FB ‘on this day’ reminds me that three years ago today I’d packed up all three kids for a two day road trip to southern California. The caption of the post, “Pitstop. Yep, they’re are still here,” above a photo that I’d taken at a stop in Medford. The trunk of the Jeep is open, rear door high up pointing toward the sky. Rear trunk space bursting at the seams with everything we can hope to need for what should have been a spring break getaway. Firework burst of flowers on an army style duffle, full of who knows what but will eventually be emptied and used as a dirty clothes bag, laying on it’s side toward the front and surely being squished when the rear door slams down. Pink yoga mat crammed into an in-between space, duffle bags on one side and backpacks on the other. One of the girl’s gray and neon green track shoes peeking out of a paper grocery bag on the left. Red carry-on suitcase stacked on top of black and white polka dot duffle bag on the right. Pastel butterfly pillow perched atop it all, easily accessible to the lazy arm of my 9 year old when she gets sleepy. Above all of this, in the narrow space between luggage and the soft of the gray roof, peek the smiling faces of my three children. They’re in the backseat, turned around facing back, propped up high on their knees, peering out with goofy grinned faces. My son is in the middle between his two big sisters. His hands up by his ears, a shoe in each hand dangling by his fingertips look like giant puppy dog ears on either side of his head. All three kids eager to arrive at our destination the next day. Excited to see friends and family and the familiar places of what used to be home.
What FB memories doesn’t know is that this road trip was supposed to happen a few days later, when spring break officially began. This road trip that should have been all about fun and laughter and making memories that will last a lifetime. About swimming with cousins and sleepovers with lifelong friends who are family. About staying up late and being spoiled with ice cream cones and greasy movie theater popcorn. About going home at the end of the week, exhausted fun-drunk smiles plastered across their hearts.
What the kids don’t know is that this spring break trip was planned because it could possibly be the last time they see their grandmother. No one has said it out loud, but I know way down deep in that heavy stone feeling in my gut. Knowing that she might not live long enough to make it to our annual summer soCal trip. Knowing in my bones, feeling the tug of her leaving.
What FB memories doesn’t know is that we were leaving several days earlier than originally planned. The car packed hastily, the children pulled from school. Leaving our home in Portland and heading 1000 miles south to LA. Desperate to make it, as quickly as possible, to the hospital nearest my mother’s house, just west of the San Fernando Valley. Straight to see my mom, who had been admitted two days prior and undergone emergency surgery to place a chest tube to drain the fluid filling her lung. To drain the fluid filling the pleural space around her lungs and heart, where her lung had pulled away from the lining of her chest wall. No. That’s not right. Not pulled away. Eaten away. The place where her lung had been eaten away from the lining of the chest cavity. The place where the cancer had wormed its way through and left not even a breadcrumb trail in its path, only a gaping hole filling with fluid that was threatening to drown her from the inside out.
What I didn’t know was that she would be dead in a week. That the next six days were all that she would have left. All that I would have left. I wanted to get to her, there was an urgency to get to her. My body moved before my mind could think. Get to her. Get to her. Get to her. She had been hospitalized. She’d had emergency surgery. Yet no one was saying anything about death, about dying. The plan was to drain her lung and the cavity surrounding it. Get her stable. Send her home. She would resume chemo. She would fight. She would fight. And she would fight. That was the plan.
The kids were such good sports on this road trip and I was grateful. It was just them and me. Husband had stayed back home, there is no spring break from his job. Aside from the youngest, who at ten hours into the sixteen hour trip, declared that he was done with the trip and wanted to turn around and go back home, the kids never complained. They were kept happy with books and electronic gadgets and snacks. From the backseat they couldn’t see the wrinkled crease of my brow, squinting against the sun and against the fear. They couldn’t feel the knots strangling my stomach. They couldn’t see the tears pool in my eyes and slide down my cheeks. Over the bass thumping of music coming from the speakers, they couldn’t hear the race of my heart trying to pound out of my chest. If they could, they didn’t say anything. Instead they asked for snacks and bathroom breaks. They rooted me on and kept me awake so that we could keep driving just another exit and just another exit and just another exit. Their extra energy burst of excitement to be up so late into the night. Not wanting to stop until we were closer to our destination than to our starting point.
Driving south on I-5 through the miles and miles of northern and central California, on long stretches of road that cut through the light brown tan of hay fields and farms as far as the eye could see. I spoke with my mother’s doctors for updates. I spoke with my sister who had already arrived in LA from Arizona. And when I couldn’t take the fear any longer and the not knowing and the knowing and my mind going to all the dark places, and I needed grounding, I spoke with husband and busied myself with providing him updates. Day one we drove until almost midnight, stopping just south of Sacramento. Dragging sleepy kids and only what we needed for the one night in a roadside hotel. Day two up and out early to drive from Sacramento to West Hills. With a car full of kids and bagels and cream cheese and duffle bags and pillows and shoes and fear and longing, we drove straight through. I dropped the kids and our heaps of family gear off at a family friend’s house. She gave me a reassuring hug as I left the kids there and headed the additional twenty minutes to the hospital.