My holiday road trip
Published: November 18, 2010
“Over here, Daddy,” the 5-year-old girl squeals at the camcorder while awkwardly dancing to the second verse of the Beach Boys’ “Kokomo.” I broke a slight smile – the first real one of the day – as I watched a younger version of myself ham it up on the TV screen.
“Move it, girl,” my dad encouraged from behind his newly unwrapped video camera. It was a Christmas gift that year, and in the years following he taped every occasion he considered momentous, including the time his grilled chicken caught on fire during a family barbecue. (Soon after, he became a strict vegetarian.)
I spent the majority of last Christmas alone in my apartment. I sat on the floor of the living room and watched family home videos for hours while sobbing into glassfuls of Chardonnay. It was a pathetic attempt to preserve the memory of my dad, who had died that October after a long, debilitating battle with cancer. The videos reminded me of his corny sense of humor and his spon-taneity.
Earlier that Christmas morning, I’d tried to take part in the typical holiday scene. I’d joined my family at my brother’s house and we gathered by the tree and ogled at the presents while my mom cooked up a holiday feast. I wore a cheesy red reindeer sweater, trying to play the part. But despite my family’s best efforts – and my ugly sweater – I felt little more than a numbing anger. We were trying to be “all together” for the holiday, but without my dad, we’d never be all together again.
My mom began washing one of her stone casserole dishes – the kind you have to scrape with a special tool to clean. I could hear her scraping crusty cheese from the edges of the pan while humming “Jingle Bells.” Scrape, scrape, scrape “Jingle all the way!” I had to get out of there, and I did: I left the house in full bitch mode and headed for the seclusion of my apartment and that bottle of Chardonnay.
The drunker I got, the more I reminisced about dad. The summer before sixth grade, my dad came home with a dilapidated 30-year-old Cortez motor home and told us to pack our bags. We left from the Florida Keys, boat in tow, and traveled for more than a month, making our way up the East Coast to stay on an island off the coast of Maine. I replayed the trip in my head, turned off the TV and passed out on the floor.
While nursing a hangover the next morning, I decided that the best way to honor my father’s memory would be to take a little road trip of my own. I dragged my ass off the floor, got in the car and headed south to the house where I grew up in the Keys.
It was a six-hour drive before the blue-green waters came into view. As I drove from island to island, I could feel the holiday stress evaporating. I looked forward to getting some relaxing, lonely beach time. But I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.
When I was about 30 miles from the house, I heard a screeching sound, followed by a violent jolt. A glance into my rearview mirror revealed that my SUV was the leader of a three-car clusterfuck on the narrow two-lane highway.
After all the crying I’d done over the holidays that year, you’d think I’d have been a blubbering mess over this. But I was surprised to find myself laughing awkwardly. I realized that I’d managed to perfectly align my holiday and grieving coping mechanisms to deal with this massive domino-style pileup on the side of the highway.
I figured that if my dad could see me now, he’d be a little amused. So I decided to make the most of it: Christmas wasn’t shaping up to be much of a Christmas anyway, and I was at the beach. Might as well hit the tiki bar for a festive cocktail. It beat sitting by myself in my apartment chugging wine.
I watched the sun set into the Gulf of Mexico, and for the first time since my dad died, I focused on the horizon.
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