Little Black Boxes

The year 2014 was a difficult year. One of the most difficult of my life. That January we had to send our daughter to a special boarding school on the other side of the US. Dropping her off that day was one of the worst days of my life. I cried so hard as Jeff drove us away from the school, across the state of Kentucky toward Nashville, Tennessee. So hard that I broke all the blood vessels in my face.

When we left her that afternoon it was 60 degrees Fahrenheit. By the time we reached Bowling Green, Kentucky three hours later it was -1 and a bomb cyclone of arctic air had swept across the Great Plains down from Canada. It was as if the weather reflected our mood. The warmth had been sucked out of the world in the blink of an eye, and my heart felt the same way. We had to stop for the night due to the icy roads. Staying in a retched place, the only room available, not far from the highway.

The next morning, we would not make it to the Nashville airport. We were stuck in Bowling Green. Jeff was worried about me and suggested I take the day to rest, but I couldn’t rest. Across the street was the Corvette factory. I am not a fan of Corvettes but I like factories and engineering. A good distraction for my brain. So, we walked over in the bitter cold and took the tour. The only two people there that day, the receptionist looked at us like we were crazy. Who would go on a Corvette factory tour on a day like that? But one manufacturing line was up and running with employees who made it in. And the Corvette museum next door was open, as well. We toured that, too. The city of Bowling Green is on top of one of the largest cavern systems in the country. A few weeks later we would read in the news that a giant sinkhole had formed under that museum, sucking in priceless vintage cars. I remember telling Jeff that if it had opened the day we were there I would have let that sinkhole take me.

Eventually, we were able to get flights out of Knoxville, Tennessee. I flew to NY for the week for work. Jeff was flying back to Seattle. Sitting on the plane after boarding, my boss called me. She was giving me a huge raise. But I was so numb, my thanks were less than enthusiastic. It was as though I couldn’t remember how to feel. Like a fog had descended upon me and everyone else felt like they were speaking to me through a tunnel. Barely audible. It took the full two hours until we landed in Newark for me to stuff all that into one of the little black boxes I keep for these things. The hard things. It was a lot for such a small space, and the door didn’t want to close so I could turn the key and put it on a shelf beside all the other black boxes in the warehouse where I keep the most difficult moments in my life. In my mind it looks a lot like the vast warehouse of crates at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, except without the Nazi emblems and stamps. Things would go in but they didn’t come out.

When It Rains, It Pours

That summer, my Dad fell across the rocks into the pond in my parent’s backyard. Paramedics had to fish him out. He had broken his thigh bone, amongst others and was in bad shape. I am fairly certain the only reason he lived is that my Mother willed it to be so. Who knew tuna casserole and scalloped potatoes had such power? She brought him food in the hospital each day and fed him herself. And every weekend I drove the 6+ hour round trip to Portland from Seattle. Heart attacks, anaesthesia induced dementia. Sepsis. It just kept hitting him.

In September I had to go to Europe for work. Standing outside the head offices of Christian Dior, my phone rang. It was my Mom. The doctor had told her that she needed to make end of life choices for my father. They recommended hospice. I stood there, as my colleagues waited for me to go inside, and calmly talked my mother off a ledge. It was my Dad’s 85th birthday. She couldn’t imagine making this decision on his birthday. I told her I would be home in a week and would come down to talk about it. We didn’t know then that he would hang on for the next five years. I’m sure it was because he didn’t want to disappoint her.

After the call, I hung up, adjusted my bag, then smiled to my team. ‘Let’s go .’ We had a bit of a contentious meeting with the head of supply chain and logistics, but in the end it was all smoothed out. In the car afterwards, one of our number leaned over to me and said ‘That was amazing. How did you do that after that call with your Mom? There is no way I could do what you just did.’

‘You don’t understand.’ I said, frowning. ‘I had no choice.’

I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t be upset. I had to, well, more than keep it together. I had to perform. Just like in NY after taking Emilie to boarding school, I had a job to do. I just needed to keep the hard things locked away in the right box.

That night, as we sat in an ancient wine cellar beneath the streets of Paris drinking wine made with grapes from before I was born, I took a moment to breathe. I didn’t want to be drinking this expensive wine. I didn’t want to fly to London for another week of meetings. I was tired to the bone. Closing my eyes for a split second, I just wanted to go home.

The Hardest Thing

Three weeks after I returned from Europe, on a cold morning at the beginning of October, I got a phone call from my Mom. When I saw her number, I braced myself. It was too early. She was crying. This would not be good news. I thought it would be about my Dad, but it wasn’t. My nephew had committed suicide, his girlfriend had found him in the early morning hours. My brother, Bob, was across town when Kenny’s girlfriend called him with the news. He immediately called my Mom to rush over to his house to beat the Coroner who was driving there to tell his wife. So, my elderly Mom, with my much more elderly grandmother in tow, had to break it to my sister-in-law, Kenny’s mother, in her nightgown and robe while standing on their front porch. I already thought 2014 was an awful year. But nothing could have prepared any of us for the horror of this. I jumped in the car and made the drive south. After so many trips there for my Dad the car could have driven itself. I wasn’t sure how much more my Mom could take. And my eldest brother, Bob, and his wife needed everyone to surround them.

I tried not to cry in front of any of them. Building yet another black box on the drive down, I needed to make sure that they knew they could count on me for whatever they needed. Ordering chairs and tents for the memorial in the park. Any little errand. They just had to ask; I would do it. They should be unburdened of everything because the load they were carrying was too much for anyone.

It started to feel like 2014 wanted to destroy us all. There was nearly three months left in the year. I wondered what horrors it might still have in store for us. Praying 2015 would be better.

One day, a couple of weeks later I was at work. I don’t know what it was. Music playing, someone’s voice, something. Suddenly, I started crying and I couldn’t stop. I went into the closest conference room and closed the blind and the door. At the top of the hour, someone I worked with came in with her laptop. Obviously, I hadn’t booked the conference room. There would be meetings starting. But my colleague turned around and told the people she was meeting with to go find another room. Then, she came inside and shut the door. I didn’t know her particularly well. We were co-workers by sight. I was her senior by several levels. Aware I was being wholly unprofessional by darting inside and crying in this booked conference room, I should have gone to my office. I stood to go. But she sat down, anyway, and she took my hand.

‘What’s happened?’ she asked.

This wasn’t a Bad things happened at work kind of cry. This was My world is falling apart kind of cry. I could barely form a sentence, so we sat there in relative silence. Finally, I told her about my Dad and my nephew. How difficult things had been. That I missed my daughter, and I questioned every day if we were doing the right thing by sending her to that school.

‘Sometimes the hardest decisions are still the right solutions.’ She assured me.

‘How do I know?’ I asked her, wiping my cheeks.

She smiled. ‘You don’t. You just do the best you can.’

Then, she told me she thought that I had Broken Heart Syndrome. What?! That sounded like a made-up thing. I wasn’t a teenager. My high school boyfriend hadn’t broken up with me the day before the prom. But she shook her head.

‘No. It’s when too many very bad things happen in quick succession. When you can’t catch your breath from it before the next wave hits you. It can literally, physically break your heart.’

My heart felt broken. Shattered into a thousand pieces. The glass shards kept sneaking out of the boxes, cutting deep. But I didn’t know what to do about it. I had my warehouse filled with black boxes. I was convinced that I just needed to wipe my tears and make sure the lock on the door was secure so they couldn’t get out.

Nothing Last Forever

The next year wasn’t much better than 2014. Jeff had a terrible motorcycle accident where he nearly died. My Grandmother passed away in November. But everyone has these things, tragedies and trials. As a human, I am not alone in this. And more black boxes filled with grief were added to my warehouse. ‘Get up, Kelli. Just keep going. All you have to do it put another box on the shelf.’ So, I did.

It wasn’t until I decided to walk the Camino with Emilie in 2017 that I seemed to stop putting boxes in – if just for a few months. It felt strange. I had been doing it since I was a small child. There was comfort in it. But, after that first day in the Pyrenees, I opened my backpack and found out I was carrying a warehouse full of boxes on my trek. People talk about packing light. I had packed as heavy as it comes. Everything I thought I was leaving at home had jumped into my pack, like a lead weight. It turned out, I was the warehouse for all of it. If my pack was going to get lighter, I needed to do the work, opening them one at a time, walking with their contents each day. Shaking out a box before leaving it in the dust on the trail, then selecting another. I think it’s why I prefer to walk alone on a winter Camino. I can stop at churches and pray or cry in solitude. Have the place to myself. Sing or dance on an empty trail. Ask the tough questions of God and myself. And feel what it is to feel the hardest things – finally. Sadness and anger is just repressed grief. And the only way out of grief is through it.

Why Now?

Everyone who reads this blog knows a lot about me. For better or worse, I tend to be an open book. But it seems my heart is physically broken, once again. I know the causes, and they are telling me there is a fix. So, I’ll be doing that. But, this time, I’m going to do it differently. No getting back up and shaking things off. Pretending that I’m invincible. I’m going to take it slower. Be kind to myself in my recovery. This is uncharted territory for me. I have no idea if it will work. But I do know that I have learned that a warehouse of heavy black boxes doesn’t work long term. I need to sell the place. This time, I’m going to deal with it – all of it. The pain, the frustration, the grief. Then maybe, just maybe, I can avoid breaking my own heart, once again.

9 thoughts on “Little Black Boxes

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