The kids and I left for Florida the day after Trish’s funeral. The trip served a couple of purposes. Mainly we needed to get Alexa back to school for the end of her freshman year at the University of Miami. We also needed more time to spend together as a family, just the five of us, and figure out how this new life might work without Trish. So on the Thursday after Trish died, the day after her funeral, we loaded up the family truckster and headed out on the 24 hour drive for South Florida.
We were no strangers to the drive to Florida. Most of our spring breaks for the last 6 or 7 years had been spent in South Florida, and we had made a few trips with Alexa at school at the U. I loved to make the drive. Trish, on the other hand, hated the drive, and would usually fly. That worked out well because I could drive, Trish could fly and then we would have a large vehicle in Florida to transport the crew.
I was accustomed to that drive to Florida without Trish, and had probably done it at least a dozen times without her. But on that drive to Florida after her funeral, I think I reached the next stage of grief.
They say the “Five Stages of Grief” are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Yea, well, whatever. Those words are so general they don’t even mean anything. You could probably fit any feelings into those broad categories.
Denial. Uh, can’t really deny someone is gone, and your life is changed forever. This one doesn’t even make sense.
Anger. Yep. Goddamn right I’m angry. About everything. Angry that I have to go through this, when life was pretty great. Angry at a lot of people who don’t understand what I’m going through. But the anger wasn’t a stage. It permeates everything.
Bargaining. This one doesn’t make any sense either. Bargaining for what? Stupid.
Depression. Absolutely. Again, don’t see a start and end, or how depression is merely a stage.
Acceptance. Maybe someday. Or maybe acceptance has already happened. Who knows. Not real useful.
Rather than denial, I believe the first stage of grief is when you can first laugh again. That doesn’t take long, but you feel guilty about it because you are supposed to be sad, and you are sad, but you can still laugh. I couldn’t laugh when Trish was struggling for her last breath, or when they wheeled her out of the house to the funeral home.
The next day at lunch, however, and in the following days, and at Trish’s funeral, we could laugh again. We weren’t happy, and sadness overwhelmed us, but we could laugh again. Because life goes on, and laughing is a part of life. You feel guilty about it, but life goes on.
On the drive to Florida, 6 days after Trish died, I stopped feeling guilty about laughing, and moved to the next stage. The next stage was that I kept forgetting that Trish was gone.
I didn’t forget, of course, but often in the split second of how the brain operates, you assume that someone is still living. This stage manifested in my brain when one of the kids would say something on the drive, or I would hear something on the news, and I would instantly think “I gotta tell Trish that” and “I gotta know what Trish thinks about that.”
After 23 years, my brain was basically hard wired into Trish’s brain. I could not have a thought without immediately thinking that I needed to communicate the thought to Trish, and get her insight and reaction, and add what I knew in this world to what she knew in this world, so that we could process it together. That’s how my brain functioned.
Of course, there were things I wouldn’t think to tell Trish. I didn’t need Trish’s input to process whether the Colts were going to make the playoffs, how to litigate a patent case or how to mow the lawn. Those types of things I could process without her help. But for most things in this life, I needed her help. For anything related to the kids, home, family, friends, school, etc., when I learned some new piece of information, my first thought was always that I had tell Trish, add my knowledge to hers, and get her input. My analysis and thoughts would be incompetent without her thoughts on the subject, which I was accustomed to receiving for over twenty years. In most cases, I would just tell her what I knew and she would take over from there, and I could forget about it entirely and make room in my brain for other stuff.
On the drive to Florida, when I would hear some random information from the kids, or anything that Trish would be interested in, I would instantly think “What will Trish think about that?” It could be anything, a family matter, or anything that might interest Trish. And then I would immediately remember, in the next nanosecond as the neurons fired, that Trish wasn’t here. I couldn’t tell her. And then I would think of her, and all that we had lost.
In those first weeks and months after she died, anything could trigger this. It could be one of the kids reporting what had happened at school that day, or something another kid had said to them, or a news report. Anything. When this happened, my brain would immediately stop focusing on what I was thinking about before, what the kid said, or the news report, and then swirl into a pit of despair because Trish was not here to help me deal with it. She was gone, and I was not as competent as I once was to deal with this life.
This form of grief fades, but it never goes away. In the early days after her death, the thought that I couldn’t tell Trish about something would crush me several times a day, reminding me often that she wasn’t here, and of all that I had lost. After a few weeks, it happened much less often. Eventually, my brain became unwired from Trish’s brain, and every thought didn’t lead to me needing to tell Trish. The neurons eventually stopped firing that way.
But it still happens on occasion. Today, it is the big events, like Jake or Hannah in the emergency room, graduations, or any major issue with one of the kids that Trish could handle so much better than me. Now, only these big events send me on the downward spiral, wishing that Trish was here to help me, realizing how deficient I am at handling this life without her. But in the early days, nearly anything could trigger the downward spiral, which never really ends.
So that’s the second stage of grief, when you are constantly forgetting that your loved one is gone, and repeatedly getting knocked on your ass when you remember that she is.
We arrived at our hotel in Miami at exactly 8:15 p.m. on Friday night, exactly one week after Trish died, to the minute. For some reason, this pure coincidence made me think that maybe that precise minute of the week, 8:15 on a Friday night, had some cosmic significance. I’m not a spiritual guy by any means, so it wasn’t like me to think like that. Regardless, I set an alarm on my iPhone for 8:15 on Friday nights, as a reminder. It still goes off, every Friday night, at 8:15.
Our plan was to spend a couple days in Miami with Alexa and her friends, get Alexa settled back at school to finish the semester, and then Molly, Hannah, Jake and I would hit Disney World on the way home. For the Miami portion, at Alexa’s suggestion, we stayed at the Fontainebleau. The Fontainebleau is an incredible resort hotel on Miami Beach, and reminded me of the resort we had stayed at the previous year before Trish was diagnosed.
On our first day at the Fontainebleau, we slept in, got some breakfast when we got around to it, and then headed for the pool around noon. “The pool” is actually a bunch of pools, large and small, between the hotel and the beach. Regardless, no chairs were available by any of the pools, or at least not 3 or 4 chairs to accommodate all of us for a day hanging out at the pool. The place was packed, and there was nowhere for the five us to set up shop and start ordering drinks and relaxing. We ended up getting some towels on the ground on a grassy knoll between the pools and the beach, which sucked, but it was the best we could do at that point.
In my experience on vacation at a swanky resort, I had always been privileged to saunter down to the pool whenever I got around to it. Trish would have already been there early to QUOTE “maximize her sun time.” She would get to the pool early, and spend her day getting sun and reading history books and celebrity magazines. I could come and go as I pleased. Whenever I got there, my chair was available next to her, with the little table between us for our drinks. Worst case, one of the kids was in my chair next to Trish, but I could shoo the kid away with a threat or a bribe.
On the grassy knoll, where we lounged on the ground in disgrace, Hannah recognized the reason for our failure immediately.
“Mom always got to the pool early, and spread our stuff around on the chairs so they were saved,” Hannah informed us.
Hannah was right. I had received the benefits of Trish’s diligence in securing a spot at the pool. I never realized it. I mean, I liked having a chair available to me as needed, but I failed to recognize or appreciate how the chair was secured. I took it for granted because it really wasn’t all that important to me, I guess. But when denied the chair that I had taken for granted, it became important to me.
More importantly, the chair at the pool was the first of the infinite number of things that Trish took care of that I never appreciated, that I never had to think or worry about it. There would be many more. Many things I wouldn’t even know or understand until I had fucked it up, like that day at the pool at the Fontainebleau.
That night, after our disgrace on the grassy knoll at the Fontainebleau, Hannah demanded that we set an alarm, and get up early to secure our spot at the pool.
The next day, Hannah and I were up at 8:00 a.m. We headed out to the pool to spread miscellaneous stuff (towels, sunscreen, books, etc.) on four contiguous chairs on the first row by the main pool. Hannah and I got some breakfast back in the hotel, and then headed back to our spot by the pool. We were later joined at the pool by Molly and Jake, and then Alexa and a bunch of her friends around noon. We hung out all day in the prime real estate that Hannah and I had secured. Trish would have been proud.
That night, after our successful day at the pool, we headed out for dinner on South Beach. We were joined by a couple of Alexa’s friends from school, and secured an outdoor table at a decent Italian restaurant next to a major walkway. South Beach has more than fair its share of freaks, weirdos and barely dressed men and women, who were strolling by close to our table, giving a us plenty to talk and laugh and joke about all through dinner.
One character who came by was a shirtless young bro with a monkey on his shoulder. A real live monkey. The guy stopped to talk to us for minute, the monkey bouncing up and down and hooting at us. We laughed at the monkey, because monkeys are funny, and also because the monkey was wearing a diaper, which seemed absurd, but also practical at the same time. If you are going to walk around with a monkey on your shoulder, you don’t want him shitting down your back, I guess. Everyone laughed when I asked the guy if you can train a monkey to change his own diaper.
And then I thought to myself, “Trish will like hearing about the monkey in a diaper that we saw on South Beach.” For some reason, this hit me harder than usual, and I started crying, thinking that Trish was missing all the fun.
“What’s wrong dad,” Jake asked, noticing that I was crying.
“Nothing,” I answered, laughing through the tears. “It’s ok.”
Jake nodded, understanding. Life goes on.