Back in May, I decided to go on a grief recovery retreat. In Alaska. In my typical dramatic fashion of doing anything worth doing, I figured that flying to Alaska would help me find some answers about how to move forward in my life.
On the first leg of my flight, I sat behind a family of four also headed to Alaska: Mom, Dad, two young adult daughters. That was my life, once. That was supposed to be my life, still. But as I looked around, I had no young adult daughters with me and certainly no husband anymore. No family of four.
On the second leg of my flight, I sat next to a recently empty-nested couple headed to Alaska to take a land tour to Denali and then board a Royal Caribbean cruise ship for an Alaskan cruise. That was supposed to be my life, once, too. In fact, in the last couple of weeks of Eric’s life, he tried to set up a land tour to get me to Denali. He was the one dying…and he was trying to get me to Denali. And we did go on a Royal Caribbean cruise ship, where he suffered in pain and agony, forcing him to stay in bed most of the time.
Close to two years later, here I was again headed to Alaska…only this time, all alone and flying 4500 miles away from home to find the answers I needed in this “destination stop” along the road of grief called “acceptance.” Acceptance of my plight. Acceptance of his death. Acceptance of what else or what, exactly…I wasn’t sure… but I had gotten to the point where I simply had to do something to bring me to acceptance. I figured, if there was acceptance, maybe next to that would be some answers to help me gain the courage to forge a new path for myself. To at least to get started. To take a step. To knock down that first domino. To blaze a path that involved carefully tending to the memory and legacy of my husband…but instead of the tending serving as the actual path…tending would be something I did, an exceptionally important responsibility I carried, but while on my own path. I know that is certainly what Eric would have wanted for me.
When I arrived in Anchorage, I grabbed an Uber and then headed to my Air BnB. This was the first time I stayed in an Air BnB, and it was in the worst part of town. Good thing I had my mace on me. Anchorage has quite a drug and homeless problem. My Air BnB was on a rough street, and after risking my life to go into a grocery store for a few snacks, I had the amusingly good fortunate of being harassed by a dude on a bike trying to sell me drugs. “I got anything…anything you want.” The elusive Jersey Italian made her appearance, which she does on rare occasion lately. After threatening to kick his ass, he backed off.
I’ve learned over the years that the only way in which to deal with situations where you find yourself as a fish out of water is to act like you belong, act like you know what you’re doing. That has served me well while in foreign countries trying to navigate a third world health care system, while also managing my husband’s medical crises 4500 miles away from home, and of course…fending off drug dealers in American cities far, far away.
I spent the next day doing the tourist thing in Anchorage: tour bus, museum, cultural center, movie about the Northern Lights. Walking around, talking to strangers at bars about football, and hiking along the Prince William Sound. But what I saw, what I experienced, was that everyone was a couple or a family…and I wasn’t those things anymore. I was that little woman with a gray backpack…and no kids to keep in line or husband with whom to hold hands. I was a stranger in a strange land, a mystery, an anonymous traveler who could disappear forever with no man who would miss me and no husband who would care. Couples were everywhere. They sat together on the tour bus or in the restaurant or in the movie theatre.
The second day, I took the Alaskan Railroad to Spencer Glacier near Seward to kayak to the glacier itself and then hike it in these cool metal shoes called crampons. Once again, everyone on the train or in my tour group had a “plus one” or some kids in tow or both.
When the train conductor informed us that there was a snack bar in the next car, I thought that I didn’t need anything from the snack bar. I wasn’t hungry or thirsty, so there was no need to go over there. But something – or someone – pushed me out of my seat and into the next car against my will. I walked up to the snack bar and noticed a Coke and a Diet Coke sitting on the counter. The Diet Coke had the name “Eric” written on it.
When Eric was alive, he would have ordered me a Diet Coke because that was what I always drank. Diet Coke is the ultimate suburban mom nonalcoholic beverage. However, true to Eric’s nature, he never would have noticed that in his absence, I changed over to Coke Zero. These are the types of things that drove me nuts when he was alive – he didn’t notice little things like that. And what I would do to have him give me the wrong soda now. Well, he did. At this snack bar. So, I bought the bottle and carried Eric the Diet Coke around with me for the remainder of my solo trip.
Eric came along with me on the kayak and then onto the glacier. He traveled with me around Anchorage and then on the tiny flight to Kenai. He hung out with me during the grief recovery retreat and then went home with me again, where he now sits on a shelf next to an unopened bottle of Crown Royal. Eric will always be with me. And because of that, I am not alone.
Alaska provided several answers for me…only, they weren’t the answers I thought I went there to find. I thought that I went there to find acceptance: to accept I am alone and to force myself to embrace it and even like it. Instead, I learned that I am not alone. Eric is truly always with me. Sometimes in the form of a Diet Coke bottle. And I also learned this important part of myself: I do NOT want to be alone…and I will NOT ever “like” it.
That is the acceptance. Those were my answers. So, thank you, E…and thank you, Alaska.