Tuesday, August 24, 2010

On How I Spent My Summer Vacation

As a school-based employee, I am afforded the luxury of having an extended break from work during the summer months. Yes, I do work a couple days a week most weeks, but in general I am able to take the time off and really enjoy the summer months. My wife was a teacher, so it was a double blessing for us to be able to spend this time together when we were first married and throughout our marriage. Many of our vacations were spent with family, either visiting them or entertaining them in our home, but occasionally we branched out a bit from our normal vacation routine.

Four years ago was one such time. My stepdad turned sixty that summer and my mom planned a surprise trip with out entire family, which was no easy task considering there were thirteen of us at the time and we lived in three separate states. However, being the expert planner she is, she/we were able to pull off the surprise. We actually rented a beach house about half an hour from where I live, which made the surprise part all that much easier (we incorporated the week into part of their annual summer trek to our house). My wife and I enjoyed being able to play a small part in the surprise, and it was our best vacation as an entire family.

It was also our last vacation as an entire family.

At the time, my wife was starting to show signs of her illness becoming worse, but she was under the best care we could find and the doctors had given her clearance to lead as normal a life as she cared to. The month after our beach trip we spent our five year wedding anniversary in New York, a city she had never visited, but had always wanted to. Seven months later, she was gone.

This summer my mom also had a milestone birthday (though with respect to the lady, I will not mention just which milestone it was). My sister and I had previously discussed doing a trip for Mom’s next milestone birthday when we were all at the beach four years ago, but none of us knew what would happen in the intervening months and years. Last fall we decided to start looking for a place to vacation anyway. My only request was that we did not do it here again, as I thought it might be too painful to duplicate that atmosphere with all of the same players. Minus one.

Our original plan was to head to the Gulf Coast. She had a friend in Alabama who could get us a good deal on a rental, so we set the plan into motion. Then my older brother announced that (for reasons I cannot go into here) they would not be joining us. That dropped our number to ten. Then the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill happened. (On a side note, I am amazed at the number of times I heard about the poor pelicans and possibility of oil stained beaches in comparison to the number of times I heard about the people who were killed and the families they left behind). So we decided to move our trip elsewhere, preferably as far away from the possible effects of trace oil and tar balls as possible.

So in mid-June, we set off toward Maine. I had never traveled to the New England states (well, not any further than Stamford, CT at that point), so we took a couple of extra days to get there. It turns out a lot of that time was spent stuck in traffic and driving around certain cities looking for the way back to the interstate. My parents traveled with us, so that was an added bonus and we had an enjoyable time. We finally arrived in Maine on Saturday afternoon and my sister met us with her family a few hours later. By this time, my younger brother had also backed out of the trip (for reasons that were at least a bit more valid than my other brother’s, but frustrating nonetheless), so there were only eight of us who spent the week together in our rented house. We were about a five minute walk from the beach, which was magnificent, but so very different from the beaches I have grown accustomed to here in the Southeast. I’m not much of a shutterbug, but I took several hundred pictures during our week-long stay. (Check out my Facebook page for a larger selection than what I’ve posted here).

I have to say that New England was everything I thought it would be. From the many quaint towns we visited, to the rock outcroppings along certain highways and the entire coastline, it was simply magnificent. There were so many places we were unable to travel to (Gloucester and Rockport, MA for one) that I am most assuredly going to have to travel that way again sometime. We did manage to spend a day in Boston hiking the Freedom Trail, which took us throughout the city and allowed us to see many famous sites that were important in the Revolutionary War (check out photos of that on my Facebook page as well) and an afternoon at the Portland Head Light in Cape Elizabeth, ME (yep, more pictures of that on Facebook too).

I cannot say enough what an amazing time it was. Family has always been very important to me and I cherish whatever time I am able to spend with my loved ones. I was worried that this trip would have an adverse effect on me, even though the location was so very different from our last family beach trip. I cannot say that the effect was adverse, but there were many times when my grief was much closer to the surface than I am used to it being these days. One afternoon in particular I remember being in my room at the rented house and just sorely missing her. It seems a bit silly, knowing that she’s in Heaven, but in those moments, I just really wanted her to share Maine with me.

The day after we returned from Maine, Bible school started, so I busied myself with lesson-planning and skit practice for my role as a ranch-hand who couldn’t sing on-key. My parents left and her parents arrived. We spent a few days with them, including some time at the beach and watching fireworks over the water on the Fourth of July, before heading to another place I had never visited (though this one was a much closer than Maine!)

Charleston, South Carolina is another place that did not disappoint. We only stayed a couple of days, but we packed a lot in. The first day was spent at a rice plantation, where we learned about the local wildlife (including alligators!), the way plantations were run, and the importance of the slaves who lived and worked there (not only for their labor, but also for their knowledge). In an interesting twist, we learned that following a major hurricane in South Carolina many years ago, logs from that particular plantation were sent to Boston and used to restore the USS Constitution, which my daughter and I had just seen less than two weeks earlier.

We spent that evening downtown viewing the slave market (which we were told was used by the slaves to do their trading and not used for the actual selling of slaves), eating, and taking an informational carriage tour around the historic areas of the city. The next morning we took the boat to Ft. Sumter and toured the area where the Civil War officially began. It was amazing to be able to see sites from both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars in a two week time period (yes, yes, those pictures are on Facebook as well).

The trip to Charleston was bittersweet for me. We moved to the Southeast less than a year after we got married, so I got it in my head that I would surprise my wife with a first anniversary getaway and Charleston was a feasible place to do so. Plus it was on her list of places she had always wanted to go. I wish I could say that we went and had a great time, but it was not so. As I was getting ready to set up the details for the trip I realized that I had made an error and left the cost of the moving van out of our checkbook. We were juggling two checking accounts at the time, waiting for things to clear so we could close the one back home, and it was a complete oversight on my part (which was incredibly hard because I am overly cautious about finances and it ended up ruining our chances to take the trip). She was disappointed, but understanding when I told her what had happened and that I had planned to surprise her with the trip. By the next summer our daughter was on the way and we just never seemed to find the time or the money to see Charleston together after that.

My in-laws left the day after we returned from Charleston and some friends arrived two days after that. We spent a lot of time visiting local places (within a two hour radius anyway), but I unfortunately do not have pictures to accompany those travels. It was, however, very nice to be able to enjoy and appreciate some of the areas that are very close-to-home. The two weeks following that brought my neighbor’s sister and her daughter from out of state (think blueberry patch from my previous post), so we spent a lot more time around home during those weeks.

The final few weeks of the summer were spent in various states in the Midwest visiting and traveling with family. We managed to work in five days with each family, plus travel time and a side-trip of our own. In that time with family we: saw an exhibition of big-wheeled bicycles, went to a small zoo, celebrated my in-laws’ fortieth wedding anniversary (my parents celebrated their twentieth earlier this summer as well, but we were not able to be with them then), took my daughter to see her first of the Great Lakes (which she enjoyed, but promptly reminded her grandmother that it was nothing like the ocean), attended a minor league baseball game, visited friends in their home, celebrated my Mom’s actual milestone birthday (trip was planned earlier in the summer due to the likelihood of higher temperatures in our initial location in August), helped my parents with an outdoor project, visited with friends in my parents’ home, met some new people and pets, and had an all-around enjoyable time (I know, I know - quit selling the Facebook page already!).

On the way home last week, my daughter and I took a detour and went to a new zoo. It has become a tradition of sorts for us to visit a new zoo each summer. We usually take this trip by ourselves, but last summer we had the pleasure of incorporating it into a trip we were on with my parents. The zoo we went to was nice, though the exhibits were a bit overgrown, so it was hard to see some of the animals. We enjoyed our daddy-daughter time together immensely though, especially since it was our last big hurrah before school starts tomorrow.

All in all, we set foot in twenty different states this summer. Six of these were new for me, which brought my overall states visited count up to thirty. Eleven were new for my daughter, which brought her overall count to twenty-five (and she’s only six!) We spent more time away from home than we did at home, which is unusual for us. And we had an excellent summer, but for one thing:

Every memory made and experience shared is another one without her.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

On Unrealized Dreams

July is always a hard month for me. Not as hard as February, but it is what I have decided to refer to as “my other hard month”. The only redeeming quality it has is that it falls during the summer and I, therefore, have more options to avoid grieving than I do in February.

July 21st would have been my wife’s 32nd birthday. It is the fourth one I have recognized alone. I hesitate to say that it is getting “easier”, but the truth is that the grief is not as raw now as it was during the first couple. Plus, my daughter is older now, so I have been able to share what the date means over the last two years, whereas I was totally alone in it the first two. (We were actually with family last year, which also helped).

For us it was a quiet day. I work two days a week in the summer, and this year her birthday happened to fall on one of those days. I did have lots of time to think about her on the drive to and from work and during the afternoon hours while my daughter was still at her summer program, but the feelings were primarily of fondness and the pangs of grief were held at bay. I teach some of our elementary-aged kids at church on Wednesday nights, so that was another welcome distraction. And as I recall, I fell asleep on the couch watching tv with my daughter that night.

Mile one, down.

One week later came what should have been our ninth wedding anniversary. As far as the day itself goes, it was very similar to her birthday in that I worked during the day and had church that night. I was able to pick my daughter up earlier that day (no field trip with the day program), but she watched tv while I took a nap, then went to play with a friend nearby while I made dinner. That evening (after church) we sat and talked to some neighbors, which was another nice distraction. I was still trying not to dwell on the day when I posted about it on my Facebook page with less than half an hour to go. But eventually I found sleep and the next morning arrived.

Mile two, down.

I think I sometimes downplay my emotions on this site. I don’t have very many attacks of raw grief like I did at first (before I could even write about it) or like some of my favorite bloggers are still encountering and enduring, but that doesn’t make it any less hard when these days arrive. It just makes it a different kind of hard.

That’s what I’ve begun to realize over the past few days. Her birthday will always be difficult in that it symbolizes one more year that she could have lived on earth and one more year she is not here with us now. No one’s birthday should be symbolic before age thirty-two. But for me, every day symbolizes that. Her birthday is just an enhanced reminder of what I live daily.

Our anniversary is another story. While I “made it through” the day okay, it’s the one that gets me. It’s the day that reminds me that I’ll never realize the dream of 6-7-8-9+ years of marriage with her. Yes, there could be another Mrs. 3SF someday, but it’s not something I am concentrating on at the moment. And the fact of the matter is, even if I do “find love again” it can’t be with her.

Now, this may seem conflicting for some of my long-time readers, considering the fact that I dated a very nice young woman this winter. (Supa wrote a great post about being a remarried widow recently). Dating or marrying someone else doesn’t suddenly erase the sense of loss you feel at having never realized certain dreams with the spouse who made you a widow/er. And I believe I may have only scratched the surface regarding that when I dated last winter.

Most of the time I am truly at peace with the idea that I could remain single for a very long time. I was okay with it before I dated and was again pretty soon after we broke-up. Being comfortable with myself with or without someone else has always been important and after two-plus years of being widowed, I finally regained that sense of self, which is what allowed me to be ready to date when I did.

But something happened Friday evening that caught me off-guard.

My daughter and I were eating at one of our favorite Italian restaurants after her appointment with her ENT in another city. We were seated at a table-for-two, which is obviously not uncommon for us. I sat facing a window and the table just below it. It was another table-for-two, and I could not help but stare at the people seated there throughout our meal.

Seated over my daughter’s shoulder were two people who could be us in 15 years.

The man was in his work uniform, which made me believe he was a mechanic of some variety. He had a full beard and his eye color was different from mine. But other than those differences, he could have easily been me. The resemblance with the girl was even more striking. Other than the eye color difference, she could have been a computer-aged image of my daughter in fifteen years.

Normally I would find a scenario like that endearing, but the other night it just made me sad. I kept thinking “This could be my life for the next fifteen years”. I have obviously known that since February 26, 2007, but these people placed in this setting at this moment in time reminded me that no matter how comfortable I am with myself and my current single/widowed status, there will always be moments of sadness. There will always be pangs of regret.

There will always be unrealized dreams.

Yesterday an opportunity arose to spend some time with a single woman and her daughter and I took it. I normally shy away from these types of situations for fear that I might lead someone on, but yesterday I was a bit more selfish (though I tried very hard not to send any mixed signals). We took the kids to a pizza place and then to pick blueberries - a very typical family-type event. And even though I wasn’t really part of a nuclear family, it felt good to spend a few hours in that type of situation. (Plus I made a delicious blueberry pie from the fruits of our labor!)

Writing that just now, I’m not sure if I actually feel good about doing it or not. But my promise to my readers has always been to stay true to my journey, and that includes the parts I’m a bit embarrassed to admit now. (Please don’t judge me too harshly).

Today has been better. I don’t feel the same sense of imminent sadness I felt Friday evening, nor do I feel the need to take any single ladies out to the blueberry patch to fill my need to feel like part of a pseudo-family for a few hours. I’m back to being comfortable with the day-to-day aspects of my single/widowed life.

And I’m really glad it’s August.