I’m going on vacation soon, and the towering pile of odiferous laundry in my kids’ closet is the least of my concerns.
I’m heading into an aimless week wounded. I worry that I’ll miss a deadline, overlook an email, let someone down. Ever since my mom died earlier this summer, I haven’t been firing on all cylinders. Part of me feels off, like a shopping cart with one wheel askew, shuddering sadly along, veering in the wrong direction before righting itself with a creak. Did I forget about a huge project? Abandon an important message in my drafts folder?
This is also the first opportunity for any true downtime since her death, the first chance to let the sediment of sorrow settle all around me. It’s the first moment I’ve had to truly marinate solo with my thoughts and reconfigure my place in the world without the chains of obligation.
What horrible notions lurk beneath my operative mind, the reflexive one responsible for my Google calendar and camp pickup? I’m not sure I want to find out. I might discover that I am incredibly angry that my mom is dead and other people’s moms aren’t. I might discover that I’m dreading planning her memorial service because that should be someone else’s job—like my mom’s, because she should be here. I half expect her to come back to life and exasperatedly call me up, reporting that the food in the afterlife is horrible, the service is slow, her mattress is lumpy and how could I have ever thought she actually belonged in that place? The edges of these ruminations have come into view for a while now; I feel like someone at the edge of a boat approaching a hazy island of despair, about to dock in…about 48 hours.
And yet, I also know I need to unplug. For the first time in a long time, I don’t even want to be on social media or around most of humanity. I’m becoming irritated with innocuous things, like wayward bikers. (“Get out of the way, you clueless bobblehead! My mother just died, and I need my bagel!”) I’m ascribing evil motives to random people where there are none. I’m overanalyzing texts, shutting off my phone at 7 p.m., and feeling subtly surly. I want to hide.
I confided this to a friend, who told me that hiding is normal and good sometimes, particularly when you’re upset. This is hard for me. I enjoy defining myself against others—connecting, working, producing, doing. Without that canvas of being seen and heard, well, what am I left with? Solitude. Unpleasant thoughts. Roiling resentment over slogging through a grief that I’d anticipated and expected but wasn’t truly ready to swallow.
The good news is that we’re headed to my family’s favorite spot, Maine, which is where we’ll spread my mom’s ashes later this fall. Luckily, we’re not engaging in that particular activity over vacation, and I can focus on stuffing myself with lobster rolls and reading hideously trashy novels about Hollywood misfits on my Kindle. I can sit by the water and let my sadness wash over me like the waves without diversions or distractions. The ocean in Maine is cold and numbing, but eventually you get used to it, and I imagine grief is the same way—the feeling of sharp, shuddering pain dwindles and you grow hardened and immune, attuned and accustomed, until it just doesn’t hurt as much anymore. I’m going to sit on the edge of that shore and find out.