I am in Rancho Cucamonga, California, at a hotel a few miles from the Ontario International Airport, in Southern California's Inland Valley. This is an area that I associate exclusively with Barbara, who grew up here. Every previous time that I have come in low over the San Bernardino Mountains to land at Ontario, Barbara has either been on the plane with me or waiting for me on the ground. Five months ago, coming back here without her would have killed me emotionally. Now I am experiencing a strange inner numbness that represents the latest stage in my journey of grief.
I am here with Jennifer because my mother-in-law, Barbara's mother, has taken a sudden turn for the worse. One of her major heart valves has failed, and she is too weak to endure surgery. We had planned a stopover of a few days in July on our way to a Hawaiian getaway that I planned with the kids back in January, when our loss was so fresh that we desperately needed something to look forward to. Now it seems doubtful if she will survive that long. Jennifer and I were able to make it out on short notice; Jeremy is on a school trip to Washington, DC with his choir, which will sing at the National Cathedral tomorrow. I would much rather be there to hear them than here surrounded by reminders of the past and, yet again, of death.
The familiar spots are still all around me, although as always in Southern California, growth has altered them. I was able to find the Marie Callender's near the airport for lunch. I told Jennifer that I remembered walking her around the restaurant when she was a toddler, as Barbara remained at the table to finish her dinner. I don't think I had been back since then. On the way to the care facility where my mother-in-law is staying, I passed by Lutheran High School in LaVerne, where I taught for two years when I couldn't get a job anywhere else. I gave up that job twenty years ago to be Jennifer's custodial parent. On the way, we passed a Baskin-Robbins that used to be a Burger King, a KFC that used to be a health food restaurant, a McDonald's that has remodeled to look like the classic golden arches design, and many other reminders that change comes to everything even as life marches on.
I am now resting back at the hotel, since I had to get up this morning at 4:00 Texas time, which is 2:00 in the morning in California. I am too tired to feel strong emotions, or even to wonder too deeply why I am here. My mother-in-law knew who Jennifer and I were today, but she didn't seem to remember much else, and we had to leave after less than an hour to let her rest. I think my grief is resting, too. That's probably a good thing, since it woke up and ambushed me earlier this month as soon as I turned in my grades for the spring semester. I tried to be patient with it; it gave me little choice.
Next week, my family will converge on Waco to see Jeremy graduate from high school. Jennifer and I will both begin summer term, and I will once again have my teaching to distract me. Then we will be back here in July, and I will see these familiar landmarks, along with the unfamiliar ones—and at least some of Barbara's family—again. I will be two months closer to whatever is down the road. I don't know where my life is taking me, but I know I'll soon find out. I'll have to settle for that.