So, as you are all probably tired of me saying and tired of reading about, I was unable to attend Camp Widow Tampa and do my presentation this year, which is/was this weekend. Right about now, as I write this, campers are gathering inside the Marriott Hotel for the Farewell Breakfast Brunch – taking some last minute pictures, getting one last hug with new and old friends, buying some widow swag from the camp bookstore, and trying to take it all in; everything they have just experienced in the last two days or so. Some will stay an extra day or two, maybe hang by the pool, or go out and explore Tampa and the local area. To say that I am missing being there is a huge understatement. For me, its the first time I havent been there since I started going and presenting over a decade ago, in 2013. So staying home and being on the sidelines was not easy. In fact, it was very very hard. Not doing my presentation, not providing laughter to widowed people and then feeling their joy and their relief from that joy, not making new connections, not having my annual time to decompress from life and sit by the pool and just BE – not seeing all the friends Ive made over the years and seeing what they are up to, not getting my Michele time and our traditional selfie, and a whole lot of other NOTS in there. It was very hard, and it IS very hard. I think the hardest part for me was something that doesnt even involve Camp Widow directly.
When Don died suddenly in July of 2011, I was a complete mess and had NO clue what to do as far as his “resting place” and all of that. Not knowing what he wanted, and having never really talked about it when he was alive, I made decisions based on gut instinct, combined with a few minor/half-joking things he had said at one point (“whatever you do, just don’t leave me in Jersey.” ) We had an Air Force/EMS funeral service, with a half open casket so they could do the traditional draping of the American flag over said casket, do TAPS, and the whole thing. Then, we had him cremated, and eventually, (months later, when I was finally ready), I went and picked up his ashes from his EMS brothers and sisters that were holding on to them for me. I then scattered some of them in the Long Island sound, in Sea Cliff, NY, where we got married. I did this on our wedding anniversary, in October, just three months after he died. I brought a few friends with me and we did a little ceremony thing. Then, on November 6th, his birthday, I flew to Tampa, Florida, with his ashes, and stayed a few nights at his best friend Rob’s house. A bunch of us had lunch in honor of Don, and then went to Don’s very favorite place in Florida, where he lived for almost 2 decades, Clearwater Beach. We walked out to the Pier there, and each of us passed his ashes around, held them while telling stories about him, then we each tossed some into the water.
The next year, I went to Camp Widow, and continued the tradition myself. I have done this each year while at Camp Widow, Every time, different friends either who live in the area or who had a car with them in Tampa, would drive me to Clearwater Beach, we would have dinner, then head out to the pier with a few ashes so I could do my thing. Usually, Id stop at Publix first, Don’s favorite store, and order his favorite turkey sub, bring it out and eat it on the beach. Some years we would get there for sunset, which was Don’s favorite at Clearwater. Back when we were dating, we would walk hand in hand along that beach and watch the sunsets, each time Id fly out to Florida to go visit him. So, for me, this was my way of visiting him in a very different way – heading out to that beach to see him, place more of him there, and feel close to him in a way that I really couldnt anywhere else. Over the years, many different friends and people have gotten me to that beach, on little road trips in their cars (its about 45 minutes or so from Tampa, and theres always quite a bit of traffic). Sarah and Mike, two different Rob’s, Ginger and Shannon, Tammy and Colin and Nick, (yes, my husband came with me to visit the ashes of my dead husband – after coming with me to a place called Camp Widow – such is my weird life), Susan and Tim, and so many more. Going to “visit” Don at our beach is such a vital part of my ongoing healing, living, and thriving. It has become part of my life, and each year, when I go to Camp Widow, I find my way to Clearwater Beach and back to Don again. Back to his roots, his favorite place to be, and the white sand that he always loved reminding me was far superior to any “poor excuse for a beach” in New Jersey.
This was the first time since Don’s death in 2011, that I have not made it back to that beach.
It’s really hard. It’s unsettling. It saddens me. There is no making it better, or putting some positive spin on it, or trying to find some freakin’ “lesson” in all of it. No. Some things just really suck, and me not being able to get there this year makes me very unhappy, and leaves me with an empty feeling in the pit of my heart, that is difficult to accurately describe. As the years go by, and I get further and further away from most things “that life ago”, it becomes increasingly more important to me to keep these traditions that I have, to keep my connections to Don on those milestone days or in those milestone places. I also have not been to NYC in over 3 years now, and so I haven’t been back to Sea Cliff where more of his ashes are in the water next to our wedding venue. Going there on our wedding anniversary is another thing that I just really wish I could do every single year. I don’t think these things are a lot to ask, but sometimes life and money and whatever else get in the way and I just couldn’t make it happen. It makes me so sad, and it’s severely disappointing. I’m sorry, Don. And I know I don’t need to say that, and I know he understands and I don’t need to apologize. But I’m also apologizing to myself, because these things are important to ME and my healing process, and letting them fall by the wayside doesn’t ever feel good.
If any of you get out to the Long Island sound in Sea Cliff, NY, or to Clearwater Beach in Florida, please take a moment, if you could, and grab a photo to send me or to post somewhere for me. And tell Don that I love him, and that I’ll be back next year, and each year after that. Hopefully.