When our daughter Alexis died in 1997, I was devastated.  In an effort to take care of myself in some small capacity, I made my way to the local gym and got onto the elliptical machine to try and exercise my aching body.  Those weeks and months that followed Alexis’ burial are cloudy at best.  But I was reminded of this one pothole I unexpectedly fell into all those years ago, when I was driving in the old neighborhood, noticed that gym I used to belong to, and felt my heart stop.

If you have ever been in deep grief, you know that accomplishing the most basic tasks can feel impossible.  Things like showering, making the bed, eating and even standing up, take more energy than we have.  Yet at some point, we have to decide between two options:  Will we re-engage and try to stay alive, or will we just say ‘no thank you’ and choose the downward spiral of isolation, and even eventually crave our own death?  

If this sounds dramatic, consider yourself lucky.  If you have never felt so destroyed that dying seemed like it would be a relief, you have been spared an experience that many of us know all too well.  

For those of us who are all too familiar with this dynamic know just how debilitating it can be.  So with this in mind, you can hopefully imagine that getting myself to a public space (YIKES!) to exercise seemed an impossible task.  Yet at some point I chose re-engagement and trying to stay alive.  This meant I had a body that needed care, and it also meant I had to go out into the world. 

With trepidation, I put my headphones on and started moving.  Who knows what I could even tolerate listening to so as not to break out into tears while working out, or worse, collapse on the floor with overwhelm.  One pedal after the next, I tried to keep going.  My eyes were closed most of the time, and I was (you guessed it) white knuckling my way through, with the promise of getting a hot shower and returning to my safe, quiet bed afterwards.

When my eyes opened, mid-stride I saw next to me a woman who was familiar.  It took only a split second for me to recognize this woman’s face as belonging to one of the homecare nurses that had worked night shift in our home when Alexis was alive.  It was Linda.  I stopped breathing.  When our eyes met, we both stepped into an unexpected pothole.

I don’t know what her experience was in that moment, since we never spoke about it, and I haven’t seen her since that day.  But my experience was that of falling into a dark hole at a rapid pace.  When I say I stopped breathing, it was more like a gasp.  Images of her in Alexis’ bedroom came flooding in. 

I looked down, and saw Linda’s hands, the caring hands that had connected IV fluids to the Broviac catheter that kept Alexis alive.  These were the hands that changed her diapers, and her g-tube dressings.  She’d administered pain medications and held Alexis.  Those hands had touched the very skin of the baby girl I longed for.  I was reminded me that we were known to one another.  She’d been in my kitchen in the late hours when I made decaf tea, unable to sleep.  She was there.

Now I Linda and I were here, at the gym, and Alexis was not.  It was other worldly.  I continued moving for what may have been 5 more minutes, or 5 more miles, I have no idea.  I don’t remember getting home.  I just remember seeing Linda’s eyes and hands, and time stopping.  I’d stepped right into a pothole I didn’t see coming.  I was freefalling.  

Grief sucks.  

One of the hardest parts about it, is that potholes like these are everywhere.  Even decades later.  I was innocently driving in that part of town on a beautiful Fall day, had not recalled that memory for years, and in an instant, was right back there, falling, gasping and paralyzed.

It is not easy to share these memories in such a public way.  I may even suffer what Brene’ Brown calls a “vulnerability hangover.”  But as hard as it is, the isolation it brings is harder.  Feeling like I am the only mom on the planet that can stop breathing at any given moment, because of a memory like this, is worse.  Knowing that I am not alone makes it almost tolerable.  My sincere hope is that by opening up, someone else feels less alone too.

I never went back to that gym.  I couldn’t risk another heart attack.  But I eventually found my way in the world, even with unseen potholes sprinkled everywhere like time bombs waiting to explode.  They often do.  

But I also step into miracles, when I least expect them, sprinkled everywhere, waiting like time bombs to explode. They often do.

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