Once upon a time, I believed that I was born within a tragic love story. It was the foundation of my faith, the center of my spirituality and my driving force. Once upon a time, I believed I was wanted, I was chosen, I was special . . . divinely protected, even.
It went something like this (maybe I’ve even told you this story already; it was, after all, what I believed to be my Origin):
My father died when my mother was eight months pregnant with me.
It was a complicated relationship riddled with drugs and scandal; he had only just separated from his wife, the mother of his first three children. But my mom told me he adored her, treated her like a queen, loved her in a solid, unforgettable way. She never got over him.
He died in a freak motorcycle accident; or, rather, he sustained fatal injuries in a motorcycle crash and died days later in the hospital. There was a wrongful death lawsuit (he was hit by a corporate vehicle), and I was awarded an inheritance (that was later stolen from me, but that’s a different tale). His family was furious that I existed and forced a paternity test to prove I was his. The evidence was irrefutable, but so was the rift in his family – they closed the door to us and proceeded as though I never existed.
My mother, heartbroken and alone, turned to a life of addiction and poverty, moved home to California, and had me. His death broke her. She had been beautiful, she said, before he died. But I never knew that version of her. She was a broken shell of a human already by the time I was born, didn’t even bother to stay sober during pregnancy. Her choices put me in danger constantly: I was homeless, sexually & physically abused, neglected, dirty, and alone.
But he was by my side my entire life, a dutiful Angel Father who kept me safe, loved me dearly, and gave me the strength to survive my mother’s abuse. I was told that he even gave me my middle name, Noel, after his childhood best friend. Later, I would learn how similar I was to him in psychic ability, love of language, and otherworldly intelligence.
He meant everything to me. I fantasized about what my life would have been like if he had worn his helmet that night. I pictured my mother vibrant and beautiful rather than broken and malicious. I imagined growing up surrounded by family, living in the desert, visiting the sea.
The magnitude of this belief cannot be understated. Once, in San Diego, when I was not even five years old, my mother drunkenly lost track of me at the beach. I was boogie boarding when a surfer ran me over, broke my leash, and sent me into a riptide. I began to drown until the spirit of my father came to me under water, lifted me up, and signaled for the lifeguard who would save my life. My unpublished first book, Finding Starlight, details my perceived relationship with the spirit of my father and all the ways I felt he supported my survival.
When my mom died of drug and alcohol -related sudden heart failure at 44 years old, I was a young woman of only fifteen. Legally an orphan, I became a ward of the State. As is their custom, the government sent certified letters to all remaining known family members informing them of my orphaned status and inviting them to claim me. It was in this way that my older sisters, the surviving children of my long-deceased father, came to learn of my existence.
Twenty years have passed.
On December 11, 2021, I was visiting Arizona, the point of origin of this entire Grand Delusion. One of those sisters – the third daughter of the dead dad – is now an addict whose many children are wards of the State. When I received the certified government letter informing me of their status I did not hesitate to involve myself in their lives, and have been supporting them as best I can for the last year, including visiting Phoenix and attempting to repair the rift.
I will never forget that Saturday night, December 11. It was the night the Castle of Grand Delusion I had been living in my entire life burst into flame and fell to pieces around me.
Probably around 11pm, I arrived back to the home of my other sister, the Good One, the first daughter of the dead dad. She and I have been creating a relationship, getting to know each other, learning to love what we have in absence of what we thought it would be. I adore and admire her and was grateful to be a guest in her home during the intensely emotional visit, which involved case workers and group homes, police and mental health crises, and so much bonding between Auntie and Nieces and Nephews.
She poured me the last glass of wine, which I drank while sitting cross-legged on her kitchen counter. We were both exhausted from a big day of emotions, and were decompressing as sisters do with conversation and shared insight.
As though suddenly compelled to speak, she blurted, “Daddy didn’t know about you.”
My heart stopped for a full moment. My brain filled up the deafening silence with a chorus of arguments, justifications, long-held dogma of its own creation.
“How can we know that, though?” I asked after a moment, certain she was wrong.
“Baby girl,” she started, like she always does when there is hard truth to follow, “Daddy died in May. I can pull up the obituary if you want to see it . . . I thought you knew.”
The universe split like an atom as this truth shattered my wholeness, exploded my faith.
“I was born in December . . . that means . . . oh, my god,” I sputtered as the unforgiving mathematics settled around me like a steel cage. “Nobody knew I existed when he died. Not even my mom . . . he had no idea she was pregnant.”
Silence like a vacuum blossomed in my chest as my face settled into the calm, expressionless mask it learned so early in life, a shield now donned too late to protect me from this blow.
Into that vacuum poured the Truth: no, he didn’t know about me. He had no childhood friends, knew nobody by any of my names. And he was never going to marry my mother. In fact, he had – just weeks before his death – gotten himself clean and sober and purchased an airline ticket to send my mother home to California so he could repair his marriage and raise his three existing children. His only children, really.
He died with the plane ticket in his pocket, in a motorcycle crash on his way to break up with my mother, the pariah. To send the woman he never loved back to the hellscape from which she emerged, already a succubus of collapsed dreams.
By the time she realized she was pregnant with a dead man’s child, the lawsuit was underway. Five million dollars -worth of lawsuit . . . and a dollar sign growing in her belly. She wasted no time capitalizing on this tragedy, returning to Arizona to insert herself into the affairs of the family she tried to destroy. Into the courthouse, swollen belly forward, she strode. A manipulative woman, even if a broken one, she leveraged my existence and their affair to get a cut of the deal. She swore to testify against the family if they denied her claim – she would lie and tell the court my father was drunk and high on that bike, ruining the settlement for everyone. They cut me financially into the deal and in all other ways out of the family.
No wonder she hated me from the moment I was born. She absolutely would have aborted me, like she did several other babies, except that I was a means to her survival, a monthly dividend to support her addictions. She didn’t want me, but she had to keep me around. Which is fine; I never doubted her disdain for me. That wasn’t a faith-shattering new truth as much as it was a slight tinge of salt on the memory of a long-scarred wound.
On December 11, I learned that I was absolutely alone. And it almost killed me.
To feel a sharp, shattered emptiness where my hope had been was to experience a loss of lifeblood so profound I can hardly put it to words. I could neither breathe nor think nor feel, even as my spirit collapsed into the void.
Everything I ever believed about myself was a lie.
Nobody wanted me, not when I was an unborn child, not when I was an accidental baby, not when my vampire-mother collapsed in the middle of the street and died in the literal gutter, and not a single time I thought I was in love.
My entire capacity for love was a lie. My absurd obsession with love – a driving force in my life, the muse to my poetry, the passion-flame I thought lived within my chest – was born of a false origin. There was no tragic tale of love lost, just a fucked up homewrecker about to be sent packing by an unfaithful addict on the road to his own recovery.
The book I wrote, the career I’ve chosen, my involvement in the lives of these nieces and nephews, the inexplicable sense of home I felt in the desert – all evidence of the Grand Delusion.
December 11 was a Saturday in the middle of my Arizona family visit; I had already committed to spending Sunday alone in Sedona to clear my mind and move my body, to find a mountain to climb and watch the sun sink into the horizon. I hardly slept that night and left at dawn.
The dispensary opened at 7am – I knew because I waited until then to leave so that I could numb the gaping, gasping pain inside my chest, so I could make it to the mountains. Somehow, I didn’t cry until the joints were purchased, the coffee was in hand, and the car radio was set with music and driving directions. Then, I couldn’t stop the sobs.
When an atom splits, so too does the universe. I saw the fracture in my mind, saw myself standing at a crossroads in the dark: to my left, a crevasse; to my right, a continued path of dusty red rock.
My mind went left first. Time jumped. I saw the news story: “. . . New Hampshire woman’s body recovered at the base of a cliff. Authorities responded to a missing persons report and tracked her phone, which was found on the trail hundreds of feet above her body, intact and protected from the elements . . .”
I saw my son watching the video I left for him, heard my friends discussing the odd trail of clues my debit card transactions left behind that day, saw the sad chuckle when they realized I stopped for both weed and coffee even though I planned to kill myself. I watched the faces of my nieces and nephews as they were awarded the massive funds collected by a Go Fund Me, suddenly popular after my death; I watched them live out their dreams, and I was glad my suicide finally repaired the rift. I watched my former husband raise our son, keep his hope and light alive, assure him again and again that I had loved them all, had turned into a bird and flown away.
I watched my death and knew that it was One Right Choice, if I decided to make it. I forgave myself this act, justified it as necessary. I saw the toll my life had taken on others already and felt crushed beneath the weight of my own inadvertent destruction.
The addict-sister was only nine months older than me, an Irish Twin, really. Our lives were total opposites, my brain pointed out, and calmly explained it like we were twin embryos with a nutritional imbalance – I took everything good and she was left to wither. She is what I would have been if I had known how alone and unwanted I was. The only difference is that I built my life on a lie, whereas she grew up in the truth. And it destroyed her.
Her six children were traumatized and living another rotation of the hell-cycle of family trauma catalyzed by my mother’s selfishness and my untimely birth.
So many people have died in the vacuum of my existence, I realized as my brain continued to tally the scales. Step-brothers, siblings, parents, broken families, my own horrific early adulthood choices and the carnage of emotional destruction caused by my unwavering mistaken commitment to a Love that does not exist . . .
I saw on one side of the scale the heap of bodies my existence created. On the other, the weight of the Lie that I was living.
How could I balance this scale? Could I ever save as many as I destroyed? Or should I jump – now, today – and let the universe right its own balance?
There was no question that I was a mistake, an anomaly that glitched its way through the veil, a disturbance in the Collective. The question was whether or not I had any free will and if so what to do with it.
And that question jarred my brain.
I pulled off an exit onto “Your Public Lands” somewhere between Phoenix and Sedona. Eyes blurred by smoke and tears, I stumbled out of my rented black Volkswagen and into the dirty desert landscape. Next to a heap of trash and a tumbleweed, I smoked. It was, thankfully, good, strong stuff that slowed my jagged breath and tumbling tears. Still, I shook with anger as I made the first of what I imagined would be many “found footage” videos.
“Have you ever been so mad you could just die?” a voice I hardly recognized as my own asked the empty landscape, “so angry you could just . . . fucking . . . die?”
A selfie confirmed blackness had taken over my usually earthy-brown eyes. I extinguished what was left of the joint and got back in my car while the radio played every perfect song and the dirty desert gradually turned brown, then red orange.
Disgust that my mother was part of me took over. I screamed “How could you fucking dare?!” at the top of my lungs over and over as snowy mountaintops came into distant view. I pictured her, dressed impeccably for show, in heels with her hair and makeup done, walking into the courtroom an image of pregnant smug virtue – saw her open a leather briefcase and lay out the results of my paternity test in a closed room, saw the faces of my father’s family distort with hatred as they realized the unborn bastard brat really did have his DNA. I hated her for it, and I hated myself for causing it.
But there is something about Sedona. I’ve always known it. Driving into the energy field of that place felt like my soul was ripped from my body with hallucinogenic intensity; suddenly, my suffering was separate from my consciousness. To say I was disoriented would be like saying the ocean is a teacup.
Still, I couldn’t stop crying. This made it difficult to navigate any of my hiking apps or search the internet for a starting location. I came in without a plan, certain Sedona would show me the way . . . yet another symptom of the Grand Delusion I allowed to lead my life. I made that optimistic non-plan as a different person, though, and now I hated myself for it, too.
Also, it was colder than I anticipated. I realized at elevation I would be wildly unprepared for the elements. My brain simultaneously decided it didn’t matter because I didn’t plan to come out of the mountains alive, anyway, and that it would be a lot more comfortable to die if I was warm. At that moment, I saw a sign.
A literal sign. “The Hike House,” it announced, was the place for advice and gear to hike the famous Sedona landscape. In three minutes, I parked and walked in, wiping the tears from my puffy swollen eyes and putting on my best stoner façade face. Rather be seen as a too-high tourist than recognized in my mental health crisis and stopped before I could decide whether to live or die on my own terms, I thought.
One overpriced wool sweater, pair of mittens, and hat later, I stood opposite a shockingly good-looking professional hiking guide, surveying a local map. Somehow his voice made its way through the fog of my existence as he said something like, “you want to gain a lot of vertical, right?” and I just nodded dumbly. He told me to skip the obvious tourist traps and go for Bear Mountain, that I could watch the sunset from there if I really didn’t mind coming down in the dark. I hadn’t decided to come down at all, anyway, and took his advice.
From the new vantage point of spirit-outside-of-body, a calm clarity took hold. I returned mentally to that crossroads, to survey the new parallel universes that had been created in the nuclear explosion of truth the night before. My brain quickly summarized the already-explored crevasse on the left and packaged it for future reference. Then, we turned our attention to the right, to that dusty red path, to see what lied ahead if I chose to survive.
And all I saw was red, red rock and the fiery reflection of endless sunset above it. I could see no past, no future, no choice at all . . . the silence continued, but in a less-deafening fashion as I followed my directions deeper and deeper into the mountains. Mechanically, I filled and checked my hiking pack, realizing how deeply unprepared I was and noting that as status quo for me.
Utterly emotionally disconnected from my physicality, my body walked away from the Volkswagen once more and found itself on a dusty red path. The hiking guide, Brett was his name, had told me there was a lookout not to miss just about a third of the way up the mountain. As I ascended the first plateau, a false summit visible from the parking lot, I recognized my opportunity.
The landscape was breathtaking from up there, and my spirit dropped right back into my body as if a super-magnet had been activated. My feet carried me to the very edge of an extremely high up, sharply steep cliff. My brain affirmed, “this would be a good place to die.”
My spirit whispered, “I choose to live.”
My heart, ever committed to the Grand Delusion and broken beneath the destruction of that Fortress, scream-sobbed in protest, “But nobody chooses me! Nobody has ever chosen me. I shouldn’t even exist. I am a weapon, a shell, an accidentally botched abortion. I belong to nobody, live nowhere, feel nothing but endless pain. What am I supposed to believe in, now?”
“You belong to no one. Your debts are paid. Your karma is settled. You owe nothing – you are free,” my spirit answered.
“What good is freedom without love?” my brain argued.
“We are free to love as we please, when we belong to no one,” came from Something Else, just then, and it felt as true and solid as the red cliff beneath my feet.
Frustrated, I checked my elevation and mileage and realized there was a long way to go if I planned to summit this Bear Mountain – which I absolutely did plan to do. I noted the cliff and promised myself I could change my mind on the descent, if I wanted. Decided it would be prettier to die in twilight, anyway.
Two more false summits and 1,500 feet of elevation later, my heart was soaring in my chest, my body was flying over the trail, and my mouth was smiling with the joy that only mountains can bring. In the distance below, I saw a long-haired man working his way up and thought to keep the distance between us as my pace quickened.
At just over 6,500 feet, the top of Bear Mountain and a stunning view of Sedona held safe my longings. My tears were all cried, my frustrations and inner arguments played out, my suicidal thoughts quieted. The sun dipped low and doubled in size. That long-haired man caught up to me and I realized with a flash of nausea why he felt so familiar – he was a brunette doppelganger of an ex I thought had broken me, thought had loved me and instead nearly killed me from heartbreak.
So uncanny was the resemblance, I questioned whether it was a specter, a spirit-illusion sent to throw me off balance, a canyon-prankster god come to see me to my death. Of course, I didn’t say any of this out loud as we exchanged summit niceties like how far from home we both were and how spontaneous this hike was for me, how unprepared I was in terms of gear and that nobody knew where I was . . . all very innocent exchanges that would come to haunt me as darkness fell.
He seemed even less experienced and capable than I was, and lingered to descend with me despite my body language and emotional guardedness as the sun began to set. I explained I planned to run down, had my headlamp and a sweater and needed to get out of there before it got too cold. He asked me to stay within shouting-distance of him, as he was slower than me and said his knee was bothering him.
My brain replayed the news stories from earlier in the year, “. . . body of Gabby Petito found . . . strangled . . . national park . . . missing for days . . .” and I realized I had told this strange man entirely too much about myself. He knew I was visiting, nobody expected me until the next day, I didn’t have food or supplies in my pack, was in an unfamiliar area. This dude was not in any way threatening – he was rather pretty, and relatively slight-of-frame, and clearly interested in getting to know me.
“I am absolutely not doing this again,” my heart decided. She – my heart – meant “falling for a narcissistic lying pretty young asshole on some romantic mountainscape,” while my brain determinedly interpreted, “getting killed by a stranger in the desert,” and my body picked up speed and agility.
Was it the compassionate choice to leave this guy behind, in the dark, on a long and unfamiliar trail? No. But I did it anyway in a burst of clarity that screamed, “I CHOOSE TO LIVE!”
And even as I knew I was doing a shitty thing, leaving behind a probably-injured hiker, I also knew he had cell phone service and could see the parking lot in the distance, finally, and that he really was not my responsibility. He would be okay. And I needed to get out of there, to be alone and find dinner at my hotel, continue processing my adjustment to My New Reality, devoid so suddenly of Grand Delusion.
The mountain did take a fee from me for my lack of compassion, dropping out beneath my feet on a particularly tough scramble and smashing my face into the rock. I felt a little bit of blood trickle down as a lump formed, kissed the rock and said both “I’m sorry,” and “Thank you,” then compressed the wound with the strap of my headlamp and continued to run.
Past the lookout I ran, shouting thanks to the voice that assured me I was free, telling it that I agreed, now, and that I did choose to live – not for me, not for this would-be-romance, not for any kids or parents or reason really at all. At some point, I realized I just . . . loved this life I have created for myself, and I loved the me I have become, despite it all, and now that I knew how free I really was I could do whatever I wanted from now on without shame or guilt.
An old hiker local was by his truck when I emerged in the dark from the trail. He approached me on my way back to the rental car and asked, “Is that other light with you?” as he gestured to Bear Mountain behind me. I turned and saw the slow-moving headlamp that must belong to the doppleganger.
A tinge of guilt washed over me as I answered, “he’s not ‘with me,’ no. Not exactly. I mean, I met him at the summit and we started coming down together . . . but I don’t know him. I took a digger –“ I explained as I removed my headlamp to show the bloody lump on my forehead, “so I had to get out of there as fast as I could, ya know? I need to get to my hotel, get this cleaned up. But if you don’t mind waiting for him, I’m sure he’d appreciate it. He said his knee was hurting.”
I backed away as I said this, knowing how it sounded and wanting to get out of there. I assured myself that I owed these men nothing, had done my diligence, paid my dues, and deserved to soak in the solace of my Sedona night. I had come to Arizona to save people, yes – but not these people. And in order to show up for the children, for my family and my chosen life, I needed time to rest.
That night I found Brett, the hiking guide, and sent him a thank you for the recommendation. I wanted to tell him it saved my life, wanted to explain why I was such a wreck earlier, wanted to redeem myself in some small way . . . but I was free.
I belong to nobody. My karma is settled. Every single step I take from now on is on my own terms, and those terms might be built on a Grand Delusion or a Hopelessly Romantic Lie, but they are mine.
Later, in the hot tub beneath the glittering expanse of the starry multiverse, my brain remembered the crossroads. To the left, a dark crevasse filled with a story I would one day write, a new parallel universe in which my body was found, scales balanced.
To my right – a path to where the sunset meets the mountains.
Once upon a time, I believed I was chosen. That was a lie . . . until December 12, 2021, when I chose myself.
Found in phone notes, dated December 11, 2021:
I don’t even really exist.
I would have been an abortion
Except for the five million dollars
And a paternity test
Proving me a dead man’s daughter
By my own mother’s greed.
No wonder she was done with me
The day I was born.
I was nothing more than a dollar sign
And a grudge
Already settled; check in the mail.
If ever I needed confirmation
That grand delusion is my driving force
This utter lack of existence
Having never once been chosen
Even by my mother
Says it all.
An absolute shell of humanity
A farce of hope
This hollow existence
A joke, really.
Cosmic mistake, checks cashed, living for nothing but
Glad I could be of service.