I love this picture of us. It was taken on a trip to Washington D.C. two years ago. While on our tour of the White House, my husband, Mike, and I paused to take a silly selfie in one of the mirrors in the East Room. We look so happy.
Looking at this picture, you may never have guessed that just 8 weeks before our daughter was stillborn. You might not have known that just 8 weeks prior, the woman in that mirror fought so hard to stay with her husband instead of leaving with her daughter. It might be hard to imagine that these two tourists, mugging for the camera, had spent the last 8 weeks avoiding mirrors because looking at yourself after the death of your baby is not a pleasant experience.
No, you probably would not have guessed those things and that was why I loved that trip. The whole experience was a gift from our families; a vacation from grief, if you will. The experience was terrifying and liberating and, dare I say, fun.
I relished in the fact that no one in that city (except for two random encounters with co-workers) knew our story. No one looked at us with pity or discomfort. We were just normal, obnoxious tourists. When I got dressed in the morning, I didn’t have to worry about hiding the fact that I was no longer pregnant. No one here knew our story and while that made me sad, it also helped to temporarily unburden my heart.
I was hungry for the bounty of distractions available to us. On our first day, alone, we visited the National Portrait Gallery and the National Archives, we walked along the National Mall and viewed the Washington Monument, we hiked down the Lincoln Memorial and sat on its cool marble floors before swinging by to gaze upon the exterior of the White House. There was so much to look at, to visit, to plan, to walk to that it was hard to find time to be sad about our new life.
Our itinerary of “look here, don’t think about that” continued over the next few days of our trip. We visited the White House and had a private tour of the Capitol. There were visits to the many museums of the Smithsonian and the National Gallery of Art. We breathed in the delicate beauty of the United States Botanic Garden and the stoic grandeur of the Library of Congress. At night we strolled along the twinkling monuments pausing long enough to take in their poignancy and trying to capture it all in a photograph for posterity. In our 4 days there we walked almost 40 miles. After so much time standing frozen in our grief, it felt so good to be on the move.
Everywhere we went forced us to encounter other people. This was something both of us had been dreading about the trip. We had seldom left the house in the previous weeks and it felt like a huge step to be traveling to such a crowded place. I was surprised at how intimate our trip felt. Even though Mike and I stood in dozens of lines and elbowed our way through throngs of people, there were so many moments where I felt like it was just the two of us. Having to navigate the crowds allowed us to actually focus on each other. I particularly remember walking through the East Room of the White House together. As we shuffled between velvet ropes under the watchful and unblinking eyes of security, we would look at each other and smile at the awesomeness of it all. It felt so good to finally look at each other without tears in our eyes.
We experienced so much on our trip and the distractions were not only numerous, they were impressive. Washington D.C. is so rich in its history and I was overwhelmed with its significance. Everywhere my feet touched I imagined the footsteps of the men and women who had walked there before me. Even though they were no longer there, their impact was felt.
It was just like Dorothy.
Her absence did not mean her influence was over. Her brief existence could be extended by the magnitude of her memory. And just like those history makers who were no longer here to see their impact, it could be memorialized by others. I could build my own monument; a memorial to the life of a girl who only ever knew love. These thoughts were the first time I thought about grief and it didn’t feel like something I had to run from. Maybe this trip was not meant to be a vacation from grief, but rather a layover before the next leg of the journey.
Returning home from our time in D.C. was very difficult. Not because I was scared of what I was returning to, but because I was afraid that I was leaving behind my happiness. Those four days had been the first time in 8 weeks that a smile had eased itself across my face. It had been the first time I had drawn breath that wasn’t shaky and trembling. Being on that trip reminded me what it was like to wake up in the morning and to be excited about what the day held. I worried that when I stepped off the plane I would be returning to the new life that had been thrust at me; the one where smiles were forced, breaths were shaky, and days were only dreadful. I only hoped I had collected enough souvenirs to remind me that I was capable of happiness again.
It’s been two years since that trip, but it is a memory that I often revisit. Not just because of all that we saw, but because of all that we experienced. That vacation marked our first foray into happiness after the devastating loss of our daughter. It was an endeavor that so beautifully reminded us that what has come and gone deserves to be memorialized and reflected upon. Our time in Washington D.C. showed me that there was more out there that I was meant to experience and I wasn’t meant to do it alone.
Photos by Mike Whalen