During a pandemic, what is the best way to visit your family across the country?
If it were just the two of you who are rolling up on 22 years of marriage, driving across the country with a tent could be sort of romantic. But it is also your sons — the one who had to finish his freshman year of college with you as his housemates and who blows a gasket at the suggestion of being trapped in a small car with you for a week; and your 16-year-old who thinks an RV sounds cool. And there is your own childhood RV fantasy that has never been quenched, and the undeniable tendency that you and your husband have to let big fantastical ideas bleed into magical thinking, and — lo and behold, abracadabra alakazam! — you are on the 15 freeway heading north through Barstow, with the Pacific Ocean a hundred miles behind you and 2600 more to go.
But back up to the preliminary question: During a pandemic, why would you visit your family across the country?
This was to be the week that we traveled to the San Juan Islands for Christopher’s mom’s big birthday. But his father passed away in February, and the world as we knew it ended. In March the whole world stopped, as if in tandem with our family’s personal pain, and like so many other families during this time, separated by a continent and a virus, we have not yet mourned together. Grief needs company.
And this is how you decide to haul yourselves and your necessities across the country.
Before the trip, you worry, you prepare, you set your intention for it to be good, and then forget that thought, and then remember again, and forget again. You predict that it will be total shit at times. You keep reminding yourself about bonus family time and starry nights.
Your husband drags from the garage the sleeping bags that have not been used since Mother’s Day 2015, and shakes them out to be purified in the sunlight. Your living room transforms. The tiles in front of the fireplace are covered by a growing pile that collects as you think of things. The kitchen items go in a bin — plates, forks, knives (the spoons must wait, because you don’t have enough to put four out of commission for a week); a table cloth for icky picnic tables; a mixing bowl; a spatula missing half its handle; a cracked plastic colander. The things you could live without if you have to ditch the whole enterprise by the side of the road. Another plastic container with paper towels, aluminum foil, ziplock bags, toilet paper. Benadryl, Neosporin, Bandaids, Tylenol, migraine medicine. A sealed wicker basket obscures marshmallows and three kinds of chocolate for taste testing s’mores. (That is your mother-in-law’s influence.) Granola bars and nuts. (That is your mother’s influence). Microwave popcorn and instant oatmeal. Five gallon jugs of water for backup. Diet coke for sleepy afternoons.
We have our sheets, our pillows, our blankets. We have the comet at night, and we have the highways in the day. We have each other.
And all the planning and worrying takes my mind off one certain moment: We will walk into the house at the end of the long driveway in Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania; we will hear two dogs barking; and we will be greeted by Christopher’s mother and sister, but not Peter.
My husband and sons will not be wrapped in his arms. I will not feel his heartfelt hug, which always cut through the chasm of our politics, my left and his right, the hug that said ‘I see you for who you are and how deeply you love.’
We have a long way to go to cross the vastness of our country, its massive beauty and pain and contradictions and promise. I set the bar low: expect bumps and rattling noises and foul smells and white knuckle moments. And I set other bars high: stay curious, listen well, learn more of who my boys are becoming, stay present in the journey.
Here we go.