photo by Garry - www.visionandimagination.com
I walked on the black-sanded beach by myself, waiting to come across a large carcass of a whale or ship, something broken and empty, like me. Here it is, I would think, the perfect metaphor for my grief. I would climb it, I imagined, examine it, and take a piece of it home. "You didn't die in vain," I would whisper. "I will remember you." And in that moment, the inextricable link between all creatures would be known to me. Nothing like that happened.
I had never traveled sad before.
After my daughter's death, I fantasized about moving away to somewhere very warm and beautiful. Life is too short to stick around New Jersey. Or maybe this time, when we didn't have a newborn to care for or money to be spent on her, was just the perfect occasion for us to travel the world for a while. We could leave this terrible place where babies are stillborn and you can't make a left turn. Eight months after my daughter died, we packed up our grief and headed to my mother's country, Panama, for ten days.
Some days, I was ecstatic, begging to travel long distances through the country for the possible glimpse of a sloth, or totally jazzed to hit the fisherman's beach to bargain in Spanish for some fresh catch. I bounced on the balls of my feet, clapping my hands like a motivational speaker. "Come on, people, those monkeys aren't throwing poop at themselves. We've got a jungle to trek." Other days, I could barely muster a walk out of the bedroom. I woke up several times each night thinking about the dog or my father, wracked with guilt and overwhelming anxiety. Something. Was. Wrong.
The other thoughts in those hours of the night were how far away this country is from my daughter's ashes. Lucy's death seemed so small and long ago, like a dot I saw on the tarmac of Newark as our plane arched toward Central America. Oh, but I packed her death. It ached in my every joint, in every inch of my being. Some days, every activity seemed rather pointless or overwhelming or both. "Meh. I'd rather be sleeping." And the family would leave as I read books and wept uncontrollably.
And I remained cold. Eight degrees off the equator, I shivered in the sun. I wore a sweater most nights, sometimes during the day. I couldn't get warm. It had been like this since Lucy died, not being able to feel warmth. I carried a bit of winter solstice in my body now.
I cried during very chaotic turbulence, because what I didn't dare speak before my trip or during, was that I was convinced I was not coming home from Central America. Riptide. Hanta virus. Panamanian drivers. Mud slide. Pool accident. Infected finger. Lightning. Freak machete accident. The ways in which one can die on a vacation are surprisingly varied, interesting and around every corner. I sent emails to all my people, "I will always love you." The pilot actually came on the loud speaker on our return flight to say that we may have to make an "emergency fuel landing." This is it, I thought. I was the one with tears in my eyes and hand raised. "Uh, is that emergency landing because we have no fuel? Or is that a landing to get fuel? Could you just clarify the emergency part?"
Once you are on the shitty end of statistics, that small stretch of number is your homeland where no death scenario is too far-fetched, wild, or out of the realm of possibility. I even imagined different ways to be imprisoned in a Panamanian jail for being at the wrong place at the wrong time during a drive on a desolate piece of highway. And my living daughter seemed a step away from death too. Sometimes I just cried, not because I saw Beatrice's imminent drowning, but because I wanted Lucy to be in the pool with her sister and her father, bouncing and splashing. I hate seeing Beatrice without her sister. My husband without his daughter. The world without a little giggling girl.
There was part of me that imagined this trip as something healing, something different than it was. I tried not to build it up or imagine it being a vacation from my grief. But I admit part of me felt like maybe a change of scenery would change my grief. Just a respite from the exhausting heavy weight of it. Maybe like Atlas passing the world to Heracles for a brief minute just to stretch the shoulders. How could I not be happy in such a beautiful place? But the pure exhausting nature of grief amplified the ugliness inside me and the beauty of everything else. Lush green and grief. Moss and anxiety. I looked out of our room onto the great expanse of the Pacific Ocean, watching the sun set, and still, I was so fucking sad. It's easier to be sad in New Jersey. You are supposed to be sad in New Jersey. This was just another shitty day in paradise.
When we walked in our house, I walked straight to her urn. Why hadn't I taken it with us? I stared at it for fifteen uninterrupted minutes, I missed home. I missed her (which had nothing to do with home.) I missed grieving her. Home represented non-judgment. No expectations. Just grief in whatever form it came. And yet the vacation was beautiful, dare I say, worth it. I listened to the story I told to other people about the vacation--epic hikes through the jungle, watching twenty hummingbirds fly around my daughter, lying on the beach, rolling a cigar in a factory with my cousin, spotting a sloth in the jungle, or discovering a moss-covered wall and waterfall. Those were amazing moments. The truth is when I spoke of my amazing days before, they have really always been an amazing moment or two enveloped by the mundane. After my daughter died, they became amazing moments enveloped by the grief. And they are, in their own way, sometimes happier. Maybe the juxtaposition with grief makes them happier.
If someone asked me many years ago to describe how both my best and worst moment could be wrapped up together, I couldn't have imagined what that could possibly be. Then I birthed Lucy, knowing she was dead, both so incredibly tragic and beautiful. Her birth, a peaceful moment of agony. And so this first vacation after her death, an agonized moment of peace.
Have you traveled, or been on holiday, since the death of your baby? What was the experience like? How has grief changed your experience of travel? Or how has travel changed your grief?