A ghost story...
Howdy, friends! I’m just back from spring break, and I use both the terms “spring” and “break” loosely, since it neither felt like spring, nor did it feel like much of a break (the cold weather that kept us inside for about 98% of our stay might have had something to do with that).
I’ve traveled to NJ and back nine times since Kenny passed. Nine. In twelve months. That’s Nine (on average) twelve-hour trips (save for one, which we flew as part of the “first leg” of a trip to Disney). I’ve done the math, and I’ve spent approximately 182 hours of my life this year driving my kids (by myself) up there (and back) for an array of reasons. When I had my van, I put 14,000 miles on it in six months. Of course, by now, I’ve had my fill of staring down the double yellows on I-95, but that’s not the only reason I feel ready to sink my heels in at home.
As recently as a few months ago, NJ still, on some level, felt like home to me. I’d ride up, toss the kids at grandma and grandpa (figuratively, not literally), and went to all the old comfort spots. I’d schedule beers at the same bar we used to spend a few nights a week at as kids, I’d schedule playdates, and dinners, and go to all the same old places, for one reason and one reason only; because I liked to be among the ghosts of “Megan’s past.”
Passing by the school where Kenny and I worked together, I could practically see us as teens on the swings, red faced and giddy with crushes. Walking past the restaurant we frequented when we were engaged or driving past our old apartment complex, I could hear the conversations we had in my head—about music, flowers, flip flops, our plans for our future. Walking through the grocery store I could hear the giggles of a baby Cameron in the cart, happy and buoyant and living a seamless existence. Ghosts everywhere…of Kenny, of the people my kids and I used to be, a life we used to live. But this time, it felt…odd.
See, the thing about all these “ghosts” that surround me when I come to NJ is that, in the past, I’ve let them pull me back in. I’d slip back into being that person I was before, or at least that’s what it felt like. There was always a comfort in the familiarity of being “that girl” again. That girl who knew who she was, what was expected of her, what her next day looked like. Of feeling safe, of feeling like there was someone “around the corner” who always had her back. In that same grocery store, that I used to stop in, I’d feel like all I had to do was fill the cart, take it back to “my” house, and I’d find life as it was. I used to revel in that feeling. I loved it. I could walk around those aisles, and my heart could pretend, if only for twenty minutes, that Kenny was just at home; in his office doing work, waiting for me to bring home the groceries. This time, though, I purposely resisted it; because I am far enough along now that I know what comes next. The crash that comes when I leave and realize no such home is mine, and even if it were, he still wouldn’t be there, and life still wouldn’t be the same. It’s like a trust fall. You let yourself fall backwards, freely and with ease, knowing your person is behind you, and will catch you every. Single. Time. Except after these little “free falls” back into being “old me” in my “old life,” the only thing I feel is the sensation of hitting the floor. My body absorbing a lighting strike of pain as it radiates down my spine, while my mind races to process the shock of not being caught. It’s a two-fold mind fuck.
Somewhere in these last few months, it really sank in that no amount of emotional trips through time were going to actually take me back, nor bring him back; unless I wanted to continue torturing myself, these little episodes of “pretend” couldn’t happen anymore. There is only one way in life, for anyone, and that is forward. Good, bad or indifferent, we move forward.
It was actually really hard. There were moments that I felt myself falling into those old feelings and habits, and I had to make myself stop. Whether I physically removed myself from a store, or a room, or changed course of an action I was in the middle of, I forced myself to remember where I was in that moment, and how hard it’d be if I caved. It was kind of exhausting, being so “on top of” myself, and I started to lose hope. It’s like sleep training your toddlers after a bout of “I wanna sleep with mommy because my molars are coming in.” I mean, that’s what my friends say, because I’d never do that…or am not currently still doing that…sigh. Just when you think “they’ll be sleeping with me until they go to college;” one night, it just takes. You might feel relieved, albeit sad, because you’ll miss them snuggled up next to you, but you know it’s just the right thing; for you, for them, for life in general. Same exact logic applied here…one day, a few days in, I didn’t have to remind myself to not let myself slip into “the old me” anymore, I just wasn’t. It just took. I was relieved. And sad. And I’ll miss being that girl forever. But it’s just the right thing…for me, for my kids, and for life in general.
On the last day of our trip, I drove around Long Beach Island. First I just wanted a breath of salty air, but before I knew it, I was peering down side streets, trying to find the house Kenny rented for my thirtieth birthday. Shockingly (for me, since I could get lost in a paper bag), I found it. I’ve been unsure, the past few years, if it even still existed. Hurricane Sandy really gave LBI a beating, and many houses had to be torn down. My thirtieth had felt like a big deal at the time. A transition to being a “real adult,” (little did I know, right??). The morning of my birthday, I remember running on the beach before our friends were to arrive to celebrate, listening to the song Good Life, and thinking that it really was a good life. It’s been a long time since I’ve let myself think about that. Since I even let myself think of those memories. Pain had me feeling bitter…what a schmuck I’d been, thinking life was so great. But now…now I could see the ghosts of a life passed by; of Kenny with a glass of sangria on the roof top, of baby Cami playing in the little toy house out back, of our friends dancing and laughing, and I thought, “it really was a good life, we had.” It made my heart feel full, maybe even healed just a little. Not just for me, but also for him; that maybe he didn’t get to have a long enough life, but a good life, nonetheless.
On my drive home, this time, lucky enough to be a “short” drive of just under ten hours, I pondered all of that. Making myself separate from my ghosts allowed me to appreciate them, more. To look at them and smile instead of trying to force myself amongst them. It also gave me hope that maybe I’d get to feeling that way again, someday.
As much as I love NJ and the people in it, it’s not where we live anymore. As we pulled into our neighborhood last weekend, the kids started cheering; happy to be getting out of the truck, and happy to be back in their own space. They quickly scattered about the house, doing what they do (i.e., destroying the joint), and even though I know it’s tough and overwhelming to be on my own sometimes, I couldn’t help but be happy to be home.