Colleen Brennan - December, Hill City, Idaho
I am kicking at chunks of snow outside an abandoned saloon/store on Hwy. 20 in Hill City, Idaho. With peeling paint and boarded-up windows, the building offers the empty promise of beer and wine, restrooms, local honey, and gifts. A truck sits dormant behind the saloon, enshrined in a foot of crusty snow that dazzles so brightly it hurts my eyes.
I stare at the sun and when I look away, my sunglass-covered eyes picture large pee-colored circles everywhere I gaze. Judging by the burning sensation in my nostrils, I figure the temperature must be in the single digits. It hurts to breathe.
But I can’t get back in my car. Not yet. My heart is still beating too rapidly and even though it may be only 8 degrees outside, I’m sweating on the inside.
I live in southwest Idaho, and I’m driving to the east side of the state to stay for a few days with a man I began to love eight months ago.
My 1999 Camry has kept me safe, for as many years, on dozens of solo road trips (including one to Whitefish, Montana, that changed my life). I have been forced to the side of the road just now, not by an angry trucker or a herd of migrating elk but by the feeling that I would start hyperventilating if I didn’t stop and pay attention to my accelerating pulse, sweaty lower back, and muddled thinking. As I spritz my tongue with Rescue Remedy, I try to imagine a soft periwinkle light radiating warmth and enveloping me in calmness.
What’s going to happen to me now, at this point in my life, if I can’t even drive for four hours alone without feeling like I’m going to die?
When I told my dad about the panic attacks that set in just before my birthday, he said, “Next time, call me. I’ll talk you down.”
I would, if I could, call him right now. But I have no cell reception out here in the shadow of the Soldier Mountains, and Hill City – much less a city than an empty roadside saloon – offers no wifi either.
The shadows of the saloon cast a blue-gray light that stretches out like a yawn along the frozen ground. What’s left of the paint on the building is a sickly yellow jaundice, the color of my insides.
Wide tire tracks leave a herringbone pattern at my feet. I’d like to knit this pattern into a sweater, so I take a photo with my phone. Two different tire tracks intersect, forming a V. The track on the left resembles a diagonal line of seagulls, wings held frozen on the up-stroke. The track on the right mimics sandpiper feet, minus one toe.
The word integument comes to mind, and I try to write it in a notebook I carry in the little compartment between the front seats of my car. I’ve discovered that it helps to write things down when I find myself in the midst of what feels like a complete break with reality. Language is my savior; writing, my guide.
The cold air is preventing the ink in my pen from transferring to the paper in my notebook, so I climb into the back seat of my car and begin to wonder, in writing, why the word integument has popped up in my addled brain. It’s a covering, isn’t it? A layer that shields a vulnerable organ. Like feathers protecting bird wings.
Is that what anxiety is? The envelope that protects a person from getting hurt?
I’m thinking, I still have the Craters of the Moon to drive through, the vast lava rock fields surrounding the black asphalt on the eastern section of Hwy. 20. The blackness makes it tough to navigate after sundown, even without an out-of-whack limbic system.
But, for now, I don’t think about the dark stretch of road ahead of me. Instead, I follow the movement of pen over paper and marvel at the healing, protective power it provides.
I needed 2018 to be a good year, but my intuition told me something bad was going to happen. At 2 a.m. on New Year’s Day, I woke drenched in sweat with my heart hammering. A tingling sensation started in my left arm and trickled down my leg. Numbness spread up my face, as if injected with novocaine. The odd sensations swept up and down, while my brain imagined the worst. Scared I was having a stroke, I woke my husband.
“It’s probably your anxiety,” Brian muttered, reminding me of previous panic attacks. He sounded like all the doctors I had been to over the years.
“Not everything is caused by anxiety,” I snapped.
I didn’t have a stroke, and stress did appear to be the culprit. It made sense, 2017 was a rough year of loss and health issues for our oldest daughter. We decided a trip for spring break was just what we all needed. A respite from the harsh Montana winter might help and give us time to reconnect with our two girls.
We had gone to Maui two years before, over Thanksgiving break. It was blissful – culminating in a vow renewal on the beach at sunset to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary. We wrote our own vows. I wore a gown the color of blush pink peonies, the girls cornflower blue. It was the wedding of my dreams. We couldn’t wait to go back.
The tension released from my neck when we landed. Our first days were spent with our feet in the sand, eating good food and whale watching. We made plans to hike down to the Olivine Pools. We read about them in a popular tourist book; they were a must-see.
The view over the Pacific was dizzying, the path down a jagged, rocky descent. The girls ran ahead. I was distracted by the memorial of a child who died there and wanted to read every word. Brian was getting impatient; the girls had not waited. I wanted him to yell for them to slow down. He wanted me to hurry up. Time moved slowly, as we hiked down. Once at the bottom, I barely had time to catch my breath before our oldest, had stripped down to her swimsuit and wandered towards the ocean. One minute she was there; the next she was washed away by a rogue wave.
“In the blink of an eye” is not just a saying. She was screaming “help” and “I’m sorry.” Brian was running through the rocky pools. The sound of the waves slamming against the rocks filled my ears. With another blink, he disappeared. Leaving my youngest behind, I stumbled to the edge of the pools. Looking down over the rocky edge, I could see them in the turquoise water, waves crashing and swirling. I was scared I could be swept away, too. I knelt next to a man who threw an orange towel to my daughter. Using all his strength, Brian pushed her towards the towel. She fought against the current nearing it, while the undertow dragged him away.
“You’re a strong swimmer, keep kicking,” I yelled to my daughter. The man threw the towel again. She grabbed it and he pulled. A wave washed her close enough to grab an arm. Together, we yanked her, battered and bloody, over the rocks and to safety. When we all looked back to the turbulent ocean, Brian was no longer swimming. I can still hear my own screams. What followed only happens in movies. It is a movie that my daughters and I now have on perpetual replay, even though we never speak of it.
I always believed I would be the first to go. I was the one with health issues and anxiety, and worried constantly. Brian came from tough Ukrainian stock and rarely went to the doctor. I always envied his “worry about it when it happens” philosophy. I wanted his wiring. He kept me in check. With or without premonitions, the unthinkable can still happen. No amount of worry could’ve prevented this. Now, I try to listen for his words to guide me and strive to live in the moment. Sometimes I hear whispers that all will be ok.
It’s a new year, 2019. I crawl under the sheets, pull the comforter to my chin and wait for the dog to settle, like I do most nights. He lets out a long sigh, and so do I. Another day is over, another year gone. I look to my nightstand where Brian’s picture stands, and see that charming smirk and dimple. Maybe he’s trying to be funny, laughing at me or thinking he loves me. Either way, I kiss that picture good night, wishing I could say “I love you” one last time.
If you are on the fence…read these lovely testimonials from recent
Haven Writing Retreat alums!
“Laura’s gifts are many. She has a way of pulling the story from the writer. She begins with a warming of the hive and by the end of Haven, she has drawn each person’s sweet honey out for all to taste! All good things come to those who wait. It took me years of watching Laura’s Haven retreats from a distance to get to a yes for myself. Thank God I got to a yes! This was by far the best money I have ever spent on a workshop for my career and I’m deeply grateful. The writing instruction was epic and I left with a renewed love for the craft of writing. The thing that surprised me was the high level of skill Laura has as a facilitator for both the individual and the group. I have been facilitating groups for years and it is something that takes often hard earned skill, insight, passion and a touch of magic. Laura has an abundance of each and made a full-day, learning- packed workshop truly feel like a retreat! Brava Laura! 10,000 Thank you’s for sending me home better at everything I do, especially writing!
I can’t wait to come back for Haven II!”–Kathleen, San Luis Obispo, CA (Occupational Therapist)
“If you are reading this testimonial, you were like I was: desperately searching for evidence that I should or shouldn’t go, trying to decide if I was or wasn’t a writer. If you are that person in that place, I would like to speak directly to you: go to Haven. If you have found Haven, if you have found this page, life is giving you a gift. It is up to you to take it. Haven changed my life and my writing in all of the ways it needed to change. Laura is brilliant in a way that is difficult to put into words, but she has a superpower: she helps you shed all of the writers that you are not, and helps you leap into the beautiful writer that you are. If you aren’t sure of your voice, Laura will help you find it, and BELIEVE in it. She’s the writing fairy-godmother that I always wanted and now have. Get there. Jump the hurdles, bypass the doubt, walk through the fear, and get there.”
— Amy, Missoula, MT (Singer-songwriter)
“This is the power of Haven: For one year, I hadn’t written a word. Not a one. I was stuck in a place in my manuscript, couldn’t figure my way out, and signed up for Haven in a last ditch effort to find the problem before I threw out the whole thing. But on Day 3 of Haven, after working one on one with Laura, I went out into the Montana wilderness with my computer and typed out 600 new words that unlocked the problem in my book. I’ve been back home for four days now, and am 10,000 words into a new draft with no sign of slowing down.”– Brooke, Vancouver, BC (Speaker. Writer. Coach. Chef.)