Six weeks after Machaela’s death I got medical clearance to fly. The mass that was found outside of my uterus seemed to be shrinking and my physical pain was almost 100% gone. So, Jim and I took off for Sweden. Jim’s dad, Karl, is from Sweden and they have a lot of family still living there. Jim’s dad had blessed us with this amazing trip but honestly, it didn’t think it mattered where I was. I was still sad.
I was in the hospital when Karl presented this trip to us. Under any normal circumstances, a trip like this would be even better than a five year olds first trip to Disneyland. It was hard for me to fathom that I would actually have a good time.
Just a few days after her funeral, I went and had my passport photo taken. It was the worst of all photos. I never slept for more than an hour at a time these days. I had cried so much that when I did, no tears came. The picture was ten times worse than any horrific DMV picture. My eyes were sunken with deep, dark bags under them. My hair was limp and stringy. I looked so pathetic. But this was my new reality. I was pathetic. I was a grieving mother about to jet set to a foreign country. What was I thinking? Maybe we should postpone this trip when I felt more up to it, but then, I wondered if I’d ever feel up to it.
The more I thought about the trip, the more I had convinced myself that it would be a great way to escape the pain I was living in. Nobody really knew me there. I wouldn’t have to look my friends and family in the face as they stared back at me with sad eyes. I wouldn’t have to answer my friends’ questions and try to come up with something comforting to say to them. Most people had heard about what happened; others hadn’t. I was going to be able to avoid those awkward moments in the mall when I’d bump into an old friend who would ask, “How old is your baby now?” Sometimes I would bluntly answer, “She’s dead.” I learned early on, that depending on how I answered the feared questions, would depend on the response I’d get. If I simply said, “She’s dead” most people would looked startled and mumble an “Oh, I’m so sorry.” That was the end of that conversation. If I answered more tenderly and said something like, “Sadly, she passed away a few weeks ago.” I would get pity back. I didn’t like the pity. People would fumble for the right words, but it always left room for more questions. I didn’t want to answer questions. My situation sucked and I wanted to run from it. I was still pissed. So, yes, Sweden seemed like a fantabulous idea.
My mom cried when I left. I secretly cried too. This was my first time to ever go on an airplane and it was for 15 hours. I was actually a little scared to fly. I drove to LAX trying to pretend I wasn’t terrified to leave my parents. I had grown very close to them, especially my mom, through all of this. She had been there for me in the middle of the night when I’d wake up sobbing. When I’d break down over a diaper commercial she’d hug me and say things like “I understand. I wish I could take this pain away from you…” and “It’s going to hurt for a while.” I was leaving my security blanket. I was leaving my mommy. Even though I was sort of grown up, I needed her. Was I ready to leave my parents and face the world? Would I be able to look at the little families on the airplane and not cry? I prayed I would be strong enough. I knew that I had Jim and he always had a way to make me feel better, despite his grief.
Our time in Sweden was healing. We drank a lot, ate a lot and I decided to take up smoking cigarettes again. People smoked everywhere in Sweden; in California, it’s banned in most places. It’s even illegal to smoke on your own apartment balcony. It’s considered dirty and disgusting. Europe was different. People from all walks of life smoked. I sat in a bar half buzzed one night and watched this blonde chick take a drag off of cigarette. Instantly the line from the movie ‘Ghost’ came to mind, “Just one drag, I’d do anything for a drag.” The chest tightness came back, I watched her smoke so elegantly, it was a natural thing. My throat was yearning to feel the dry, slight sting of smoke and my veins longed to feel the buzz of nicotine. My heart thumped while my hands trembled. It had been so long since I had last smoked and I felt like I had no reason to say no. I watched her take another drag. Inhale. Exhale. That’s all it took. A little liquid courage and knowing I was in a foreign country. My family back home would never know what I was doing. I knew it was wrong but it was done. I wanted another cigarette and I would have one. I was stoked to see that cigarette vending machines were still located in every bar and restaurant, but not so stoked to see that a pack of smokes were eight bucks a pack and that there were only fifteen cancer sticks versus the twenty in the states. Still, I took my Swedish crowns and slid them into the vending machine. At last! I took my first drag. My chest initially burned and that familiar release of tension returned. It felt so good. It felt normal. I felt like me, just numbed a bit. How could something that felt so good be so bad? With each drag I took, I blew away a white angry cloud of grief and the demon of addiction returned.
Karl met us in Sweden about a week after we arrived. He took us on a road trip to Norway. We had a great time ‘looking at all the pretty flowers” and stopping for tons of delicious Swedish pastries and chocolates. Often, Karl would spot something cool off the side of the road, and we’d pull over like typical tourists and snap some pictures. On our drive we saw about twenty deer grazing alongside the highway. They were all different sizes; some were huge with branched antlers and beautiful markings, and some were tiny, obviously new to the planet earth. Karl stopped the car because I had to get a picture for my dad. He was an avid deer hunter and he would never believe that this many deer stood together, at one time, just chilling. Plus I needed a smoke.
I jumped out of the car and trekked a few feet into the brush. That was my first mistake. I snapped two pictures before my shins started to burn. I looked down and didn’t see anything unusual. I rubbed them with my hands and my hands started to burn. Oh, my. The burning was increasing by the second and before I said anything to anyone, I poured the bottle of water I was holding all over my shins.
“What are you doing?”
“Dude, my legs are on fire. I think I’m allergic to that plant or something.”
Jim looked over in the direction I was pointing. He smiled a knowing smile and said, “Hey Dad. Isn’t that plant Grenassler?”
“Yes, it sure is. Be sure not to touch it.”
“Darla already did.”
“Whatever you do, don’t pour water on it! The poison will spread!”
“Damn. I already did.” That’s what she said.
Grenassler is like a poison oak. It figures I’d be the one to step in it. And of course, I poured water all over it, the one thing you should never do. Karl and Jim were chuckling to themselves. If it had happened to someone else, I would’ve been laughing too. I guess it’s a Swedish rite of passage of sorts. Everyone steps in it at least once.
I wasn’t going to let it get me down. Everyone got a good laugh and I got an awesome picture for my dad. It would be worth the two days of itching and burning.
Once we arrived in Norway, the three of us checked into a youth hostel. It was super small, sweet and met all of the basic necessities. The three of us were going to go explore the city of Oslo and get a bite to eat. We wandered off, found an American Pizza Hut and enjoyed some familiarity of home. By this stage of the trip I was beginning to feel a little bit homesick. I would occasionally call home to check in with my parents, but with the time change and expense, I didn’t call as often as I’d hoped.
After we returned back to Stockholm from Norway, we met up with Karl’s friend, Bertil. He is a hilarious guy by anyone’s standards. There was a language barrier between us, but I have to admit that I got the most laughs when we were around him. It felt good to laugh, even if it was just a little.
Karl was an amazing tour guide and so much fun to be with. His love for his home country warmed my heart and it made me excited to explore it more. One day he took us to a castle where royalty was buried above ground, inside the castle, where the stained glass reflected its beauty over the caskets. There was the King, Queen and little baby prince, he didn’t live beyond toddlerhood. The caskets were displayed above ground for all of us to see. My eyes focused on the baby’s casket. My heart started to race. Oh, damn. I hated my new reality. The day was the 10th of August, precisely eight weeks after my baby’s death. My heart broke. I wasn’t ready for this. I didn’t want to cry but I could feel the tears coming. Here I was, looking at royalty. They too had lost their most prized possession. Everyone around me was taking pictures and I felt a sudden need to protect that baby and make everyone stop. I wanted to scream, “These are people, not circus animals!” I realized that it didn’t matter how I felt, there wasn’t anything I could do. Just like Machaela, I had no control. Death will take us all at some point. No of us will ever escape it. My throat began to constrict and I grasped Jim’s arm. I couldn’t breathe. Grief was still one of my closest friends. It was my real life at home that I’ve been denying. My physical response alone told Jim to get me out of there as soon as possible. He did.
I was still learning how to pull myself together. The constriction in my throat made it hard to do. I needed another smoke.
One evening, we had been out in the town square in Stockholm watching a fireworks show after an intense soccer match. Karl was tired so he had left ahead of us. Once the show ended, the three of us took the subway back to the guest home we were staying in. Our conversation was light and a lot of hand gestures were being used to get each other’s point across. We got off the subway and began walking silently up a steep hill. That’s when I farted. It was loud and long and there was no hiding who done it. Jim immediately looked at me with his mouth wide open and eyes huge. Bertil looks at me and says in plain English, “Did someone step on a frog?” The three of us erupted in laughter. It was about the only thing the man said to me all night that I understood. And of course it had to do with me and my giant fart.
A few days later, Karl took us on a cruise from Stockholm, Sweden to Finland. One of the main challenges I had while I was there was figuring out what kind of food I was really eating. We attended a smorgasbord buffet of all different types of food. Different smells of food fragranced the air, but after scanning it, I realized I didn’t recognize anything there. I dislike all seafood. Let me rephrase that. It doesn’t have to be seafood; I strongly dislike anything that comes out of any body of water. To me it’s always smelly, slimy and looks very unappetizing with their little beady eyes.
There were hundreds of items to choose from and the smell of fish filled the air. There had to be something here that I could eat. I knew there was an enormity of seafood choices but I couldn’t read the signs telling me what the food was. Everything was written in either Swedish or Finnish.
I found what appeared to be Swedish meatballs. These were a safe food. Beef. I could do beef. I was honestly surprised how different the food was in Scandinavian countries. Chicken is so abundant in the states and that’s what I usually ate. But here in Sweden, seafood is their chicken. It was a challenge for me. Needless to say, I ate a ton of potatoes.
Everyone at my table was kind enough to give me their strawberries that were soaked in delicious syrup. After I had eaten ten meatballs or so, I excused myself to use the restroom. When I stood up, I realized that I was half drunk. I had failed to realize that the yummy syrupy stuff was a strawberry liqueur. I had never had liqueur before and it seemed that I liked it. It took next to nothing to get me buzzed.
I was walking back to the dining table and watched the three guys laugh hysterically. What in the heck could be so funny? My buzz felt good, the sadness was numbed just for a little bit.
I sat in my chair and I asked, “What’s the laughter all about?”
In between gasps for air his laughter breaks and Jim says, “You know those meatballs you kept saying were so delicious…?” He trails off into more laughter.
Then Karl chimed in and says, “…they weren’t meatballs after all!” Now all three were laughing hysterically again and I, in my somewhat drunken state, had thought they had all lost their minds.
“No, seriously, what’s so funny?” I ask again.
They proceeded to tell me that the meatballs that I had gorged myself on were actually reindeer balls. When I say balls, I mean the kind of balls that you find hanging in pairs in between males legs. You know, like…testicles. There I said it. I ate reindeer testicles. And they were salty and they were good. I will never, despite how wonderfully tasty they were, eat another reindeer ball. I just can’t. We all erupted into laughter and for the first time in a long time my belly hurt, not from crying and pain, but from joy. Maybe it was possible, in the midst of Swedish meatballs, Marlboro menthols, strawberry liqueur and reindeer balls, I would find happiness again.