By Melissa Basinger Green
This was written in 2017. I do not remember if I was writing it for a specific reason or not, but I still find it to be very relevant and true. I hope you enjoy it.
July 20th, 1999 I thought I had died and gone to hell. I was in the woods at the base of Mount Saint Helens, lagging behind the others. Most of the group had long passed me, hurrying back to the vans, though a few of them were just ahead, out of sight but not too far. In the shade of the thick trees, there was still snow, making my feet wet and cold, but my upper body was hot and sweaty. I was alone, tired, half cold, half hot and I was sobbing as I trudged along. It was my second time attempting to climb the mountain. The first time, many years before, I had succeeded and stood on that apex, looking down into the volcano with awe and amazement. This trip had I only made it half way up, which was half of the reason I was so upset.
The date was also significant. It was the day after I turned twenty-eight. Just six months and two days earlier, the day after his twenty-eighth birthday, my soul mate had not returned home from a solo hunting trip. After frantic calls to friends and relatives and starting a missing person report, his body and broken tree stand were found at the base of a tree. My life as I knew it ended in a second. Not knowing what else to do, I picked up and moved back home with my parents, looking to start over. When I got the job driving the van for the summer trip I had attended as a student many years before, I knew it was a great chance to move past my sorrow, to heal my grief. Then I got the itinerary and realized that we would be climbing Mount Saint Helens on the day after my birthday, making me wonder if I would follow in my late husband’s footsteps, dying on a mountain I loved as he had died in the woods that he so loved.
Now, while in the final yards of the path off the mountain, the tears were cathartic, but I felt as if I was being punished for some unknown sin. Why had my husband been taken from me so soon? Why did I have to go on, living my life without half my heart and soul? I had not even had a chance to have his children, a piece of him that would have lived on. I screamed at the forest, I screamed at God and I screamed at my husband for falling to his death. Part of me not only expected to die on that mountain, part of me wanted to die on the mountain.
Almost nineteen years later, I look back at that trek as an analogy to my life at that time. I was stuck, but only for a moment. That was my disaster, my own personal mountain, the one big thing that I had to overcome, and, somehow, I did survive, both the mountain and my husband’s death. Today, I have been a 911 dispatcher for over fourteen years, I have two adopted sons who are verging on adulthood, and I am very happy that I did not die on that mountain. Just as the rest of my group was waiting and worried about me at the end of my trek, I have emerged from my grief to a world that was waiting for me to succeed.
I have often found myself since then comforting and helping other widows through the grieving process. It is the newest widows that get to me most; the people whose grief is still so fresh and raw that it brings tears to my eyes as I read their posts. Breathe, I tell them, take one moment at a time and let yourself cry. By the time I was on Mount Saint Helens, I was taking it days at a time, then weeks, then months. The best advice that was passed on to me that I pass onto others is this, you never “get over” something like this. You can heal, but you cannot just get over losing a spouse, a child, a sibling, a parent or any other traumatic event that a person can go through.
Though losing my husband was certainly the hardest mountain I had to climb, there have been other mountains along the way that challenged me. I struggled in school, making average grades even though I knew I could and should do better. It was not until I started college that I learned that I had attention deficit disorder, which I have since discovered is not a disorder at all, but rather just one of many ways to function. Since middle school, I also struggled with depression; I adopted two foster children and raised them with all of the mountains that come with children who have abusive pasts. My job when my husband died was as a teacher, which I had realized was not the career for me, even though that was what I dreamed of since childhood.
As I learned to climb these mountains, I became fascinated with another sort of mountain, that of natural disasters. My first touch with one was when I was in high school. It was the spring of 1985 and my family had just moved into a new house. In the days before cell phones and instant gratification, it often took a week or longer to get your phone set up in a new house. The night of May 31st, we were still unpacking and did not have our kitchen ready, so we went out to eat dinner. It had started raining and the sky was black and low, what I have come to learn was an ominous sign, but at that time, we had no idea how deadly those clouds were. Just after we had gotten our food, the lights started to flicker and go out. We laughed about it and were grateful that we already had our food. We went home through the rain and went to bed, so tired from the move that we did not think to turn on a radio.
The next morning, we woke to discover that over forty tornados had accompanied the storms through Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and Canada, killing eighty-eight people and leaving behind a lot of damage (Carpenter, 2005). In Beaver County, we lost three people to the tornado and over a hundred more were injured (Prose, 2015). My mother worked as a newspaper reporter for the Beaver County Times and was tasked to cover the funeral of one of the victims. I recall driving down roads where half of the houses were no longer there, simply concrete slabs where they had once stood. Some friends of ours happened to be in a shopping center that was hit and they described huddling under a table, their parents over them, watching the lights spinning above them as the roof of the store was torn off. Our local drive in theater was completely wiped out, never to open again.
Over the next two years, I watched as the county picked itself up, buried its dead, and supported the injured. Houses were rebuilt, stores came back and life went on. Our drives up to Lake Erie were stark reminders of the power of the tornados as we passed piles of destroyed mobile homes and fields that had once held houses. A couple days after the storm, before our phones were turned back on, we got a visit from the state police, asking us to call family and friends and let them know we were okay. As a thirteen year old, this was scary and overwhelming. As an adult looking back on it, it can still feel scary and overwhelming, but not unsurmountable.
The community did as I have learned to do in life, take deep breathes, focus on what you can do at the moment and keep moving. Thirty-two years later, Beaver County has completely rebuilt, with barely any noticeable physical reminders, though the memory of the tornado will live in the hearts of all who went through it forever. I have also moved on; my family packed up and moved south right after my sister’s high school graduation, another one of those mountains I successfully climbed.
When I look back on my past, it is the mountains I climbed rather than the valleys I coasted through that I am most proud of. It was the ability to move these mountains, not out of the way, but into me, making me stronger and better able to conquer the next mountain. By taking the day’s one at a time and working on rebuilding, rather than focusing on the negative and freezing in place, I have found that any mountain can be moved, even if it is only one rock at a time.
Carpenter, Mackenzie (2005, May 29). The day the twisters came. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved http://old.post-gazette.com/pg/05149/511826.stm
Prose, J. D. (2015, May 31). Recalling the tornado of 1985: Just another Friday became a day never forgotten in Beaver County. The Times. Retrieved http://www.timesonline.com/1b15b576-f7f7-11e4-b2df-fbf80d1dde18.html