I’m working on a short story about a series of random events that happened shortly after my mother died. Her death is a theme that makes its way into much of my writing. This is the first edit of my first installment.
Armed with a Cucumber and Cheap Ham
In the days and weeks that followed my mom’s sudden death, I was feeling anything but normal. Yet circumstances and the people surrounding me seemed to be marching onward. It was all strangely just as before… Oh, but it wasn’t.
We buried my formerly vibrant mother. I headed back to college to complete the last days of my senior year. Finals. Not sure how I managed. It could have been the result of a handful of professors who took pity, although I don’t know if anyone actually knew. Or maybe I was on a mission and the distraction offered a sort of respite from the darkness, allowing me to become hyper-focused on my studies. My mom had happily anticipated my graduation after all. Whether it was attaining that noble goal, or a blind eye from the administration, or a combination, I will never know precisely how I passed—with an impressive 3.5 G.P.A., I might add.
Graduation followed without my biggest fan present. Troubled and searching for her in the faces of all those happy onlookers, I reached for the diploma. My dad and brother were there, albeit late. There had been a panicked minute or two where I thought no one from my family would witness my proudest achievement to date. When they rushed in, visibly harried, I let out the breath I had been holding. They were emotionally lost and grieving as well. But I couldn’t help thinking that she would’ve been on time.
With a newly-minted degree from my dream college, I began my quest for normalcy. That summer I met with the campus priest to help me make sense of my feelings. This was so out of character. I was extremely private, yet desperate for answers. My whole existence had been shaken to its foundation. However, I couldn’t understand why I still felt so down in the dumps. I naively thought this cataclysmic event could be handled in the same way I faced any other obstacles, say, a bad grade, an argument with a friend… I’d come up with a solution and work through it. It might have taken days or weeks, but it was most certainly under control. Not this time. The priest must have thought me callous. Her mom just died and she wants to know why she doesn’t feel better yet? In fact, I felt miserable, in shock, damaged, and more importantly, I wanted the excruciating pain to stop—immediately. My talk with him did very little to alleviate my burden. He tried to reassure me that what I was experiencing was normal. I didn’t feel normal at all. I was a fun-loving college kid with an indomitable spirit. I’d ventured across Europe during my junior year abroad in Paris. Where was that young woman now? She seemed utterly lost.
My oldest brother was at a similar crossroads. He had graduated from law school a year earlier and was trying, unsuccessfully to pass the bar exam in the state of Ohio while inhabiting a state of mourning.
Weighed down with extreme emotional baggage, the two of us decided a road trip to Florida was what we needed. My grandfather lived not far from the beach. I considered it a chance to reconnect with a sibling I didn’t know anymore. We would change up our surroundings, forget our troubles, and potentially reclaim some semblance of peace.
He helped me clear out my college apartment and pack up the van with all of my worldly possessions, except my trusty ten-speed. That had disappeared along with my sense of hope. We traveled without incident from Chicago to Cleveland. We spent the night in our childhood home, the memories nearly suffocating me. In the morning, we would set out for our next leg of the journey, trying to leave behind the painful reminders. My dad lent us the extra car. He no longer had a need for two. We were grateful for that Toyota station wagon. As two broke college kids, we couldn’t afford to rent a car. We probably were not legally old enough either. We cut corners for supplies. I had the brilliant idea to buy a couple packages of the cheapest lunchmeat I could find. The store I chose was a favorite of my infamously frugal father. They carried name-brand knock-offs like “Miracle Mayo,” and “Corny Flakes.” A perusal of his pantry used to make me laugh out loud. Somehow, I thought heavily processed ham would be just what we needed as we covered 960 miles and 6 states. It seemed like a practical way to stretch our dollars. We’d still have to cover the cost of the motel at the half-way point, and gas was not going to be cheap. Once in Florida, my grandfather would provide lodging for the rest of our stay. It was a decent plan.
As we pulled out of the driveway, lunchmeat safely stowed in the box behind the emergency brake, our elderly neighbor signaled us to stop. He waved me over as he hurried to his garden. With much satisfaction, he handed me a giant homegrown cucumber through the open car window. He knew I loved cucumbers and I knew he loved my kind, neighborly mother. Her death at age 51 had bowled over everyone. She had been a perfectly healthy middle-aged woman one day and gone forever within a couple of weeks. Many didn’t even know about her cancer diagnosis. I think he felt really bad for us. I was touched by his gesture and pleased that he had provided the side salad to our cold cuts. We were officially on our way.
By the time we pulled into the motel parking lot, we had had our fill of chemically seasoned ham and garden fresh cucumber. Looking back, I don’t think I put the lunch meat on ice. It was a gamble that would not pay off. That night, in the unnatural darkness of our worn motel room, I awoke covered in sweat and in complete pain. My period had come on unexpectedly along with fierce cramping and nausea. I barely made it to the bathroom. My brother was startled awake by the deathly sounds. He wanted to know what he could do, so I sent him to the nearest drug store for Ibuprofen, Kaopectate and pads. He delivered, my hero in the foxhole. If I have anything to say about it, which sadly I don’t, my attentive brother earned his heavenly salvation that night. He came through for me and provided a safety net when I so desperately needed it. And his Teflon gut never even flinched from that toxic ham.
We left on schedule the next morning, a little road-weary, but united in our resolve. The lunchmeat episode was behind us. I couldn’t even look at the left-over cucumber. But I’m certain I didn’t throw it out either.
I don’t remember conversing much on our long car ride. But I know I felt at ease with my brother. We were both strangely uncomfortable in our own skin. I could be my self with him. I temporarily lowered the facade and leaned into the awkwardness.
My grandfather was a little too excited to see us. He couldn’t wait to show us his stomping grounds. Totally connected among the senior community of Palm Coast, Florida, he wanted us to hear him play the piano at some mixer for the blue-haired set. All we really wanted was to sit peacefully and stare at our feet in front of a beach horizon; we were no match for his enthusiasm.
Though he was a close genetic link to my mother, I often marveled at his contribution to her conception and upbringing. They were vastly different to my mind. He was very friendly, but clueless and rather unaffectionate. I doubt he even asked us how we were coping. Avoidance may have been his preferred method of surviving an emotionally-loaded situation. So, here we were, a couple of seriously grieving young adults, and he wanted to take us to his gigs. I missed her more. He was a physically similar, yet counterfeit version of her, not the emotionally present, loving, intuitive mother I longed for. But hey, maybe a trip to the Palm Coast senior center would fix all that.
After driving over 7 hours in the stifling summer heat, he herded his zombie grandkids back into the car for a cocktail party where he played keyboard in a band. Surreal doesn’t begin to explain it. We were the only people in the room under 70, by a long shot. We were fawned over and told how talented our grandfather was. My brother and I milled about with plastered-on smiles, just hoping we would eventually get a glimpse of the ocean. This was not shaping up to be the vacation we were banking on. We dutifully mingled and made small talk. Not even grief poses an obstacle for serial people pleasers. I’m certain we were both dying on the inside.