A version of the piece below was previously published in The Fresno Bee on August 4, 2018.
“Nothing worth doing is ever easy…” Easy to say, hard to actually DO.
Growing up, I’d rely on this cliche to get me through challenges in school and career. Nevermind how hard it might but, just do it, I’d think…. It’ll all be worth it in the end and I’ll be glad I did. As a mom now, I spurt it out when my daughters get frustrated with homework or something they’re working on. This summer, I found it also applies to family traditions and coping after loss.
Growing up in California’s Central Valley, our go-to family vacation was Santa Cruz. Every summer it was the same hotel, same chocolate-dipped ice cream cones (that made mad messes down our arms), same sea lions barking under the pier… from the time I was one year old until now.
One of my earliest memories involves me losing red sparkly deely boppers on the Boardwalk and my dad walking all the way back from our hotel to get it. Yeah, the trips lapsed when my sister and I got older, with college and work days during our 20s, but the last few years saw a resurrection as we started taking our own kids (alongside our parents) to re-live childhood traditions and cram our own kids into the same Cave Train cars that we piled into when we were little back in the 80’s.
But life is always full of change — the kind of change that none of us can ever see coming.
We knew this summer would be different — this year’s family vacation to Santa Cruz would be HARD. After my mom’s passing, the big question was: “Should we still go?” Hotel reservations were made months ahead as usual, but leading up to the dates brought conversations between my sister and I like “Are we doing the right thing? Maybe this is going to be too difficult? Maybe we should skip this year…” No, we’d go with our dad… because we’re still a family and our kids were excited for this vacation again.
Being in Santa Cruz without our mom (who was often the driving force for taking the trip in the first place) was mix of strange, fun, sad, precious, suffocating and liberating. As conflicting as it first felt, this year’s trip ended up feeling like our most important post-loss milestone to date. Our kids screamed like hooligans on the same beach my sister and I splashed in when we were little. We enjoyed walking on the pier with our dad. My sister and I nearly peed our pants laughing as our daughters acted out wild and wacky skits — like only a toddler, two 6 year olds and a 7 year old can — the last night in our hotel rooms. We ordered our go-to corn dogs in honor of last year’s last trip with Grandma. (Excuse me while tears roll down my face and plunk onto my keyboard as I literally post this picture):
It felt weird to order those corndogs. It felt awkward to ride the Cave Train. It felt wrong to have the ice cream melting down our arms as we tried to quickly devour the chocolate shell and get control over the dripping cone. It hurt.
HOWEVER: It was good for us to go. We had no choice but to will all the weirdness, awkwardness, wrongness and hurt through and out of our bodies as part of this grieving and healing ‘process’ (yes, I’ve been referring to this whole year as ‘the process’).
This past May, my older daughter LadyP broke her arm. When she finally got her cast off in late June, she had trouble bending her elbow and using her once-dominant hand again. “Keep trying,” I’d tell her. “Go back to holding your fork with your right hand…” (She’d gotten used to doing everything as a leftie for almost 8 weeks.) “But it hurts, Mommy! It feels weird!” She’d try and avoid using her right arm to hold and carry things at all costs. I’d catch her and say, “If you don’t start using that hand again now, it’s just going to get harder to try and use it again later. It doesn’t feel the same, but it’s still your arm and needs to be reminded how to work again.” It took a few weeks, but she’s back to using her right hand, being less scared of hurting herself again and feeling pretty good and proud about herself.
Because nothing worth doing is ever easy… including family vacations to Santa Cruz.