A Continental Divide
(published orginally on the author’s blog)
My family is on a road trip of sorts.
Two weeks ago we piled the car with three kids, a few backpacks, and a clutch of CDs that would promise my children hours of 80’s musical education if nothing else.
People are quick to sanction this road trip as a great learning experience for my kids.
If you used a penny to etch away the delicate scratch-off surface, you’d find this trip really for me.
Like everyone, we had plans before COVID hit. Ours had been National Parks.
I’d returned home from my mother’s funeral with an urgency bordering on panic to get the F out of dodge.
A body in motion.
Somehow I became obsessed with the National Parks. We’d loosely discussed doing a “tour” of a few when our youngest entered fourth grade. Obviously we could have gone at any time, but I am my mother’s daughter and I am a sucker for a sale.
(Did you know the National Parks are free when you have a fourth-grader in the family? Now you do, and you’re welcome).
For someone who has lived in the States most of my life, I’ve seen very few of them. Particularly the Western ones. We never did the family Grand Canyon trip when I was a kid (and I blame my parents zero percent for this. Five siblings people. There was not enough patience of money for that level of insanity back when fashion still dictated curled bangs and pegged jeans everywhere we went).
Somehow the Parks became my focus.
So I did what I do, I ordered books.
My amazon account was a perfect reflection of my insides. Every book ever written on grief, every book ever written on National Parks.
My husband, God love him, made the plans.
We booked Glacier and the Grand Canyon and filled up our vacation dance card for spring and summer breaks.
We picked cabins, planned itineraries. Excitement mounted.
You know the plot twist. It’s not suspenseful even. A 360 trip, made and unmade, but never taken. No one felt bad, not even me.
We hunkered, we home schooled, we tele-educated and worked just like everyone else.
When I left my mother’s house by the sea a day after her funeral over a year ago, I’d feared I’d never come back. The house would be sold, and the oceanview I’d knighted as my “safe space” in the hundreds of guided meditations I’ve done as part of day job, would be truly just a memory.
But the world got sick.
Everyone took a beat.
And then it really was time to sell the house by the sea.
My crew had the desire, and could drive, so we went. My husband and I alongside my brother, not hugging, but working, helped make the house pretty.
The kids swam.
And because the fears are not facts and the universe should never be toyed with for her love of irony:
In 2020, I sat on my meditation deck longer than ever before in my adult life.
After my mom died I’d left knowing I couldn’t possibly also process the loss of the home. I didn’t even try.
After two months of actively saying goodbye, when this August rolled in we were ready to go.
At the kids’ prompting, before our county schools had made the virtual call, we decided to try and re-mount some iteration of our National Parks trip.
We would take our time. We’d drive. Stay a spell in a few places. Work and do school and see as much as we can.
Pouring over a giant map, the kids largely planned the trip themselves initially. Geography check.
When we crossed the Mississippi, and stopped at a roadside fruit stand for huckleberries, we put on the great Mark Twain adventure on audiobook. Literature check.
We are loosely keeping journals. Writing check.
I want to tell you were are doing math. We watch the miles tick up on the car and make vague references to how many miles since Devil’s Tower. Does that count? That counts, right?
And at some point in Montanta we crossed the Continental Divide.
The place where waters begin to run to a different shoreline. Where water once ran to the Atlantic it now heads to the Pacific.
My husband read the sign out loud and announced it’s meaning before I had the chance to give a very wrong explanation to our children.
I had to wait until the mountains gave up their stranglehold on my cell service, but then slyly googled, as you do.
Did you know we have somewhere (Scientists aren’t exactly sure and I LOVE that) around five Continental Divides in this country? Of course you did. You didn’t spend an entire year staring at Nat’s Lopes’ lips in fourth-grade geography.
Between three and five places across the landmass where we live our lives, when our waters change course. Know to shift, follow nature, and gravity.
I’ve experienced almost every single second of these past few weeks as remarkable. The scenery, the smells, the specific stress of trying to find a restaurant with outdoor seating that has burgers, chicken tenders, and a Ceasar salad. All noteworthy and deeply emotional. Thrilling and exhausting.
Every day holds awe (Badlands, I’ll never recover from you). Surprise (Snow, Glacier? It’s August you national Park maniac). Respect (At least eight climbers scaling Devil’s Tower in a zillion degree heat). Skepticism (Rushmore, you are impressive and disappointing at the same time). Curiosity (Pictured Rocks, your colors make me wish I’d paid any sort of attention in natural science).
But I tell the stories to no one.
Because the keeper of my stories is gone.
I probably don’t even need to tell you how much she would love all this, do I?
My mother would run to the phone and say “wait I want to hear everything. Let me get my tea.” She’d leave the phone dangling, old school.
I’d tell her of the beauty and the unexpected, the hard and joy. She’d relate. She’d been there, both in geography and in life.
I’d exaggerate. It’s what we do. Sacrifice everything for a good story.
And in the telling, I’d both collect and record the salient details. My emotional experience deepened through the telling and the witnessing.
And I know she’d re-ell her beloved friends at her church charity shop who would delight in it as well. She’d come back to me with some thirty-five-year-old advice from a friend who’d also traveled through South Dakota. And I’d take it. Or at least look into it. Because why not? More joy.
Only she’s dead now.
And church is closed.
And the water runs to a different ocean on this side.
My family has hunkered down in the mountains of Montana for the month of September. A relief to unpack a little.
The house we are in is not a shingle style beach house with hardwood floors and bead board bathrooms
It’s angular, modern and mostly made of glass. The floors are cement and it has a stunning 360-degree mountain view.
Sunlight is the key feature. Just like my mother’s home by the sea, every minute of the day is beauty-filled.
But I’ve been a little edgy here.
Then yesterday I turned my head a saw a hot air balloon out the side mountain window (yep, I have side mountains).
And it found me.
The unopened emotional e-mail I’ve been sending her all this time. Longing for her affirmation and excitement. Her questions, her light dusting of judgment.
Longing for her.
And I will do this forever.
I know this to be true.
Her death is my continental divide.
My water runs different now.
No wonder I needed movement, and mountains and a million miles.
I keep wondering if there is a place, some specific spot across our five-ish divides where the water hovers, pulled almost equally in both directions?
Frozen, Liquid, Gas. A constant shape shifting, reinventing.
Our bodies are mostly water aren’t they?
Which way does your water flow?
Me? I think I know.
Meghan Riordan Jarvis is a psychotherapist, author, wife, and mother of three. After losing both her parents within two years of each other she began Grief Is My Side Hustle. (www.griefismysidehustle.com).