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.

This Silence Needs Breaking

It’s the ache of having had and now being without.

It’s the injustice of having been robbed of something dear, taken without your permission.
It’s the trauma of a moment, a diagnosis, a point of no return that wounds and scars your heart, your soul, your mind.

It’s the knowledge that nothing you could have done would have changed the outcome juxtaposed with the wondering if you did everything you could have done and should have done.

It’s the restlessness of not having any answers.

It’s the conflict without resolution.

It’s where I’m stuck.

It’s why I’ve been silent in words written and words spoken.

My body is in forward motion. The world still spins. Time still passes by the second, the minute, the hour, the day, the week, the month.

My feet keep moving, circling this uncharted territory. I’m left behind—no map, no reference point.

Yet,
my heart,

my mind,

my spirit,

my soul…

They’re all still.

They’re all silent.

I fear jostling any of them out of their reverie.

Of accepting the reality I’m still not ready to face.

To process.

To grieve.

To learn how to live with the absence that consumes my thoughts.

 

My words are still present tense.

I choke on past tense.

I can’t move her there yet.

If I do, I’ve lost something. Someone.
A vital piece of my own history, my own story.

Our shared story.

Our shared history.

So I sit. Silent. Holding myself in this shadowy valley, longing to turn back toward what was but is no more, unsure of what lies ahead and not ready to put forth the effort to start moving toward higher ground.

Denying the absence.

Questioning the reasons.

Stifling the anger.

Avoiding the breakdown.
The silence screams at me, willing me to break it, to find a balance between grief and joy, begging me to celebrate the good and process the ugly, to live in the light when everything seems dark.

It’s the dissonance where I reside.

It’s the silence that needs breaking.

My Forever Star

The last conversation we had in person, just the two of us, happened on an ocean-front balcony. We were watching the waves roll in, relishing the warmth of the late February sun on our skin. It was a Sunday. The next week would bring more clinic visits, hospital appointments, and my return to Texas, but for that one afternoon Jess and I talked about all the things sisters talk about. Clothes, shoes, and makeup were our focus; she was giving me all her best tips, tricks, and pointers for creating a travel-worthy wardrobe for my upcoming four-month road trip with Anna. She told me my current wardrobe screamed “tired teacher” and that she aimed to turn me into a “structured businesswoman.” I laughed at her, but made detailed notes nonetheless.

Two months later, almost to the day, I awoke in the wee hours of the morning to the phone call I never wanted to receive. She was gone; my sister had slipped away during the night—she’d taken the “second star to the right and straight on til morning,”as Peter Pan says. In a hotel on the Las Vegas strip, my heart shattered into a million pieces that April morning.

When I’d texted Jess a few weeks before and told her we were adding a stop in Vegas to the itinerary, she replied, “yes to Vegas. Always yes to Vegas.” It was one of her top bucket-list destinations and we were both shocked that I’d make it there before she did. (Like Texas, Las Vegas was one of those places I had absolutely no desire to visit.) So when I woke up to the worst news of my life, it was sort of fitting that we were in Las Vegas.

As the new reality of living in a world without my sister settled over me, the desire to absorb the essence of who she is and was flooded every fiber of me. I couldn’t let her go; I couldn’t let her be forgotten; I couldn’t let her slip away completely.

Mid-morning, I rolled over on the bed and looked at Anna.

“I’m very seriously considering getting a tattoo while we’re here in Vegas.”
“Yes! Let’s do it,” was her response.

Enter our wise friend Jana who talked us out of spontaneously getting tattoos in Las Vegas. She talked us off that ledge and made us an appointment with her tattoo artist in Minnesota, buying us a few weeks to really think this through.

Back in March, my siblings ganged up on me in a group text and threatened to oust me from the family if I didn’t get on board with their idea for a sibling tattoo. Even so, I resisted. No way was I getting a tattoo. Nope. Not happening.

Now, there was no question in my mind. I was getting a tattoo and I was getting it to memorialize my sister. At first I considered a shooting star because Jess had been talking about getting a star tattoo for months and now I thought of her as a shooting star, streaking across the sky. But I’ve never actually liked the shape of stars.

When I flew home for the memorial service at the end of April, I still hadn’t decided on a design that would encompass the memory of Jess without being cliché—something she was certainly not. As I was looking through some of her things in her bedroom, I found it. Years ago, Jess spent a lot of time perfecting a logo for her photography business. Finally, she’d designed a logo that was a version of her first and last initials—JL—that didn’t look like her initials but rather a design akin to a fleur-de-lis. I found it drawn on a random piece of paper and knew that was my tattoo. Simple, meaningful, and something I could look at for the rest of my life.

It’s been emblazoned on my wrist for just six days, but the more I look at this tattoo, the more I see a star in it. Like a star, it has five points—all in the right spots. And that makes it even more perfect.


My sister was a star.

She was bright.

She was unique.

She was brilliant.

And I can only imagine that she is even more so now.

She is brilliant.

She is unique.

She is forever my star.