I moved home that weekend. I think Joe was relieved when I told him my idea. I know he was nervous about returning to San Francisco with Mom in this state. But he couldn’t stay forever. He had a job and a life to get back to. I’m not sure I felt the same way. I didn’t have a real life to go back to. Home, family, that was my life. Once this semester was over I would be going home anyway. There wasn’t much longer left on my lease at my apartment. My junior year would be done in a matter of weeks. I still had finals to get through. I wasn’t sure how I would. I had already missed a week of school. I explained the situation to my professors. Many of them had encouraged me to take the time off. Others had barely known I existed. But now I had to study for finals. It all seemed so pointless and insignificant. Trying to cram a bunch of what seemed like useless information in the grand scheme of things. But I studied and maybe it helped with the grief to do something normal or maybe I wasn’t feeling much of anything anymore. I had enough self-awareness to realize that I was self-medicating. While my fellow students took every opportunity to celebrate the final weeks of school I didn’t miss a chance to join them and numb the pain. I went out so much and drank so much in those last three weeks. I think the term would be “to excess”. The more I drank the less I felt. I started to feel nothing at all. There was moment of euphoria in the drunkenness that I craved. A moment of letting go, of feeling no pain, a moment of feeling young and carefree, not the girl whose world had just been shattered but the moment wouldn’t last. It would eventually be overwhelmed by my raw grief. But for a minute the alcohol would make me feel invincible like I could handle the pain before it would all collapse around me. Jordan saw me through those moments and I will never forget her for doing that. That’s a different level of friendship. The kind you don’t commit to when you’re rushing a sorority.
There were many nights during those last few weeks of school when I would come home and try to engage my Mom but she wouldn’t respond. We would eat dinner together but she would be in this catatonic state. She would answer my questions but she wouldn’t converse. She wasn’t interested in my life. I couldn’t get through to her she was emotionally shut off, drowning in her sea of grief. I tried to reach out…but she didn’t seem to want the lifeline or at least she couldn’t see it to grab on to. After dinner she would retreat to the couch to watch home videos of our family when my father was alive. She would invite me to join her but my presence was irrelevant. I chose not to be part of the dysfunction. And those were the good days. On the bad days the grief would consume her and all she could talk about was him. Our loss. We would sit at the kitchen table, a deluge of tears and work through our grief. Perhaps those weren’t the bad days maybe that was the healthy way to handle things. I didn’t know. I was new to this. But living this way became stifling. I called Joe crying many nights. He comforted me as best he could but there wasn’t much he could do. That anyone could do really. I think it frustrated him to not be able to help. He came home every other weekend to be with us. But I’m not sure his presence didn’t make it worse. Whenever he came home, despite Joe’s best efforts to get us out of the house, the three of us would inevitable have one of those majorly depressing nights. The floods of tears somehow magnified by Joe’s presence. I knew by the time Sunday afternoon rolled around Joe was itching to get out of there. I know he felt guilty every time he left for leaving me there alone but truthfully somebody needed to be with Mom.
The end of the semester arrived very anti-climactically. A bunch of finals and all of a sudden we were done. I couldn’t feel the excitement of summer like the rest of my friends. They were traveling or interning somewhere cool. I hadn’t made any plans. As painful as it was I was committed to seeing my mother through the summer. Maybe I would move back to campus in the fall. Once I took my final test I left campus and didn’t look back. I couldn’t even tell you what my grades were that semester. I didn’t bother to check. Cheryl had us over for dinner that night. A mini-celebration, I was meeting up with friends later. My Uncle Donovan was visiting too. He came to LA every few weeks for business but I had a feeling he was checking up on us those weekends Joe couldn’t be there. For some reason my Mom always held it together around him. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was lingering fear over his sobriety. She wanted to be strong for him. But Dono had been sober for so long I had to wonder if it was even a struggle for him anymore.
I loved having dinner at Cheryl’s she was so good at keeping things light and happy. She even somehow managed to make my Mom smile. Between her and Dono the evening was enjoyable. Even when the conversation inevitably turned to my Dad they were able to reminisce in a way that had us all laughing.
“So I have a present for you,” Cheryl announced to the table, shoving a prettily wrapped box towards my Mom. My Mom looks up with questioning eyes. “Go on, open it,” Cheryl encourages. My Mom carefully undoes the wrapping paper, trying not to rip it and lifts the lid. Inside is a travel guidebook on Italy and an adorable Lilly Pulitzer passport holder.
“What’s this for?” My Mom asks confused. Cheryl grins mischievously.
“That’s only part of your present. The real present is that you and I are leaving in two weeks for a month long tour of Italy!” What?!!! Woah!!!
“Cheryl are you crazy?” My mom asks. “I can’t go to Italy.”
“Of course you can.” I could see the resolve in Cheryl’s eyes she wasn’t going to let my mother talk her way out of this one. “Gary and I already booked and paid for everything. You’ve already taken a leave of absence from work. The timing is perfect.”
“The last thing I want to do is third wheel it on your and Gary’s romantic tour of Italy.”
“Gary’s not going. It’s just you and me.” Well-played Cheryl, well-played, I thought to myself. Although my Mom kept her face stoic her eyes lit up. She had always wanted to go to Italy. She had read Eat, Pray, Love years ago and had voiced her desire to eat her way through Italy. My Dad had been more of a “let’s go fish on the lake” type of guy. So what Cheryl had done was amazing and perfect.
“I can’t leave,” she said even though I could hear in her voice she was relenting. “What about Alana?”
“Me?” I asked in shock. “What about me?”
“I can’t leave you alone all summer.” All this time I thought I was staying home to babysit my Mom and she thought I was there to be mothered.
“Mom I’ll be fine.” I insist.
“But you haven’t made any plans. What will you do with yourself?” As soon as she asked it I realized I had no idea.
“I’ll get a job.”
“Jordan is going to Europe with her parents…you’ll be lonely.”
“She’s only gone for two weeks not the whole summer and I do have other friends. Don’t use it as an excuse not to go. Please.” I beg.
“Why doesn’t Alana come stay with me for a couple of weeks?” Dono offered. “I’ve got a spare room. She can hang out at the lake. It will be restful. And I think you might still have a few friends there from when you were a kid.” It suddenly sounded like a wonderful idea. I could go while Jordan was in Europe for two weeks. If I got bored I could just come home. The idea of being alone in the family home for a whole month was not that appealing.
“I’d love to!” I immediately tell my Uncle.
“Then it’s settled,” Dono says. “Alana will come stay with me and Judy will go with Cheryl to Italy.” My mother looked at me questioningly.
“I’ll be fine,” I reassure her hoping to alleviate her fears and hesitation.
“I’ll take care of her.” Dono promises.
“Then it’s all settled!” Cheryl declares triumphantly.
“Italy…” my mother marvels, allowing herself to become a little excited. I smiled at Cheryl and silently mouthed thank you. This was the best thing anyone could do for my Mom at this time. She smiles back, blinking back tears.
“What about me?” Gary suddenly interjects. “No one asked if I would be OK without my Cheryl!” He teases.
“Oh babe you’re the best.” Cheryl kisses him smack on the lips. I see my Mom inadvertently flinch at their show of affection. She has to swallow hard and look away. It breaks my heart. And I realize we still have a long road ahead.
When Cheryl had first proposed the trip to Italy I knew it was an amazing idea but I didn’t appreciate just how effective it would be as a distraction. Preparing to travel really helped to pull my Mom out of her depressive funk. All of sudden she had to get organized, make sure her passport was up to date, pack, pay bills, shop for fun clothes. There was a lot to do and it really did help to take her mind off the awful fact she had just lost her beloved husband. I helped her as best I could and at times I saw glimpses of our old relationship. But the night before she left I was helping her close her suitcase when I could feel her sadness. It was a palpable thing that filled the room.
“You know your Dad always did this for us. He would complain that I’d packed too much stuff and he’d have to muscle it closed.” I remembered that argument they used to have. But they weren’t really fighting it was flirtatious. He would close the suitcase and flex his guns after, we’d all laugh.
“I feel so robbed Alana,” she confessed. “We were kind of rediscovering our relationship now that you kids were grown and gone. We were falling in love all over again. We should have been going to Italy together. We got robbed.” She repeats breaking down in tears. I put my arms around her trying to transfer some of her pain but I was already feeling too much of my own.
“There is no way Dad would have agreed to go to Italy for a month!” I remind her.
“I know but I would have liked the option.” I couldn’t really argue with that. She needed this trip. I prayed, to the God I was not that happy with, that it would be healing. And maybe I needed this trip to get away from her grief as selfish as that sounds the morning I dropped her off at the airport I started to be able to breath again.