What happens when you drive across the country after losing your father

 
SALT LAKE CITY.png
 

 

A GRIEF JOURNEY IN FINDING MYSELF BY LOSING MYSELF

 

I remember it was a typical sunny day in Los Angeles when I got the call. I was sitting in my friends living room in West Hollywood waiting for Postmates, stoned. It was the end of my first, short stint with jet-setting that spring: I was in Bali for twelve days. Prague for fourteen. Amsterdam for three. New York for five. And now, to end it off in one of my favorite places: California before I resumed to my normal summer life on the East Coast. I look down at the phone to a new voicemail. It's my mother. "We got the test results back and it doesn't look good." This would be the beginning of the next year of my life - which was anything but normal - where my father would battle cancer and I would be on the sidelines for support, Boston Market and massages. For an entire year, I was a recluse: I didn't have sex, a social life or travel. My entire world became the greater tri-state area -  until the day my father was admitted into the ICU. It took all of three weeks for him to slowly fade, where my sisters and I stayed with him every night, making beds out of chairs at the hospital during the beginning of his end. When he passed away, the moment I stepped outside a robin broke the 3:30am silence with a chirp and from that moment on I saw my father in every animal. Suddenly, nature became my ultimate refuge and everything became claustrophobic and insufferable, especially New York City. I became desperate to leave. But where? On a whim, I had an idea to go on a cross-country road trip. I had no idea what I was doing or where I was going but I had an intuitive sixth sense and was entertaining how to create a meaningful story during my grief journey. #1: as an homage to him. #2: a form of escapism for myself. #3: a way to immerse in the vastness of nature as a part of my healing. My friend Olivia decided to join me and we were off on the adventure at the end of a humid July day.

 
SANTA CRUZ.png
 

My Dad use to drive my family down to Florida, at least a few dozen times in my childhood and I could fondly remember the positioning of his hands on the steering wheel as his eyes pierced down the never-ending highway. When he came to America as a refugee, he actually dreamed of being a truck driver. He loved the open road and even took his own trip with his best friends when they were all in their 50’s across the entire country for three months. So, twenty years later, with three espresso’s in my body, I was embarking on my own way and, let me tell you: it was full of turbulence. Chicago was our first stop, full of Lollapalooza and long walks around the city. Then came St. Louis where we got caffeinated in an indie coffee shop. Kansas City snuck up on us and opened up the world of skydiving. We’d gone to the wind tunnel there, furious with one another, and became embraced by the most welcoming group of air travelers that also happened to be all male and quite foxy. What became a short stay turned into a prolonged excursion where we became a temporary part of the family. We drove in a Tesla, practiced our wind tunnel moves and had long conversations over wine. It was humbling and a reminder that you never know what is around the corner, even in the middle of the country where potential summer tornado’s are a thing. But really, it primed us for the magic that was about to happen: that supernatural shift that materializes when you cross into Colorado and are officially in the Rocky West where the sky looks like a snow globe and the vastness of space leaves you feeling like an insignificant tiny speck in the best of ways. My perspective immediately began to shape and with every western mile I was slowly unwrapping my pain. So it wasn’t a surprise when we were driving 10mph on a graveling mountain road as the sun was setting when I began to feel the tears roll down my checks. Slowly inching to get to the summit, the fusion of gold’s were streaked across the sky as my heart became more and more palpable. My dad was with me. 

 
IMG_5971.png
 

This was the kickoff for the next week of our lives off the grid: camping, sans shower or the guarantee of where to sleep on any given night so when we entered Utah - a state that I kind of forgot existed - it felt like we were in Martian land. The silence of the red rocks coalesced into an eerie calm that landed us at the infamous Arches National Park. At nightfall. With 2,000+ natural sandstone arches at our disposal. We didn’t even care if we went through gas - we drove around the entire park for hours, mesmerized, vulnerable and speechless. So, when the clock struck midnight, we began to think about where to sleep. Note: if this degree of spontaneity is giving you anxiety just thinking about it, just know that it probably gives me double the amount as an amateur adventurist who thrives on routine. Luckily, Olivia was more laissez faire about it and after driving alongside the bordering Colorado River, we decided on a spot that was technically not even a legal camping spot. My worry was semi-alleviated by Olivia’s calm but also because I was tired as fuck and we really had no other options. So here we were: two girls sleeping in a red Audi tucked next to the Colorado River overlooking a national park. If my Dad could have seen us, he would have put his head down in dismay. Just get a hotel room, he would say. So while I envisioned my metaphorical Dad not approving of my first time car camping, I still surprisingly went off to sleep and when I woke up, I lay motionless in a dream. It’s as if there was this beam of light around the car, protecting us. And the next scene turns into my father, clad in all white, talking with me but we’re very high up looking down at the earth and all of the craziness down there. He was calmly sharing words of wisdom to always stay true to who I am despite all the chaos that has occurred after his death. An instant later I woke up and cried. That was the first time I communicated with him in the afterlife. 

 
 

Who knew that Utah was so celestial? I wrote 50 postcards there, visited the local co-op and ventured amidst the accessible sandstones on an evening hike with only the moon to illuminate us. Even though I felt so raw, this was the perfect place for eternal rest, letting go a part of me that had the cushion of a father and everything that came with that. If I’m being honest, I felt like an orphan yet nature felt like my father everywhere. As if his spirits were roaming every crack and latitude. I had free rein to roam, sprint into the wild and not look back. What followed this was the last part of the journey: making it to the Pacific Ocean. California. Where I first heard of my father’s diagnosis. As we hit Pacific Coast 1, I felt like I had come home. Ocean to ocean, coast to coast. Full circle. So it felt like a natural next step to spontaneously go to Burning Man when given the chance. This became my debut back into society after 16 months of privately enduring and coping and it was the perfect trip to take within a trip. I’d fallen in love lust. Experienced a new world where you are coerced to relinquish any control, comfort or expectation and roam the desert, experimenting with what what you can attract or what can attract you. Olivia and I parted ways when I got back so I explored Arizona and New Mexico with another nomadic friend, Amanda, who had been living out of her amazing, refurbished van for the past year. I was dirty, unaware of where I would sleep but we hiked, cooked and experienced all together so the unknown was not only okay but strongly encouraged. 

 
unnamed-1 copy 2.png
 

When we parted ways in Santa Fe, I was truly alone. But not really because I had the open road and my Dad with me. I remember logging in nearly a thousand miles per day, crying to Coldplay, listening to podcasts, thinking in silence, trying to get home as quickly as possible. But why? It dawned on me that my Dad wouldn’t be there when I got home, which spurred a deeper kind of loss than before. If you take anything away from this: please ruminate on how importantly it is to absorb pain, letting it run its course inside of you. To not be afraid of being in solitude, where all you have is yourself and your emotions. Even though driving nearly cross-country in 3 days was intense, painful and borderline crazy, it was an integral part in me finishing my grief journey. I had no other choice but to unravel and comprehend this new, insurmountable void in my life. My father was nearly my entire identity so if I resisted the pain of his death not only would I self-inflict my own suffering but I would have let his demise become my entire demise. And he would have wanted me to live my own life. And not because that's what people always say but because he told me that while he was alive so even though I completely underestimated the sacrifice of time, money and uncertainty of driving across the country on a whim, this was a voyage that was not only required but vital for my life to carry on. My father always use to say that we are all born alone and we all die alone. Cultivating that type of independence and perspective has always been at the forefront of who am I so when I think back to this time last year where I would have been coming back home from this trip, I smile. When I came back home, I was faced with a lot of questions that needed answers and that was when The Confetti Project became a brand, where I began to go full force with it during the most difficult, transitional months to follow. Discovery: when we are dealt with loss, we can always rediscover ourselves again. And if it happens to be amidst the natural world, even better. 

REAL TALKJelena1 Comment