The road finally taken
Updated: Jan 25, 2022
“Lisa, Lisa,” she said, her soothing voice rising over her steaming cup. “You may have had your back to your daughters then. But now you have all sides to give them because you tended to your grief when you needed to.” Her words drew more tears. If it wasn’t possible to go backward in time to heal my mistakes, how would I go forward? —Grief Is a Dancer, p. 220
When it was all said and done, what we needed most turned out to be what we got—to be surrounded by silence, caressed by warm desert air, and to lie side by side, flat on our backs, and be held by the stars.
For those who’ve read my memoir, Grief Is a Dancer, June 9-13 was my family’s Chapter 23 trip—a purposefully retroactive vacation grandfathered into our two adult daughters’ lives to renew family bonds heavily stressed decades ago. It was the kind of interval we should’ve taken when our girls were teenagers, except that we were immersed in their younger sister’s illness, then plunged into years of deep, complicated grief.
Life went on after Kelly died, as it always must but sometimes shouldn’t. We were splintered apart, unable to find the connecting pieces in the puzzle of us, too desperate for air to share the breathing tube in the ocean of loss in which we were submerged.
Imperceptibly, impossibly, the eternally sad days and years morphed into a quarter-century, at which point I was compelled to take stock of us. It took writing a book to do so, and in that process I asked my daughters to reflect on those tough years. I did not expect that I would be so entirely sobered by what they told me that I would withdraw into a state of intense self-examination over the summer of 2019, unable to continue writing.
In the fall I came out of my cocoon, recognizing that their loving and truthful responses were neither a censorship of my parenting, nor reason to derail from finishing the book. They had given me vitally important information; I needed to courageously lean into it.
As I finished writing, I had one startling awareness: Rob and I had initiated only one short family vacation in all of their childhood years under our roof. We had regularly gone to the beach with extended family once every summer, but never any place with just the four of us—especially when stopping the gears of life might have helped ground us in all the grief.
Like a stunning and urgent epiphany, the idea of taking each daughter away by herself, anywhere in the world, felt like the antidote to every mother regret. It would be a tangible way to assure them that they had mattered all along more than my grief and other obligations did. And that I wasn’t gone from them back then, only hemorrhaging so badly I didn’t know what to do.
Spare no expense, I thought with elation, as if the immensity of the planet, its abundance of destinations, and a heart wildly unleashing retirement funds for the sake of love could somehow compensate for every poorly mothered place in their childhood hearts.
“What we would appreciate most would be a few days at a spa,” they told me. “And since we both want the same thing, why not save money and just all go away together?”
We talked about going to Oprah’s favorite Miraval Resort and Spa in Tucson, Arizona. But the pandemic put the kibosh to going anywhere at all. And 15 months later, quarantine-weary travelers had the same idea we did. All that was available for the dates we wanted were the accommodations in which Oprah herself probably stayed—at a price more fitting for her pocketbook than for ours.
Because we hadn’t seen Lauren in 16 months, I wanted Rob to come, too. Initially, he wasn’t keen on the Miraval concept. But then Lauren found an Airbnb in the high desert of California, 30 miles north of Palm Springs, complete with swimming pool, hot tub, fire pit, and two acres of land surrounded by brush and boulders. Even he couldn’t resist. It appeared to offer the serenity of Miraval without all the amenities we weren’t really looking for anyway. And at a fraction of the cost. We jumped on it.
It had to feel strange for our adult daughters to think of vacationing with just us. And we felt a little guilty pulling them out of their own family units, as if we didn’t have the heart to treat everyone to such a trip. But there was a soul mandate to heed and a promise to keep. And while it was far from easy to prepare for all of us to leave jobs, line up pet and child care, saddle partners with extra responsibilities, and do all the travel just for 3 days and 4 nights, I knew I would regret it forever if this trip were left untaken.
Lauren drove a rental car from L.A. and met Les and us at Palm Springs International Airport. We greeted each other with the force field of industrial magnets, crushing one another with hugs and crying into each other’s hair after such a long separation. We had dinner in Palm Springs, then made our way to Yucca Valley, where we navigated dusty dirt roads high in the San Bernardino mountains to locate our Airbnb before dark.
Our minivan skidded a couple of times on steep inclines with mild rollercoaster-like drops. I clung to the armrests in the back seat, wondering what we’d gotten ourselves into. Finally, we came to an unassuming white house at the top of the hill, with only a few other houses scattered at a distance here and there. We pulled into the driveway, retrieved the key from the lockbox per instructions, and unlocked the door.
Our mouths fell open at the spacious great room with its large windows spanning a panoramic view of the surrounding rugged terrain of boulders, brush, and cacti, all set off by stunningly clear skies.
We went outside on the deck and stood mesmerized. Were we in a set for a western TV show, or peering into an old-fashioned View-master? But for all its beauty, what struck us speechless was the silence—nearly deafening, brain-erasing, soul-embracing silence.
The environment flooded our senses with rest and healing. We attempted some fire pit time, but we hadn’t packed enough layers for the cold and the wind, which drove us back inside. We were munching on snacks provided by the Airbnb when Lauren opened up a satchel and surprised us with gifts. “We can have Miraval here, too,” she said, as we each unwrapped a tin mug she had ordered, specially inscribed with Miraval Yucca Valley—Est. 2021. She pulled out a bottle of Miraval Cotes de Provence rosé, and we cheered the days to come before claiming our rooms and calling it a night.
I woke up at 4:30 the next morning, surprised by light. I padded out to the great room and took in another awestruck breath. How had the process of writing this book and 15 months of pandemic stress brought us here? I stood in the great room, looking through the cathedral of windows at the desert preparing to embrace another day, and teared up in a moment of worship and thanksgiving.
When the sun had fully risen, I set out a family journal and colored markers on the dining table, and Lauren dumped a brand new 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle onto the kitchen island. After food shopping, we set out to explore Joshua Tree National Park and took a moderate mile-and-a-half hike. I begged the girls to go off on their own if they wanted something more challenging than my knees could take. “No,” they insisted. “We do things on this trip together.”
We carefully navigated the rocky and uneven terrain, relishing the intriguing scenery and sparklingly brilliant weather. We had just paused near the end of the trail for photos when someone said, “Hey, look at this,” and I pivoted on the tiny ball bearings of crushed gravel, lost my balance, and fell down on my side.
“Oh no, Mom!” Les cried. It wasn’t that the pain was particularly bad, or that I was alarmed by the blood running down my elbow and soaking through my pants. It was that I had visions of needing to be airlifted out of the park, ruining our trip, and of being a burden—something no parent wants to be, especially on a trip like this.
They hovered over me on the ground, waiting anxiously for me to say something. “I think I’m okay,” I said cautiously, reaching for Rob to pull me up. I moved gingerly, the girls helping me steady myself. “Really, I’m good. Nothing twisted or broken.” They poured water from their drinking bottles over my abrasions to wash some of the fine gravel out, and we carefully finished the rest of our hike.
Later that afternoon, we luxuriated in the pool before the girls went back to the house to prepare shrimp tacos for dinner. Toward evening, we hung out in the pergola, letting the environment obliterate concern, waiting for the stars.
We moved to the lounge chairs near the pool, got flat on our backs and gazed into the unpolluted, deep indigo skies. We counted satellites, shooting stars, and identified constellations. The night a crescent moon appeared, we were in a trance, like we were seeing one for the first time. The goal of this trip from the outset was just to enjoy being together. And that was the gift, in the most sheltering and soul-restoring environment we could’ve imagined.
Over the few days, we saw mountain quail, lizards, jackrabbits, roadrunners, and a few coyotes shyly trekking about. We delighted in Joshua trees, yucca plants, and learned to stay away from the cuddly-appearing but dangerous cholla “teddy bear” cactus. And against this wilderness backdrop, without them being framed by anyone or anything else, we saw our daughters, too—fiercely competent, thoughtful, and creative young women with a strong bond of friendship between them.
As we got ready to celebrate my early birthday at a restaurant one evening, I wrapped something for each of them I wasn’t sure I’d actually give them. Would they think it was odd?
The idea was spawned from a childhood memory. Cued by the scent of her perfume that she was going out, I’d watch my mother stand in front of the powder room mirror, pop the cap off her lipstick, and give the base two small turns to raise the lipstick above the rim. She’d expertly drag it left and right across her lips, and then left and right again, and then finally left for a final time over her bottom lip. She’d then pull out a tissue, press it between her lips, and toss it into the waste can. Sometimes, after she’d gone, I’d pick the tissue out of the trash to study the vertical lines in her mouth print—but more so just to feel close to her.
At the restaurant, Rob and the girls handed me homemade cards and a Joshua Tree canvas bag containing a beautiful throw with desert colors in a landscape design. It was the perfect gift. And then I trusted the moment. I pulled the small gifts from my purse and said, “Every party girl needs to give the guests a favor.” I told them the story of my mother blotting her lipstick, and what an impactful gesture that was to me as a child.
They each unwrapped a white handkerchief with white hearts embroidered around the edges, opening it to see my lipstick print in the center. I had written in an arc over it, With my love and blessing forever.
“I sprayed these with my perfume,” I told them, “and kissed them with my lips. Someday when I’m gone—”
I started to cry, and they did, too. My daughters are capable of revving up a room with laughter. But if there’s one thing the three of us also do very well together, it’s crying.
On the morning we left our beautiful retreat house, I watched them put the last piece into the impossibly hard puzzle—a symbol to me of how the family that was once splintered in sorrow was, all along, more than I knew, a family lovingly intact.
Leslie, Lauren, Rob and me, Miraval Yucca Valley—Est. 2021