I stood at my back door watching Jill’s camper disappear down the alley, wiping away tears on the sleeve of my blouse. My son and his wife were taking it home to Georgia with them. Thankful that I had managed to keep from crying until after they left. I sobbed softly so my husband, brother, and the cats couldn’t hear me. It seemed that Jill was disappearing from my life in that camper, again, like she had when she first drove it away from me to her nursing job in Tennessee. In my mind I chased the camper down the alley, hauling it back to our backyard by adrenalin will power. I was still chasing Jill in heaven, wanting to bring her back. Shouldn’t I have gotten used to the brutal words “she’s dead” by now?
It has been five years since Jill drowned in a kayaking accident in Tennessee. One of the most heart searing memories of my life is going up the hill to her campsite, opening the door to her camper, and knowing that she would never return from that trip down the river. It will take me the rest of my life to grapple with the enormity of that thought, of that loss.
Four special people helped me grapple with that enormity. Ted and Joe and Mary Ruth and David didn’t save me from my grief, but they helped me move along the grief tunnel. There is no end to that tunnel. Time changes but doesn’t end grief. It may erode the ragged edges, but they retain their bony outlines under a veneer or moving on and normal life. People love and grief sharing help move grief toward brighter lights at the edge of the tunnel.
Jill specified in her will that she wanted to be cremated and her ashes scattered in water, preferably Lake Michigan. I stood there on the beach with the ice bucket – she didn’t want an urn- holding her ashes. Tears drowned my view. How could I find the strength to do this?
My brother Joe stood on a sand dune above the beach. “This is what she wanted,” he said. His reminder words were what I needed to hear. I squared my shoulders and let the wind fling her ashes over the water to mingle with the lakes and rivers and oceans that she loved so well.
Jill’s friends joined me in my grief. Mary Ruth is one of Jill’s many friends that I never met until Jill’s death. At first it seemed a little macabre to me that I would meet a new friend because of Jill’s death, but gradually I began to see that we could help each other and God may have planned it that way. Mary Ruth and Jill shared the same interest in poetry, photography, and art and she encouraged me to publish some of Jill’s poetry on her Facebook Memorial page and other places. Each time I published one of Jill’s poems, Mary Ruth would post a comforting memory or comment about Jill that at least temporarily lulled the storm of grief in my heart.
Later, Mary Ruth lost her sister and we grieved our separate losses together. Grief produces and requires healing aloneness, but it also needs comforting words and the presence and words of others.
A few years later, I met Ted. He lost his wife a year after Jill died and he showed me pictures of her and shared some of the memories of his years with her. His sharing opened up the floodgates of sharing my memories of my daughter with someone besides family and friends. I had spent much of the first year after Jill’s death trying to help others cope. With family and friends, I felt strongly that I had to be brave, and not be a burden on other grieving people. With Ted, I could say what I felt without editing it. We both descended into the depths of our grief, but we didn’t drown. We shared life preservers. I clung to his and thanked him and I hope that my life preserver of listening helped him a little.
For me, one of the worse parts of trying to cope with Jill’s death was what to do with her possessions. I know in my head that possessions are not the person, but in my heart, she lingers on in her possessions like her writing, her clothes, her books, her truck, and her camper. Shortly after her death, I had promised her brother, David, that he could have the camper, but then I couldn’t bear to part with it, so he brought it to our home in Ohio from his home in Georgia.
Her camper, I hugged closer to my heart, because it was the home of her heart and I knew how much it meant to her and what it represented in her life. It sat in our garage with a brief interlude at my brother’s house, for four years. I would sneak out and run my hands over it, go inside and imagine she was there talking to me. Anything to bring her back into my life again. I missed her so much, how much I couldn’t even admit to myself, because I would dissolve into fragments of grief if I did.
Whenever I glanced at the camper through the garage window, my conscience like her voice often had done, would nudge me and wonder if she really would want me to allow her camper to deteriorate in the garage just because my husband and I couldn’t use it. Once, a fisherman offered me $1,000 for it, but I couldn’t give it up. My feelings for her were so intertwined with it that somehow the vision of it sitting snugly in our garage made me feel closer to her. I knew it wasn’t rational, but I missed her so.
She used to nag me about things I found it difficult to face. I heard her nagging about the camper no matter how hard I tried to close the listening ears in my mind. I knew exactly what she would want me to do with her camper.
Tonight, on the fifth anniversary of her death, my son sent me a picture of her camper that he had set up in his yard. He and his wife are going take it on the road. She loved taking her camper on the road and she and her camper had many adventures together. I looked at the picture and I knew that she would be adventuring on the road with her camper again, and, she is not leaving me behind. Heaven and earth are not as far apart as we think, and while she is busy with God’s work in heaven, she is still here beside me on earth. We started our journey together when she was born and we still are journeying together, this time in separate worlds, but joined by God and our love for each other. It is getting a little easier to say, “Happy Heavenly Camping, Jill.”