Earlier this month, I spent a Tuesday morning standing in a cemetary in sub-zero temperatures a six-hour drive from my house. Despite my hat, ski jacket and boots, I wasn't able to stand graveside as long as I wanted to, because I'd lost feeling in my feet. By Wednesday afternoon, I was 1,200 miles away from home, shedding my light jacket as I walked out of a southern airport. To date, it was the most bizarre week of my life.
When we heard my father-in-law was going into hospice, my first reaction was to cancel our planned spring break vacation, even though we'd already bought and paid for both the plane tickets and the rental months before. So much was up in the air, and our first duty was to family. Then things unfolded very quickly, and my father-in-law died while my husband was flying home from week four of a full February of work trips. Our plan was for him to drive home, us to pack and for the whole family to head north first thing in the morning. I told my co-workers. I pulled out the suitcases. Then my husband called me while I was on the way to pick up my daughter from a friend's house and told me to stand down. It was done. We were now preparing for a funeral trip, not a goodbye trip. I pulled over three houses down from my driveway and cried, then I tried to figure out how to hold it together long enough to pick my daughter up and take her somewhere other than the foyer of her friends' house to tell her that she'd lost her grandpa.
We needed to leave pretty much immediately on Friday morning due to a blizzard heading our way and directly into the travel path we needed to take to Iowa. The church was available on Monday afternoon, which bumped the graveside service two hours farther north to Tuesday and landed us squarely in the kind hospitality of my brother- and sister-in-law for five days. Our flight was scheduled for Wednesday morning. I didn't think it was possible to pack and go to a five-day funeral trip followed by a seven-day vacation in the midst of abandoned jobs and school and unshoveled driveways and unopened mail. I didn't want to deal with it. Going on our vacation the day after the service seemed so inappropriate, so hard. We'd have to go to a burial, drive six hours home, unpack and repack for a week's journey. Get the neighbor to pick up my prescriptions so I wouldn't run out while traveling. Figure out when we could take the cat to the boarder since we'd get back after they closed on Tuesday.
Just. So. Hard. I didn't want to do it. All I wanted to do was climb into bed and pull the covers over my head and cry. But it was my husband's father who died, and my husband who had been shuttling around back and forth between Kansas City and Boston for four weeks, getting delayed and cancelled and buried under feet of snow and nor'easters and project plans screwed up by weather, and it was my husband who insisted that we go. We need this, he said. We need the family time. We need to leave this snow. I left the burial site with ugly tears still streaming down my face and snotty church toilet paper filling my ski jacket pockets. And we drove home and repacked.
I am not a morning person, and we got to bed late that Tuesday night. I dragged myself from bed Wednesday morning, eyes swollen, packed the cat in the carrier and headed to the boarder before seven. Then we were off to the airport with way too much luggage because in my fog I'd made lists containing clothes and shoes we didn't need, handing the papers out to each of us Tuesday night, saying only, "Just pack this. Don't think about it." I couldn't think at that point. All I could do was follow orders, even my own.
Credit Image: lowjumpingfrog on Flickr
Something happened over the course of the week on vacation. Fresh off letting go of a man who'd been a major part of my life for the past fifteen years, I was able to live in the moment in that way you do when you realize everyone is going to die eventually. Away from the routine and bustle and deadlines of my job and my house, I felt the way the sand curved against my back through the thin beach towel, how I could wiggle around and force it to conform to my curves, to cradle me. I tried to write but couldn't. I read a little but had trouble absorbing or reflecting on what I'd seen. All I could do, really, was be.
Being is absolutely essential to grief.
Being is very difficult to achieve when there is mail to be opened and backpacks to be checked and beds to be made. I realized while floating on a paddle board in the Gulf of Mexico that even if the trip felt inappropriate and self-indulgent, keeping our plans and getting away from our normal lives for a week was absolutely the best thing we could've done to help us work through our mourning and prepare for re-entry. We imagined what Grandpa was doing just then. We prayed for the family. We spent every minute together, the three of us, for eight days straight after weeks of separation from my husband broken up in one- and two-day increments crammed with housework and errands and laundry. We built sand castles so grand that strangers posed for pictures next to them. We watched dolphins throw their bodies into the air in order to play in the wake of a passing boat. We made microwave popcorn and watched HDTV at night as my daughter drifted off to the sound of waves pounding outside the open sliding door.
And at the end of the week, as much as I hated to leave, I was ready to come home and face reality. My husband has to leave again for three more weeks starting Monday. My daughter goes back to school that day to who knows what homework she missed in the rush of funeral travel. Getting through these things on my own while my husband is gone is hard for me. I have to mentally shore myself up to maintain the house, the bills, the child, the job on my own. It shouldn't be so hard, but it is for me. I left Kansas City last Wednesday feeling like one huge raw nerve, one too-full train from snapping like a twig mentally. I came back feeling emotionally wrapped in cotton.
I'm okay now.
Don't cancel that trip. Don't worry about the state of the house or what leaving now will bring on the flip side. Just go. Life is short, and these moments will not last forever. Soak in as much sunshine as you can while you're here.
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