In October 2009, after a four-and-a-half-day search, seasoned rock and ice climber TJ Langley’s body was found by his friends near Luahna Peak in a remote section of the Glacier Peak Wilderness. He is thought to have fallen 1,000 feet and died instantly upon impact. A global traveler, accomplished member of Seattle’s Repertory Actors Theatre, and manager of a Capitol Hill apartment building, all accounts of TJ render him as a force of nature himself: a warm, raucous explorer whose obituary describes his as a life “spent in perpetual motion.” He was also the deeply mourned best friend and partner of twenty-one years to Seattle essayist, Litsa Dremousis.
Litsa’s first book, a frank and acerbically funny consideration of rock climbing’s terminal nature, Altitude Sickness, was published last fall to launch Instant Future, a new eBook-only imprint of the Portland-based micropress, Future Tense Books. She has also written a number of lauded essays about her grief following TJ’s death, including “After the Fire,” which was selected as one of the “Most Notable Essays of 2011” by Best American Essays 2012.
Litsa is a Contributing Editor at the literary site The Weeklings, which focuses on the long-form essay and partners with Salon. Her writing has appeared in The Believer, Esquire, Jezebel, McSweeney’s, Men’s Health, New York Magazine, Nerve, Nylon, Salon, Slate, on NPR, and elsewhere. She is a veteran interviewer whose subjects have included Sherman Alexie, Betty Davis (the legendary soul singer), Death Cab, Janelle Monáe, Rufus Wainwright, and dozens of other prominent artists and cultural touchstones.
I met Litsa in Victrola Coffee on a crisp Friday afternoon. She sat down across from me, and immediately leaned forward with her arms outstretched, until she was almost on top of the table. “I cannot believe we are only just now meeting!” She smiled perhaps the most genuine and winning smile I have ever seen; it took up her entire face and went looking for extra real estate elsewhere. It was difficult to reign her in. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine anyone trumping the enthusiasm, candid wit, and borderline absurd level of energy that Litsa exudes. She is no one’s idea of a woman left behind and doused by grief, of someone with CFIDS who suffers debilitating ailments, or of someone whose fiancé has recently undergone brain surgery to remove a tumor. Rather, within minutes, I wondered how TJ the mountain climber ever kept up with her.
We chatted about her stark eBook, just 10,600 words that capture in grand relief Litsa’s rage at the loss of her best friend as well as the culture that supports and celebrates high-altitude climbing. We bantered about risk, compassion, and bear maulings. And we parsed what she was left with when her counterpart of twenty-one years fell–quite literally–off the face of the Earth.
“It’s just not that big of a leap to say,
‘I love this person more than anyone.
And I’m angry at them for the way they died.”
JAIMEE GARBACIK: You had been taking notes on climbing and TJ’s death for two years prior; so, clearly, you already knew you wanted to write about this subject. You’ve written scores of essays, but this was the first book. Given its extremely painful nature, what made you want to take that on?
LITSA DREMOUSIS: It kept churning, for lack of a less writerly word, it just kept churning. We were best friends when he died, and yet, somehow you get used to it. You very much get used to it. Do I still have nightmares? All the time. You adjust. I like the word “adjustment” better than “acceptance” because “acceptance” makes it sound like I’m cool with the universe and everything’s good, and I’m not. I wrote it because I felt I had to.
GARBACIK: I know you don’t like the word “closure.” I’m with you on that. How does it feel to have the book out in the world?
DREMOUSIS: Anderson Cooper has said this repeatedly about his brother’s suicide, that closure is “a television word.” A made-up word, and I completely agree with that. You move on to the best degree that you can. The critical reception to the book has been great as well as the reception from readers. There have been some really nuanced, salient responses from climbers, but overall the responses I’ve read the climbers post, or the few that have contacted me directly, they’ve been what you’d expect. The funny thing is, they haven’t read the book. I know that because there’s that whole chapter on straw men and yet I keep getting them. They say, “You could get killed crossing the street, you could get killed driving a car.” Well, in the course of daily life, you have to cross the street or drive a car. You do not have to climb. One of the reddit threads goes on, “It’s just like being in the fucking military.” No it’s fucking not. You’re climbing because it’s optional. You choose to climb. You’re not saving any lives, you’re not defending any borders; you do it because you want to.
GARBACIK: You give three options in the book regarding climbers’ attitudes towards the possibility of their disappearance or their death’s impact on their loved ones. You claim they’re either in denial, or naïve, or that they don’t really care about their families’ reactions. I can’t help thinking, isn’t there also the possibility–if it is as much of an addiction as you describe–then might a climber not feel as though it is optional, after all? Might they not feel alive and well unless they’re climbing?
DREMOUSIS: I think there’s a lot of validity to what you’re saying. I think what’s hard for me to digest is the enormous effort required to train and to climb. There’s an insane amount of money required. It takes so much thought and so much planning. If someone has a genetic predisposition to alcohol or drugs, that’s an addiction that can be met with very little effort and very little impulse control. Climbing has to be methodically planned out. The difference between a climbing addiction–which I would argue can be an addiction–and any addiction to drugs or alcohol, is that climbers claim what they’re doing is healthy. I have not heard anyone on drugs claim, “Oh, no, heroin is healthy.” At the same time, I understand that point of view because some people have asked me, why can’t I be more compassionate? If I loved him so much, if he was my best friend, why can’t I see that this made him happy? And my retort is, ok, let’s switch places and you wake up with my nightmares and then we’ll talk.
GARBACIK: I found your anger in the book admirable, frankly.
DREMOUSIS: Thank you.
GARBACIK: You’re brave to announce it. I think people are often angry at the dead, but there’s this taboo on discussing that, and especially on blaming them. I suppose that’s likely people’s fear of death, or maybe the desire to memorialize more colorfully.
DREMOUSIS: Greeks discuss death openly and my people have lost so many wars, you kind of have to be good at it. So, even though I’m Greek-American and my family has been here forever, it’s just not that big of a leap to say, “I love this person more than anyone. And I’m angry at them for the way they died.”
GARBACIK: I mean, how can you not be angry? Not that you resent the dead, but certainly you can’t help but blame them on some level for the actions that caused their absence.
DREMOUSIS: Early on, the first two and one-half years, I would have given anything to even be in an argument with him. I missed the stuff I couldn’t stand about him. That fades over time and all becomes softer and sweeter, as you know. I have to remind myself sometimes what a huge pain in the ass he was, or how much a pain in the ass he could find me.
GARBACIK: There’s a necessity to resist deifying the dead–
DREMOUSIS: Lest they get farther away. Yes, because mostly you find yourself going, “Oh my God, you’re never going to believe what happened!” And you can’t tell them. That’s just the worst. So whatever it takes to not turn them into angels.
GARBACIK: So they don’t stop being the person that you loved and remember. Yes. Were you and TJ creative partners as well as romantic partners and friends?
DREMOUSIS: Not exactly. He was such an incredibly gifted actor, but over the years, his focus shifted gradually away from acting towards climbing. And actually, right before he died, TJ was working on an essay on climbing that he never got to finish. He was a strong writer. He used to read all my stuff, but not until it was done. We didn’t write together. I guess, mostly, I miss his cheerleading when I was sick and trying to push through and get a piece done. I miss going for movies and ice cream after I finished. Going to the movies is inextricably linked with him for me. It took me a long time after he died to want anyone else. I was so scared to have sex again, but then I started seeing someone. And I thought having sex with someone else the first time would be so traumatic, but it wasn’t. I was ok. Then I went to a movie with someone new, Trent [now Litsa’s fiancé], and when I came out of the bathroom and there was someone else, someone not TJ holding my purse. That’s when I lost it. And started sobbing.
GARBACIK: You speak of both Neal [Litsa’s nickname for TJ] the actor and Neal the climber in Altitude Sickness, almost as though they’re different people. Can you reconcile those two for me? Is there a similar kind of sensation seeking in acting, do you think?
DREMOUSIS: That’s an excellent question, one that explains a lot about how we were as friends. You know, people didn’t always think we had much in common. Here I am, legally disabled, and TJ was this absurdly talented athlete, scaling mountains. But climbing is like writing in that it requires a lot of solitary time. Time in the void. And in some ways, that’s not so dissimilar from acting, how you lose yourself in a character. I suppose we used to be more parallel. We met in 1988; that’s when he first asked me out, but I had a boyfriend. We didn’t start dating until 1991. He was an actor and I was a creative writing student. I hate to say this, but I’m happier now than I ever was before, happier romantically with my fiancé than I was with TJ. He and I were best friends; we were always breaking up and getting back together, sleeping together and dating other people, going back to being “just friends.” It was all off and on for over twenty years. I feel so bad to say this, I miss him every day, but I wonder, if he hadn’t died, how things would have played out, whether I would have found Trent. Am I awful?
GARBACIK: No, no. That’s the thing about falling for someone in your twenties. You can still be in love with them forever afterwards, but you can also outgrow them. Become different people. And if you separate, you have the chance to meet someone who is where you are now. If you stay together, you have shared history–which is so meaningful–but maybe you don’t have the opportunity to find someone better suited to you. It’s really ok, to be happy, to be glad that you found someone.
DREMOUSIS: Thank you for saying that. I think that’s definitely true, about outgrowing someone romantically. You can’t know conclusively, but I can’t imagine a world in which we wouldn’t have stayed good friends. I can see pretty easily that, romantically, it wasn’t going to work out, but to not be friends…impossible. And my fiancé has been really good about that, understanding that it’s my best friend I miss, not that I’m longing for my romantic partner. But it is very much a division between before and after. You know how it is. You regret all the little things you say, anything that ever dimmed their day for an instant, stuff that didn’t matter in the moment, that which you can’t take back after their death.
GARBACIK: In your essay “After the Fire,” [Nerve, 2011] you say, “I was certain, sometimes literally, that I was dead, too.” When my brother died, I had a very similar experience. I spoke often about a sense of disappearing. And you often allude, as you just did now, to your life being divided up into before TJ’s death and after it. How would you characterize the difference? Besides just the raw gap itself of his absence, in yourself, how do you feel, act, and think differently?
DREMOUSIS: Wow. How to put this. The time we spent–and that was a lot of time, we lived within walking distance of each other–we mostly did things one-on-one. For twenty years. And so I think sometimes, [sardonically] “I get a fresh start! No one but me remembers the things I’ve done!” But really, it’s twenty years of memories gone.
GARBACIK: He was your mirror in so many ways.
DREMOUSIS: That’s right, and like Joan Rivers discussed in that documentary about her [A Piece of Work], as you get older and people die how there’s no one to say, “Oh I remember that,” or who has the same reference points. But it was almost all of the time me and him. We had a bunch of mutual friends, but most of the time we spent together, we did things just the two of us. And now, in my forties, it’s like twenty-one years are missing. Because so many memories are gone, went with him. But then again, TJ and I were frequently apart when he was going around the world, and so I have so much correspondence. So many cards, emails, postcards, and photos. There was an enormity of written stories between the two of us. So it’s not all lost.
“The logical assumption is car accident.
Not that one person has degenerative autoimmune illness
and the other one was mauled by a bear.”
GARBACIK: In the book, you rail against climbers’ selfishness and how high-altitude climbing causes brain damage. And then you say elsewhere and in interviews that, of course, climbers should be allowed to do as they please and you’re not, as a rule, “against it.” Reading this book, I definitely got the impression that you were taking a firm stance against climbing. Which is it?
DREMOUSIS: There’s this thing I have said, I say it in the book and elsewhere, over and over, how you can be as safe and as careful as you want, but no amount of experience or salience trumps loose rock or avalanche. The climbers, they don’t agree with me on that. They say otherwise, how “if you know what you’re doing.” TJ thought that too, there’s that interview we did for Esquire [“When Idiots Go Climbing”] where he talks about that, experience mattering. I supported him climbing, I chose to. It’s what he loved. But he knew I hated it.
GARBACIK: Do you think climbers in particular tend to have a sort of death wish? Is that mixed in with the sensation seeking at all?
DREMOUSIS: Many climbers do. TJ didn’t, of that I’m sure. He was so careful, and he was so prepared, meticulous, but that’s just it. People say they heard about what I said about not being able to defeat loose rock, and I say no, you didn’t. Because TJ was all of those things: he was so careful, and he was so prepared, and now he’s dead. And at the same time, he’d not agree on all this, but that’d be ok. We did everything together, and we sometimes drove each other crazy, and he let me write about him, really personal stuff that didn’t always paint either of us in the best light. But that’s the kind of friends we were. We trusted each other innately. He knew I wouldn’t make him the butt of the joke.
GARBACIK: He seems as though he was rather larger than life.
DREMOUSIS: He was, both literally and figuratively. He would, on an off-day, cycle 30-50 miles. That’s when he wasn’t climbing. But before that, before he even started climbing, he was always unimaginably strong. And he was brilliant and he was hilarious. And he was the most stubborn person–
GARBACIK: About that, TJ and his famous stubbornness. He survived a bear attack and then headed right back up to the mountains. Do you think there is any other way his story could have ended? Please forgive me for this, but do you think it was inevitable?
DREMOUSIS: What I think is, the bear got him. You know, I realize most people won’t understand that, but I do. I think the bear in the end won.
GARBACIK: Just as there’s a division between your life before and after he died, there seems to have been a very strict division in TJ’s life before and after the bear.
DREMOUSIS: Oh yes, definitely.
GARBACIK: And after the bear, climbing became a total fixation.
DREMOUSIS: Whereas before it was hiking and occasionally a mile long climb? Yes, he articulated that explicitly many times. Climbing was therapeutic for him, and it helped him recover from the bear attack. He refused to live in fear. He very much thought climbing helped him emotionally heal after the bear attack. So that’s why I think that, tragically, the bear did get him in the end.
GARBACIK: People either survive the plane crash, live a quiet life, and never take another risk. Are just grateful forever. Or else they jump out of every plane they can because–
DREMOUSIS: He used to tell me, “Litz, I’m not going to be the guy lightning strikes twice.”
DREMOUSIS: Now that you say that, I do, I think it was inevitable. You know, he got mauled, he was unrecognizable. He hiked 4 miles holding his scalp on his skull, blood pouring into his eyes.
GARBACIK: Faced his demons head on.
DREMOUSIS: He encountered bears three more times after that! They were the far less dangerous black bears and none approached him, thank God. And that’s how I knew, when we passed the worrying time, the time where he told me, “If I’m not back by then, that’s when you start worrying.” I knew he must be dead or had incurred a massive head trauma. Because if he didn’t come back, it had to be worse than how he was after the bear attack, with his skull exposed, and him just holding it. There had to be brain damage, or else he was dead.
GARBACIK: You seem to write in a very precise manner in all of your work. But do you think the especially spare style that you adopted in the book was connected to the grief and the experience of writing it?
DREMOUSIS: This sounds apocryphal, but it’s true. For all of the huge obstacles with being chronically ill, the flip side is that there’s no time to really go long. On any given day, there’s a point where, I’m out. I can’t go long. I don’t have the physical energy to sustain it. The next book is a collection of essays; it’s probably going to be out the end of 2016, and then the novel is the third one. But the reason the novel is taking so long is just health reasons. When I’m done, I’m literally crippled. And by the way, I do think that people that walk with canes and crutches, we can call ourselves crippled. One of TJ’s nicknames for me was Gimpy. And with the scars on his face, people would assume we were in a car accident. Because you see a guy with scars on his face and I’m on a cane or crutches, the logical assumption is car accident. Not that one has degenerative autoimmune illness and the other one was mauled by a bear.
GARBACIK: [laughing] Well, yes, one goes with the odds on that one.
DREMOUSIS: So sometimes, we would tell the truth and people wouldn’t believe us. And so, he would say I was a drunk and I fell down a lot, and I would say he juggled steak knives. I mean, we would take each other’s shit the way you wouldn’t take it from anyone else. I was sharper, a quicker draw verbally, and he would tease me, he’d say, “Yeah, but I can kick your ass at a 50 yard dash.”
“I don’t make the rules.
We’re not all going to die holding hands
when we’re 110 in our sleep.”
GARBACIK: There was that quote, in “After the Fire,” about TJ doing your dishes, and that being how one knew he loved you.
DREMOUSIS: The bar by his apartment, the Six Arms, that’s one of the only two places I will not go. Because we did go everywhere in the city together, I made the decision early on, I can’t not go places. Fuck, I couldn’t go into my own home if I decided to avoid places we went together. The Six Arms is where we had the vigil, and ten days before, it’s where we had the bear anniversary party. All the climbers who were at the bear anniversary party were in the mountains. It was his friends who found him. And they were too devastated. So the only person who was there ten days before and then at his vigil the night his body was found was me. Outside, my brother found me on the sidewalk, just sobbing. In the middle of holding me, he said, “Litsa, he did your dishes for you, he scrubbed your sinks, and no man has ever scrubbed sinks for a woman he didn’t really love.” It’s great that [the book] opens with my brother’s other line because that is verbatim. We were sitting outside the Mountaineers Club and my brother says, “That funeral ate balls.” [laughs] Just as we got out of earshot. I love him for that reason, he can sum things up so succinctly. That became the ongoing quote.
GARBACIK: Yeah, I’d think a lot of things probably ate balls right around that time.
DREMOUSIS: Well, you know they were close. They got along famously. So my brother’s morbid joke–you have to know him, he says this with love. He’d say, “Well, at least TJ died saving all the babies. What? No babies were saved? Fuck, that changes everything!” We’d change it like, “He died saving that basket full of kittens.” We kept making up different stuff. “I.e., at least he died for a reason. Wait, what? He died for no reason whatever? Nothing changed and no one was saved? Ok. I have to rethink everything.”
GARBACIK: Well, it is this sort of senseless death. You won’t call it a tragedy, which I totally empathize with. But I think anyone could agree, at least, that it wasn’t heroic, say. There wasn’t a purpose to his death.
DREMOUSIS: I don’t think there was. He would argue that, I think, my best guess, he would totally disagree with me on that. I think he would actually say that he died doing what he loved. Again, to anyone who uses that argument, they’re more than willing to trade places with me and have my nightmares. We all have our nightmares. But the missing, the search and rescue [dream], it just doesn’t go away. When I wrote the book, there were recurring massive night terrors that I hadn’t had in years. But the missing dream, that happens at least two or three times a week. In the dream, I’ll be confused, because he wouldn’t be gone on a climbing trip this long without saying goodbye. He didn’t say goodbye, so therefore he’s coming back. But the missing took its toll on all of us. To not know if the person you love most is safe. That’s why I wrote about Adam Kellner [who has been missing for eight years]. I dealt with it for four and a half days, and I’m traumatized, but that is their life. Here’s this family that lives with this every day.
GARBACIK: It sounds like what you’re most angry about is that, because TJ died so needlessly, no matter how much you miss him, you can’t quite forgive him. And you have to carry that around.
DREMOUSIS: Yes. He broke all our hearts and he never meant to. He was the kindest guy. And so many of us cannot talk to each other. I don’t talk to his climbing friends, there’s so much fracture. It just happens when people die suddenly, when people are just overwhelmed with grief. Not that his death is in any way like the death of a child, but you know that phenomenon where parents who lose a child, 90 percent of them do separate, and that’s because—you know how common it is. Grieving people can’t help each other.
GARBACIK: Well that, and you change so much so fast. You have to adapt tremendously to be able to go forward after that, and I think in any long-term relationship, whether it’s parent-child, whether it’s partner-partner, brother-sister, friends, whatever it is, for you to continue to be close, you have to evolve parallel to one another, in some sense. So if something hugely traumatic happens, the chance that you’ll continue on that same track…it’s unlikely.
DREMOUSIS: Also the older we get, we know that’s not going to be the last big loss experience. So if we let that cripple us, well, guess what? We’re not done; we’re all going to be going in some order. We’re all going to be doing this for awhile.
GARBACIK: I used to sort of jokingly say–people didn’t know how I survived my brother’s death because we were inseparable, and I would say, “Oh, but you don’t even know how well prepared I am for what’s coming now!” I was like, “Just think about it, the worst thing that could have ever happened to me already happened, so now I’m invincible.” Almost like a climber’s mentality, in a way, the arrogance it can breed.
DREMOUSIS: There is definitely that sense, when the person you love most has already died, well, if you got through that.
GARBACIK: Nothing but puppies from here on out.
DREMOUSIS: [laughing] Weirdly, the people I’ve found that have the biggest problem hearing about this, when they asked what happened to me, were other people who paired off in their twenties that were still together at this age.
GARBACIK: You mean because they also would have had that whole chunk of their lives in symbiosis?
DREMOUSIS: Yes, so it deeply resonates with them, and I’m like, I don’t make the rules. We’re not all going to die holding hands when we’re 110 in our sleep. It’s going to be staggered. We’re all going to go in some order.
GARBACIK: You made that point earlier, about how if you’re with someone for two decades, they constitute so much of your memories, they take so much of you with them.
DREMOUSIS: It just goes.