I have had in my mind for years that we would take family vacations. Growing up, my family always took road trip or big vacations in the summer. I wanted to do the same with my kids, plotting out how we could visit all corners of the country, with focus on their ages at the time and what I thought we could handle.
Then Nelle and Iris died, so summer of 2016 was pretty much shot to hell. I did a lot of yoga that summer, but not much of anything else since my grief was so intense. The following summer, I was pregnant with Autumn and she was born in early August.
So 2018 became the year of our first “family vacation.” I chose Door County, Wisconsin, since it was a reasonable drive and low-key. My family growing up used to travel to Door County every summer for a conference my dad attended, so I had a lot of memories of the area. In actuality, it was a very difficult vacation. Ger had begun medication for anxiety only two months earlier, along with therapy. Without even realizing it at the time, he was very difficult on the vacation. Looking back on it when we got home, he had enjoyed himself. And I was miserable.
I told my own therapist that I was anxious headed into our vacation this year. Last year, I had an “out” – we could have left Door County and gone home, with a manageable drive. This year, escape was not much of an option, since we had an entire trip planned out with stops in St. Louis, Nashville, and Memphis. I talked to Ger about this as well, and he tried to assure me not to worry – that he would be on his A-game.
And he was. We had just enough planned where we felt like we got a taste of each city that we visited, but not so much that we were overwhelmed. Each day included a break in the middle of the day with a nap. The big kids kept themselves entertained in the car, and Autumn was *mostly* fine, even in the longest parts of our drive.
A friend I know through Instgram brings a red stuffed dinosaur to family events, to represent the son that she lost. Shortly before our trip, I bought a blue stuffed bird, complete with a crown, tutu, and ballet slippers. I had to get over the fact that I would bring only one bird for two lost daughters, but logistically it made more sense.
There were two times on our trip when I intensely felt the loss of Nelle and Iris. The first was when – happened a few times – friendly, well-meaning strangers asked how old my kids were and then followed with a comment “wow – big gap in ages!” I had to force a smile and reply with something like “yes – keeps us on our toes.” The second was was felt throughout our day, when my older kids were perfectly capable of plowing through the day, but instead we would go back to the Airbnb to ensure that Autumn had a good nap. If it had been the family “like we had planned” my kids’ ages would have been 9, 7, and 3.5 instead of 9, 7, and 2. A big difference at that toddler age.
Instead, I was accompanied by my cherished rainbow baby, and the bird that I bought. I carried the bird with me everywhere, tucked into the diaper bag, and brought her out to take photos along the way. Only when we arrived back home did I realize that no other humans were in the photos…. it was the bird, alone, posed in the locations that we visited. I’ll need to work on that.
I named her Zinnia. I was trying to come up with something for “Nelle” and “Iris” and had recently finished a book with the name “Nellie” and somehow Nellie plus a flower name turned into Zinnia.
Perhaps the most meaningful moment was when we drove to Grafton, Illinois. The tiny town, across the river from St. Louis, has a population of 650 and is where my mom grew up. As a child, I remember long car rides with my family to visit my grandparents in Grafton. We made friends and played with the neighbor kids. There was a tv in the basement of my grandparents’ house and we could watch shows that we could not get at home, such as “The Muppets.” One meal would always include batter-fried fish ordered from a local place, but I was a picky eater back then, so I am sure I just ate fries. And there was a huge porch swing that hung from the carport.
My grandpa – Vincent (“Dutch”) – tried to turn every person he met in his life into a friend. I remember a time that my grandparents visited us in Wisconsin and we went to the local root beer float stand and Dutch spent more time chatting with the waitress on roller skates than ordering. He wanted to talk to everyone about everything. Every time he called the house and I answered the phone, he would give no introduction but simply ask “How’s the weather up there? Do you have a boyfriend yet?” He died when I was 14, following a routine surgery, before I was every able to answer “yes” to his question about a boyfriend.
My grandma – Beth – had dementia later in her life. She moved into an assisted living facility. She proudly had a photo of her great-grandson, Theo, in her room, but the last time I visited her, she didn’t know who I was. She passed away when Theo was 18 months old. That was the last time I had been in Grafton – for her funeral – before this trip.
Even with the passing of 8 years, I could remember how to get to the cemetery in this tiny town. I remembered where my grandparents were buried. As we pulled up, the rain was coming down in sheets. I didn’t make the kids get out of the car, because I knew that this visit was significant only to me. I hopped over puddles of water in the grass until I found my grandparents’ gravestones. Their final resting place overlooks a hill and I stared at it for a minute. My grandpa would have gotten such a kick out of my kids. He would already be asking Theo if he had a girlfriend (at the age of 9).
I brought Zinnia out from the protective bag I was carrying. I opened an umbrella over the gravestone and set her beneath it. Nelle and Iris already get to rest with my other grandfather, since their ashes are scattered beneath the same tree in Wisconsin where his ashes are scattered, but it was a “first meeting” with my maternal grandparents. I wondered in a fleeting moment how they would have reacted: in first learning that I was pregnant, and then finding out that their great-granddaughters had died. They came from a different era, when such things were not talked about. My mind floated back to a story that my grandma once told, about a baby that she had lost in the second trimester. I only remember her saying that she could “feel” that the baby was dead.
After taking a photo of Zinnia – of Nelle and Iris – with their great-grandparents, I went back to the car. We drove through Grafton, past the house that my grandparents lived in when I knew them. As we left the town, the rain stopped. I told Ger that I was positive my grandpa Dutch had been playing a joke on us, by slamming us with rain while we were visiting. I am sure that he was smiling.