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  • Jan Flynn

My Big Fat Epic Life Events Road Tour, Part 2

Deep dives and road construction on Memory Lane

Image by Peter Fischer from Pixabay

Quick Part 1 recap previously on my big fat epic life events road trip —

My husband and I and our trusty Honda CRV were all set to leave on June 7, to drive from our home in Boise south to San Diego for my elder son’s long-awaited wedding on June 14 — with stops to visit our CA friends and family.
On June 2, my beloved sister in San Luis Obispo died from a long illness.
Much logistics ensued, all within a maelstrom of emotions. But as my sweet mama used to say, life goes on. We yanked heaven and earth around a bit to extend our trip to include my sister’s memorial on June 20.
So, once again, we were all set to leave on June 7.
On June 6, our dog got sick.

Nora is a dog of indiscriminate appetite yet delicate digestion

Often she gets away scot-free with her indiscretions.
Not this time. She whined at the back door every 20 minutes to make disgusting piles of gloop in the yard. In between outings, she yakked on the carpet.
Asking our first-time house sitters to manage a dog spouting technicolor effluvia from both ends was hardly reasonable. Luckily, our vet said Nora was in no immediate danger and sent her home with meds.
And a $500 bill.
Our dear friend and neighbor, who had already volunteered to take over for our house sitters when they had to leave, vowed to deal with any canine crises in our absence.
We made it out of Dodge, or rather Boise, on schedule. And I’d even managed to get my nails done.

There is something cathartic about a long drive

Especially through a wide-open Western landscape: it gives the mind a vast canvas on which to screen memories. There’s plenty of space to let the big feelings out, and when you’re as safe and comfortable with your traveling companion as I am with my husband, a car is a great place to allow the emotional waves to ebb and flow.
Images rolled past me like tumbleweed. My son, the 42-year-old airline captain about to be married, drifted by on the tiny electric motorcycle his dad bought him for his fourth birthday, a look of determined delight on his little-boy face.
Over the next hill, there he was at 16, working with his dad — gone these 22 years now — on his first car, the vintage Mustang with pony-stamped back seats. Around another curve, there he was up in the air, making his first solo flight in a gleaming white Katana airplane at age 17.

It’s a ten-hour drive to our first destination

The images keep coming, and now they merge with memories of the sister, seven years my senior, whom I’ve just lost.
In many, she’s teaching me something. I’m eight and she’s teaching me to swim at the Elk’s Club pool. I’m eleven and she’s showing me how to clean the downstairs bathroom, for which she will pay me 50 cents a week, my first paying job.
I’m sixteen and she’s coaching me on handling her 1960 Camaro, which she’ll lend me for the summer while she goes to Washington with her fiancée, who’s enlisted as an Army second lieutenant. Luckily he’ll avoid deployment to Viet Nam, and I’ll get to rip around town in a muscle car.
I’m 28 and my sister, without meaning to, is teaching me to be a mother. My first son is six weeks old and her third is three months old. Watching her respond to her baby’s needs as they arise, with confident warmth and no concern for scheduling and all the other nonsense I’ve been taught, restores my sanity. Because of her, I think maybe I can do this mom thing after all.
In other memories, we’re laughing; Shopping and laughing, cooking and laughing, traveling and laughing. Sniggers, snorts, guffaws, slack-jawed belly laughs. The images make me laugh through my tears.

By the time we reach St. Helena, CA, I’m wrung out but peaceful

This is the small town in the heart of Napa Valley where we lived for seven years before returning to Boise. We stay with two of our oldest and dearest friends, people we’ve known since we were all 18. They’re like family, welcoming and generous with their hospitality, great food, and excellent wine. For the first time in days, I sleep deeply, all night long.
In the morning, I get a text from my late sister’s oldest son.
His father, my sister’s ex, died during the night. The man who I’ve known since I was a teen, the man who loved my sister, built a life and family with my sister, then betrayed my sister. For a time I was murderously furious with him. But that was long ago before his football-player body dwindled and his already split mind was raddled by Lewey body dementia.
Now he has followed my sister beyond the veil, only five days behind her. My nephews’ years-long vigil over their parents’ decline is suddenly over.
Again, I feel like saltwater taffy, this time maybe stretched just a bit too far.
But there’s no emergency now, no need to change our plans again. For two days, my husband and I wander our old wine country haunts, eating and drinking, reconnecting with friends who are no strangers to life’s gains and losses.
During dinner on the second evening, I get another cluster of calls from my surviving sister, the one with Alzheimer’s. She’s sundowning, and something has triggered her recall of Sue’s death. She learns the news for the first time, over and over. “My baby sister,” she whimpers over the phone.
The calls stop after an hour.
On the third day, we head south again to Mill Valley, the charming Marin County haven where another couple we know, theater buddies of longstanding, live. Their co-generational house perches on the slopes of Mt. Tamilpais, with a view of the Golden Gate and the city beyond. They’ve arranged a dinner party in our honor, gathering together many of the old lions of Bay Area theater who’ve trod the boards with my husband over the decades.
There is nothing like a group of veteran actors when it comes to storytelling, and it’s a rare and memorable reunion.
We are all aware there may not be another one.

The next day we visit my surviving sister and her husband

I know better than to tell them ahead of time. She won’t remember, and if he does, it will only agitate him. Their retirement facility is in Gilroy, once a back-of-beyond farming burg known only for its garlic festival. Now it’s an aesthetically developed Silicon Valley exurb.
We sign in with the front desk and head up to their apartment. My sister and brother-in-law light up with surprise when they see us, although it’s clear my sister can’t quite place my husband, to whom I’ve been married for 21 years.
The facility itself is tastefully designed and immaculately clean. In contrast, their tiny apartment is a cacophony of stuff: my sister’s artwork stacked against the already overpopulated walls, every surface piled with books, ancient mail, random clippings, and odd bits of paper covered with notes in my sister’s handwriting.
They usher us inside through the labyrinth and scoop out enough space to sit down. My husband spots one of the Post-Its on which my sister has written “Sue died — June 2 — San Luis.” He covers it with my purse; I find other scribbled reminders and hide them. There is no point in opening the same wound over and over.
The four of us carry on a cheerful conversation that recycles several times a minute: We’re so glad to see you! What a nice surprise! Did you fly here? No, you drove? From where? You live in Idaho now, don’t you? Isn’t it nice up there, don’t you love the seasons? Did you fly here? No, you drove? From Idaho, is that where you live now? Don’t you love the seasons there?
Not once does the topic of our recently departed sister come up.
Someone knocks at the door; it’s a staff member, reminding them that today is laundry day.
“Oh, we don’t have any,” says my brother-in-law. “We’ll put it out next time.”
This happened the last time I saw them, months ago. They are also wearing the same clothes they did then.
They’ll be moved to memory care in a week. They have no idea what’s coming.
Our visit peters out after about 40 minutes. The conversation has reset more times than we can count and it’s evident that they’re tiring; it takes enormous energy for them to compensate, to make sense of things outside their shrinking experience.
They walk us to our car, hug us goodbye, and wave cheerfully as we pull away.
I text their son. Please don’t feel bad about not taking your folks to Sue’s memorial; it’s the right call.

Three hours later, we’re in San Luis Obispo

This is the part of the trip we’d originally planned to spend time with Sue, making a series of short visits to her care home to keep from wearing her out; she’d become much sleepier in recent months.
But now she’s gone. Still, we’re booked for two nights in a hotel room we’ve prepaid, and we have until June 13 to arrive in San Diego.
This town, where my sister lived her entire adult life, is like a second home to me by now. And every inch of it plucks an emotional chord. The weather is perfect; morning mists fade from the tops of gold-and-green, oak-studded hills and give way to a sun-warmed sky. Gentle marine breezes ward off the inland heat.
We visit my nephews, who live in side-by-side houses. We help a bit with the memorial arrangements.
The rest of the time, we explore the nearby coast towns, Pismo Beach, Shell Beach, and Avila Beach: places we haven’t had the time nor inclination to visit during Sue’s illness. I buy a new hat and sunglasses and text pics back to the Idaho clan.
The hotel offers free wine tasting in its gift shop. I sip and wander, checking out locally made olive oil and chocolates, while the shop’s speakers play a soothing Italian-inspired playlist.
Tomorrow we will drive south again, making visits along the way, and stay with friends in Newport Beach before we head to the wedding venue on Thursday. It’s time to embrace the joy.
The song over the speakers switches: Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman sing “Time To Say Goodbye.”
I step out onto an unoccupied deck where I can still hear the music, gaze up at the hillside, and let the tears slide down my grateful face.
Life, sometimes, is so big I can’t wrap my heart around it.

Join me next for Part 3: one wedding and a funeral (sort of).

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