Here’s the problem. I sit here, and my head’s a jumble of things I want to say. When it gets right down to it, though, when I try to make my fingers move, suddenly all the words scatter to the winds.
I guess what I can say is this: we’re back.
I’ve told several people over the past few days, I haven’t made many great decisions in my life. Deciding to take my kids on a little vacation to Orlando, Florida a couple of days after their mom’s funeral, however, was definitely one of them. The sun and the water and the anonymity—spiced with liberal amounts of Mickey Mouse and a dash of Universal Studios—was just what the doctor ordered.
Of course, like all things that end well, it didn’t start out that way.
When we landed in Orlando, it was anything but paradise. 45 degrees—a scant five degrees warmer than Minnesota the day before we left! And then there was the rain.
Beat, beat, beat went the windshield wipers as we groped our way through the town, searching for our resort. The map, courtesy of the rental car company, left much to be desired. Or perhaps it was just the town. In the end, we were never quite sure why (and quite surprised that) both the roads and the maps of the Orlando area sucked as badly as they did.
Finally, as I took a swipe at the fog on the glass in front of me (one of those odd times when you needed the blower going to keep the fog off the windshield, but it consequently made things ungodly hot in the car, so you decide the fog is the lesser of two evils), I caught a glimpse of the resort entrance.
Uh…this doesn’t quite seem right, I thought.
Here we were, smack dab in the middle of the town of Kissimmee, which I can only (and charitably) describe as the armpit of the Orlando area. The traffic was fast and rowdy. Most owners of the nearby structures all seemed to be vying for some prize in the “who can have the most paint peeling off the sides of my building” contest. Yet, here it was—the resort that Travelocity assured me was going to provide my family the comfort and rest we so desperately needed and deserved.
I looked at Syd and Zach. They were trying to put a brave face on, but I could tell. Nothing about this time so far in Orlando was what they were hoping for. And though I tried to cheer them up by cracking silly jokes about the town and the rain and the gray gloom that engulfed us, I thought, who the hell could blame them for being disappointed? Crap, I was just proud of them that they were trying their best to keep a stiff upper lip about the whole mess.
Well, the gate, at least, didn’t look completely uninviting. So, I flipped on my turn signal, avoided an accident with some low-rider that decided to cut in front of me, and headed in.
The kids waited in the car while I went inside (nice enough place, I thought as I glanced around the lobby) to see about our room. It was about 1:30 in the afternoon.
“Sorry, Mr. True,” the girl at the front desk told me. “Your check in isn’t until four P.M. I can get you checked in, but your room isn’t, like, ready yet.”
Next thing I know, I launched myself over the counter and throttled her. Another reception girl and the desk manager tried to pull me off, tried to pry my cold, steel fingers off the girl’s throat, but—
Psych! Just kidding.
That’s merely what I WANTED to do at the moment. What I really did was…
I took a deep breath.
“Oh. Huh. Well, I guess we have a little time to burn then.”
“Uh…yeah,” she came back with. “If you give me your cell number, though, I can call you as soon as your room is ready. Would that work?”
Now I was sorry I ever wanted to kill her. Suddenly, I wanted to lean over and kiss her. The first positive sign since we’d arrived in the state.
“That would be terrific,” I told her as I jotted my number on a pad.
I gave the kids my little “good news, bad news” spiel upon returning to the car. By now, though, nothing could faze them. They simply nodded, their eyes blank and tired. We decided to kill time by having a nice sit-down lunch and making a stop at Le Target Boutique for a few provisions. And so we were off again.
“Well, look at it this way,” I said as we haltingly made our way down the street. “At least no one knows who we are here. Not a single soul here wants to give us a hug, and absolutely no one wants to tell us how sorry they are for our loss.”
Suddenly, a collective sigh of relief.
Then, in unison from both kids: “No kidding!”
“If I had to get a hug from one more person, I was going to go ballistic,” I said.
Sydney started to laugh. “Oh, my god! Me, too.”
“I mean, I appreciated people’s love and concern…a lot!”
“Yeah,” agreed Sydney.
“It gets to be too much,” Zach chimed in.
“Yeah,” Sydney agreed again.
And then, all of a sudden, it dawned on me. I looked in the rearview mirror, making eye contact with Zach.
“It’s like we were in the ZOMBIES!!! game.”
He thought about it for a second or two. Then he smiled wide. He got the joke.
“Oh, my gosh! Yeah. Except instead of trying to get to the helicopter pad, we were trying to get to the airport!”
“Yeah! But surrounding us, blocking our way to the plane..!”
“FUNERAL ZOMBIES!” Zach cried.
I extended my arms our in front of me, steering with my elbows. My eyes went dead. I summoned my best zombie voice.
The kids laughed. Real laughter. Finally.
Sydney stretched out her arms and chimed in, “Sympatheeeeeeeeeeeeeeee..!”
And we all busted a gut. That is until I almost got us in a wreck with some grandpa in a Town Car. The spirit in the car, however, would not be dampened. We laughed all the way to Red Lobster.
I didn’t catch the call from the girl at the resort, but we decided to beat it back there around three o’clock just in case our room was ready.
When we arrived back at the place, and were pleasantly surprised. The place didn’t look half bad. The good vibe from the car ride and the lunch continued. And when we returned to the office, it was all “I just called you, Mr. True! Glad you got the message.”
She was so proud of herself, I didn’t have the heart to tell her I hadn’t gotten it (nor did I know yet I even HAD it).
“Thanks,” I said, still feeling bad I once wanted to choke the life outta her.
That feeling changed slightly, though, when she sent me over this other chick who was supposed to “orient me” with respect to facilities.
Her K-Mart business suit and permanent “fuck me” curls told me everything I needed to know about her. All she was missing was the chewing gum. Someone in management must have given her crap about that, so she kept it under her desktop for safe keeping till she went home every night.
For, though her supposed function was to “orient” me, what she really wanted to do was to sell me a timeshare. So, that’s what the catch was, eh? Lure you in with a decent price on a week’s rental, and then wham! Suddenly, you’re caught in their snare.
I trudged over to her desk. For me, at least, the mood was definitely broken. I braced myself.
I sat down, and it was all pleasantries and B.S. Immediately, she wanted to know what attractions we planned to visit because “if we attended a complimentary breakfast about vacation ownership, we could be eligible for a number of valuable discounts” and yada, yada, yada…
“Uh…I don’t know. We were kind of just going to…wing it.”
She stared at me like I was from Uranus. She opened up a file cabinet and started grabbing out papers. She was nonchalant, on autopilot.
“So…” she said, barely looking up to acknowledge the kids. “Where’s Mom?”
I stopped cold in my tracks. My eyes…I can’t imagine what she must have thought when, after hearing no response, she looked up and saw my eyes. Like saucers, I’m sure.
I faltered. I struggled, utterly shocked, with what to say.
I mean, I wasn’t offended. It was, simply, the last question I expected her to ask. And the whole allure of the place for us was that NO ONE knew what was going on! God, I asked in a silent prayer, please don’t let the condolence zombies invade this place. Please keep them away…for my kids. For me.
Ultimately, I decided that the best course of action was to tell her the truth. Heck, if anything, it would teach her to not ask stupid questions when a guy and his kids show up alone in their lobby (for all she knew, I had just gotten over a bitter divorce or something! How would I react then? In Syd’s words, it would be all, “What now?!?” Pull you head out of your ass, deary).
“Ummm…” started, trying to maintain an even tone. “She…died last week.”
Now it was her turn to do the eyes thing. To say she got it like a ton of bricks falling on her head is an understatement. To say she was suddenly falling all over herself in apology is an understatement. To say she learned her lesson, I also hope, is an understatement.
“I…uh… I am sooooo sorry. I-“
Now I felt bad for feeling ill will toward her. Her eyes welled up. She was—perhaps for the first time ever on this job—fully present and in the moment. We were beyond the cheap suit and the curls and the sales pitch. Suddenly, we were just two people trying to get through the moment with a shred of dignity.
And I felt her pain.
“It’s okay,” I said in an assuring voice. Then I lied…for her sake. “It was a reasonable question.”
She let out a big breath and went limp, deflated.
“I guess I’ll…be more careful about…”
I just smiled.
Then she looked at my kids. Really looked, for the first time.
“You’re children…how old?”
“Sixteen and eleven.”
“How are they doing?”
“Everyone’s doing well. The funeral was Monday. And this is our healing time.”
She nodded. “Absolutely.”
And then she surprised me. Here was this…cardboard cutout of a person. But she looked at me again, and that was gone. Now she was a fathomless sea of feeling and empathy. Stripped of her artifice (and my reaction to it), she was an open book. I could read her past. I could see her soul. And I liked her immediately.
“Your children are beautiful,” she said to me. Plain and simple, no artificial flavors or colors.
I smiled. Plain and simple.
Then I winked at her.
“And we’re not here to forget about her, but we’d like to not draw attention to it, either. We’re here to have fun. Can you help us with that?”
She got back to business. Yet, now it was anything but business as usual.
“You bet I can.”
The rain, of course, wouldn’t let up for the rest of the day. We got in our room, loaded up with brochures and coupons from our friend in the lobby. It was pretty nice, we thought. And if the rest of the joint was as nice as the room (it was impossible to judge in the downpour), we’d be just fine.
That night, we baked up a couple of pizzas, popped popcorn, and re-enacted our miraculous escape care of the ZOMBIES!!! game I’d packed. Predictably, Zach got to the helicopter first, while Syd and I were wandering around the town trying to even FIND zombies to slay.
And though there were laughs, we all felt it. Like a crater, an unnatural void chunked out of the earth. No…like one of your limbs amputated, but you can still feel it. Phantom feeling, I believe they call it.
Something was missing. There was supposed to be another piece—a fourth—on the board. And another cup, and another hand in the popcorn bowl. And there was supposed to be more laughter, courtesy of our Lynnie’s amazing hee-haw guffaw.
But what else could we do, but keep heading for the helicopter, right? Get out of town, and get on with the next chapter. And live our lives.
It’s all we could do. And it’s what she wanted. To do anything else, we all knew, was to dishonor her memory and to disrespect ourselves.
So…as the game progressed, we began to fill in the awkward silences where Lynn’s dialogue was once inserted. A few times we even gave them voice in her honor. Or we improvised, trying to write some new lines for ourselves. After awhile, it got a little easier.
When it was finally time to go to bed, the kids lay down without event. In five minutes, Zach was sawing logs like a champ.
I dreaded climbing into bed alone. Again, though, I told myself, what else can I do?
“It is what it is,” Lynn said to me, though it was my voice in the room. I smiled a little, and somewhere, with my mind’s eye, I saw her smile back, encouraging, loving.
And so I got under the covers.
As I lay there staring at the ceiling, Sydney padded into the room and slipped in beside me.
“What’s up, kiddo?” I whispered, removing my headphones and turning off my iPod.
My baby girl cuddled up against me, holding on for dear life.
“I was doing…okay, I guess. And lunch and the game were both fun. But…”
“It’s not the same, is it?”
She held on even tighter.
“I really miss her.”
Now it was my turn to hold on. Brace myself, really, because it wouldn’t do for me to completely break down at this particular moment. I blinked away tears and coughed, masking the sob that had caught in my throat.
“I know. I do, too.”
“And with this rain,” she continued. “And the cold, and everything. It’s kind of…depressing, you know? And I was just laying there in my bed and missing Mom, and wondering whether this whole vacation thing was a good idea after all.”
Silence. What could I do but agree?
Finally, I said, “Tell you what. Let’s see how tomorrow goes. It it’s still raining and yucky, we’ll see how we feel. If it’s not looking good, we can always either head home…or—we have this car—we can head somewhere else. Maybe Miami…or the Keys.”
“You bet. This is our time, kiddo,” I told her, not really knowing how I was going to pay for a week in Miami or the Keys, but meaning every word of it. “We get to do whatever we want to do. Whatever helps the healing.”
She relaxed. Then she hugged me again.
“But…make a deal?”
“If we wake up tomorrow and it’s nice and sunny, we take that as a sign. It’s a message from Mamma that we made the right decision, and she wants us to have a blast here.”
She didn’t miss a beat.
I squeezed her back.
“Okay. Now let’s get some shut-eye.”
And that’s how we fell asleep.
We awoke the next morning to sunshine streaming through the blinds. We threw open the curtains and bid salutations to the best, most perfect and cloudless day we three had ever met.
Thus began Book Two of the True Family Chronicles.
If you’re still reading, thanks for bearing with me. Hell, if I get this longwinded when I DON’T know what to write..!
Anyway, I want to say thank you to everyone who made this trip possible. You know who you are. We love you.