I find myself, at age 41, and with a husband and four children, frequently clueless but concerned about what our family life should look like. I've had enough therapy to know that this is largely due to my parents' divorce. To compensate, I look to other people's families for a model, or resort to my own sky-high ideal based loosely on movies and television. This actually works out okay some of the time. (It helps that I know Jesus, have a phenomenal husband, and am intelligent enough to spare myself too many mishaps.)
Sometimes, however, I am in really unfamiliar territory. Summer vacation for instance. My own childhood summer vacation memories consist mainly of spending weeks with extended family without my parents; going to camp (again, without my parents); or taking long trips with my dad and my brother and sleeping in hotel parking lots in my dad's conversion van. You can see how I might not know what I'm doing, or how this is supposed to go.
Summer, 2011 began and I knew it would be fun and healthy to get out of my house and out of Las Vegas for more than a long weekend. But the idea of making that happen paralyzed me. Facebook gave me some ideas of what people do: The beach. The lake. Washington state. And I talked to people: One friend was packing up her pregnant self and her two small children to fly to New York for two weeks to visit both sets of grandparents. Our teacher friends, with the summer off, spent four weeks on the East coast and included a Bermuda cruise. Our neighbors took three weeks to go to the Virgin Islands. My brother and sister-in-law planned a cross-country camping and sight-seeing trip in their Honda Odyssey.
By late July, the most we had done was pick a week with no major obligations and in early August, Kevin requested the time off work from the 19th through the 26th. Our only semblance of a destination was Carson City, to visit our state capitol since Joe studied it this year - and maybe Lake Tahoe, owing to its proximity to Carson City. My friend Michelle, planner extraordinaire, sent me an inboxful of links to help plan this trip that stubbornly refused to plan itself.
Unexpectedly, on August 12, our friend Rachel Hamilton passed away. She had battled an evil stomach cancer for four months. Her funeral was planned for August 20th in Denver. It was a heckuvan event to plan a vacation around, but it rapidly came together.
One night shortly before the trip, I sent out a deluge of texts and facebook messages to anyone and everyone who might help me with any aspect of this trip. One particularly helpful response came from the Dixons, a family we know with family in Denver. Not only are they in the habit of pulling off this crazy one-day, Vegas-to-Denver road trip, but they do it with four kids! I was incredibly pleased with the detailed itinerary that Rob Dixon sent to me. So much so that I gushed about it to other friends and to my husband. Looking back on all I learned over the past week, I think that it not only fed the scheduled, planned, controlled part of my personality (a sizable chunk) - it also relieved some of my extreme anxiety over what a family vacation looks like. I had it right there spelled out for me on my iPhone in the form of a facebook message! Now if only I could have hit up other friends for plans for the other six days of the vacation... I might have been much more relaxed to start with.
We rolled out of our driveway last Friday the 19th right on schedule at 5:30 a.m. And we were able to stay on schedule until maybe a couple hours out of Denver when we hit a LOT of rain and some unavoidable bathroom stops in unfamiliar towns. Overall, I think we all did remarkably well for having spent roughly 15 hours in a minivan.
The funeral was both sickeningly sad and wonderfully warm and inspirational. It was healing to see our friend, Jeff, (Rachel's husband), and their two daughters Jane (4) and Cate (2). We spent hours afterwards in their backyard while our kids played and watched a movie and we talked and told stories and visited with a bunch of friends.
From there, our vacation week was mostly marvelous, the stuff of postcards. Mass at the Denver Cathedral with the sunshine streaming through the stained glass. A drive to Glenwood Springs, 160 miles west of Denver. Setting up camp by the Colorado River. Swimming in the Hot Springs, tubing on the waterslides. Touring a cave. Racing down a mountain on an alpine coaster. Dining high above the canyon, with breathtaking views from the restaurant and from the tram that delivered us. Playing miniature golf. Getting ice cream downtown. Riding a zipline across the Colorado River. And back. Watching the kayaks and rafts go by, and keeping John from throwing rocks at them.
When I list all those things, doesn't it sound delightful? It really was, in part. But there were also numerous instances when Kevin and I bickered. Or the kids bickered. Or the restaurant sucked. Or we took a wrong turn AGAIN. Or I wanted a shower. And I didn't handle it well. When my ideals aren't met, sometimes I spiral downward into a pit of despair and am absolutely convinced that we are ruining our children and our marriage is done for and the six of us will one day make a cautionary tale told by psychiatrists across the nation.
All I can do during those times is pray. I might initially be miffed at my husband, but the hope and forgiveness that is part of leaning on Jesus gradually takes over. Then I'm able to recall the countless stories I've heard from other families, older than mine, that tell how family vacations are often quite challenging - but years later, either the bad stuff is forgotten or it becomes a really good story.
On the way home today, on the curvy roads of the Colorado highway we were on, Cayna finally succumbed to the motion sickness that seemed to be manifesting itself the entire trip. She barfed all over herself and the back seat. Alarmed by the spewing, Bethanie screamed as if she had witnessed a murder, which scared John, who burst into tears. We pulled over, put on the hazards, and furiously dug through our forty-two bags to find our towels. I soaked up the barf and Kevin stuffed the towels into a trash bag to be dealt with at home. And Cayna got a lesson in motion sickness from her father who suffers as well. And Bethanie quieted down, as did John. And we eased back onto the highway. Crisis managed. And not once did we bicker. (Well, there was one tiny dispute over whether to use paper towels or real ones for the clean-up.) It is a joy and a relief to realize we handled the barf incident way better than some of the issues that came up only days earlier. We're learning. It's funny that it took an unplanned, unprecedented, and unpleasant event to prove that we are making progress in figuring out this family thing. I didn't need facebook help or a text to get through it, and I'm proud that we worked together, cared for Cayna, and then got back on the road.