Arizona, Minnesota, Arizona

Fast forward four days, and I was again boarding a plane, this time to Minnesota to take my mom’s ashes to her childhood summer home in Crosslake. I did not want to leave again—I was weary from travelling. Several people advised me not to go to Minnesota, that I needed recovery, that I was not ready to put my mom to rest, that I should not rush it. I can understand that advice. When I returned from Vegas I was so sad, I lacked energy, and I lacked interest in anything I once liked to do.

Even making my syllabi, which usually gives me geeky joy, felt more like emptying a bowl of 10,000 marbles one at a time. I could donate only 2 or so hours to the computer every morning. After that, I just needed some time alone.

But this trip to Minnesota had been planned many months before my mom even passed away, because it would allow me to celebrate Aunt Lynn’s 80th birthday. And Minnesota winters are cold. There is only so much time before the lake freezes. I did not want to wait another year to grant my mom her last wish. So I was boarding a plane again, steeling myself for a little sorrow.

Although John and I got to the Phoenix airport at 2:15 pm, we did not reach the cabin in Crosslake until about . . . 2 am, I think? I can’t remember. There were flight delays, then torrential rain on the 3 hour drive from Minneapolis, plus a daunting few miles of driving through a frog migration with little white amphibia hurling themselves at our car in the darkness. But finally we arrived, and Uncle Rick was there to greet us with hugs, love, and a room where we could rest our heads.

The next morning we had some coffee and started a long and therapeutic chat with Uncle Rick. His insights helped me remove myself from some of the guilt I have had about my mom my entire life. I always thought I should have been able to save her from her mental illness. I always felt like a failure because I could not. Rick and I talked about the stages of my mom’s psychosis that each of us had witnessed—me, her suicide attempts, and him, her “little green men are in the room.” I used to admonish myself by saying that if my mother had been sick with cancer, I never would have turned my back.

At the cabin with Uncle Rick, as we talked about the depths of her psychosis, I was learning to extend the cancer metaphor a few steps. If my mother had been sick with cancer and had refused professional treatment, it would have been as devastating for me as when she refused treatment for her mental illness. If my mother had been sick with cancer, I would have been as helpless to cure it as I was at curing her mental illness.  She would not have expected me, at 15, to treat her cancer, so how could she expect a 15 year old to treat her suicidal thoughts?

Soon Aunt Lynn and Cousin Kathy arrived, and we greeted them with big hugs and love, and we caught up after a year of absence. We did some more chatting in the living room, with the lake a gray sheet in my peripheral vision. The day had decided to be what some might call cliché for the occasion—drizzle and clouds. I was feeling weak. I was wondering when we would start. Finally, I said, “So how do we do this?”

My mother, throughout her life, gave me valuable gifts: an interest in literature, music, history, politics, travel. Now with her hand-written will she left one last gift. She asked Uncle Rick to spread her ashes at the cabin, not me. That little blessing turned into a large one, since I was aware I would not be able to do it myself.

We started by walking out to the dock. We put some ashes in the water, and Cousin Kathy reminded me of the time Mom went water skiing in a ballgown, and didn’t get a drop of water on it. Then we took some up to the birch tree where grandma Ewing’s ashes are. Then we took some to the fir trees that grandpa Ewing planted, and we added mom’s ashes to his among their roots.

As I watched mom rejoin her parents, I thought about all those years mom was estranged from her family and her cabin home. I felt such great peace to have her back where she belonged. The cabin is the Ewing family Camelot. Her separation from it was a constant source of sadness to me—the contrast of all that we had when we were there, versus all that we lost when we weren’t.

John said later it was as if a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders, and he was right. I sobbed. Then I felt better. We went inside and drank a glass of red wine to mom, which would have pleased her. We decompressed a little, then John and I and Kathy and Lynn drove to Gull Lake, where we would celebrate Lynn’s birthday the following day.

If the weather on Cross Lake had been cliché, the weather on Gull Lake the next day might have been too. The sun came out in spades for Lynn’s 80th birthday. Our gathering was a bonus celebration, since Lynn’s entire family, all 33 children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren had come for her party in July. Lynn said she forgave me for being in Europe at the time of her party. I really wanted to be with Lynn, in the flesh, on her birthday.

We went and had a lovely dinner, then we came home and played a game at the dining room table, then we had some ice cream cake. While the day before had brought me some sorrow, and then some closure, it was fitting that the day celebrating Lynn’s birthday brought me joy.

We had two more lovely days in Minnesota, which we spent enjoying the lake, the cool temps, and the loving embrace of Uncle Rick, Aunt Lynn, and Cousin Kathy. I came home feeling, for once, like I had done the right thing.

Arizona, Nevada, Arizona

I suffered a severe bout of post-party depression after our trip to Europe. I didn’t want to come home, first off, but also I was dreading getting right back on a plane for Nevada to take care of my mother’s affairs. The probate hearing was scheduled for August 14th at the Clark County family court. The hearing was number one on a long checklist of things I needed to do.

Las Vegas is not my favorite place, and I had managed to avoid going there at all until mom moved there in 2001. To have to go back, and to have to go back to confront not only her estate but also the end of her life, well, the whole idea put me in a funk. I went from over to under achiever in a matter of a few months.

My bare minimum goals for Vegas were to attend the court hearing and pick up mom’s ashes. Beyond that, what I really needed to do was sell her car, sort her mail, settle her accounts, clean out her condo, fix up her condo, meet with a real estate agent to try to rent out her condo, etc. Every time I thought I had exhausted the list of things I needed to do, another item came up. I was also still just very sad. So my ability to confront the list was touch and go.

There was a moment in Vegas when I pondered why we have wedding planners but not death planners? A happy person has the strength to make arrangements. But a sad person? It’s much harder. I really wished I could have called one person and said, “Fix it!” I guess to my brother I am that person. I have to fix it, and I really have no idea how.

I called four different estate liquidators. Mom was a Marxist, so though she had some items, they were of little value. One auctioneer came and said it was not worth his time. Another came and said that I should just try to yard sale what I could and give the rest to charity. Picture me floundering, wondering exactly how I’m supposed to sell anything in a city like this one, and how I can possibly sort through everything in her place in a matter of hours before my flight.

Organizing

Enter Raymond and Joseph, my mom’s neighbors. They came to the condo at 6 am on Saturday, placed signs throughout the neighborhood, helped me price items, negotiated sales, carried heavy items to cars, cleaned patios, and translated for Spanish-speaking customers.

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At one point Joseph moved a dresser he had sold, revealing a picture of me and John that had fallen between it and the wall. I picked up the photo and ran to the other room sobbing. Raymond came and hugged me, assuring me, “She had the photo out so she could see you. It just fell and she couldn’t reach it. She loved you very much.” He held me until I felt strong enough to push on.

We managed to clear out much of mom’s laminate furniture, a few kitchen items, some of her clothing and some knick-knacks. By 4 pm, we looked around the condo and knew it was the best that we could do. Then Raymond and Joseph took me to the airport, assuring me they would continue working so that I could rent out the condo in time to cover mom’s mortgage and HOA fees before the small sum in her bank account ran out.

I wanted to question why this couple, strangers to me, rallied to help. It is in my nature to question. Was my sorrow a strong enough reason? Or did they want something in return? Or did they care deeply for my mom?  Or is that simply what people do? The last thing I needed was more unknown territory, and I struggled to just accept the help. I’m not good at letting people help me.  When Raymond called me at the airport to make sure I was okay I just cried and cried. Perhaps this was one last lesson from a mother who never stopped teaching me: when you need help, ask. When help comes, accept it.

In dealing with my mother’s death I keep bumping up against the irony that her body is gone and her things are left. It’s a cruel turn of events for a Marxist. And despite our troubled relationship, I find myself missing her at the most inopportune times. Above all, I miss her skin, her voice, her laugh.

I miss the tangible Mommy–the undeniable physical presence of the woman who brought me into the world. Her departure leaves me desperately alone. But at the same time I come alive with the realization that I am who I am because of her.

Reflecting and Accounting

Reflecting

A seasoned traveler once told me that recovering from jetlag takes one day for every time zone crossed. In Europe we were 9 hours ahead of Phoenix time, so that means we should have recovered from jet lag in 9 days: August 11 from our August 2 return date. John and I both felt like we had a mild “flu” for several days after we got home, and we attribute that to jet lag. It took me more like two full weeks to feel back to normal, but that might have been half jet lag half sadness that I had to come home. I think we’re back on schedule now, though it did seem we needed to lounge a lot after our trip. I’m thinking now about what I would and would not change for next year’s “New Country” adventure.

Things I would not change:

I really love the opportunity to travel with friends, so I would not change the fact that we chose our destination to meet up with people we love. In fact, we’re taking rendez-vous ideas for next summer if any of you are planning trips abroad.

I would not change the way we planned the details of the trip. Reading blogs and travel articles has always been productive for us, and it led us to some of our best activities and meals.

I love the 2 bag system of backpack and 22” rolling carry-on. That worked so well and we moved from city to city, hotel to hotel easily with our light bags. Especially on a trip with lots of stops I live by the rule that if I can’t carry it myself I should not bring it.

My packing run-through produced great results. I used everything I packed except for my sun hat and my work-out bikini, but that had more to do with bad weather than bad choices.

Things I would change:

We did not buy maps, and I would do that for our next trip rather than relying completely on the GPS while driving.

I will always make sure my car doors are locked.

I will be willing to pay a little more for lodging. I have rented private properties through VRBO all over the world, but I really was not happy with how that turned out this time. I tried to cut costs on 3 nights of lodging by choosing a budget rental. While that has worked in the past, I now feel like it is worth it for security and simple enjoyment to spend the extra money.

Before we left on our trip I took out 2 of the 8 sundresses I had packed, and in the future I would be sure to load up on dresses. On about day 15 I was so tired of wearing the same outfits, and every other woman seemed to have on a beautiful dress so I was green with envy. But then again, my mother always did call me a “clothes horse.”

Accounting

So what about the budget? Our spending on travel has averaged $7000/year for the past five years. We knew this trip was going to take all of that, so we started depositing $800/month into a special savings account last November. When I ran the budget for the trip before we left, it looked like we would spend $7203.48. I have now sorted through all the expenditures, including all of the 12 Euro churches and 12 Euro bridges, and we came in $1000 under budget.

 

Budgeted

Actual

Activities

 $         370.00

 $        129.20

Airfare 

 $         346.00

 $        346.00

Car Fuel

 $         226.96

 $        227.17

Car Parking

 $           59.22

 $          51.05

Car Rental

 $       1,000.00

 $     1,209.07

Car Tolls

 $         143.30

 $        102.40

Lodging

 $       2,188.00

 $     2,481.09

Meals

 $       2,370.00

 $     1,752.91

Petsitter

 $         500.00

 $               –  

Total 

 $       7,203.48

 $     6,298.89

Cost per day

 $         400.19

 $        349.94

 

For activities and meals I budgeted a flat rate per day, so it’s not surprising that we were under budget there, since we skipped a few activities and a few meals. We went over budget on the car rental because there was a scratch on the bumper when we returned it and they charged us $200. I want to highlight that John did not do it—someone must have nicked us, but we were still responsible to pay for it. We went over budget on lodging because we didn’t feel safe in the vrbo rental and had to pay for a hotel.  Our dogsitters Jeff and Autumn refused to take the $500 we budgeted because they insisted that Penny and Rooster were a pleasure to live with. John and I are blessed to have friends who are so kind.

I’m so ready to go again. I can’t wait for our next “New Country” adventure. We don’t have any ideas or plans yet, but I’m sure something will crop up soon.

Day 18 Traveling Home

Please don’t make us leave! Maybe I should stay and get a job at the Mercat Santa Catarina with the boy who sits on his Facebook page all day. Our flight left the Barcelona airport at 7 am, so we had to be there at 5, which means our car came at 4:45, which means we got up at 4. This is where being a triathlete comes in handy—I am pretty good at jerking awake, grabbing all my stuff, dragging myself to the start line, and slogging through a long race.  

Once we got to the airport and dealt with the uber-cluster that is Lufthansa, we settled into our first of 3 airplanes for the day. The 22 hour journey home gave me a long time to reflect on our trip.

Favorite Activity: canoeing the Dordogne, seeing the Tour de France

Favorite Meal: La Recreation in Les Arques with the Hinckley family

Favorite City: tie between Cadaques, Spain and Beynac, France

Favorite Hotel: Hotel Casanova in Barcelona

Favorite Purchase: a necklace with handmade ceramic beads

Funniest Moment: I said (in Spanish) to the hotel maid in Cadaques, “I have trouble understanding your Spanish.” She said (in Spanish) “That’s because I’m speaking Catalan.” Then she said (in Spanish with great enthusiasm), “How’s Obama?”

Favorite Museum: Dali museum in Figueres was my favorite museum, but the Cezanne Picasso exhibit in Aix-en-Provence was my favorite exhibit.

Most Annoying American: At one point in France it was John. I was getting a little tired of translating. We were outside a restaurant and I was describing every item on the menu to him: rabbit with mushrooms, roast chicken, grilled calamari, etc. It went on and on and I was so tired of reading menus to him every time we ate. Finally I finshed and he said, “Thanks! It’s in English right over here, but you did a really good job!”   

So all in all, a great trip. The flights home were fine. John and I are both gifted with being able to sleep on the plane. I usually fall asleep as soon as the plane starts its taxi to the runway.

It was a little hard getting off our 8.5 hour flight and onto a 5.5 hour flight. But that’s what it was. I called Autumn from DC, and she offered to bring the dogs and dinner to the house. Cindy and Larry offered to bring a 6 pack. So we got home, and there were our kitty, our dogs, our friends, some food, and some refreshment. I can’t tell you how happy that made me. Perhaps the most meaningful part of a trip is coming home to people you love.