Last weekend, on three of the prettiest days of the spring, I found myself back in a place that I loved. I was cabin camping with my kids and our dear friends, a trip that we’ve done every six months for many years. Tommy climbed into my lap that afternoon and I rocked him in the rocking chair on the back porch of my cabin as I chatted with my friends. The other kids explored the forest and rode their bikes. One of the guys made us a batch of margaritas, and we toasted to a great weekend. Just about then, I looked down and realized that Tommy was asleep. My last baby, the one who’s too big to fall asleep on me anymore, was snoring in my lap.
It was perfect. Except it wasn’t at all.
In many other ways, it felt just like six months ago. Shawn and I came to the cabins at the very end of September and it was beautiful. The kids ran everywhere and we drank beer with our friends and Tommy delighted in holding his first sparkler.
This time was so obviously different, and it hung in the air, even on that perfect afternoon on the back porch. I guess we all knew it would be hard. Camping was something that Shawn loved, and the few photos from the weekend in September show him happily roasting marshmallows and taking the kids fishing. Maybe because we all knew that going camping would remind us about Shawn at every bend, no one seemed to be able to plan the trip. Usually, we’d all send multiple emails and texts about who would bring what food and what specific adventures we would take. But this time, there were only a few messages written, and we all showed up with no real plan. We’d forgotten almost all of the paper plates, so we ended up re-using the same ones. We had no real food plan, which meant we ate a lot of the same food each night. No one brought corn hole or any other games and we didn’t do any pre-planned outings. In a way, everyone else seemed to be feeling what I was – how could we possibly go back to that place where we had that last weekend together before Shawn got sick?
But we did. We showed up at the state park and we sent the kids out to play. We went hiking and we cobbled together a few meals. For the first time ever, I joined the boys’ fishing outing, as Tommy needed me and I wanted my boys to have their only parent there to see them in action. Claire and I went on a run and explored a new trail. We built fires and roasted s’mores and did most everything we’d done before.
But it wasn’t the same. I felt it. I just wasn’t sure how everyone else was feeling.
The last night we were there, I was so tired. It was always a lot to come camping, but doing it alone was particularly challenging, and doing it under a deep layer of grief was even more unmanageable. I was done. Done with the kids, done with being a single parent, done with widowhood.
I started to tell my friends this, and then I just started crying. Yes, I felt suffocated by Tommy’s need to constantly sit in my lap and yes, I was worried about how Claire and Austin would miss their dad on their bike rides, but mostly I was sad for me. I felt heavy with grief because around every corner there was one more reminder of him and of our perfect life from before.
And then, they started talking and they started crying. I was surprised at their grief.
I know that’s so crazy to say. I should know that other people miss Shawn too, and I do know that, but I guess I didn’t realize that they could miss him in a similarly intense way. My friends told me that they had felt deep sadness just driving up to the park. They told me they had felt Shawn’s absence deeply the entire time. They told me that they are also left with holes in their lives now that he’s gone and that being back in a place like this just serves to remind them of this.
With tears streaming down her face, my friend Kristin started talking about the camping weekend six months ago. She talked about how perfect of a weekend it had been. “If someone could have told us that one of us would be gone in just a few months,” she said, “then that weekend is the trip we would have planned. It was that perfect.”
She was right. I remember that I had to come late to the trip because I had back-to-school night at my school and Shawn handled the first 24 hours alone. When I finally arrived, I was saying how much I appreciated what he had done. He told me it had been easy, and that it had been a great first day with the kids. Of course, he didn’t know that it would be his last camping trip. He still felt fine and it wouldn’t be until the following week that he would begin to have any pain. But even then, even thinking that he’d live for at least another 40 years, he knew it was the rare kind of weekend that was so awesome that we needed to sit back and soak up the perfection while it lasted.
Over the years, we’ve been on countless camping trips as a group of friends. We’ve had ones in the rain and times when the kids spent the entire time fighting. But mostly, we’ve had a lot of great memories. At the beginning of the weekend, as I packed my things and drove up with my kids to the park, I felt such deep sadness. Apparently, so did my friends.
I want the camping trips of “before.” I want the camping trips where I drank beer with my friends and watched our kids hike so far in the woods we couldn’t see them. I want it to be like before when I let my kids eat all the Doritos and s’mores that they could stuff in their faces in 48 hours because we only did this twice a year. I want to listen to Shawn’s hearty laugh from across the forest and know that he was telling some insane story, yet again.
I want that perfect weekend back.
You know what? My friends want it back too.
We didn’t plan the last camping trip knowing that Shawn would die. It was unfathomable to us at the time, and thank God it was because it would have been a different weekend if we had known. Instead, I remember that trip as the last bit of perfection we ever had.
We knew that this weekend would be so radically different from six months ago that we didn’t plan it much either. I came, not knowing if I would be able to handle it, and my friends showed up as well. They showed up for me and they showed up for my kids. They forgot the salt and pepper, but they made me a damn good margarita and they reminded my kids how to roast the best marshmallow and cast the fishing line just right.
But more than that, they came with their pain too. They told stories about Shawn and they cried. They let me glimpse the holes in their hearts too.