My husband Chuck and I spent the last 4 years of our marriage traveling the country, after selling our home in NJ and getting rid of most of our belongings. He’d retired from the Air Force, I left my job running a non-profit, and we decided we wanted to get out of the rat race. Our kids were grown and out of the house and we were still young. In those 4 years we went to all of the lower 48 states and relished our time alone together, even while visiting family and friends. Oftentimes we’d stay in military lodging; otherwise it was inexpensive hotels. We spoke of getting an RV but I was NOT a camper and nixed the idea; I didn’t mind living simply but that just wouldn’t work for me.
Near the end of our 2nd year of travel, Chuck got cancer and we returned to Jersey so he could receive treatment in Philly. It was an arduous battle that involved massive radiation treatment, 5 surgeries, recovery time, and wear and tear on both of us. But in between surgeries, we’d hit the open road again. Head west, pop open the sunroof, turn on Willy Nelson, and feel the wind in our faces.
We were living the dream. Until we weren’t. We were in southern CA when Chuck’s cancer returned. It was diagnosed in the ER and they admitted him immediately. In the one week we were there, tumors grew and chased one another and we couldn’t keep up with them, and we made the impossible decision to find him a hospice. There was time for me to call our kids and friends, and they streamed their way cross-country to us. He died 3 weeks later.
I bathed and dressed him, with the help of our daughters, annointed him with oils, and we wrapped him in colorful blankets. A week later I went to the crematorium and covered him in bouquets of vivid flowers, then pressed the button that raised the door to admit his body into the furnace. I collected his cremains and went back to our rental.
Before he died, I’d told Chuck that I intended to continue traveling on my own, and, knowing that, he asked me to return to our favorite places and scatter his cremains. Promise made. And then I told him that I was going to paint my car pink so that he could find me out here somewhere. He smiled at me and said he’d be on the lookout.
A month after his death, I hit the road solo. It broke my heart to leave the last place we’d been together but I had no options. We had no place to call home and the rental was up and I had to be on the move. His cremains sat next to me and I headed to our son’s place in AZ.
It was while I was in AZ that I found a man to paint my car for me. He customized the perfect shade of pink, and named it for me. I’d shared with him my and Chuck’s love story, and my intent to return to the road, and he named the color “Chuck’s Watchin’ Over Me” pink, to give me courage to go back out on my own.
My first cross-country trek was back to NJ to give Chuck a memorial service in our home community, with full military honors. I remember watching as the Honor Guard folded the flag and gave it to the captain, and as he turned and approached me, I repeated to myself over and over “Don’t lock your knees, don’t lock your knees”. All of you will understand when I say that I don’t know how to describe that moment when his flag was placed in my arms…
And then I bought a T@b Teardrop trailer, which is a smallish size, kind of retro. I had the trim painted in my custom pink, and I re-did the insides to make it pretty and cozy. I knew that if I was going to be on the road I had to change up HOW I did it to make it more emotionally bearable. I couldn’t fathom the pain of being in a hotel room or in military lodging, as Chuck and I had, without being a basket case. I’d never camped, I’d certainly never towed. Yet…here I was… I set out on what I call my Odyssey of Love.
It’s been a little over 2 years now. I’ve crisscrossed the country 7 times, learned how to hitch/unhitch with a modicum of confidence. Learned to back it up fairly well, though I’d rather people not watch me when I do so. And I’ve met hundreds of people along the way, at rest stops, at famcamps (where I stay as much as I can; it makes me feel closer to Chuck to be on base). My best picture, best memory really, of it all, was at McGuire AFB in NJ, when I was able to drive my rig right up under the wing of the C-141 at Starlifter Park, and get an amazing snapshot, along with a personal tour of the plane. Chuck had flown as a flight engineer on the 141’s, and had ridden the brake the day they set this one in place at the park, so it was quite an achievement for me.
Here’s the thing: Chuck set me on this Odyssey. He might not have fully formulated it in his mind, but he knew what he was doing, and he knew I was the kind of woman who needed a task, a mission. We’d spoken honestly and openly about his dying; he told me that of all the things he’d miss, he’d miss us the most. So he set me on this road, literally and figuratively. He named 4 places for me to scatter his cremains, knowing that there are others but leaving it up to me to recognize those places as I saw them. Doing that would require me to keep my heart open, and in keeping my heart open, I’d create this new life without him.
Grief is isolating, devastating, disorienting, dislocating..there’s nothing pretty about it. The pink of my rig draws people to me; they share their stories, I share mine, I get lots of hugs, and I continue on. Early on, a few days prior to arrival at a base famcamp, I’d email public affairs and tell them of this Odyssey. I’d tell them I was really only telling them about it because I believed it was important that they know that a veteran would be passing through their base on his final travels.
I don’t know when this Odyssey will end. Maybe never. I do know that I can’t fathom settling down in a sticks and bricks and waking up every day without him. Yeah, it’s hard being on the road without him too; memories are everywhere and it forces me to drive headlong into this grief. But that’s okay in a not okay way. This is my familiar world.
Chuck and I had 24 years together. The last 4 were spent adventuring as the wind blew us. Ours was a love affair marriage; we were as much in love the night he died as when we’d met so many years ago. I don’t have a sense of his presence. I’ve had no visits from him. I don’t know what I believe about an afterlife or if I’ll ever see him again (and that thought is devastating all by itself), but what I do know, and what fuels me every day and what makes me turn the key in the ignition one more time, is knowing how much he loved me, and how much love he left behind.
His cremains, his flag, and his ID tags ride shotgun with me. The shirt from his BDU’s hangs on the back of the passenger seat. My car is pink and has lettering on both sides that spell “Nothin’ but Love”. Behind me is my pink-trimmed trailer with a gold glitter door and “FWG” written in raspberry pink letters across the front. It means “f**cking Warrior Goddess”. That’s a term I coined when I began this Odyssey of Love. It reminds me that I can do this, that I AM doing this, that he knew I would do this. And I needed some strong words to denote that.
If I do nothing else in my life, I will live Chuck’s legacy of love~