March 26, 2012 my world flipped upside down, sideways and every which way.
My husband of 13 years, friend of 25+ years and father of my two children ages 1 and 4 had a heart attack and died at the age of 37.
That summer was a blur of logistics, survival, unbelievable heartache and chaos. As that first awful year passed, the haze began to lift. As the following summer approached, I felt restless and unsure of myself as a parent and as a person. I felt unsure of who I was without my life partner by my side helping me with everything that life throws out at you on a daily basis.
I needed to do something new. Something big! I needed to prove to myself that even if it isn’t always easy, I could accomplish anything and still find adventure and passion in life. A two-month road trip with my kids seemed like the perfect answer.
People told me I was crazy. They said it wasn’t safe. They worried about me being on the road with two small children by myself for two months.
The more I planned, the more scared I became about the prospect of doing all that driving by myself and going to places I had never been. I had two kids in car seats, with one of them in diapers! I had told the kids that our car DVD player was broken because I’d rather they look at the world around them than a screen the whole drive.
I didn't pack any movies so I wouldn't be tempted to let them plug into that screen.
I knew some of the places we were going wouldn't have cell service. People were right, I was crazy! Crazy or not, I was determined.
I mapped out a rough itinerary and route that would take us south through Colorado and New Mexico. We would then head west through Arizona and California until we reached the coast. From there, we would keep going north along the coast until we hit Canada. We would then complete our loop going through Washington, Idaho and Montana and then head south through Wyoming, and finally back to Colorado.
I started reaching out to family and friends letting them know we were headed their way. Some I had not seen in twenty years or more but thanks to Facebook I had kept in touch or reconnected with them online. From old co-workers, classmates, to distant relatives, I was determined to see as many people as I could.
The more I put the word out about our trip, the more offers I had of places to stay or times to meet up for a bite to eat or a cup of coffee, and the more I kept thinking I had lost my mind. What would I say to all these people I hadn't seen in so long? No matter how nervous I got, I just felt in my gut that I needed to get out of my routine and out of my comfort zone. I had to prove to myself that no matter what happened on the road, I could make my way through it. I had to prove that we could laugh again, that we could be silly and forget about the harsh reality of our new normal even if it was just short bursts at a time.
The day finally arrived for our departure. I packed up the kids, clothes, camping gear, and a case of local Colorado jams to use as thank you gifts and a whole lot of music and road trip games. My goal was to keep our stretches of driving at no more than five hours per day. I told the kids to holler if they saw something interesting that they wanted to stop and explore.
I quickly realized that, just like life, what I saw in my head regarding how the road trip would go and the reality of how it really turned out were vastly different. I envisioned that my kids would happily sing along to my road trip playlist while playing road trip bingo. I envisioned that we would find local eateries and stop at fun, quirky roadside stands. What really happened was that my kids were kids and there was a fair share of whining and "I'm bored!" while they quickly tore through all the fun activities I had neatly packed in a bin. We ate a lot of fast food, because taking two small children into local restaurants took up a big part of the day that I would rather spend enjoying new adventures. The car quickly started to look like a crime scene with the amount of trash and broken toys and road trip print outs on the floor.
Despite the fact that the road trip did not live up to my idyllic notion of what it would be, we had two months that healed me more than anything we had done in the year preceding our trip. I introduced my children to distant relatives and they learned the joy of camping with cousins and being part of a big mash up of kids exploring, fishing, and getting dirty. We connected with new friends who are now considered family. We reconnected with old friends and reminisced about the past, and made plans for the future.
We visited national parks, played on lakes, ate too many hamburgers, went to museums, rode trolleys, played tourists, camped, and rode on tractors. We argued and cried and annoyed each other to no end.
But most importantly, we remembered what it was like to laugh.
We remembered what it was like to live and not just survive.
I remembered that, no matter what twists and turns and roadblocks we hit in this crazy life, things don't have to be perfect. Sometimes the imperfect road is the one that leads to the best trip both in travel and in life.
We all a have a story and I've always thought that, to write a successful story meant to follow a step-by-step, linear process. Step one: find yourself; step two: be yourself; step three: live happily ever after.
As it turns out, life doesn't work that way. I began the process of finding that out the day I learned I was getting divorced.
I was 33 years old and had been married for two and a half years to my best friend. We had seven years of what I thought was filled with so much love and laughter. It turns out, he didn't see things the same way I did.
I cried. I drank wine. I asked a lot of questions that never resulted in answers. Most detrimentally, I spent time second guessing who I was as a person and wondering why I wasn't good enough.
The holidays were around the corner and the thought of experiencing my first single Christmas in so many years made my body shake with so much emotional discomfort that I could feel my heart actually rolling to its side in my chest. Despite the wonderful friends and family, I knew I had to escape. I had heard about Yoga and Surf Retreats in Costa Rica, but I didn't really care much for yoga, and the Midwest doesn't know anything about surfing. After a bottle of Cabernet on election night, with uncertainty looming over my future as well as that of the United States, I sought out Google's assistance and submitted a deposit for a Holiday Retreat at a place called Anamaya in Montezuma, Costa Rica.
When I woke up the next day, a wave of both fear and excitement washed over me. Am I really going by myself to Costa Rica for Christmas? With only six weeks until my departure, I strongly considered foregoing my $500 deposit and heading to my parents for the holidays instead. When my boss set with me up with a first-class flight as part of my year-end bonus, I knew the universe was insisting I follow through with this trip.
It turned out to be the most magical experience of my life.
I arrived in Costa Rica on Christmas Eve. I expected to relax by the pool while reading a few books and getting sunburnt. I imagined I'd take a couple of yoga classes and still consider yoga to be a form of physical exercise I couldn't quite understand. If the spirit moved me, I would try one surf class as well.
The first day of the retreat, all 28 of us sat in a circle overlooking the most beautiful view I've ever seen. We were high above the trees in the jungle with the ocean all around us. As we went around to introduce ourselves and share our expectations for the week ahead, I learned this was going to be a very different escape than I had anticipated. Every single person in that circle had a story, one I couldn't relate to at all, but would soon connect with regardless.
At the first group dinner, I joined my new companions: mother and daughter, who were growing closer after years of a bitter custody battle; two other recent divorcees who were looking to make sense of their future; and a 39 year-old very recent widow, who led the pack with her hysterical stories relayed to us in her British accent. Despite all the hardships we were each carrying with us, our fits of laughter brought us to tears on many occasions throughout the week.
The tears flowed for many reasons all week long. When they came uncontrollably at the end of my first yoga class, our instructor insisted this would be a week of "letting go" and "cleansing" for all of us. She couldn't have been more right in that moment.
Amidst waterfall hikes, my surf lesson, snorkeling, beach bonfires, a newfound appreciation for meditative yoga, and the fresh, organic meals, what I most vividly remember about the trip are the seemingly mundane experiences. I remember the hideous sandals our British friend found in her room under a sofa. They became the week's running joke. Who were we going to scare with those awful shoes next? I remember the trick we played on half of the group by saying our German friend wasn't really German, and was actually from Alabama, coming to pick up women. I remember the terrifying stories told each morning about the creatures we found in our rooms the night before.
Most of all, I remember the fact that the person I had been, who had played it safe and so carefully planned everything, had disappeared that week.
I changed my return flight to spend one more day ringing in the New Year in paradise with four new friends.
I didn't once open a book or lay quietly by the pool, and my soul couldn't have felt any better the day I returned back home. I didn't come back with vacation withdrawals or emptiness in my heart where that magical week had existed.
I went to Costa Rica on a solo adventure to dodge Christmas and the life I used to know, but some time while I was there, I fell in love with myself.
I still can't pinpoint what exactly I left behind in Costa Rica. Perhaps it was the fear of uncertainty, insecurities, sub-par friendships that needed to end, or just plain sadness for the loss of my husband and the future I thought we had together. Whatever it was I let go of, I felt free.
The laughter and love from all the other healing strangers with their own stories surrounding me on my trip left a lasting impact. I was starting a new chapter with a plot twist and new characters. I had not been to Costa Rica to relax. I was there to heal in a way only the universe knew I needed.
I have never gotten lost while traveling. I can read a map and if I am ever uncertain, I am not afraid to ask for directions. Siri, of course, pretty much eliminates even that need.
That's not to say, however, I have never been lost.
Pisgah State Park in Chesterfield, New Hampshire is just 15 miles from my home. It is massive: 13,688 acres of dense woodland bisected by a well-marked trail system. It contains New Hampshire's largest watershed, several ponds, and pristine old growth forest. It is absolutely beautiful. It is also the perfect place to go for a quick hike with a cute fella on a date.
We did not intend to hike for long. We were looking forward to dinner in Keene, so we did not bring a thing with us. No food. No water. No compass. And certainly, no flashlight.
Everything was fine until we decided to stray off the path. Bushwhacking sounded adventurous. Exciting.
Until it wasn't.
After a half hour or so of pushing through the forest, we realized that we might have made a mistake.
Another hour of circling and we had not come across a single trail. No closer to finding our way, we eventually had to admit that we were lost. Feeling lost is frightening. Often, prompting the primal response "Am I going to be ok?"
My Dad has always been my hero. Honest, practical, dependable, hard working, curious, adventurous and kind, he exemplified to me how to life well. How to be a good partner, co-worker, and friend. And how to balance a life of community service with a life lived with authenticity in line with one's passions.
The day that he was diagnosed with brain cancer my world stopped. The year and a half following was even harder, as I was forced to witness Glioblastoma, a beast of a disease, rob my Dad of everything that made him my Dad. The combination of disease and treatment transformed him into a person who was at times, barely recognizable. His cognitive function diminished but even harder was the behavioral and emotional changes. His inevitable death, as unfair and tragic as it was, was almost a gift.
The entire ordeal left me lost. Profoundly lost. Who was I without my rock of a father? His steady presence in our lives had been a given, and because he was relatively young, and until this diagnosis had never been sick a day in his life, one that we all simply took for granted.
It's been almost three years since that horrible day when we first heard the words "Your Dad has Glioblastoma". Looking back, I realize that I have utilized many of the same techniques to find my way through his illness and death that I had years ago when finding my way out of the woods.
13,688 acres is vast. The Pisgah State Park sprawled through three separate towns. After 2-hours, my boyfriend and I realized that our predicament might be serious and fear started to seep in. Our first response was to take a deep breath. Buddhist tradition utilizes conscious breathing as a means of promoting mindfulness and relaxation. It is profoundly centering and offers the nervous system an invitation to calm the heck down! In the woods, it seemed an appropriate first response, and as I negotiated the challenging days of my Dad's illness, it was a valuable tool.
My boyfriend and I leaned on one-another and worked together as a team in our effort to find our way out of the woods. There is no way that my family could have gotten through my Dad's illness and death without relying on one another. This is a lesson we learned from Dad. He connected with every person he came into contact with. Friendships from childhood were life-long, relationships with his family were deep, and he was genuinely fascinated by every person who crossed his path. He was curious to learn the stories of their lives. Even brief encounters were intimate, and because of that, Dad's life was infinitely rich.
As my boyfriend and I hiked, we made a conscious decision to replace the fear we had felt initially with trust that everything would be ok. We would be ok. We would find our way. We would not be lost in the woods forever. Trust was a little trickier and more difficult to muster in terms of my Dad's illness. Grief and anger took some time to work through.
My boyfriend and I had been circling the woods for about two and a half hours when the sun began to set. We happened to be on a hillside that provided an incredible vista upon which to take in the incredible red sky. So we stopped. I find myself utilizing this technique often in life. Especially when I am missing my Dad.
When feeling lonely or lost, gratitude is powerful and transformative. Taking the time to appreciate a beautiful sunset or listen to a moving piece of music immediately lifts my spirits.
Eventually, we made our way out of the woods.
Eventually the profound feelings of missing my Dad and feeling lost without him have diminished, and for that, I am supremely grateful.