A story about love … and life.
By John Kavchar
The sign ahead said “Slow.” There was a curve coming up. We were nearing the top of the pass. On the other side, the road curved sensuously downhill into our secret valley. It was a place we’d returned to year after year. A special place in the world where the universe seemed romantically small. A place of two.
Miquette got up from the couch where she’d been lying. Slowly, she made her way to the passenger seat, my navigator. It was a last leg of a final trip. We were on our way to Santa Cruz, California. Miquette’s mother was waiting for us there, her brother too. So was hospice. My sweetie, my partner, my traveling companion, my helpmate “” my wife “” was dying from cancer.
That last trip in the home Miquette and I shared for a decade, our land yacht, began in Arizona. It was in a hospital there that we learned her disease was incurable. We’d talked about the possibility beforehand, of course, and discussed options about where the most comfortable place might be for us to spend her final months. The world is an open place from a motorhome.
“We’re going to take a slow trip to Santa Cruz,” we told the hospital staff. “There’s a secret little valley along the way ….”
Why do unconventional things upset people so? The hospital staff was appalled. “A motorhome? You really shouldn’t do that. You won’t have any support. You’ll be totally on your own.”
Miquette gave them her typical cheerful smile. “What’s the worst that can happen to me?”
Doctors and hospital staff speak with such authority they’re hard to ignore. Their expertise is so foreign to us, so out of our realm, that we generally do what they say. We follow doctors’ orders.
But that’s not to say that we have to. We can ignore what a doctor tells us and do what we think is best for ourselves. And that’s what we did, Miquette and I, as we planned our final trip. We took hospice on the road.
Hospice In A Motorhome
It took a lot of confidence, careful planning, and an eagerness to learn before we felt ready to leave. Most importantly, it also took love. Jerelyn, Miquette’s sister, took leave from her job. She joined us so that Miquette could always be touched with a hand or the gentle caress of a smile as the clouds and the mountain peaks, the trees and the highline poles, drifted past our view like the tick of time.
Thankfully, the hospital staff did wonders for our confidence before the trip began. They saw our determination and fell into the spirit of the trip. Jerelyn, Miquette, and I listened closely to all of their advice and asked a lot of questions. We talked openly in front of them about the difficulties we might expect and discussed their remedies. We talked about our shortcomings, our fears, and the help we’d need from each other to overcome them. We learned from the nurses. We practiced with them. We made notes.
In retrospect, our awareness of what we faced prompted a sort of mutual aid society with the nurses and doctors. The interest we showed with our questions gave the staff confidence in our ability and they, in turn, gave us the confidence to continue. Finally, one nurse asked, “Did you guys work in the medical profession?” It was then we knew, with certainty, we could do this.
Before we left, we met with the hospice staff at the hospital and spoke on the phone with hospice in Santa Cruz. We provided both groups with a rough itinerary of our trip. We got a list of hospice providers along the route and contact names and numbers for each of them.
We also loaded up with supplies according to the list a nurse had given us. It included gauzes and pads and lotions and dietary things. We filled prescriptions and made a scheduling chart of when they were supposed to be administered.
But we didn’t leave just then. We wanted time to assimilate what was happening to us. We wanted time to lose our confidence. We wanted time to visit with friends who’d come in from Colorado and Oregon and Washington. We wanted to be in a normal community again, hugged by the closeness of fellow travelers, a campground of vagabonds, some known to us, others not, none of them strangers, none of them aloof. We wanted time to cry.
I’d like to say the trip to Santa Cruz was uneventful but it was not. The seat next to me, occupied all those years by my trusted navigator, was empty most of the time. Instead, Miquette rode on the couch. We unfolded it so that it was a bed. Jerelyn sat in a chair opposite and the soft hum of sisters’ voices played behind me like music from a gentle choir. I watched them in the mirror. The mile markers that came and went on the side of the highway were a vivid reminder of life, a stopwatch counting down what remained of our final trip.
How could anyone want a trip like that to end? It may have been the best I ever took. How could a trip like that be uneventful? We stayed in our secret valley for five days. It was as romantic, in its own intimate way, as a honeymoon. I’ll cherish it for the rest of my life.
Not uneventful but smooth: that describes the trip. And, of course, it came to an end. We had made arrangements ahead of time to stay at a state park on the Pacific Ocean. They have a time limit there, you’re only supposed to stay two weeks, but the ranger turned out to be one of those angels that sometimes grace your path here on Earth. He allowed us to stay without limit.
Hospice in Santa Cruz gave us all sorts of additional supplies and everything stowed away neatly in the coach. There was room for the crutches, the oxygen bottles, the batches of gauze we needed for Miquette’s special care. Outside, the surf rolled in, the sound of Mother Nature’s timeless breathing.
We’d go for short walks and the neighbors always called out with a, “Hi, is there anything you need, anything we can do?” There’d be a knock on the door and a voice, “Does Miquette like tapioca pudding? I put some protein powder in it.” The campground host coming by, “Is everything working okay?” The hearts of our fellow RVers as expansive as the blue horizon.
On New Year’s Eve, with a sigh, Miquette slipped gently away. Outside the bedroom window, fireworks sparkled in the midnight sky.
A New Life With Grief
Losing someone we cherish is one of the most painful things we face in life. There’s no way to prepare for it, no way to anticipate the grief and plan our lives around it. People who are grieving may share many of the same symptoms of grief, but the experience is so personal it remains unique.
There’s no class we can take ahead of time that will teach us how to grieve or how to live without our child, or our spouse, or our mom or dad. Afterward, however, once we are in the midst of grief, we need the help and support of others to help us out of its grasp.
Dealing with grief is a full-time job. It’s hard work. It doesn’t just resolve itself. “Time heals all wounds,” we hear. But that implies non-action will have some therapeutic value. It suggests that grief will fix itself, that we can heal in isolation.
But grief isn’t just a scratch on your leg. It’s deep-seated and as raw as an amputation. If we let it go unresolved, it tends to drain us of energy. We can’t just keep busy and ignore it; we have to deal with it. We have to find support.
Support comes in many forms and is available even to those of us who travel in a motorhome. There are grief support groups in almost every town in the country, large and small. Members meet to talk about the person they’ve lost and about what they’re going through. There’s a moderator there, too, who directs things and may even assign tasks, such as writing a letter to yourself from the person who died. You can find groups through local churches, the hospice office, or the community’s hospital.
There are Internet support groups as well that can be accessed, while on the road, through a cell phone modem or wireless network connection. WidowNet www.fortnet.org/WidowNet) is one example. It’s for people who have lost their husband or wife. It has all kinds of message boards where you can dive into a topic someone started or you can begin your own. People share their fears and their pain. They share themselves by asking for help and giving it in return. Because it is online, the site offers support 24 hours a day.
Another source of support may be the FMCA chapter you belong to. The Overland Trailblazers, for instance, has a committee that stays in touch with members who are ill or have lost a spouse. Even if your chapter has no formal support system, it is a source for friendship and care.
Other clubs can be a resource too. The Escapees club has a group called Open Door where grieving spouses are introduced to each other and stay in touch through e-mail and phone calls. In the Loners on Wheels (LoW) club, about half of the members are widows or widowers. The same is true for the FMCA’s Singles International chapter. Thus, with both of those, a support group is almost built in. It’s very comforting to share your grief with others on the same journey. Jane Franklin, who joined LoW after her husband died and is a past president, said, “I couldn’t have made it without the LoWs.”
Family and friends can also be a huge source of support but it’s a delicate subject. Grief is a socially awkward topic. In our cultural consciousness, we seem to have ignored it. We’re used to talking about our physical aches and pains but not our psychological ones. Thus, we don’t understand how consuming grief can be.
And it can be consuming. Normally, our lives are centered around activities and thoughts. When any of us talk with family or friends, we share stories about seeing this or doing that and we discuss our likes and dislikes, our opinions. In grief, however, none of that can matter. All of a sudden, our lives, our identities, are missing this huge chunk of “˜self’ and we’re nothing but emotions, nothing but feelings. Nothing else really exists. We’re in a strange and scary new world, a world that’s upside down. In the old world, for example, I might have been carefree; in the new one I worry all the time. I used to have time for others; now I’m anxious for people to leave me alone. I used to have an imagination; in the new world, though, there are no fantasies. In the world of grief, all of the positive things that used to exist are gone. Poof. Like that.
It’s a difficult thing to understand unless you’ve gone through it. Because of that, our family and friends may not know what to do or what to say. We might be feeling afraid and lost and tired and unlovable. “How are you?” they’ll ask.
“I’m doing okay,” you might respond, wanting to seem normal but hoping they won’t believe you and will dig further. Your child, your sister, or your dear old friend, however, can’t know your feelings. They can’t read your mind. And so, you must trust them to love you. You must trust them to listen to your grief, to be there as you share with them your pain. Be honest with them. They won’t abandon you.
Tips To Help
To be that child, or sister, or dear old friend, requires a large degree of patience and empathy. A lot us think that if we don’t mention the person who died, we can distract our grieving friend from their pain. But that’s not usually the case. It’s not like our friend can forget they’ve lost a piece of their heart.
Feel free to bring up the name of the person who died, even at social gatherings. Remember something about them and share the story. You don’t have to go overboard, just a mention now and again. When you mention the name, it can be like bringing that person into the group. For your friend, it can help ease their pain. Afterward, you might quietly ask your friend how they felt about it.
Call your friend as often as you can. Don’t wait for them to phone you. Grief is very much like depression. Your friend may think they don’t want to bother you with their troubles then feel abandoned by you because you didn’t call. Don’t allow them to become isolated.
Don’t let the person you love get away with a mere, “I’m doing okay.” Ask them for specifics. How are they eating? What’s happening with their sleep pattern? Are they drinking a lot of water? Are they getting exercise? Draw them out. Let them talk about themselves before you tell them what’s happening in your life. Remember that for the next length of time, and it could be as much as a year or more, it’s all about them.
Go and be with your friend. Hug them. Touch them in passing. Rest your arm on their shoulder as you stand next to them. Again, you shouldn’t go overboard but just give them the sense of touch. Your friend may have a physical longing for that but is too shy or embarrassed to tell you.
Don’t offer cliches. Bring your friend food. Remember their birthday. Accept who they are. And be funny.
Ask your friend to evaluate how you’re doing as a supporter. Are you being too pushy? Not pushy enough? Do you touch them enough or is it too much? Ask them to tell you if you become overbearing. This is a time when your respect for each other will blossom, when your love will become more profound and your friendship cemented in stone.
When It’s Time To Move On
What will I do now?” we ask. “Should I hang up the keys?”
Everyone says we should wait at least a year, after our spouse dies, before making any great changes in our lives. It will probably be a very long year “” there are no real milestones with time “” but the advice is sound. If we’ve done a good job with our grief, we eventually come to terms with our loss and we begin to understand that life can go on.
The question of the keys is a tough one. It’s so much fun to travel in a motorhome with a partner. We go to new places, see interesting things, meet new people. It’s so nice to share those experiences with someone else. What will happen when we’re single again? How can we enjoy life by ourselves?
The answer is that we don’t have to be alone. The nature of our lives may have changed, the journey is unquestionably different, but it isn’t necessarily lonely. We can hang onto our keys and travel among friends.
One of the first places to look may be the FMCA chapter to which you may already belong. You undoubtedly have some good friends there with whom you’ve traveled in the past. They’ll welcome you with open arms and, if you need it, they’ll help with the intricacies of your coach.
Don’t be forced by a machine to give up something you enjoy. If motorhoming was a big part of your life before your spouse died, give it a chance to remain so. You may, however, find that traveling with the old chapter, or spending time with couples, is just too big a reminder of what you’ve lost.
Keep in mind you can join more than one group. There are other clubs and chapters out there and some cater to people by themselves, such as FMCA’s Singles International chapter, the Loners on Wheels, and the Wandering Individuals’ Network. The emphasis of these is on enjoying the RV lifestyle with friends who also travel by themselves. All three emphasize they are not dating clubs.
Finally, remember that campgrounds are a microcosm of life. People coming and going, the homes around us changing, children shrieking and running about, friends together breaking bread. Joyful activity. The business of life.
The campfire was yellowing us with warmth, a group of fellow travelers. It was a Sunday night in March. In the not-too-distant sky, for some unknown, uncaring reason, a handful of glitter burst forth like stardust from an unseen hand. Fireworks!
I felt an arm around my shoulders, a trusted friend. “Miquette was such a sparkly person,” she remembered for us all.