Steve Morris - Trinity Alps Search
He was hiking with our church's yearly men's backpack group in California's majestic Trinity Alps on August 2nd 2014 when he went missing. He had briefly separated from his hiking partner to scout out a better way for them to get off of the peak they climbed when he fell off a 30-40 foot cliff.
Search and Rescue teams looked for him for four and a half days before the search was suspended. For the next year and a half, I had an army of over fifty volunteers (friends, family and church members) helping us locate the area where he fell and track him over two miles down the mountain below the cliff.
Against all odds, we eventually located some remains and had them processed using microscopic analysis and mass spectrometry. In January of 2016, the Sonoma County Superior Court issued a ruling establishing the fact of his death, and we were able to receive a death certificate in March of this year.
There is a facebook page called "Steve Morris Search" where you can also follow our story.
There were several articles in the San Francisco Chronicle ("SFGate" online) and The Santa Rosa Press Democrat published between August 2014 and March 2016.
Finally, I have been writing a blog, lettersfromthelandoflimbo.com, to share my journey, in hopes that it might help you in yours...
Thank you again for taking an interest in our story. Having the emotional, spiritual and financial support of so many people for all of this time has had a huge healing effect on me and my family.
Today is leaving day. The hug I receive from my twenty-year-old daughter before she heads back to college is open-hearted, silently saying, "I'm gonna' miss you, Mom." No words necessary. I feel a rush of relief that, as her Christmas break ends, we have slowly found our way to a measure of redemption.
A few weeks ago there was another hug. It was more of a warming-up one, full of the ambivalence a newly-independent young adult feels on returning home. I still remember the sense of disorientation I felt as a college student coming home for breaks. Home, but not home. Daughter, but not child. Eager to demonstrate my maturity and independence, yet always annoyed at the magical power of my mother's doorway to suddenly transform me to my eight-year-old, ten-year-old, thirteen-year-old (gasp!) self.
And so, I'm trying to hold all of this in mind as Ellie and I readjust to each other. I chastise myself when those old pet nicknames slip out. (Where did "Pookie" come from, anyway?!) Though curious, I avoid asking for a rundown of her plans for each day. "Just let me know if you'll be here for dinner" I say, giving myself a pat on the back for my restraint. After seeing Ellie gradually relax and settle in, I've been thinking, "Maybe she's really starting to see that I don't want to control her life. Whew!" The lyrics to J.J. Heller's song, "Only Have One" come to mind:
"I should not try to live two lives. I only have one. I only have one. You have yours and I have mine. We only have one life."
I tell myself, "You're doing a good job!" And for days, I think I am. Then suddenly, I'm not. So it all crashes down and the door to her heart slams shut. I've made a mistake that leaves her feeling betrayed, disrespected. And all at once, our beautiful, fragile connection seems shattered.
I feel the impact of Steve's disappearance and death as dark threads woven into almost every piece of our lives, coloring and complicating what would already be a challenging season in a mother-daughter relationship. In times of strain like these, I find the sudden rift with my daughter--my one and only family member--to be unbearable. The tension of this rupture is like the chasm I feel when my sin distances me from God: unmoored and alone, like an astronaut untethered from her space ship.
We tip-toe around each other at first, then try to talk it out, to understand the scene better through each other's eyes. And though, in the end, she still views my action as a betrayal, I feel her gradually softening toward me. A whiff of grace has started to warm the air.
So how did we get here? Surely the many mistakes and apologies over the years have given us much practice! Yes, that's part of it. But then there's grace. Ellie found her way to forgiving me. And in this action, in her decision to move toward her very human mom instead of away, I see tracings of the woman she is becoming and the resilient relationship God is nurturing between us.
And so, I return her open-hearted "good bye" hug, once again so grateful for the gift of grace, this time expressed through my lovely daughter.
For me, it's not the home maintenance--even on a week like this when my home's electrical and plumbing systems are conspiring against me! It's also not money management, work challenges, or even single parenting that are the toughest to navigate as I journey down this "widow's walk." But instead, it's finding where I belong in the social world, now awkwardly single after so many years of moving through it as part of a couple. I find myself frustrated that I still--after over four years--haven't figured this out.
Don't get me wrong. It's definitely getting easier as I build more one-to-one friendships with women and follow up with those few couple friends who still seem to be genuinely comfortable hanging with me now that I'm no longer "coupled."
But it's as if Steve and I are seated around a table with several couples--all longtime friends. We've been playing the same board game we've enjoyed together every Friday night for decades when, suddenly, something distracts me, taking my attention away from the table for a moment. But when I turn back to the game, everything has changed.
In that blink of an eye, Steve--my forever playing partner--is nowhere to be found, and some trickster has thrown all of the playing pieces up in the air. Now gravity has taken over, so they're tumbling down like colorful hailstones, landing in totally random places on the table and rolling off onto the floor. While some of my friends are enjoying the cacophonous chaos still crashing down around us, I'm not. There's nothing I recognize here. My grip has tightened on the table, and I feel my lower lip quivering as I try to hold in the howl that threatens to escape my clenched teeth.
You see, I was enjoying our orderly--even at times predictable--get-togethers. Same pizza. Same game. Same friends. Same husband. There was a beauty in this simple rhythm. But where does a person even begin to figure out how it all works, now that everything has changed? What exactly are the rules to the new, partnerless game?
For a while, I was utterly immobilized at the prospect of trying to figure this out. "If I don't know what to do, then maybe I should just do nothing." (You can guess how well that approach worked out!)
* * *
I was sitting at my friend Jeanine's dining room table on a Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago, surrounded by spools of jewelry wire, beads in every shape and hue imaginable, and a big bowl of buttery popcorn.
Jeanine had invited a woman she met in her grief group to join our jewelry jam. So there we sat, a trio of widows, each attempting to string together something of beauty while practicing a new way to enjoy the company of other people. Jeanine generously gave us tips on technique as we shared a few of our stories and how we came to know each other. We talked about how we lost our husbands, and how much we each need more of this kind of healing, creative "play" in our lives.
At one point, I saw a pendant Jeanine had been working on (pictured above). The heart looks to me like a life in progress: my life. It has lots of open space. But if you look closely, you will see it's not an empty heart. Instead, it's one that is gradually filling in with tiny beaded flowers, reflecting the work of the ultimate creator--so much more "half full" than "half empty."
I know gatherings like this will never feel like those decades spent at play with Steve and our "couple friends," but it can become its own treasured ritual, moving to its own sweet rhythm--one beautiful bead at a time.
* Art by Jeanine Cogan
I won't lie. I had done a fair amount of tidying and organizing in anticipation of the big family convergence at my home for Thanksgiving. Linens were washed, beds made, most of the groceries purchased. But there were still a couple of messy "zones" I really wanted to tackle before my guests arrived. (Don't we all want people to believe our lives are more together than they really are?)
Both areas were littered with tools, paint, screws: all of the detritus left over after painting and decorating Ellie's room. On one level, I didn't mind seeing them, as they reminded me how much had been accomplished with this "Extreme Makeover."
The emerald green and deep teal walls then-fifteen-year-old Ellie was so enamored of (like sleeping in an aquatic paradise--so right for my quicksilver swimmer), had unfortunately become so strongly associated with the eighteen months of trauma and complex grief surrounding her dad's death, she was finding it almost impossible to sleep there.
But now, with the very capable help of my friend Rachel, everything that could be changed was. The walls were painted a light latte color, while a soothing dove gray coverlet and pillows graced her repositioned bed. A gift of tiny warm lights from my sister Anna lay tucked in a strand of paper flowers, while a swarm of small white butterflies perched on branches placed above her headboard.
I'm happy to say--just as we had hoped--our plan seems to have worked! Peaceful sleep has returned to my daughter's room for the first time in four years. (Oh, why did I wait this long?!).
Like seeing the glasses and dirty plates dotting the living room after a good party reminds you of the festivities, so it has been with these piles of tools and stacks of paint cans waiting to be put away. But after days of telling myself I'd get to them "soon," "soon" would quickly become "too late" if I didn't act now.
My sister Pam and I rushed home from our second round of grocery shopping with only a few minutes left before my San Diego cousin and his family would arrive, ready to relax and settle in. So here I was, smack dab in the middle of both the mess I made and the responsibility to clean it up. Or at first glance, that's how it seemed.
My Mama raised me to believe good hosts provide, above all, a clean, welcoming, restful environment for their guests. I thought I was doing just fine with filling this mandate in most areas, but there were still those two pesky piles that could definitely put a damper on my ability to convince myself I had the situation in hand.
Well, we practically threw the food into the fridge and cupboards (a close second in speed and style to Pike's Place's famous fish flingers!) I ran to the living room and grabbed the cans of paint that had taunted me every time I passed by and lugged them into the garage. (God bless those humble holding cells for all things junk!) Then I grabbed an empty box and dashed up the stairs to evict the large collection of equipment spread across the linen cupboard.
I couldn't believe it! I was actually going to make it! But then, there it was: the sound of my cousin and his family at the front door, undoubtedly feeling so relieved to finally cross our threshold after their ten-hour drive.
So, like shutting down the power on a gigantic tilt-a-whirl, my pre-holiday mania came to a screeching halt. And in that moment, one of the hardest-won lessons of the seasons following Steve's death came rushing back to mind: I could be the opposite of "put together" and my friends and family would still love me. My home (and life) could be utter chaos, and they would still love me. In fact, I could have absolutely nothing to offer, and I would still be deeply loved.
So I inhaled this truth, dropped my empty box, and ran downstairs to open the door to my family. We were all here, a circle of imperfect people in an imperfect home. In other words, things couldn't have been better.
After it first happened, I would feel myself wince as I caught glimpses of the blackened redwood trees on both sides of the highway in Santa Rosa, bearing the scars of the fire's assault as it catapulted across all six lanes. Somehow, the crispy-brown scrub oaks or incinerated grassy banks didn't hit me in quite the same visceral way as the redwoods did.
Maybe it's because redwoods have stood as our county's proud "mascot" for so long. Seeing them in this victimized state was just as shocking as it would be to see our beloved Snoopy with a black eye. And now, on this one-year anniversary of the firestorm, these trees are showing us they are still "mascot" material.
While brand-shiny-spankin'-new (or at least newly-restored) buildings have sprung up on both sides of the freeway, I can't say I have a lot of respect for them. Don't get me wrong. I'm happy for the people who own and work in those businesses...it's just something about the buildings themselves. Bottom line, they look too good. So clean. So perfect, with no soot or singed landscape left. Instead, everything, everything new, new, new.
It reminds me of the face of an actress who has had so much "work" done that the furrows and smile lines hinting at her life story have been erased. And the softening and wrinkles that would give us a clue about how much life she has lived are gone. All that's left is a generic face. I guess, in a way, it feels like a sham.
But not our redwoods. They wear their rugged honesty well. When I take in their still-blackened trunks supporting old brown and gray-green branches alongside soft, full-of-life spring green ones, I just want to walk up and ...hug?...er...congratulate and thank them. I want to congratulate them for enduring hell, yet still standing. And I want to thank them for their humble testament to what we already know: While this cataclysmic tragedy has marked us all in different ways, those "marks" are now a part of us, adding perspective, shading, and depth to our life stories. No "makeovers" necessary.
And just as I will be paying more attention to those trees' magnificent foliage as they grow taller and broader with time, I am determined to look more closely as I drive by--close enough to see the marred bark that remains, because I never want to forget what those trees survived. Then I will take in a deep, full breath and exhale, giving thanks that they are still standing--that we are still standing--before I move down the road toward another day in my own scarred, beautiful life.
Beautiful dear one. We're all looking back at this terrible day. Zach (who lives in Napa) comments about there's a tribe of PTSD survivors all around him. And, there's a nod and acknowledgement passed from one to another in saying, "Good job. We're still here." Love you!
We miss Steve too. Know that we're thinking of you, Ellie, and Steve and the rest of your family.
Another year... and my heart aches for you, Ellie and your family as you remember Steve and all that he gave and as you feel the loss. Sending prayers and love. Bonnie
I love this story, Carrie. What a great memory of Steve and your first mom's day!!
Absolutely beautiful tribute, as always, Carrie. Thank you so much for reminding us so often of Steve's love for you and for Ellie. We miss him like crazy.
Oh Carrie, My heart is with you as you literary take steps to honor Steve and have closure.
Oh goodness, what a sweet and sour college story. Please give me a week or two notice next time you are coming to Anna's. I'd love to offer you both a massage. Love and peace, Mary Forest
Thank you for sharing your heart, tears and joys with everyone. You are often in my thoughts and prayers. Blessings to you both.
Oh Carrie, in the most odd way I know this is great news . May the cells if your soul find some peace as you venture into the next part of your journey. So much love coming your way. Please make sure Anna gives you a long and loving embrace from the Forest girls.
Best to you, Carrie, we think of you always. And Ellie, have a great school year!
Carrie I pray to God that you and your daughter are blessed. I am sorrily sorry for your loss May you be blessed,.
Ahh one of God's Divine Interventions! Not what we want, but what he knows we need. Sorry about all this, I love you.
pins and needles on a Thursday night..........hugs and love to all of you
keeping my fingers crossed Carrie--
Thanks for the outpouring of love and support. Love and prayers to the whole of family and friends. Thanks