Written by Bryna Campbell
Three years ago on July 1, my husband, son, and I piled into our car to race as fast as we could to my in-laws’ home at the Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri. Driving into the night, we were able to cut what is normally a three-day trip from the Pacific Northwest down to two. Our urgency was due to a phone call the previous day in which we discovered that my mother-in-law’s stage 4 cancer had gotten much worse and the doctors had determined there was nothing else they could do. By the time we got to Missouri, her doctors had moved her to a nursing home as a temporary holding station while the family figured out what to do next. The fourth of July holiday that year was a strange blur of activities: a family reunion of sorts, a cram session on how hospice care works, and a final good-bye to one of my favorite people in the whole world. My husband’s mom would die less than two weeks after we returned from our trip, towards the end of this month.
Independence Day has since been a unusual holiday for us. As everyone around us seems to be gleefully blowing stuff up, we are usually managing the ache of memories that seem to bubble to the surface like clockwork. Every year around this time my husband pulls out an old embroidered belt that his mother made ages ago to wear discretely under untucked shirts. Even our son, who was only 3 when she died, gets a bit nostalgic. Apparently when you’re 3 the most vivid memories involve chocolate. He reminds us how much he loved the chocolate chip cookies she’d make with him while she was sick – often from store-bought dough.
That night of Independence Day at the Lake of the Ozarks is so vivid to me. As my mother-in-law stayed in the nursing home, we stayed with my husband’s dad at their condo on the lake. He showed us home videos he’d made of them from the 1960s and 1970s, as we sipped wine and commented jokingly about how young and fit they both looked. Then we took the conversation out to their balcony overlooking the lake. Water lapped against the boat dock below us in a meditative rhythm. On the opposite of the lake, fireworks reflected of the water.
Time has brought a sweetness and melancholy to that memory that I didn’t used to have, and while the pain still lingers now I also think fondly of how much we bonded that evening.
Since that night we tend to treat Independence Day a bit differently. We usually hide from the fireworks. If we can, we stay away from cities. Often – more by coincidence than planning – we end up near a lake.
This year we spent much of the day with friends at a lake near Mount Hood where our son lapped about in the water with his friend joyously. After that, we made our way back to Portland along the Columbia River Gorge, pausing for breaks to take in the view.
Last year, we sat at the balcony on the lodge at Crater Lake. We toasted my mother-in-law as we watched the sunset turn transform the brilliant blue water for which the lake is known to a soft pink.