As Sarah, Shelby and I near the time to depart for our summer vacation, I am reminded of just how different things were, and I am finding some appreciation of the very fact that as a widower, those differences weren’t always convenient. We’re traveling to my favorite place on earth, the Great Smoky Mountains, at the end of July.
Megan and I always took our “big” road trips around this time. In between her birthday and our anniversary, occuring about 10 days later. It was convenient, because of large annual festivals going on around home, it got us away from the tourists invading our space, and allowed us to be tourists ourselves. We always did quite a bit of shopping and “touristy” type things, but my eyes were constantly transfixed on those mountains, standing like 6500-foot ramparts on the edge of the tiny town of Gatlinburg.
I knew, given Megan’s illness, that the majority of the time spent in the trees, creeks, and cool air would be supplanted by more pedestrian endeavors in gift shops and restaurants. I would see far more people than birds. Kitschy “mountain man” shops, selling red plaid, black teddy bears, and pine scented soap would be chock full of persons wearing fanny packs and crocs, scoffing at the idea of walking any further than a few feet from their car to see a real black bear or smell a stately stand of pines on a mountaintop.
I hated the very thought of Gatlinburg, but I still loved going there. I still do.
I love it because I grew up going there. I love it because Megan did. She was never a “country girl” or the outdoors type. I got her out camping a few times. Even backpacking once, but she preferred her shopping and tourist traps. Nice hotels, swimming pools, and warming by the light of a thermostat were very much more appealing to her than a tent, creek, and campfire. I loved her though, and I sacrificed my yearning for the back of beyond because she physically could not do it. I became one of those tourists…”hiking” in the Smokies by driving through them at 35 miles per hour, hoping that a bear would conveniently visit the one stretch of paved road in 800 square miles of forested wilderness, just as we drove by.
Regardless, this type of vacation got me close. The point was spending time with her, in places we enjoyed visiting. She made sacrifices herself, such as walking up the steep, 500-yard paved trail to the top of Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in the park, and quite literally, the “top of old Smoky”. We took frequent breaks for her to catch her breath. She drank at least a liter of water in 15 minutes. Her lungs burned and her legs were screaming, but she did it, because she knew the place was special to me, just as I gritted my teeth through the tourists and trinket shops at the foot of the mountains down in town.
We never did have the type of vacation that I wished we could have had. Again, it just wasn’t physically possible for it to be a 50/50 split of town and trail. She had to be physically cut open and have recycled lungs transplanted just so we could make a one-mile hike with Shelby.
That era ended in 2014, and to be bluntly and possibly very insensitively honest, I won't entirely miss it. I’ll miss Megan. I’ll miss our trips together, but I won’t miss the compromises we had to make. I won’t miss plowing through throngs of people being herded to the next gift shop or “hillbilly” store to buy keychains and wooden signs denoting that yes, stereotypes sell to Americans.
That’s the thing with long-term illness. There is a lot of really, really shitty time leading up to the person’s death where their loved ones need to sacrifice a bit of themselves just to try to save, comfort, or take care of their loved one. We can be proud of the fact that we loved someone so much that we compromised some of our very own being to be there for them, but that doesn’t mean we have to miss that particular, or every memory.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, and I am positive Megan would agree. Why in the actual hell would she want me to miss or pine for a time when I wasn’t enjoying myself 100%? She certainly wouldn’t miss trudging up that mountain had the story been flipped. I miss HER presence, and it has nothing to do with location or activity.
Now, we don’t have to compromise, at least on paper. Shelby, Sarah, and I are physically capable of walking any and every trail in the Great Smokies. I am certain that Megan would enjoy seeing Shelby complete a 12-mile hike with her dad, as long as she didn’t have to tag along. We’ll still do a day or two in Gatlinburg. I mean, Shelby IS her mother’s daughter and enjoys that kind of stuff herself. I can handle, and actually enjoy a bit of town myself, just because of my childhood memories there, but ultimately, we’re camping. We’re hiking. We’ll have sweat and dirt and bugs, and I’ll love every moment of it. I’ll wish Megan was there with Shelby, Sarah and I, ABLE to do it, all the while knowing that she really wouldn't want to.
Because, had she been physically capable, she would have compromised all she could for us. We depart for the mountains on her birthday this year, which will bring a whole host of other thoughts, but ultimately, we are making new memories in a place that contains so, so many old ones, because we can, and because Megan no longer has trouble breathing.