The last vacation I took with my parents and sister was to Puerto Rico in July 1996. I just graduated from NYU, newly dating my later-to-be husband. My sister was madly in love with her then boyfriend and played Nothing Else Matters by Metallica on loop the whole time. My parents, still two years shy of their quarter-century divorce, met some fellow Russians vacationers and got drunk. My sister and I moped around like teenagers, missing our boyfriends, and avoiding our parents. I was 21, she was still technically a teenager at 15 but this was the first vacation where our ages melted away.
The night before we left New York for vacation, we celebrated my grandfather’s 70th birthday at a Russian restaurant with dancing, herring, and gallons of vodka. My sister took pictures of us posing in the fabric wallpapered hallway, all grown up and done up for our boyfriends. There was a surprise visit from my parents friends, who lived in Kentucky. Their daughter had just got engaged to my grandparents’ friends’ son, who lived in New Jersey. They were keeping it local – and in the family. They planned the wedding, selecting the hall, the dress, the flowers, this weekend her parents were visiting. The party went until 2 am.
The morning after the party, my immediate family boarded a plane for this long July 4th weekend to Puerto Rico. Hurricane Bertha was an unwelcome visitor. Not only did it delay us coming home, we were forced to evacuate our rooms and stay in the basement of the hotel until the storm passed. Once again, my parents indulged in rum punch and my sister and I brooded in the pre-cell phone, pre-Skype days.
When we finally made it back home after a bumpy flight, my aunt Mila, my father’s sister, who was living with us at the time, greeted us at the door by telling us our Kentucky friends had shattered in a car accident. She said this in Russian, and the word shattered hung in the air. Both my parents screamed, “How?” They were crying, shaking their heads, covering their eyes with their hands. The brief story: he fell asleep behind the wheel in the middle of the night and veered into opposing traffic and was hit by a truck. 9 months before their only daughter’s wedding.
This series of events: partying with them so alive the day before we left, a shitty vacation inadvertently extended by Mother Nature, a scary plane ride, and our lifelong friends dying, are filed away deep in the memory archives I rarely access. Life and death, the bookends which hold up this final family vacation.
My husband always reacts with great surprise when I tend to extrapolate and convey only the bad parts from stories of my life. I don’t remember a pretty beach or even fun hanging out with my sister. What wouldn’t I give now to be on a (free) beach vacation with my sister and no responsibilities for a long weekend?
It takes a seasoned maturity to be able to spin your head the other way to focus on happier things, or more positive things. It takes thinking an extra second, rather than reacting, and allowing logic to trump emotion. It may take behavioral therapy or conditioning, but if I can learn to crane my neck to seek the sunshine, like a flower, would I lighten my load?