We’ve just returned from the first real family vacation we’ve had since the summer of 2007.
As my husband says, “IT WORKED.”
For our family, that’s saying a lot. Some of our past vacations have made a Griswold trip look like a perfectly perfect fortnight at the Ritz in Paris.
On this trip, no one got deathly ill or injured, lost their passport, or developed poison ivy. There weren’t even any little dramas or family fights. No one argued about what channel to watch or which restaurant to choose.
It was, strangely enough, actually relaxing...a perfect balance between activity and rest. We rented a townhouse on Coronado Island, off the coast of San Diego. There were sightseeing outings...chilltimes on the patio...requisite trip to the famous Zoo...lazy afternoons reading or napping. A picnic at the beach...dinner at the famous “Del”...swimming, biking, walking. Resting. Restoring. Regenerating.
(I believe the last three are almost lost arts. My husband’s grandparents had an old mountain house in South Carolina with a Victorian wicker chaise lounge tucked in a corner. Still covered in the kitschy 1940’s fabric, it had a pillow embroidered with these words: “How wonderful it is to do nothing, and rest afterwards.” It has become one of my lifegoals to relearn how to live that way on appropriate occasions.)
Our peace was marred only by the unexpected arrival of painters for 3 days, who, at one point, plastic-wrapped all the doors and windows of the townhouse from the outside. (No AC at the beach where the high is usually in the low 70’s!) But even that little glitch provided a bit of humor. Very early one morning, I lay on top of the covers in my somewhat scanty nightie watching “Cars” with James. Just imagine my surprise when I looked up to see a man painting the (open) doorframe on the balcony. Like, in the room with us.
Must have had a really long ladder. Or a very quiet crane.
Other than that, it was a pretty perfect trip. But I wasn’t perfectly happy. There was a vague little sadness hanging around the periphery of joy. When I couldn’t shake it, I analyzed it.
I realized that I was internally contrasting the then with the now.
The “Ghosts of Beach-Trips Past” came haunting, shaking their long chains of memory at me.
Playing in the sand with James one day, I looked up at his mother in her cool beach-buggie wheelchair. She was just sitting there (of course), looking out to sea. Very still.
But I had a vision of a beautiful blonde girl riding the waves on a sailboard, laughing joyfully at the amazing incongruity of the “unathletic one” accomplishing what her more physical sisters could not.
I saw the oldest sister leading the kitchen clean-up after dinner. I saw the family organizer planning the day for us. I saw my eldest child giving me a lovely massage at the end of the day, walking with her father along the shore, snuggling with her sisters in a hotel bed.
I got angry that it was the grandmother who was playing in the sand with the little one instead of his mommy. I was angry that Katherine couldn’t join us on a bike ride or a beach walk. The anger made me feel a little hollow and hopeless inside.
Then, I started projecting into the future. Always a very bad idea. (“Let each day’s trouble be sufficient for the day..”) Looking at James, I began wondering when this little boy might have a sibling. If...
James could be an only grandchild for a long, long time.
I started feeling sorry for all of us.
Later, I asked Katherine if she was having any fun. “Everything’s wonderful,” she answered. To reassure myself more than her, I said, “You just have to focus on what you can do, not on what you can’t.” Arching her left eyebrow, she looked at me like I was a blithering idiot. “Well, of course I do. How else would I survive??”
Recently, I received an email from a dear friend catching me up on her family’s news. She wrote of their recent beach trip: “It was great but bittersweet.” Her youngest child was flying off to college a few days later.
That word has stayed with me.
It seems to me that all of life is bittersweet.
The very sweetest moments carry within them the intrinsic sadness of impermanence and mutability. I can no more hold on to the crystalline grains of earthly happiness that come my way than I can to the sand that leaks from my hands as I try to cover James’ feet with it. We cannot really keep anything. Everything is passing away. Everyone is passing away. I remind myself that I am, too.
Picking up this year’s winner as Chosen Beachbook, Conroy’s South of Broad, I find my musings strangely echoed in his inimitable way:
“The moment you are born your death is foretold in your newly minted cells, as your mother holds you up then hands you to your father, who gently tickles the stomach where the cancer will one day form, studies the eyes where melanomas dark signature is already written along the optic nerve, touches the back where the liver will one day house the cirrhosis, feels the bloodstream that will one day sweeten itself into diabetes, admires the shape of the head where the brain will fall to the ax-handle of stroke, or listens to your heart, which, exhausted by the fearful ways and humiliations and indecencies of life, will explode in your chest like a light going out in the world. Death lives in each of us and begins its countdown on our birthdays and makes its rough entrance at the last hour and the perfect time.”
This summer has been that “perfect time” for an unusual number of fixtures of the community in which I grew up. My mother told me yesterday that she’s already been to 6 funerals, with more on the horizon. Sweet people I’ve known from childhood, slipping away, one by one. Precious parents of close friends. Role models. People who lived large and well.
The funeral of a gentleman who was a big influence in Katherine’s life was held on Sunday. It is frustrating for us to be so far away when people we love are going through sad times. Earlier this summer, I had to miss the funeral of the father of one of my very closest friends....one who’s been there for me countless times in the past. It hurts, especially because some of those that have experienced recent losses are the ones who have given us the most love and support when we’ve gone through our sorrows.
So on Sunday, as his funeral was taking place in Athens, we had our own little memorial for the gentleman in question. We looked up his obituary online, and then read the comments people had left in his guestbook. Someone wrote of him, “(He) was a visionary, and put death in the middle of his plans, not at the end.”
Now that’s perspective.
It helps to have one like that at times like these.
Life goes on...
From that perspective, the bittersweet taste of even life's richest pleasures makes more sense to me. The contrasting mix of flavors is what makes a dish or a wine more interesting and complex.
I've always liked Key Lime Pie much better than chocolate, anyway.
On Saturday, the party was over and we went our separate ways...Brooks back to Athens; Kat and Jay to Pomona; Amie, Grace, James and I to LA.
Back to laundry and mail and regular life.
That night, I got a wild text from Katherine.
I wrote her back, “Nanny nanny booboo...I told you so!”
It seems that there is evidence that James won’t necessarily have to be an only child for the rest of his life after all.*
Oh blah dee, oh blah dah...
LIFE goes on.
Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, life goes on, brah!...
Lala how the life goes on...
Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, life goes on, brah!...
Lala how the life goes on...
"I came that they may have life and have it abundantly."
(* in the 10 minutes since I first posted this, I've been made aware that the indicated sentence could be a bit misleading. Please check Katherine's caringbridge update for a more explicit explanation of our life-affirming news.)