Grand Canyon: The Summer of Endless Miles, Day 14

On Day 14, we left the Phoenix area with weary hearts and swollen eyes. I was exhausted in every way but determined to press on. After all, our itinerary for the day was sightseeing at the Grand Canyon. Our first stop was for copious amounts of caffeine.

 

Fully armed, we set out for the infamous hole in the ground, detouring through Sedona. I spent much of that stretch of the trip on the phone and responding to texts from friends who were checking in to see how I was holding up.

As we approached the national park, Anna proposed that we keep the shenanigans to a minimum.
I wasn’t prepared for the sight that awaited us. Pictures cannot do justice to the magnificence that is the Grand Canyon. It was breathtaking.

Much to my dismay, my camera battery died right after I took this picture of this California condor at the first outlook.

There was a definite heaviness on me that day, and although I was excited to see one of the Seven Wonders, I was also very subdued. Staring into the crevice that stretched for miles before me, my brain struggled to makes sense of the vastness of what my eyes were seeing while my heart wrestled with the reality of what was happening on the other side of the country. Neither scenario made any sense to me. Just as I couldn’t possible see the entirety of the canyon, nor could I comprehend the enormity of the loss I was facing. Directing my gaze on sections of the rock formations around me was the only way I could take in the sight; focusing my mind on the very next moment was the only way I could keep from falling apart completely.

 

Alongside the ache in my heart, I was able to dig up a little lightheartedness—especially when I ventured closer to the edge of the cliffs to get those more adventures camera angles.

If nothing else, Jess taught me how to take cool pictures. Anna, who has an acute fear of heights and drop-offs (as I was quickly learning), did not appreciate my forays toward the edge.

Who knows—maybe she was afraid I might try to pull a Thelma and Louise sans car in my distraught state? At any rate, she actually grabbed my arm and pulled me back toward the designated path at one point. (I wasn’t even close to the edge, y’all, but it made for some hilarious pictures.

When I walked on an outcrop and directed her to take my picture beside a tree, she moaned and groaned and whined. Then, I somehow convinced her to pose as I had. (Notice the death grip she’s got on that tree.)

Just before sunset, we turned around on the trail and began our trek back to the truck. These huge boulders sat just off the path, and as we approached, I handed my phone to Anna. I climbed atop the rocks (no easy feat for my short legs) and posed while she snapped away. Back on the ground, I scrolled through the pictures, gasping at the perfection of one of them in particular: my silhouette back lit by the waning sun, arms outstretched.

Having spent almost two decades as one of Jess’ main photography subjects, I’m kind of judgy when other people photograph me. (Sorry, it’s true. Being photographed by a sister who knows all your peculiarities about pictures ruins you for life.) But Anna had nailed it.

“Jess would be so proud of this picture!” I gushed.

When I posted the photo on Instagram later, I captioned it with the lyrics from Imagine Dragons’ “On Top of the World.” Since then, I can’t see that picture without hearing the song in my head or hear the song without picturing this shot.

 

Like the book tour as a whole, Day 14 was both one of my favorite days and one of the hardest days; the pain and joy of that day are inextricably mingled. Holding the tension of both those emotions wrapped so tightly around this one memory is a task I struggle with daily. But the ability to write about it displays a small measure of healing, and for that I am grateful.

The Longest Day: The Summer of Endless Miles, Day 13

My Timehop app and Facebook memories are sparse on Day 13, but the images and emotions of that day are forever burned into my mind. Out of all the days we were on the road, this one felt the longest. I awoke to a text from Mom asking me to call her as soon as possible. Since we were in Phoenix, I was two hours behind her. Barely awake at 7:00 a.m., I called her back and was met with news that Jess’ heavily sedated state was actually a drug-induced coma to attempt to let her body rest. The doctor’s assessment was that she would not wake up again.

I hung up the phone and went into shock. I stumbled to the bedroom next door where Anna was sleeping and knocked, hoping she was awake. She was; I opened the door and fumbled to get the words out of my mouth. She sat up, drew me to sit beside her and the tears started rushing down my face.

My absolute worst nightmare was suddenly staring me square in the face. My whole body was shaking, couldn’t stop crying, and just repeated “this cannot be happening” over and over as Anna hugged me tightly. I texted Mom and told her tell Jess a few things for me.

Anna was scheduled to meet Naomi E., one of her former teachers, for lunch about an hour north that day. There was no way I could go with her, but she felt terrible leaving me in such a state. She offered to cancel and stay, but I told her to go. There was nothing she could do and I didn’t want her to miss her lunch.

 

I had a decision to make that morning: get on a flight out of Phoenix or stay until I something changed. Anna was ready to put me on a plane, but I was thinking about what Jess would tell me to do. She’d already given me her blessing to go on the book tour when I’d gone home in February. We’d chatted one afternoon, and I expressed my misgivings about going, about being even further away from her that summer. She told me to go, and I did. And Mom had told me that morning that she was okay if I didn’t come home immediately.

Even with my world crashing around me, I knew Captain Jessifica would kick my a** if I abandoned this trip. We’d dreamed on a cross-country road trip one day, and in the deepest parts of my heart, I knew she would want me to see it through. She wouldn’t want me sitting at her bedside, wishing I could change things. She wouldn’t want me crying over her when I couldn’t do anything to change the outcome. She wasn’t that sentimental. In fact, she often made fun of me for being all touchy-feely. I also knew I didn’t want the image of her tube-laden, emaciated body to be lodged in my mind forevermore. I wanted to remember my strong, determined, feisty sister the way she deserved to be remembered. Healthy, free-spirited, with a thirst for adventure and a mischievous gleam in her eye. I wanted to remember the sister who dragged me into kooky photo shoots with palm fronds outside the walls of an abandoned seaside fortress. I didn’t want the image of the sister who had been my best friend for thirty years to be tarnished in my mind’s eye by the cruelty of cancer for the rest of my living days. Even today, I’m grateful that I see my sister when I close my eyes and not the shadow of herself that disease brought upon her.


We were scheduled to visit the Grand Canyon the next day, and all I could think was, “go for Jess. Go see what she can’t. Be her eyes.” My heart was shattering into a million pieces, but I had enough peace to decide to stay put for the time being.

Anna brought me coffee and ibuprofen before she left, placed a box of tissues by the bed, and told me her brother would get me to the airport if I changed my mind while she was gone.
I curled up in a ball in bed and stared at the wall between brief naps off and on all day. By the time Anna was headed back that afternoon, I had a massive headache and a definite craving for comfort food. Luckily, there was a Chick-Fil-A nearby.

That night, in an attempt to distract me, Anna’s brother’s family invited me to play cards with them. At first, I said no. Then they wore me down and I agreed to sit at the table and watch. Eventually, they convinced me to join them. We had loads of fun!

I must give a shout out to the LeBaron siblings, here. I’ve never met such a persistent, warm-hearted bunch of people as those LeBaron’s. And because they are all well-acquainted with loss and heartache, they all extended such grace and gentleness toward me on the book tour. Every single one of them who I met along the way made space for me and my bleeding, raw heart. I’m forever grateful to them.

Summer of Endless Miles: The End Before the Beginning

The landscape is barren as the asphalt glides backwards under the tires. (Hello, West Texas.) Thousands of miles have accumulated, a few hundred more to go. We’re headed home. (And will have reached our destination by the time you read these words.)

It’s officially the last day of the #EpicBookTourTPD—the one-hundred-twelfth day, to be exact. Add this to the list of things I never thought I’d do. A four-month, forty-state road trip? With a total extrovert? No way.

To say that life has gone topsy-turvy over the last year is an understatement. So many layers of change—exhilarating change, traumatic change, anticipated change, unexpected change—have built up faster than I can process them. Because the positive changes are so interwoven with the negative change, it’s been difficult to write about them—much less celebrate them.

My sister’s death has cast a shadow over this summer. There’s no other way to slice it. It has shattered my heart into a million pieces again and again. I can’t imagine that will ever change.

(A plea: No canned platitudes in the comments please—well-intended or not, I’ve had about all of those that I can handle. And Jess is hard-rolling her eyes about it, too, I’m sure. If that offends your sensibilities, I’m probably talking to you. See my upcoming post on the most helpful words I’ve received concerning grief.)

One of the most ironic things about this summer of endless miles is the fact that Jess was the sister with permanent wanderlust. She’d been to Europe twice and planned to visit many other countries. The two of us had dreams of a cross-country trip someday, but it seemed quite intimidating to me considering my homebody tendencies. When I decided to accompany Anna on this trip (and finally convinced her that it was a good idea), Jess encouraged me to go. After all the adventures, she’d dragged a reluctant older sister on, she wondered what alien species had abducted me. I’ve wondered the same.

When things went downhill fast with Jess’ health, I had to choose whether to go home to S.C. or stay on the road.  There were many factors that played a role in this deeply personal process that I won’t address here. Ultimately, I felt that there would be no better way to honor my sister than to travel the country and see what she could not.

More than 23,000 miles later, I believe I made the right choice. Would I rather have taken this trip with my sister than for her? Of course. No question. But she’s been with me every moment and every mile—and I’ve had her own traveling mascot, Migrating Monty, to remind me of that. (A plastic green dinosaur as one of my most treasured possessions? Add that to the growing list of things I never thought would happen.)

Now that the trip is done, I’m ready to start writing about it—in all its overwhelming, exhausting, exhilarating glory–starting here, at the end, before making my way back to the beginning. First, I’ll need a few good nights’ sleep in my own bed.

Stay tuned.