We visited my family in Ohio this past weekend. As we have done many times before, we loaded our bags into the trunk in that haphazard way you can do when you’re driving. We put the cooler with bottles of water and the bag with snacks within my reach and we were ready for our road trip. We’ve had the same basic routine since we started making the drive from Chicago to Ohio in 1995. We’re done with portable cribs, strollers and bags of baby toys, but we follow the same pattern. We drove the same route we always take to my parents’ home and as much as I was excited to see my parents especially my father who I hadn’t seen since Christmas, being in the car as a family without Jordan is hard for us all.
Mark, the kids and I go to Ohio for Thanksgiving and usually visit another time during the summer. I used to revel in those car trips. As the side doors to our van closed, we would pull out of our garage and be on our way. I would always look back at my kids, sigh and then smile. I knew that for the next five hours we were all together and it just felt so safe and so good. Mark would always touch my hand as he drove watching me with my private smile, “You love this don’t you?” I always said the same thing, “I love when I have my little family together and I can look back and everyone’s within my reach. This is perfect.”
Mark, the kids and I have taken car trips since Jordan’s death. On many of them I can assuage myself by saying, “Jordan probably wouldn’t be going with us anyway.” I can’t play that same trick when we go to see my parents. There was never a time when he was alive that we went to Ohio without all of us going together. No tricks work. When I look back from the front seat at my kids, the change in my little family is glaring. There is an empty seat. We all work to make Jordan’s absence not hurt so much, but we all feel it.
Since Jordan died, we have been to Ohio a handful of times. It is getting easier to go as five instead of six but there are still parts of the trip that are traumatic for me. During the car ride, I silently pray that we don’t come across any accidents or see any ambulances racing by with sirens blaring. Those images are visceral and make me feel as though I’m at the scene of Jordan’s accident even though the only information I have about that night is from the accident report. I’m trying to learn how to look out the window without letting my gaze fall onto the guardrails. If I look at them too long, I’m mesmerized. I start to think about Jordan’s accident. I imagine the car he was in breaking through the guardrail and careening off the overpass dropping 20 feet. I watch each guardrail as we pass it and I say silently to it, “Why didn’t you hold, why didn’t you hold, why didn’t you hold,” until I have to close my eyes to shut out the thoughts. I can’t stay with my eyes closed too long though, even if I need to rest. I immediately start to think of Jordan’s last time in a car. I wonder as I lean my head onto my hand, how his head was resting when he died. I try to figure out a way to save him. I think if I could only change the way he was sitting, or wake him up before the impact (Why didn’t I call him?), I could make him come back. These thoughts are a part of my, “Magical Thinking.” There always comes the point in my desperate attempt to revise the truth, when I force myself to open my eyes and come back to my new reality. I’ll reach over and grab Mark’s hand. He’ll squeeze mine, glance at me and tell me it’s going to be okay. He fights his own demons as we make this drive.
In spite of my invasive thoughts, I manage to hand out snacks, change DVD’s and talk to the kids about the upcoming school year. There are still family jokes and “remember when” stories. We still maintain our travel ritual of all pointing to the sign that signals our cross into Ohio. As we’ve always done we say together, “Ohio welcomes you.” One of the kids will inadvertently say, “Yay we’re almost at Oma and Pop’s house.”
Going to visit my parents provides comfort food, no scheduled activities and more love than we can hold. Mama and Daddy have always made coming home mean being nurtured, especially since I’ve had my little family. When we visit and Mark and I are worn down and so tired we can barely stand, they express their love for us in the way they know how. They cook our favorite foods and they let Mark and I sleep in without guilt or worry as they watch over our children. They still live in my childhood home. The home I was raised in from the age of 2. Even with the changes to the neighborhood, there are still more houses on the street where I can name the families that live there than not. There are no perfect people or situations. My visits home are not always idyllic. My childhood home base however remains a secure place for me.
We continue our drive and finally come to my parents’ street. Lindsay or Kendall will say, “Mama there’s your elementary school,” which is at the top of the block. We make our way down the street and pull into the driveway. The girls race to the door to be the first to ring the doorbell as Mark and Merrick grab bags to bring inside. I partake in my new ritual of sitting for a moment and taking a few deep breaths. I’m glad to be home. I have to make time for the disbelief that clings to me as I reckon with the fact that our new mode of travel to Ohio is without Jordan.
Mama stands holding the door open hugging each of us as we come in. She briefly looks into my eyes as she hugs me trying to gauge how much heartache I’m carrying. I hug her and see my father standing in the family room. I go to him, accepting his big embrace and lay my head on his shoulder like I did when I was young. I tell him, “I’m glad I’m home.” He simply says, “It’s good to see you baby.” I then tell him I’m tired and want to lie down. In his signature joke that he’s always used he replies, “This ain’t no rest home now. You can’t just come here and eat and sleep.” And so with another typical ritual my visit begins. There are the sounds of my family all around me, interwoven with memories of Jordan in pictures throughout the house and the stories we all tell. It’s good to be home.