Over the holiday break, I spent 40 hours in the car with my two dogs. Long distance driving like that is no stranger to me. The first trip Tim and I ever took together was a trek from Raleigh, NC to New Orleans, LA with several stops along the way. Tim was the first person I met in life that didn’t think anything of throwing an overnight bag in his truck and hitting the road to far off places. He would drive ten hours each way for a long weekend without a second thought, and routinely drove long distances in his motorcycle for the sheer enjoyment of the journey.
Growing up, my family was not a road trip kind of group. Our beach house was carefully chosen to be at the shortest distance between Raleigh and an ocean, and those three hours in the car every few weeks were about as long as it got for us. I grew up knowing that I was expected to behave quietly through eastern North Carolina, and not to ask to stop for a restroom mid-way. Any reasonable child or adult should be able to hold it for three hours.
I’ve always heard that traveling with your significant other can bring out the worst of your relationship, but it was the opposite for Tim and I. We would have great conversations in the car, him driving and me reclined in the passenger seat with my bare feet resting on the dashboard. During the holidays through the rural country we would point out elaborate Christmas lights and say, “Chreeeeeeiissssmaaaaaasssss” together in unison with a silly, sing-song voice.
After Tim died there were so many questions and unknowns in my life, but I knew pretty much immediately that I wanted to make the drive to NC for the holidays. It felt important – necessary. I needed to know I could do it on my own, but it didn’t take much driving time for me to realize that mostly I wanted something I know would connect me to him. As I felt the pavement whiz away under my tires and watched the familiar scenery change around me, I knew I wasn’t ever totally alone.
In addition to the ghostly memories of my dead husband, I took some tangible side kicks with me as well. My dogs were a no brainer. Part of the reason I drive to NC is that boarding two large dogs for a solid two weeks would cost a large fortune. Plus my pets are family, so I like to have them with me on Christmas. If Simon could have kept up an extended trot for 1,300 miles than he would have joined the troop as well.
The dogs are pretty excellent travelers for the most part. Pascale is a nervous passenger, so she gets happy pills for long trips. Every so often I’d glance back to check on her, and she’d be sitting with her eyes half shut… presumably thinking about how she could convince me to share my snacks but too f’ed up to make a real action plan. Eliot, despite being a face biter and loathing most things, is a dream in the car. He always travels in the floor board behind the passenger’s seat, curled up in a happy spaniel ball.
Besides the dogs, I brought a guest star with me. Remember when I mentioned the sketchy party shop that had Donald Trump pinatas? As I drove through downtown Manor on the way to my barn Christmas party I thought, “I can’t think of any reason why I shouldn’t buy a Donald Trump pinata.” So I did.
I decided that Señor Trump would probably make an excellent guest at my 31st birthday gathering, and opted to take him with me as well. What I didn’t think about, was how freakin’ large he ended up being. I didn’t have full visibility all the way to NC because of this monstrosity.
Even though my car was mostly full of dogs and my pinata friend, my mother was pretty stressed out by the idea of me driving long distances by myself. In her eyes, the southern route to the east coast is akin to a scene from Mad Max. Even though the greatest danger of driving through the deep south is buying a bad batch of boiled peanuts, my mother still snuck pepper spray into the bag of snacks she packed me for the drive home. You know, just in case.
Driving is an activity that allows you to step outside of yourself for a bit. When the only task you need to maintain is going straight on a four lane highway with little traffic, the mind can wander. I had a lot of time alone with my thoughts.
Sometimes the hum of the highway would take far into the future and all of its questions. Are the goals I’ve set for myself really a good idea? Am I ready to think about dating again? Should I do a college throwback or trailer trash theme for my house warming party? So many questions.
Occasionally, without warning, I’ll get thrown back into that day in June like it’s happening all over again. All I can see is Tim’s body strewn out on the floor, and all I can hear is my own voice hauntingly wailing “Oh god, oh god, oh god.” This loop rips through me like a cracking whip on fire. All I can do to combat it is to pull up the good memories. Even after only six months, it’s harder for me to picture him now. I concentrate on our wedding. On Budapest. On hiking. On him watching me and Simon horse show, and seeing his proud smile. Anything I can grasp, I cling to. I spackle the memories over his death like bricks on a pillar. Cover the bad with the good. There was so much good.
I listened to “This American Life” podcasts when I’m tired of music. On one episode, I learn there’s a special place in Washington State where children are sent to cope and heal from the loss of a parent. In this house, they have a room called the Volcano Room. The walls are padded, and it’s filled with soft cushions and big, foam toys. The children are allowed to be as rowdy and loud as they want to in that room setup for playing and healing. With my hands at ten and two o’clock, I wish that I had a Volcano Room. I would flop down onto a giant bean bag, banging my fists on the padded floor as hard as I could. Into the cool fabric I would scream, “I was content! I shouldn’t have to start over!”
But I don’t have a Volcano Room. I have two dogs and a Donald Trump pinata, so I keep driving.
In Atlanta I meet up with a friend, who’s having some problems of her own. As we walk into the aquarium she turns to me and says, “A widow and a divorcee… it’s like the start of a bad joke.”
I pass a floor to ceiling display of adorable stuffed animal penguins. “Yeah, and then the punchline is… their lives are super shitty!” We laugh.
The thing is, my life is not really shitty. I know this as I tilt my head, watching jellyfish pulse through electric blue water in their display tanks. Something really shitty happened to me. Everything for the rest of my life will be separated into before and after Tim dying, but most things are decidedly un-shitty.
My friend and I made our way to the highlight of the aquarium, a three story wall of blue water filled with fish, sharks, rays and of course my beloved whale sharks. There are only a few aquariums in the world that house whale sharks. Being able to see them in any capacity is a very un-shity thing indeed. As we sat there on the steps with our eyes on the water, I watched the leopard like spots of these giant fish rhythmically sway around their tank.
Whale sharks have to constantly swim to stay alive. They glided slowly in front of me. I imagine it was a lot like long distance driving, leaving the mind to wander as they cut through the sea. It’s hard to say if the whale sharks ponder the problems of their world while swimming in the 6.3 million gallon aquarium. Maybe they’ve given in to the unknown of a journey.
Who knows, maybe one day I will too.