This is the second chapter of my short memoir, “Chasing Normal.” It details the acute period of grief right after my mom died. I posted the first installment earlier.
I felt surrounded by the grave. The last time I had been to my grandparents’ Florida home, I had accompanied my mother. Back then, I was a carefree teenager. A lot had changed. My grandmother had courageously fought mouth cancer, enduring a significant part of her palette being removed. She did not survive. I could not have conceived at the time that her firstborn, my mother, would follow just two years later from lung cancer. It was strange being in that home with two crucial people missing.
The home was completely different. My grandmother’s soft, feminine touch was nowhere to be found. Instead, every available space had been covered in a swashbuckling nautical theme. My grandfather had hung paintings of ships and seascapes, sadly erasing almost every trace of his deceased wife. It was unsettling, but not completely surprising. While hey had eked out forty-nine years of marriage, I suspect it was not always the happiest of unions. They used to bicker—a lot. His hearing was going, so she would raise her voice. “John!” was often punctuated with heavy sighs and exasperated eye-rolls. It never erupted into a full-blown argument, but there was always an undercurrent of seething.
I liked my maternal grandma. Although, I sometimes sensed that there was a time limit or expiration date on our welcome. Past that window of time, we grandkids were interlopers. It was understandable; She had raised seven children, almost single-handedly. As a typical husband of the 1940s and ’50s, my grandfather dutifully provided for his family. He was away a lot while serving in the Navy, and later, as a U.S. postal worker, who moonlit as a musician. Grandma had finally retired from the business of child-rearing. This was in contrast to my dad’s mom, my Italian Grandma Pippa. She couldn’t get enough of my brothers and me, as if her happiness depended on breathing the same air as ours. As different as they were, both were as good as gold and surprisingly linked through their deaths. Grandma Pip had died about one year after my maternal grandma, and precisely one year before my mom. Three years, three deaths. The matriarchs of my family were dropping like flies.
I struggled to stay focused as my grandfather went on and on about his new decorations. The style conveyed his frustrated wanderlust. I could appreciate the theme as we still had not set eyes on the beach, not even from a moving car. Thus far, trip highlights included: a rousing senior citizen mixer, nearly stepping on a palmetto bug the size of my foot, and spotting a couple geckos darting across the back porch, but still no surf and sun. My soul ached for a breather.
He described in painstaking detail each painting and tchotchke, slowly leading us to the guest room. What was once a serene bedroom retreat, now doubled as storage space for his selection of keyboards. We got an earful of the ins and outs of each one.
Why we hadn’t just politely taken our leave and hit the trail… who knows? It was the first time we didn’t have our maternal cruise director to help us navigate the intricacies of family etiquette. She would have effortlessly untangled us and offered some pointers. Instead, we managed by not managing. I look back on that time as a second adolescence. With severe awkwardness and reluctance, I was maturing on-the-fly, but it sure wasn’t pretty. I fell asleep wondering why I had even taken this trip. Then I remembered that the emptiness waited for me at home too.
The next morning the neighbors started showing up. Bing-Bong! My grandfather was thrilled. We now had two standing invitations for dinner and drinks among the Palm Coast senior elite. In grief, time seems to stand still. Any diversion is usually a welcome event, but this was just too much.
Bob was a big guy with a mustache and thick, dark-rimmed glasses. I don’t remember his wife’s name. Maybe Carol, Nancy, Patty? When I think of her, Mrs. Roper from Three’s Company comes to mind, with the flowery muumuu and large hoop earrings. It wasn’t so much how they dressed, but an unshakeable feeling that they were just a little creepy. Bob and “whats-her-name” were typical Floridian retirees, transplants from the midwest who came to escape the cold. They embraced the senior living lifestyle: picture loud tropical shirts, brightly colored pedal pushers, and palm tree earrings. They also really liked their cocktails. They offered us “mar-toonies” with the requisite wink and chortle. Har-har. My brother and I didn’t drink. We were of age, but not interested. I got the sense they found us very odd. They were right. We took part in dinner conversation, inwardly plotting an escape.
By the next day, we had had our fill of life in the retirement community. We would hit the beach and then a nearby amusement park.
The beach was a balm to my wounds. Water has always had a calming effect on me unless I’m swimming in it or boating on it. Actually, I usually find it quite terrifying. I’m not a strong swimmer, and then, of course, there’s the whole Jaws thing. But to sit quietly and watch the repetitive waves rolling in from a secure seat of soft sand… the pain of my mom’s death eased, and temporarily faded to the background. As my pores thirstily soaked up the sun’s warmth, I stared straight ahead. I had a fleeting, faint memory of who I used to be, just weeks before.
It was hotter than Hades as we silently strolled around Orlando’s Universal Studios, passing through throngs of tourists. I’ve never liked being in big crowds, but in some ways, I enjoyed the anonymity. It felt as if my brother and I were strangers as well. We had grown so far apart over the preceding years. And yet we were forever linked by the circumstances of my mom’s untimely death. I wanted to talk about all the hurt that was threatening to burst forth, but I sensed he wasn’t game.
Neither of us is into rollercoasters. My parents preferred historical sites or museums to Cedar Point for family vacations. How delightfully pretentious! I don’t know why we landed on Universal Studios; It probably cost a lot less than Disney World. In our muddled state, we weren’t expecting to have fun at either place, but it offered a change of scenery and deliverance from the overly-eager neighbors.
We silently stood in a few interminable lines, but as we approached the entrance, my brother would infuriatingly back out. He had to use the bathroom or needed a drink. Huh. I knew he didn’t like roller coasters—neither did I, but these were more like kiddie rides surrounded by elaborate movie sets. When I called him on it, he said he wasn’t sure he could handle it. We were standing just outside the entrance for the Back to the Future ride at a complete impasse about how to proceed when a group of young kids came strolling by. I flagged them down and asked if it was a scary ride. They didn’t even disguise their condescending laughter. “Nope. Piece o’ cake!” They could’ve easily added, “Ya weirdos!” at the end of that statement since they had already implied it.
“They’re like, what?—eight year-olds? You can do this,” I urged. I did not drive all the way to Florida to just turn around after a whole lot of standing in line. And what was waiting for us back at my grandfather’s? A “mar-tooni” and more prying eyes. He reluctantly got back in line. As we snaked our way towards the entrance, I followed my brother’s gaze to the sign posted above the waiting area. It read: Do NOT ride this if you have back/neck pain, a back/neck injury, suffer anxiety, claustrophobia, have heart palpitations, or are in advanced stages of pregnancy. Oh boy… here we go. He flicked his finger to the sign as if to emphasize the grave warning. My brother has never been one to read legalese lightly. His analytical nature, coupled with a law degree cause him to lean into words until he gets personally acquainted with each frightening possibility. I had to stop this crazy train from leaving the station. “What’s the problem?” I challenged. I was not backing out and I certainly was not going to get on the stupid ride alone. What kind of loser goes on an amusement park ride by herself? His gaze went back to the sign. He let out a long sigh. “Right now I have every one of those conditions… except for pregnancy.”
“You sure? About the pregnancy?” I asked with raised eyebrows.
The laughter erupted organically. It felt wonderful. Cool rain on the muggiest of days. Refreshment. I hadn’t laughed that hard in 100 years.
In between gasps for air, I managed to convince him to give it a try. A good sport, he acquiesced. The ride, as I suspected was rather unexceptional. It was a piece of cake. The visual effects were stunning, though. At one point, the ride took us into the mouth of a giant dinosaur. I looked at my brother so we could marvel at the experience together. His eyes were clamped shut and his head was tilted towards the ceiling as if praying. His prayer probably went something like this, “Please let this all be over, Lord.” A very good prayer as they go. I had uttered it myself countless times over the past few weeks. Back to the Future was the last ride we attempted. We had a hard enough time dealing with the painful past.