We are travelers. We’ve always taken trips on a monthly or sometimes weekly basis either to vacation or visit out of town family. We are go, go, go people. Our kids travel well. They’ve never known any different. We had traveling down to a fine art of packing and planning. I would start preparing a day to a week in advance depending on the length of the trip. I would have lists and piles separated for packing. The car loaded in advance with snacks and travel bags of goodies to keep kids entertained. We love to travel. We are the “leave at 4 am family that gets to where we are going before we can even check in”. We were always headed to Virginia or Pennsylvania to visit family. Whatever new place or adventure that came to mind or that we could afford we would do. Nate fit right into this mentality with us. He loved to go. He loved to see what was on our agenda next.
Shortly after Nate’s passing we decided we wanted to take a trip to Pigeon Forge TN where my parents have a rental cabin we have visited more times than I can count. Our initial thought was actually to escape Christmas as a getaway but since the cabin was already booked we had time to realize that escaping Christmas was not the right way to tackle it and instead thought a long weekend getaway during the Christmas season was a better fit. Nate had been asking since early Spring if we could go to “Nanny’s Cabin” again. We ran out of time and hadn’t made it this summer because of other family trips but had hoped to go in the fall as a family. So when we pondered a trip it seemed only fitting to make the 8.5 hour drive to TN.
We looked at a calendar and picked the weekend and blocked off time at the cabin and then really procrastinated on the trip from there. Normally the excitement would build for weeks but this trip was anxiety ridden for me. I didn’t want to think about it. I didn’t want to plan. And I really didn’t want to pack. In fact even in the week prior I think I intentionally found things to keep me busy so I didn’t have to think or pack. Because packing meant packing without Nate’s clothes. Planning meant planning without Nate’s input. Because packing the car with bags meant I didn’t have to pack Nate’s DS, itouch, his favorite snacks or have Nate packing his back pack full of Hess trucks, matchbox cars, and coloring books because these were his choices to pack. Because packing the truck meant we had an empty seat and more travel space. Because telling the kids about the trip meant we didn’t have Nate to ask us 800 times if it was time to go yet as he counted down the days. Because the idea of traveling was all of sudden scary.
As Wednesday approached I found myself really struggling with these fears and truths. By Tuesday night it was time to pack. I had procrastinated long enough. As I lay on my bed looking at the clothes that needed to go into a suitcase I just sat there almost as if paralyzed. I knew I had to gather the strength to do it because Drew was excited for that early morning wake up on Wednesday and for the upcoming Dollywood thrills. I gathered the strength late Tuesday night before I crashed into bed for the night. I did it last minute. Soooo not my style. But on this trip this is how it was done. Last minute I threw everything into joint bags and set them by the door to load into the truck. I forgot socks for Drew. I forgot medicines I usually carry for all the just in case needs. I even forgot to pack a cooler full of fridge stuff so we didn’t have to re-buy items when we got to the grocery store there. But it didn’t matter. I packed. I did it.
I fought another huge battle of getting out the door. Wednesday morning we planned to leave at 5 am. We made it out the door about 5:45. It was hard leaving. We felt incomplete. We were missing our Nate. Every ounce of me wanted to run back inside and say “We aren’t going” but I know that is not what we do. We don’t give up. We cried as we pulled out of the driveway but as we made our way down the 8.5 hour drive we began to talk about the fun we would have at Dollywood and in TN. Our drive there had a few hiccups in its course. It took 3 attempts to get out of the driveway as we kept turning around for forgotten items (due to my lack of planning), haha. We stopped somewhere along the highway on 81 in VA for potty breaks and to change Kaylee. We stopped at a gas station first that didn’t have decent potties so we drove across the street to McDonalds. Justin got out of the truck to walk the puppy as I took Kaylee and Drew inside to use the bathroom. As we both walked away from the truck we heard it beep and the alarm sound. I found it odd that Justin was locking the truck doors when he was literally standing 30 feet away with the puppy on a leash. When I walked back out from McDonalds bathrooms I asked Justin to unlock the doors so I could put Kaylee back in her seat. He responded with “You have the keys”. I did not have any keys. I said “You locked the truck” and he immediately said “No, you did”. Uh Oh. It had happened. I looked inside the windows to see his keys still in the ignition and my keys sitting on top of my purse. 2 sets of keys both locked inside the truck while we look from the outside with a puppy, a ready to run 23 month old and a restless 7 year old. After the last few months of knowing things that we can truly be upset over… this was not one of them. What could we do but laugh and induldge in french fries and milkshakes. As we waited over an hour for Chevrolet Roadside Assistance to come unlock our doors all I could do was ponder what a new adventure for our family was and how this was a big distraction from the emotional morning we had. We also talked about how Nate would have loved the whole adventure. He mostly would’ve been excited to see the work truck come and see just how they were going to open our doors. He loved that kind of thing. We still aren’t sure exactly how the keys got locked in the car with the alarm set but I think it was all in our plan that day. We needed that distraction and needed something to laugh about.
The forecast had called for sunny skies all weekend showing a chance of rain into the late weekend. So Thursday morning as we headed out shopping we were surprised to see rain. It was the first morning on vacation when I was feeling sad over Nate and wishing he were there. I was once again reminded of God’s love. One month after Nate’s passing on October 2nd, I woke to a downpour of rain. On that day I felt depressed and sad and as if the sky was weeping with me. A very good friend’s mother called her and said she wanted to pass this message to me “Do not think of the rain as tears. Think of the rain as if God has opened the heavens and poured out His and Nate’s love for you”. My day and view of the rain turned around in that very moment. In that moment, on this past Thursday morning, I looked at the rain and thought, “Yes, God, please open the heavens and pour out your love”.
We love the Pigeon Forge area of Tennessee and have been there more times than I can count. We have so many memories there. I’ve spent the 4th of July there with my sister and niece Hannah, and the kids. I’ve spent Christmas season weekends there admiring the lights and Christmas spirit. I’ve shopped, spent time at Splash country and Dollywood, vacationed with my family, vacationed with Justin’s family, we’ve been all through Gatlinburg, hiked and been through the national park and Cades Cove. Every corner we turn we have a memory. We have all good memories, laughter, and smile provoking memories. I have memories of smiles on faces as they come off rides at Dollywood, or marveled at a view, or the awe in a face as we hiked to white water or waterfall views. I have memories of the Dollywood rides that Nate loved. The veggie tales roller coaster that he must have ridden 30 times. The shooting star ride he started riding when he was just barely tall enough and then grew to love. The old fashioned cars that you drive around a track that I know we rode with Drew and Nate at least 2 dozen times each visit. Sitting on the train that tours Dollywood as Nate watched the engine of the train in awe and trying to figure out how it all worked. As I watched Kaylee on some of the baby rides I couldn’t help but see Nate sitting beside her arm around her proudly as he did on our spring trip to Hershey Park. Nate wasn’t tall enough for the rides that Drew could ride but he never minded. He was happy to see a smile on Kaylee’s face and ride a baby ride with her. Remembering Nate at Dollywood and riding rides was hard but I have to remind myself that we did those things for our kids. Our kids have those memories because of us. Our kids had fun because of us. Our kids are loved because of us. And our kids will continue to have these things because of us. Nothing has changed. We still love our kids without fail and will never stop doing the very best for them. This trip was about our family. Putting our family first and taking time for us. It was about trying to relax and escape reality for a few days. Justin and I were able to sneak away leaving Drew and Kaylee with my parents and spend time together. It was the first time in months that he and I really genuinely laughed together. We were able to coordinate schedules so that my parents could spend some time in Tennessee with us too. While some of the trip was spent helping them prepare the cabin for Christmas and Justin helping my dad with a few things that needed done… most of the trip was spent enjoying each others company and having fun.
Pigeon Forge and Dollywood were beautifully decorated for Christmas. It was enough for Justin and I to feel like we could come home and begin preparation for the holidays. I think it gave me just enough inspiration to muster the strength to decorate for Christmas here. If you know us you know that I am usually begging to decorate the day after Thanksgiving and I have Justin under the house digging out Christmas bins. This year has been different and I have purposefully procrastinated in decorating for Christmas. Maybe I’m procrastinating because putting up the tree meant Christmas was really happening or knowing that seeing the ornaments and the memories would be difficult. Maybe it’s because Nate’s birthday is around the corner. Maybe it’s because Nate LOVED Christmas and toys. Tonight, because we are parents first and our kids want Christmas, we pulled those bins out. Tonight we started decorating for Christmas. We pulled out the Christmas tree and the ornaments. There were tears. Nate’s ornaments and pictures are proudly presented on the tree. His glittery preschool picture ornaments and the truck carrying a tree he picked out last year and broke on the way out of the store and with a 5 year old in tears I was right back in the store to buy another. There were smiles combined with tears as we see the excitement build in Drew and Kaylee as each ornament went on the tree.