Let it go. [an interview with nancy karnes]


On skiing, the decision to go to school, and the grief of losing her firstborn son.

It appears—from my standpoint at least—there’s a two-part process constantly at play within her. A practice requiring equal measures relaxation and focus. Some kind of unspoken procedure that perfectly mixes forgiveness, with sheer fucking grit.

I paw my plate of eggs across from the woman who—for the majority of my life—at her best overwhelmed me, at her worst terrified me, and more often than not, generally just infuriated me. In this particular situation, it’s become apparent she’s also a syrup hog.

Meet my Mother.

“Then there are those times—those times when you’re just flying, you know? You’re gliding through snow, and you’re in that groove, and in those moments it’s about letting go.”

She’s talking about skiing; one of her life’s hyper-intense passions. As a familiar, faraway glaze spreads across her face, I slowly slide the syrup back towards my half of the table.

“Look, when you’re afraid,” she continues, “you’re all stiff. But to ski—to ski well, you have to relax. Sure, there’s always a piece of skiing where you do have to focus—I mean, if you’re not paying attention, you’ll crash…” she trails off momentarily, pops another triangle of French toast into her mouth, “but the times where I can practice letting go? That’s when The Amazing happens.”

She grabs for the syrup tin—drizzles the last of it over her plate—and grins, “Up there it’s just me, and God, and the mountains, you know?”

Perhaps more impressive—more memorizing—than hearing her verbally walk through any snow-caped spirituality, is what drew her towards such an ascent in the first place. While coming down the home stretch of her RN Degree at Baylor University, she attended a job fair in some next-step attempt to secure her post-grad future.

“I was walking around these booths and I saw a picture of these peaks. Snowy peaks! I had never seen something so incredible, and I knew I had to go there. So—I…”

At this point, I interject. “I’m sorry. Wait, you what? Just hold the goddamn phone.” She rolls her eyes, and I make a mental note to reel in the expletives. “You saw a picture? And that was it, huh? You just went for it.”

“Why not?”

She elaborates, “I wanted to ski. I wanted to learn how to ski. So I graduated Baylor, and the next day I piled all my stuff into my little yellow VW Bug, and I drove to Utah. That was it.”

Still further surprising, her balls-to-the-wall means of “learning.” Rather than, say, sign up for ski classes, or master the basics along a normal newbie’s bunny hill, she tucked a season’s pass to Alta into her coat, and chair-lifted it to the top.

The sole initial witness to such insanity, my mother’s pal Todd—who, while with her at the summit, would immediately shake her during his pro-level descent. “I would get behind some stranger, and just learn to ski by watching them. But boy, I wasted a lot of time crying on mountaintops, not knowing how to get down.”

She got down—however tear-streaked her cheeks. After every successful run (“successful” in the sense that she didn’t’ die), she’d return to the top for another fanatical leap at Operation I’m Going to Master This.”

While this undercurrent of ballsiness was what brought her to the slopes of Utah in the first place, it was arguably always there.

The middle child of three, her Navy-employed father led the family from Guam to Gurnee, Illinois, where together, their nuclear crew settled comfortably into all things suburbia. “You know it was never outright said, but my perception was that my role was to get married and have kids. I mean, that’s what we did. In my family, no one went to college.”

By this point, we’re scraping our plates, soaking up the last of our separate pools of syrup with half-assed, sloppy bits of hash browns. The server tops off our 17th cup of coffee, looking nervous. As he goes to clear my mother’s empty dish, she jokingly tries to bite his arm. He laughs even more nervously.

She explains, “After high school, I moved out to Kenosha, Wisconsin, and got a job at the glass factory where my father worked. And I mean, really, I just partied. It was all drugs and—“

Again, I interrupt. “Drugs?! You?? What kind of drugs?”

Again, she rolls her eyes. “Sweetie, it was 1970. LSD. Dope. You know. Whatever.”

Laughing, I tease, “You just said ‘dope.’”

“Anyways,” she ignores me, “It was my Dad who sat me down one day and said something like ‘You better take a good, long look at the people sitting across that assembly line from you. That’s gonna be you in 50 years’ and that just resonated. I realize now that in the moment, my father was probably alluding to finding a man, and starting a family…but it was then that I decided to go to school.”

That fuzzy glow of a grin—the same relaxed smile that appeared during her detailed ski-excursion descriptions—returns. And it’s beautiful.

“That was the ticket. You know? The friends I had working in that factory are either still there, or dead by now. So…I think I suddenly let myself look for this better life, outside of the glass factory.”

After a quick analysis of her “options” (ie: nurse, teacher, or secretary), she opted for nursing school. She moved back home, gathered transcripts from high school courses such as ‘Home Economics’ and ‘Typing,’ and sent them off to a community LPN program—with a handwritten letter pleading her case. “Look, I didn’t think I would get in. No way!” she laughs.

“What was the letter about?” I prod.

“I was really bad at math! And I assumed—rightfully so—that nurses needed to be able to measure medicines. So I wrote this letter saying ‘Hi, I’d really like to attend your school, and I’m willing to take extra math classes on my own time if that’s what it takes.”

It turned out additional algebra wasn’t necessary. She got in. “I loved it,” she adds. “And I did really well. Once I realized how much I liked learning, I didn’t’ want to stop.”

Some combination of absolute focus and a striking stubbornness saw her through the 18-month-long course. Right around the point where she began entertaining the idea of continuing on for an RN, fate seemingly delivered a couple of stand-up mentors.

“Cathy and Kathy,” she smiles. “They were home on break, trying to save money for school. I met them at the nursing home where I pulled weekend shifts. They both went to Baylor, and convinced me to come down with them.”

“So you did? You just up and left Gurnee?” I ask.

She cautiously accepts another coffee top-off from our server. “Yeah. I moved to Texas with these gals. Moved in with them—in a house across from campus. We paid $75 a month! Started at the junior college down there, took out loans, and just tried to support myself.”

I ask her more about Baylor life. “It was such a first-class experience for me. Everything about that campus was unlike anything I had every experienced. The people. The classes. I was just so excited to be there, and so committed to doing well.”

“Did you party much?”

“No way. I worked and went to school. Weekends I was an LPN, nights I was in the library. That was it, and it was amazing.”

It was right before this graduation—one in which her parents proudly attended—that she spotted the pixilated western peaks of Utah, and again opted for a new challenge.

“The skiing,” I say.

She sighs. “The skiing.”

She coyly snags the check, and, upon closing out—as per my request—we cross the street to continue our conversation within a cozy neighborhood pub. After all, nothing pairs better with gently picking apart the inner-workings of your wholly misunderstood mother, than a frothy pint.

“I’m telling you, there’s just nothing that compares to that feeling of the cold air on your skin, and the magnitude of the mountains and having to make that conscious decision to let go.”

“It’s a conscious decision?” I ask? “That’s interesting. When I get into that ‘grove’ that you’re talking of, it tends to happen naturally. Organically.”

“It’s absolutely conscious,” she interjects.

“You have to will yourself to release. Otherwise, you’d never let go. Everything in you works—and works constantly—to hang on to something. Stay tense. Anticipate the worst. Over-focus, to the point where you’re under some impression that you have any real control.”

Suddenly, I realize we’re not talking about skiing anymore. I pull my beer in closer. Lean in a bit further.

“I suppose this happens a lot,” she continues, “and usually when you’re nowhere near snowdrifts. Times when you have to just decide to let go. Resolve to move forward. Determine that no, you’re not going under. You know? Give it up already. Release. Exhale. Sure, it’s a more tangible—more transcendent, obvious experience—when I’m flying down the slopes with my God music on, but there are plenty of mountains in life you find yourself stranded on.”

We pause for a minute. I hold my beer, and my breath, waiting for her to continue.

“I have pictures you know. The pictures were taken after he was born…It’s just—just so, you know—once someone dies…” she stammers, “once someone dies, the cells start breaking down. He’s purple…not, like a normal baby.”

The pictures she’s referring to: Kevin. Kevin’s pictures. Her would-have-been first-born son, my could-have-been-older-brother. A stillborn, whose heart stopped beating—for reasons no one will ever know—around 41 weeks.

Partly in some pathetic attempt for comic relief, partly due to some totally screwy ‘when shit gets unbearable, maybe have a beer’ mentality, I offer her a sip of my brew. “No,” she says.

“Just no.”

“It’s so funny,” she whispers, “certain things I don’t remember…and certain things are so vivid. So vivid…” she trails off again.

As she wipes tears from her face, I consider whether it would be more comforting or irritating to a) grab for her hands—the hands she’s sitting on mid-grief, or b) attempt to wrap my ankle or foot around the leg she’s stretched just enough under the table to reside within my reach. Instead, I sit silently. Do nothing.

When she begins again, she speaks of the things she does remember. Of heading to the hospital for what she assumed would be another no-big-deal stress test. Of the excitement, the elated sense of joy behind knowing it was almost time to welcome such a gift into the world. She speaks of the tech person not being able to locate a heartbeat. Of the initial awkwardness that started with a tightness in her gut, and, as it spread throughout her body, transitioned into mounting panic. Of sitting alone on the examination table, waiting for the doctor—a doctor—to return with ‘good news,’ report a simple misunderstanding, apologize for the sometimes-unreliable medical equipment.

“I remember being in the bed, and trying to call Dave—your father. To just tell him ‘Something is wrong. You have to hurry, you have to get here.’ And I couldn’t remember his number.” The tears return, while she sighs, “I couldn’t remember his number.”

She remembered my Dad finally arriving. Of the news finally breaking. Of the shock and disbelief that followed them home that night. Of how, after a sleepless, devastating night together, they had to return to the hospital for an induced delivery.

To this day, she praises the presence of their doula—a woman who showed up, despite the circumstances, and never once faltered. She explains, “I remember how when—you know, when babies are born…they’re supposed to cry. And, I didn’t hear any cries. I remember our doula just squeezed my hand and said ‘Let it all out.’ And I did. You know, I just started crying.”

We pause again—this time for at least three hefty swigs of stout.

The grief that followed was suffocating in its enormity. “Dave wanted to take the nursery down right away, and I was just like ‘No no no. I have to do this and I can’t do this today.’”

While there may have been an initial layer of blame—on herself, specifically for exercising too hard throughout the pregnancy—she didn’t dwell on it. “At one point I just knew I had to move forward. You know, I was completely immobilized. Even though eventually I went back to work, and on the outside I was—according to everyone’s standards—“functioning.” On the inside I was dying. And only I knew that.”

She adds, “One day, I was just sitting home alone, in this unbelievable emotional pain, and I knew I had to make a decision to go on with my life. I knew that if I focused on this, or just stayed here—in this place—that this grief would rule my life. You know, you hear people, people that have gone through significant, traumatic loss, say that you just have to forgive. And it’s true. You have to forgive the circumstances.”

While part of this progression required an immense pardoning, an equally vital component involved channeling that same focus and determination that both saw her through graduate school, as much as drove her down peak, after steep Utah peak. The vow to regroup. Reground. Refocus. In this case, the decision to reach.

“I called this support group. I never made it to any face-to-face meetings. But, I called this group and talked to a woman who had gone through the same thing. And that saved my life.”

“What’s the lesson here?” she asks. “That you can stay ‘here,’ or you can move forward—but that you have a decision to make, and furthermore, that it’s yours to make. At some point, you have to ask yourself how you can better the planet from your experience.”

“And how did that process—that bettering the planet—pan out for you?” I prod, swilling the last sacred remains of my now-empty glass.

“Look I really, really wanted to be a mom. I wanted to give it my best shot. Sometimes I wonder if I had to go through the experience of losing Kevin—to really, really focus on being the best mom I could be. Because, if I got that chance—if I was lucky enough to have kids after that—it was like school, it was like nursing, it was like skiing—I was going to do the best that I could. Sometimes to focus you have to let go. To move forward, you have to forgive. You know?”


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