tragedy. Once it started, I never once felt like I was able to recuperate and rejuvenate. My reserves were depleted early on and all that kept me going was a combination of determination and an inability to figure out what else to do besides put one foot in front of the other.
I’ve described my rangering years as feeling like I was in a street fight. Every day felt like a struggle for survival. (I don’t mean to suggest that being a park ranger is like a street fight. I only mean to say that my very particular experience of it felt that way.)
When I spent time with friends or on a date, I self-consciously realized that the only thing I had to talk about was my job; there simply was no other activity in my life.
When I left Washington State Parks, I felt like I’d been in a fog for the past five years. I felt like the world had gone by and I hadn’t noticed. The children in my life were suddenly five years older, a shocking realization even with those whom I’d seen during those years. I felt like I had missed five very important years in their growing up. Friendships had faded, social networks I’d been a part of had dissipated. The world had left me behind.
Leaving Parks did not mean I walked out of the fog. What it did mean is that I could stop fighting, and start healing. Getting myself into the shower, to work, and putting three squares in me every day has taken almost all of my focus, time and effort over the past four years. The little I’ve had leftover has been devoted to my healing process.
Now, at last, another layer of fog is lifting. I am finding that there is a little bit of room for something beyond just me for the first time in many years.
I’m waking up.
The first jolt happened a year and a half ago when my son Chris called to tell me that he had a tumorous growth and was scheduled for surgery; and that tests seemed to suggest cancer. For quite a while I couldn’t talk with anyone about it, not even family. I needed them to not bring it up with me. I felt like the precarious balance I had in my life could be shattered with one misspoken word. Only to Chris I would talk; because I couldn’t imagine not making room for him.
His news and the unfolding uncertainty shook away some of the fog. I felt like a bandage was ripped off my heart, and what was revealed was the vulnerability and fierceness of my love for my son. No playing it cool anymore, that young man meant the world to me. His existence in the world, his breathing breath, filled me with a love that is deep and ancient and protective and painful. I needed him to be in the world. I needed him to be in my life. I needed him to take his next breath, so that I could go on breathing.
As the months went on, and then a year passed, I struggled to find a place for all of this. Chris’ news has continued to be encouraging, but people who love someone who has had cancer cannot pretend ignorance anymore of the fact that life can be ripped away in the space of a breath. Feeling my love for him wasn’t a struggle; it was a permanent fixture, something I could tune into and sense simply by turning my attention to it. I suppose that opening in my heart was really just reserved for him. Bandages still covered most of my heart. Much of the fog remained.
My niece Simone’s death two months ago has had reverberations throughout our extended family and I still can’t begin to understand how her dying has changed me, is changing me.
In much the way Chris’ cancer diagnosis ripped off the bandage revealing the painful and deep love I have for him, Simone’s death has ripped off more bandages. Her death is tragic and heartbreaking and incomprehensible. There is no silver lining. But when the bandages were ripped off, I was compelled to face the vulnerability that comes from loving the other young people in my life: all my nieces, nephews, and my son's partner Selena.
My love is palpable and unrelenting; it is heartbreaking and terrifying. And it is also the most beautiful thing life can offer. How privileged I am to have these wonderful young people in my life. I don’t want to take that for granted. I can’t take that for granted. Because I know that tomorrow isn’t promised.
It is hard, this waking up: waking up to the pain of our vulnerability, waking up to the breathtaking beauty of life.
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