I guess I should have known the traffic would be this bad driving out of town on a Friday afternoon. Portland wasn’t going to let go without a fight. My car wouldn’t start when I got in to drive away after one last emotional saunter through the first floor, lingering in Blaine’s room the longest.
So many memories. So many lifetimes. So much work. We hadn’t had enough time in the newly remodeled kitchen. Wait, what? It’s been five years?!? Impossible! Feels like a few months ago. How did that happen? Well, it’s been a time. Pretty much a nightmare scenario, to tell you the truth.
You cannot begin to imagine what it is like to lose a child before you lose one. Trust me on this. However bad you think it is, however much you think it hurts, multiply that times infinity and do that infinity times. And you’re still not even close. And when it’s your only child, and you have been closer that most humans can ever be, it’s even worse. Way worse.
Surviving it is a miracle. For me, it’s not that I ever thought about ending it all, it was just that I had a hard time caring about whether I lived or died. Or much of anything.
When the biggest part of you goes missing, you’re not sure what’s left inside. You feel numb. Removed. Distanced. Comatose. Any expenditure of energy leaves you feeling sucked dry, Desiccated. You try to go through the motions, but you’re not sure it’s convincing. Even to yourself. I realize now I pretty much retreated from the world, all the while desperately trying to find a way forward. Finish a book and promote it. Make a pile of quilts for new babies born with spina bifida. Talk with other grieving parents. Try to learn and practice self compassion. Keep trying. Failing. Trying. Failing.
Figure out how to bring Blaine back. There has to be a way. Keep everything in his room exactly how it was the last time he was there so he can just take up where he left off. The half finished sudoko. The newly started crossword. The pen he was using. Don’t let his wheelchair sit so far from his bed that he can’t transfer. “See, we were waiting for you! So glad you’re home!!” Create a special shrine in the living room. Cry yourself to sleep. Love Ric. Make more quilts. Spend time with friends. Love the grandchildren. Get new plants. Create a little memorial garden. Spend time outside. Rest beside the waterfall. Smell the roses. Plan excursions. Go places. Get a puppy. Make him your constant companion, feel his little nose on the back of your leg when you move though the house. Love him like his life depends on it. And yours.
Some of these things work a little sometimes, but never forever. I just flat out miss Blaine so much. He was my reason for being his whole life. In many ways, we shared a life. We depended on one another. And this wasn’t just anybody. This was BLAINE. The best soul I’ve ever known. Quite possibly the best the world has ever seen. Really.
There is no escaping this kind of grief. The best you can hope for is that you survive it. You endure. The milestones are excruciating. Birthdays. Family gatherings he’s missing from. Anniversaries of things. Mother’s day is brutal. The cards and flowers are life giving. So grateful to those who give them.
This might seem like a detour on the drive out of Portland, but it’s very much a part of the journey. And how we got here.
So Amy and Gary (our beloved daughter and son-in-law through Ric) bought a beach house on the Washington coast last year. It was in a town I’d never heard of and couldn’t find on a map. Very curious. On Father’s Day this year, we got to go visit them and see the house and town for the first time.
It’s in an out-of-the way place because the main N-S highway in the western Washington coastal area is Hwy 101, which does not actually run directly along the coast. There’s another highway that does that, Hwy 109. It ends in the Quinnault Indian Reservation, so you have to aim to go there to get there, if you catch my drift. So we left I-5 near Centralia, drove west to Aberdeen, then over to Copalis Beach, where we spent the night at an RV park. The next morning, we drove north some ten miles and turned in at the entrance of the little town. After a few yards, and I’m not even kidding, I turned to Ric and said, “I think we just entered Pleasantville.” The movie town where everything was perfect, except it really wasn’t.
The town actually looked perfect. I can’t remember seeing a more attractive town anywhere ever. I’m using the word town loosely because it’s not actually a town in the legal sense. It’s not even an official Census Designated Place. It’s like none of the above. A small village really. The architecture is at once classy, attractive, sturdy, solid, quaint, brand spanking new, everything exactly in its place and perfectly appointed but anything but cookie cutter. There’s no litter, nobody would ever even think of littering. The streets curve in pleasing ways, every view is picturesque. It’s unreal, really. As in this cannot really exist in our increasingly crazy and tainted world.
Normally, I’m down with taint. I don’t trust things that look perfect. Because they never are, of course, and I don’t like people trying to fool me. Too old, too much history. So my skepticism meter was going to 11 and I was poised to find flaws. We took a walk around town with Amy and Gary and Ellery and her friend, and our pups of course, and before long we came across a fenced dog park. Prince and Drifty had been cooped up in Rigby and then on leashes, so they were ready to spring loose, which they did with wild abandon. This was a good sign! We toured the streets, visited a couple of retail shops, and then ate at the pizza parlor before heading back to the RV park overnight.
The next morning we returned to town and indulged in some delicious pastries at the bakery, then went on a tour of the town with the founder, something that happens every Saturday morning at 11:00. He described his background and his vision… and I had to admit I was totally impressed. If I were ever to design a town, it would be a whole lot like this one. Built for pedestrians and bikes, best views are public spaces, pretty much everything within a five minute walk, including the ocean. The design encourages community interaction rather than individual residents retreating into their own backyards, etc. Of course I asked about tsunami danger, as it’s an obsession of mine. Following the tour, there was a sales pitch but we left to go about our business. We breathed in that life-giving ocean air. We basked in the peace. The quiet. The open sky. The Pacific Ocean. Is there anything better on the planet than the Pacific Ocean. Ric enjoyed a great Father’s Day celebration and we drove back to Portland Sunday afternoon, a little less than a three hour journey.
A couple of days later, I had to take our pups to a grooming appointment in NW Portland, a distance of maybe 3 miles from our inner SE neighborhood. It took me 45 minutes. In the middle of the day, no rush hour action. Here’s the deal. Traffic in Portland has become unbearable. The population has increased dramatically in the last decade or so, rampant construction is interfering with traffic all over the place in the inner city where we live, the inner city was not originally laid out for cars and it is on its way to returning to a place where movement is accomplished by foot, bike or transit but it’s not there yet. And won’t be for a number of years. The transition phase is brutal, I assure you. And for us elderly folks, whose balance and strength isn’t what it used to be, riding a bike on city streets among this traffic is just about the scariest thing we can do on a daily basis. I’ve fallen from my bike into the street when I’ve lost my balance and only luck kept me from being run over by a car. As there are more and more cars, the Portland politeness is giving way more and more to road rage. Termpers are shorter, nerves are frayed, people are pissed. I regularly get honked at for driving too slow. Bite me.
Now our location mitigates a lot of this because our house is located one block from the most frequent bus service in Portland, we can walk to most services we need. That’s because I bought this house in the 1970s, shortly after the gas crisis caused by the oil embargo. People sat in hours-long lines just to get gas in their car. Only us older folks experienced that. It was not fun. So I vowed to live where it would be possible to exist without gas. For many of my early Portland years, I was without a car, until Blaine was about a year-and-a-half old and it became clear a car was necessary to get him to all his medical appointments, his early intervention classes, therapy, etc. etc.
So for those in Portland who insist that a car free lifestyle is not only possible but desirable, please restrict your mobility to a wheelchair for a month and then come back to talk to me.
Anyway, getting the dogs to the groomer is one of those “a car is necessary” times for me. After spending an hour and a half to travel six miles getting to and from the groomer, I suddenly realized that was half the time it took to drive to a remote little village on the northern Washington coast. Say what?!? Is this any way to live?
So things tumbled around in my mind for a while, as they always do, And I continued to tear up and my throat constricted whenever I passed by Blaine’s room. Within a day or two, one evening I turned to Ric and said, “How would you feel about moving to the Washington coast?”
Ric’s jaw literally hit the floor. He asked me to repeat myself.
See, my mentioning the notion of moving from this house and Portland is literally unthinkable. My attachment to where Blaine lived his whole life is unbreakable. My love for Portland is unreasonable. I wrote a damn book that was kind of a love letter to the city, for Pete’s sake. Portland is all tied up in my identity. Not as much as Blaine is, of course, but a whole lot. Ric grew up here and lived here most of his life. He even wrote a song about Portland being his home.
I never thought any of this would change. I thought staying where Blaine lived was right and necessary. It would keep us together. And I so wanted to hang on to anything and everything he touched, he represented. It was part of my survival plan.
But spending a few days beside the Pacific must have opened something that I had locked away. What if I allowed myself to think differently. What if the approach I had chosen was actually making my grief worse. What if a different outlook was possible? What if I spent my final years close to nature as I had done as a very young child in the woods of southern Oregon? What if I let myself reconnect with people rather than withdraw from them? What if reaching out helped me heal inside? For sure the retreating from the world deal I’ve adopted for the last couple of years hasn’t worked. What if I tried something new?
When I asked myself that question, I felt a kind of weight lift. I didn’t know how Ric would feel, we’ve both put so much of ourselves into our home, Ric has worked his tail off fixing it, we’ve spent a lot of money on improvements, we turned our backyard into an oasis in the central city. We finally had pretty much everything the way we wanted. NOW we would move? Hardly.
But after reattaching his jaw, Ric enthusiastically said, “YES!!” He’s been going through his own grief journey… and he’s getting older and his list of handyman projects he thrives on looks more and more daunting as his body aches come more often and more painfully.
So we called a realtor, put the house on the market, it sold, and that’s how we ended up driving out of Portland. That’s how we got here.
Next Up: Where We’re Going