All packed. The previous night I had gathered most of my things in the hotel room so that leaving this morning would go as smoothly and quickly as possible. Its one of the things that I like to consider the night before a ten hour drive home. I had slept hard, which was good, because I now felt ready for the road. Just yesterday Tropical Storm Hanna had visited us here at Virginia Beach as she tore up the east coast, but today you would never have guessed it. The sun was rising behind the clouds, as evidenced by the pink bands in the sky. And me? Well, I was packed.
Not only were all my things in my car, but I had loaded all of Kathy and Jons bags, too, for good measure. At least all of their bags that were ready to go... The rest they could bring out themselves so I handed over the car keys and excitedly hurried to the elevator so I could sit on a bench behind the hotel and enjoy the last few pink minutes of the morning.
I was thinking of Mike. Mike had a terrible weekend back home in Ohio, and all I could do was listen and tell him I loved him over a cell phone connection. A poor substitute for the arms of a wife, but all that I could offer from six hundred miles away. Last night he called while I was in bed reading Twilight at Monticello but after our conversation not even Thomas Jefferson could hold my interest. Mikes broken heart broke my heart and I curled up under the covers while my grandma watched the news from the next bed, and squeezed my eyes shut and prayed myself to sleep. I woke up to that beautiful pink sky. In times when life is too much for me, I tend to run to someplace beautiful and give my broken heart to Jesus. No place seemed more suitable than next to the crashing waves in the glow of the dawn.
A voice called my name behind me as I got ready to push the down button on the elevator. It was my grandma.
Are you going down already? It was ten minutes until they opened the doors to the free hotel breakfast. Raisin Bran and a forbidden mini-donut or two. At least the coffee was good.
Yup, I answered.
Mind if I come with ya? She hesitated, Or am I not allowed?
In times like these, its best to tell the truth. If not, you wind up regretting it later, and resenting the person in whose favor you made the decision. So I smiled and honestly said, Of course you can.
I never did make it out to that bench.
I had hesitated in making the decision to go to Virginia Beach this year. Its an annual trip that my family makes (my whole family: parents, sisters, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and this year we even threw in the brand new boyfriend). We spend a long weekend shopping for junk and sweets at our favorite stores on the boardwalk, watching the Shriner parade and cheering for my grandfather and uncles Temple (Jaffa) while secretly booing the competitors. The Syria Temple usually gives us a little bit of a scare, but at the end of the day, Jaffa always holds the highest trophy count. But my sisters and I fret for them every year nonetheless and cheer when our men march past.
All the stores along the boardwalk hang flags outside welcoming the Shriners (Welcome Nobles! they all say with a Mason emblem in the center.) Beach season is over. It ends Labor Day weekend and we go the following week. Souvenirs are always on sale, and beach is lonely except for the Shriners. They average sixty-five years old, making my sisters and cousins the youngest folks on the beach. And in such a crowd I dont have to worry about what I look like in a swimsuit.
I love Virginia. Its my favorite state of the Union. Driving through the Shenendoah Valley on I 64 makes my heart sing. Stopping in Colonial Williamsburg for dinner at a tavern and to give Thomas Jefferson a kiss makes my heart happy. But being in Virginia Beach with my family makes my heart whole.
Which is why when I contemplated not going this year, my heart grew heavy. I had a hundred reasons not to go. Im in contract with IDW Publishing which means that my updates which I already took too seriously are now more than a good idea for keeping my readers: theyre legally binding. I know that the fastest way to kill a web comic is to stop updating and that terrorizing thought keeps me company when Im up to 4 AM on a Thursday night trying to finish an update. Then theres the reality that if people dont know whether youll update or not, why on earth would they donate to the cause. Donations are inconsistent, unreliable, and pretty meager anyway. Nothing like a few weeks off to dry up funds all together.
I had a hundred reasons not to go (were still paying for the Chicago Convention, Baltimore Con is right around the corner, I dont want to take my car on two 10 hour road trips in one month, and my medicine must not be working because Im tired all the time and my hair is falling out again...) and yet this choir of sound, logical objections were all silenced by one image in my mind: the face of a disappointed grandfather.
I dont call him grandfather. I dont know if I ever did. All I know is that sometime when I was too young to know better, I called him Favorite Man and the name stuck. At my wedding I had not only a Father/Daughter dance, but also a Grandfather/Daughter dance. I played Unforgettable and cried like a baby and assured him that he would always be my favorite man. Mike was just going to have to be okay with being my favorite husband.
So far, the arrangement has worked well. That was five and a half years ago. Since then, Ive gotten used to living in Ohio, three and a half hours from home, and five from my grandparents house. Which means that I see them less and less all the time. And the thought of disappointing Favorite Man on this once a year trip was too much. My readers might be disappointed by the lack of update because they love Alan Warren or Bea Whaley or the Revolutionary War or even my little blogs but my grandfather loves me.
Theres something in these trips when we all get together that makes me realize how utterly indispensable family is. The longer Im alive the more I realize that life changes. Its always moving. Where I am moves, where my friends are moves, and who my friends are moves... Life is changing, its motion. All the deaths in Mikes family have made sure I dont forget that. And at each funeral I stop and look around and see who is still standing next to me. There are those handful of friends who have known me forever. The few life long friends who I hope Ill never lose. But I know as I get older, when I become a mother, when I get sick, and when I die itll be these people called family who are standing next to me. They wont be on the other side of a phone--theyll be in my kitchen, my porch, my hospital room. And this once a year trip where my presence tells them that theyre invaluable has become essential to all of us. My father thanked me twice for coming. All Favorite Man had to do was smile.
The trips to Virginia Beach always mark for me the end of summer and the beginning of fall. Last year Kathy and I commented on how the leaves were all green on the trip down, and they were red and yellow on the drive back. And yet for these four days, its still summer and the breeze is warm on the boardwalk and time just simply stands still...
Robert is tall. Robert Aaron is one of my favorite cousins. Hes the youngest of my Uncle Barrys kids, and the most ornery. He has somehow managed to grow up un-jaded in this world. He still cuddles with his mom, he loves kittens (we once photographed him holding twenty cats), and can swim in the ocean on his boogie board all day and still complain when you call him out for dinner. He always has a mischievous sparkle in his eye that is smoothed over by that sweet smile which makes you never believe any of the tales of trouble his parents grumble about. The last time I saw him was five inches ago, which isnt as long ago as you might think. The kid is sixteen, and hes growing fast. Last year he told the waitress it was my birthday and the whole restaurant sang. Except that my birthday was in April, not September. This year he gets a stern warning in advance, but I deliver it with a laugh and eat my dinner anxiously, wondering if and when the birthday choir might erupt around me. Robert never misses an opportunity to tell me that deer are made for eating, and that he knows a great scrap yard I can take my Toyota Yaris to if I ever want to get a real car. Hes a country boy. He has a John Deer pillow case and a heart of gold.
And hes not little anymore.
But for one weekend hes near, and we all are, and we laugh as he tries to feed the sea gulls in the gusts of wind that come from Tropical Storm Hanna. Its Saturday, and the rain has stopped for now but the wind hasnt. And the gulls are trying to fly against the wind and are having a rough time of it. It takes all their energy and concentration to just move forward, even if its only inches at a time. Robert holds out the bread and laughs in a way that is wicked but innocent all at once. The gulls see the food and for a moment break their concentration as they contemplate how to get it. They have little control in these gusts and in the split second that they lose site of the goal they are caught up and tossed around in the air until they can refocus and gain control.
I guess it sounds horrible but its a riot.
As the winds die down, Favorite Man joins us. And the gulls start to take notice. Flying isnt as hard now. They start swarming the balcony. Robert threatens to put a piece of bread on my head. I threaten to kill him in return. Someone drops a piece and it lands at my feet. A gull comes into the balcony, eats it, and wriggles back out through the bars as I scream like a girl.
At least I am a girl.
Who knew an hour could be so long until you spend it watching sea gulls? Or watching the surfers who are loving Hanna and moving up and down the beach to get away from the lifeguard patrol. Or watching a trio of girls giggling as they chase their flip flops down the boardwalk as the tropical gusts carry their shoes away. Saturday is a long day. Its one hour at a time and they are the longest hours I can remember.
Time is standing still and I need it.
Tina and I have been charting the tides with her GPS. We like geo-caching and she found one that asks you to chart the high tides. We did it Thursday and Friday and thought it would be fun to brave the worst part of the storm to chart how Hanna affected the tide. So we take the ponchos my mother is forcing on us, and start out on the mile trek against the wind to make it to the south end of the boardwalk. Its hard to walk against the wind. The sand feels like needles. Its even starting to rain. But Tina and I are laughing like we havent in a long time. I cant get the poncho on in the wind--it takes both of us, and even then the wind rattles the hood so loudly that it sounds like a railroad train racing past my ears. Im deaf! Im shouting and Tina is laughing so hard shes shouting, Crying! Im crying! and doesnt help me.
Tina is my little sister, and next month shes getting married. But this Saturday we geo-cached. And watched teenagers at the end of the boardwalk hold onto bed sheets and let the wind take them sailing away on their skateboards. One at a time, or two together as they each hold onto a side. Tina and I wanted to be their girls for a day and hold on and go for a ride. Before Nintendo DS and the internet kids used to be creative. This reminds me that kids are still kids and Im happy.
This year Kathys new beau Jon is here so Tina and I stick together and make a sisters weekend out of it. Next year who knows if Jon will be back but I know that Shaun will be here. So I bottle this moment up in my heart and make it long. Today we were without our men and it was timeless.
My heart has needed this for a long time. The Dreamer has been the most amazing adventure of my life but also the hardest. So hard in fact that friends have taken it upon themselves to mow my lawn this summer and wash my dishes and clean my toilet. Its embarrassing to not have time to scrub your own toilet. But its heart breaking to not have time to visit your family. Mike and I have been asking ourselves the question: how do we live with The Dreamer? Shes a terrible mistress, she demands nearly all my time. But hanging in front of me as I type this at Starbucks is a picture. Its a girl kissing a boy in an alley. Its cute. Its a stolen moment. Its brief but to them it will be timeless. The pose is almost exactly the pose of a sketch I drew of my character Bea kissing my character Ben. I smile and I like the photograph.
For some reason it reminds me that my life is not just my own. Not that it ever was. We live in America with a false idea that our lives belong to us and our decisions only affect ourselves. And yet were all connected together whether we like it or not, and to no one more so than to our families. For better or worse, we belong to them since they created us. And all I can do is try to make these brief moments long. And hang the snap shots up in the gallery of my mind.
Hugging my grandfather in the midst of Hanna while he shielded the sand from his hearing aids. Jon and I playing Paper Planes on my iPod each time Kathy said, Are we there yet? My grandparents showing a fellow Shriner The Dreamer on his laptop in the hotel lobby. Seven of us squeezed into a car to go introduce Jon to geo-caching. Picking out seagull statues with my dad to put around his spa. Laughing over the raw food diet expose Tina and I watched in bed. Stealing chips with my mom at the Mexican restaurant. Buying four bottles of wine from a fourteen-year old with my mom and sister, even though Im the only one who drinks. Putting said booze into my fathers hand as hes passed out on the hotel bed, and then taking a picture for good measure.
These snapshots are keepers. These snapshots are going on the wall of my minds eye. Next month Ill add some more at Tinas wedding. Time is moving forward. Everything is changing again. But Im more convinced than ever to make it stand still along the way.