“So, it’s you and your children and your husband?” the woman at the check-in counter asked me.
The lobby of the hotel was crowded, so I’m sure she was having a hard time figuring out who was with me. I had arrived with a group of friends, and the kids ran everywhere.
“No,” I said, and then because I couldn’t help myself, “my husband died in January.”
She looked at me like every person does who gets that knowledge unexpectedly. I realize that I could have said, “no, it’s just me and the kids,” or something else that would solve her immediate problem of how to check us in without needing to inform her of such terrible information.
But it’s like I need people to know. I need even perfect strangers to know that I had a husband, a wonderful one, and I wouldn’t be here without him if I had a choice. I need them to know that this was a trip we had planned together before he died. I need them to know that I want him to be here, that I married a great man and we made all the right choices and dammit, we deserved this vacation. I need them to know that I’m not alone in this world.
Even though, of course, I am alone in this world.
The spring break trip was one that Shawn loved. He loved getting out of the city and spending a week just enjoying our kids. He loved being with friends, relaxing by the pool and watching the kids play with each other. I knew this trip would be tough without him because every step would remind me of him.
It wouldn’t matter that we were in a different place and in a different hotel, because Shawn would have enjoyed the trip in the same way that he always did. I knew that what would trigger my grief throughout the vacation wouldn’t be the location itself, but the little things.
I was right. When I looked at the ocean for the first time from our room, I remembered every time I’d ever looked out into the ocean with him. The southern-most tip of India, where we’d volunteered during our early days of dating. The east coast of Costa Rica, where he’d proposed. The rocky beach of Oregon, where we’d gone after our wedding. The entire east coast of the United States, where we’d raised our kids and dipped their feet into the ocean for the first time.
Every time I’d glimpse the beach, I’d see our lives flash before me. It was as if I could be both holding his hand as a 23-year-old, feeling that passion on the beach in India, and also nestled together with our three kids building sandcastles on the beach last summer, feeling the contentment of perfect family life. As I looked out at the beach on vacation, I could feel all of those parts of me, and I missed all of those parts of him.
And that was just the beach.
Everything else reminded me of him too, and of our life together. In much of the rest of my life, I often just miss Shawn as an individual. But here on this trip, I missed us so much. I missed what we were together as a couple and what we all were together as a family. I missed waking up next to him with our kids snuggled in the next bed and thinking, “everyone who matters to me is right here in this room.”
And so, when I was checking in, I couldn’t pretend to be someone else. I missed us, and I needed everyone to know.
As luck would have it, the hotel had somehow booked me in a room with just one king bed. We could move, but then we’d be far away from our friends, which was something I definitely didn’t want. So I decided we’d just all sleep together.
The first night, I tucked my kids into bed and went out on the balcony. I looked out at the ocean and thought of Shawn. I thought of us. I cried, as I often do when such moments arise. And then I went back in my room and crawled into bed with my kids.
That night, the air conditioner malfunctioned and the room got very, very cold. As the night continued, the kids and I moved closer and closer to each other, snuggling nearer to one another for warmth. When I woke up in the morning, we were literally all in one big pile in the middle of the bed.
That morning lying in bed, I thought of the ocean, and of Shawn. And I thought, here we are, snuggled together. Here in this bed is so much of what he lived for – me, the kids, our family. Austin woke up just then, and after seeing me next to him, he snuggled closer to me and closed his eyes. I felt my heart break, yet again, because Shawn was not there for that moment.
But he and I made this family, and just because he is no longer of this earth does not mean he is not with us at all. So many pieces of him remain. Our kids, our love and our family. That morning, he could have found much of what he really loved on this earth snuggled into one spot.