My nerves were keyed up the morning I departed. I was late leaving my house and got to the bus station in Rochester with one actual minute to throw my keys at the valet and get on my bus to Logan where I would board to Minneapolis. My flight was delayed due to mechanical issues. People were looking grumpy so I did what any Captain of the Free Hugs Team would do; I bought 100 munchkins and offered them to everyone at my gate. And the gate across from my gate. And all the other gates in the wing. I learned 100 munchkins is a lot of munchkins. A guy smiled at me as he took one and called me the crazy donut lady. I'm okay with this.
In Minne, I checked the boards for my family's incoming flight from Detroit. There were two arriving only 5 minutes apart. I flipped an imaginary coin and headed to one of the two gates. I watched as passengers emerged from the bridge and hurried off. The flow of traffic turned to a trickle and I was sure I had picked the wrong gate to go to. Then the little girl from the photos walked out. She peeked up over the ramp and stared at me. I waved, unsure of what to do. She waved back. Then I saw the rest of the kids and their mom appear behind her. They came up the ramp straight towards me.
I thought I was going to cry but I didn't. I was so excited/scared/nervous that I didn't have the capacity to cry. M, who seemed totally calm in comparison, introduced each of her kids to me. All four of them stared up at me as I studied their faces for the first time. They were smiling back, the youngest who is 4 was hiding a little. I followed M and her kids to the lounge where we would spend a few hours until our flight to Anchorage. It was funny to me how shy I suddenly became in this brand new situation. It was like I was a kid again waiting to make friends. Luckily, this group of people was easy to make friends with. In the lounge we snacked on pancakes and played a card game called The Great Dalmuti, which we played every night and I quickly developed an addiction for, and exchanged snippets of information.
Anchorage. Even in the city you were struck by the beauty of the surrounding mountains. We stayed the night in a hotel and I stayed up really late talking to N, the lone girl of the 4 kids. In the morning the two oldest, Z and N, performed a song which named every element of the Periodic Table and told me about their geese and ducks back home. We gathered together after breakfast and waited for M's husband G to arrive with the RV.
When he got there we loaded up onto the most majestic RV of all time, complete with a gigantic sunrise paint job, and headed to JBER to stock up. I had never been on a base before so it was another brand new experience within this scope of brand new experiences. After leaving the base G dropped M and I off at a playhouse to see Annapurna, a play about an alcoholic writer and his estranged wife who waltzes into his piece of shit trailer unannounced. It was incredible. The man who played Ulysses was the best actor I've ever seen in real life. I was captivated. After the play we settled in and spent our first night in the RV.
The next morning we headed away from Anchorage. The view on the highway was breathtaking. We went north through Girdwood and passed through Chickaloon, the VERY small town in the middle of nowhere where my mom and my brother's dad had built a cabin in the 80s. It was surreal to be in a place that I had only ever heard about in stories of my brother's childhood. I had never considered it a real place until I was there. We kept going until we got to the Matanuska Glacier where I learned that glacial silt feels more like muck and G was an expert on everything glacier. The kids had their school for the day while they listened to their dad talk and flip over rocks to show us their perfect indentations. I was STANDING on a GLACIER with a 360 degree view of just how beautiful Alaska was.
On our way to our next stop we saw two moose in a bog. I took too many pictures. We settled into a campground and explored. The kids found a fisherman about to dock and helped him get all his stuff to shore, including the boat. G lit a fire and the kids roasted marshmallows for smores while I hung out inside the RV with Michele and talked candidly about my dad.
The next morning I combed my hair next to a glassy lake and for the first of about 1000 times I thought "I could live here."
We went to Seward. Visited the Ocean Wildlife Center. I saw a whale in Resurrection Bay. I also saw another whale, sea lions, an otter, and a bald eagle that day. We went to the Exit Glacier. We played SO MUCH Dalmuti that I started to get better at it.
Then we went to Homer. We stopped at the Trail Lakes Hatchery and got a tour from a really cool dude. I learned the life cycle of a salmon (and forgot it) and got to see thousands of tiny fish. We read Macbeth to each other in the RV. We saw more moose. We went out for sushi, my first ever proper sushi experience. Then we parked on Homer Spit and played Dalmuti until midnight.
In the morning on the Spit we went to a beautiful beach where we saw whales and another otter. We traveled north again. We visited the Alaskan Islands and Ocean Visitor Center. We stayed the night in a campground where we met a puppy named Chainsaw. We went to the Wildlife Refuge and saw a lot of musk ox. We saw the Portage and Byron Glaciers. We headed back to Anchorage. On our last full day together I went to the Anchorage Museum with the kids while M and G dropped off the RV.
The days went by slowly but the trip ended too soon. The flight home was strange. It was a bittersweet ride. I was okay until we got to Detroit, where we would part ways. I thought we were going to have time to go to dinner but my flight left earlier than I thought, a lot earlier. I was leaving in 30 minutes, not 2 hours. I wasn't ready to go. I panicked and tried so hard not to cry. It kept threatening to come out but I wouldn't let it until those kids started hugging me goodbye. That's when the dam burst. Like, full on ugly cry.
I stalled as long as I could but then I had to leave. My flight was nearing the end of its boarding. When I reached the end of the bridge I looked back before I went around the corner. They were all standing there in their orange sweatshirts waving at me. Picture perfect. It was hard for me to turn and leave. I wanted to run back and stay with them.
I found my seat between two other young women and sobbed for almost an hour. It was a messy mixture of happy, sad, grateful, and lonesome. I sat there thinking about everything that had happened, how it had all come together. I reflected on my relationship with my dad, thinking that maybe the reason that I had never known him was so that I could know this family instead. This couple and their kids with so much love to give.
The emotions of it all are still swirling. Sometimes I wonder if it really happened at all. It seems so perfectly surreal but I have the pictures to prove it. I have this love in my heart that wasn't there before.
In summary, my family is awesome and I miss them. xoxo