I bucked my attention deficit and mapped out this road trip well — but even the most detailed plan wouldn't let me leave grief behind.
by Frank South
About a month ago, I had it nailed. My wife Margaret, my teenage daughter Coco and I were driving up to Delaware for a two-week vacation. We were going to stay with my 91-year-old mother and help her clear out my dad’s study and closets that she hadn’t touched since his death last March, so it wasn’t a carefree poolside resort holiday. My brother Rob, his wife Sharon, and their young kids live in the same town as my mom, and Rob was going in for a back operation during our visit, so it was more of an intense family reunion after a recent tragedy and during major surgery kind of holiday.
But Margaret and Coco were up for it, excited even, and I was confident it was going to be a great time. I had planned the whole trip carefully. I’d built in time for changes, emergencies, or just relaxing. The route I laid out from our home in Georgia to Mom’s house was along the Blue Ridge Mountains, up through Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley, places neither of them had ever seen. So, to make it a leisurely tour, I booked two overnight stops, making sure they each had free breakfast buffets, which I thought was silly, but my wife and daughter didn’t. It turns out they were right — it’s nice, slows things down. It slows me down some, anyway.
At the first free breakfast buffet of the trip I gulp my coffee and try to scoot Margaret and Coco along a bit by pulling out one of the two trip plans I spent weeks researching and preparing, the final versions of which I finally printed and stapled together the morning we left — #1 is to get us to my mother’s house in three days in order to relax and see the sights, and #2 is to get us back home in two days. I point to the second page of trip plan #1. “See, today is leg two and it’s way longer than it looks ‘cause of the, uh, Appalachians, which we wanna see...and have enough time to really relax and, uh, well, appreciate the beauty of the drive, which means the sooner we get movin’ on, the more time we have, for that...relaxin'...and the, um, uh, beauty.”
“Dad, come on. Put down your maps and legs and eat something,” Coco says, “And you should, you know, breathe.” My daughter stands and pats me on the shoulder. She’s seventeen, as intensely ADHD, obsessive, short-tempered, and jumpy as I am, and now she’s handing me back the advice I’ve given her since she was too small to even fidget properly.
“Don’t you worry about me, kid,” I say, “You just hop on over there and get some chow.” Coco shrugs, and then punches in a number on her cell phone as she walks over to the buffet to get her waffles and tea. I take in a deep breath and slowly let it out, silently counting to twenty before taking another. Margaret smiles at me from across the table.
“You okay?” Margaret asks.
I glance up from studying Leg Two, “I’m fine, why?”
“Well,” she says, “your stammer has picked up a whole lot — which you know means you’re stressed. But I have no idea why you’re talking like a cowboy all of a sudden.”
I'm sure I'm carrying off the big, calm, seen-it-all Sheriff Persona I pasted together from the heroes of Longmire and Justified, a couple of westerns I’ve been watching religiously — I mean on-air, DVD’s, Amazon buys, the whole full-tilt addict immersion. I’m not lean and leathery. I’m a little over six foot and two hundred pounds with big teeth. But still, I think it's a natural fit for me. So what if it’s all made up?
For a few months now I’ve felt like small chunks of me were falling off like cracked glass and spreading out on the ground as I walk and I don’t know where I can go and not step on them. I had to have those TV heroes’ sure-footed toughness. I needed their thick skin and strength. The day before we left on this trip I was trying on boots at the western store. I’m an inch away from going off the deep end and getting myself a cowboy hat, when Margaret smells something fishy at the free breakfast buffet.
So, I spill all of it. Embarrassing and stupid as it was, I have to. It's Margaret. That’s our deal with each other.
Margaret leans forward and looks me in the eye. “You are stronger than any guy on TV or anywhere else.” she says. “You always have been.” I’m heartened by this, and deeply touched, but my tears and snuffling probably undercut her point.
Fortunately, Coco’s waffle is done and she sits down with news from her cell phone. Margaret’s mom, Nana, who stayed home in Georgia to take care of our standard poodle, Danny Boy, told Coco that Danny Boy hasn’t eaten since we left. Margaret and Coco are a little worried, but I’m sure he’s just ticked off that we left without him. He’s seven years old and a big, healthy, wonderful dog. At this point in our trip, I’m positive that in a day or two, everything will be back to normal.
As it happened, it would be quite a while before anything got back to normal.
Next Post: No normal in sight. We reach Mom’s house in Delaware and things are great until we open Dad’s closet. And then there are the phone calls with the vet. Surgery? We don’t need no stinking surgery. Mom and Margaret have martinis. Coco deals with cousins. I eat cookies.