The train rumbled by on tracks close to our window, maybe fifty yards away.
The bed shook with the passing vibrations, jostling me from the half-sleep I’d fallen into. My daughter lay curled up beside me, pressed as close to me as she could get, fingers clenched and knotted into my tshirt. She slept deeply now, peacefully, her even breaths no longer broken with jagged sobs. The tears that had dried on her cheeks now slid silently down my own.
The rhythm of my accusing thoughts matched that of the train.
What was I doing? What was I thinking? Why are we here?
It was our first night in London. We’d been traveling for nearly eighteen hours. Exhaustion didn’t begin to describe our condition. My girl is a trooper, though, hanging in with good spirits until we finally collapsed on that small bed in the even smaller hotel room. It was then that the enormity of what we had done finally hit us: We were in London. A different continent. Half a world away from everyone we knew.
“I want to go home,” she sobbed. “I want to squeeze Raffie.”
“Shhh, shhh.” I soothed and stroked her hair back from her tear-wet cheeks. “We’re just tired right now, baby girl. We’ve been traveling for two days and all we’ve seen are airports. Tomorrow, we’ll get going and see things and have so much fun, the time will just fly by and you won’t want to leave.”
She burrowed in more closely. I pulled her in for a hug, and we leaned back on the pillows stacked against the headboard. “I promise, sweetie. Everything will look better when we finally get some sleep.”
Now she slept and I lay awake, wondering if I’d told her the truth.
This trip had made so much sense back in January when we first planned it. The unfeeling, relentless days had marched us straight into a new year, a year in which Kevin never was and never would be, and the agony of that realization – that life was going to keep going on whether I wanted it to or not – was almost too much in the middle of what seemed like the most frigid, snowy, long-lasting winter ever. Cold, lonely, grieving; I was desperate to connect with Kevin again. Somehow. In some way. I had to bring him into this year with me. I had to share something with him again. Somehow. In some way. I missed him so much. A trip to his favorite city seemed the perfect idea, and our girl – always up for adventure – was on board.
Is this right, Kev? Did I make the right choice? Are we supposed to be here? I just don’t know right now.
Kevin loved London. More than any other city in the world. Our favorite movies were set in London: Notting Hill, Love Actually, The King’s Speech…the list goes on and on. I heard the story of how badly his 15-year-old self wanted to visit the Imperial War Museum so many times, I am sure I can repeat it to our girl with just the right amount of certain resignation that he would miss it, and the barely-contained excitement when his dad finally made it happen. If Kevin could’ve picked any time to travel back into, hands down it would’ve been London during the Blitz. London…World War II…danger…adventure – his blue eyes snapped with exhilaration when he imagined how thrilling it would’ve been. I felt certain he would be in London with us and we could share another adventure, explore another city, and I could create more connections for our Bear, weaving our London stories with Daddy’s London stories to make our family memory quilt bigger and stronger.
And more, I felt like this was the place we needed to start, my girl and I. The place where we’d find out if we could have this kind of adventure without Daddy right beside us. We’d finally created a routine, a rhythm to our days, mindful of what we desperately missed, but trying to keep filling life with joy. Could we step out of that comfort zone and function in an unknown place without him? I had to find out. Kevin and I had dreamed of the places we’d take our Bear; he wanted to give her the world. I couldn’t shut the door on that dream, though the coffin lid slamming down crushed so many other dreams we’d shared. Right now, in the middle of the night, well, I wasn’t sure. I just hoped I’d made the right decision.
The sun shone brilliantly on us the next morning and, armed with a granola bar, a camera, and a map, we headed out the door and up the street to Buckingham Palace. Once in, my girl sneaked a swipe at the Palace walls, brushing her hand against decades of history. Her beloved Dora Hair took the game a little farther and jumped across the velvet ropes in the Marble Gallery; we retrieved her quickly before she could get up to more dolly mischief. A quick lunch at the café in the garden, and we were back on the bus heading to the London Eye. I wanted this day to be memorable, magical, kid-friendly – a day Beary would nod at and think, “Yeah, that was kind of awesome.” When the Eye’s capsule lifted us gently into the city sky, her whole being quivered with excitement; her hands flapped wildly, unable to keep up with the delight coursing through her. The happiness beaming from her grinning face bounced off the windows of the capsule and I absorbed all her joy, reflecting it back to her in a smile we captured in a London Eye selfie.
“Mama, can I have some ice cream?” she asked when we finally had to leave the clouds and walk on land again.
I guided her to a street vendor at the end of Westminster Bridge and handed over a couple of pounds for a frozen treat. Holding her cone, she carefully descended the stone steps to the Queen’s Walk and we found an empty bench facing the Thames. She started licking her ice cream and I stared across the river, across the bridge, at Big Ben. As if my stare demanded a performance, the big bell started ringing out across the city in the familiar tune.
It was starting to feel good, being here. We had hit our stride, and were getting caught up in the bustle and flurry and majesty and history. It was starting to feel like I’d made the right decision, like we’d chosen the right place to start an adventure. I hadn’t lied to her after all. We were having fun; I was starting to feel happy.
And there, in the heavy pause, as the last note of Big Ben’s song faded into the late afternoon London air, I thought I heard it. Another familiar tune. I jerked my head up, listened closely, then inhaled sharply. I wasn’t imagining it. The notes floated toward me, swirled around the bench where I sat with my daughter, then swept out to dance on the waves of the great brown river flowing by. There were no words, just the melody, but my heart sang along:
Speak softly, love, and hold me warm against your heart
I feel your words, the tender, trembling moments start
We’re in a world, our very own, sharing a love that only few have ever known
I tried not to cry, but I couldn’t help it. Tears filled my eyes. Kevin always knew when I needed a pick-me-up. Me being sad in a city he loved – well, that just wouldn’t do, so he sent me a message he knew I couldn’t miss…our song. I looked at my daughter, finished with her ice cream, now feeding bits of the cone to the pigeons that gathered to peck the ground at her feet. I felt him beside me, radiating love, sharing a moment of watching our girl delight in the scurry of the birds. I heard him say, “Go on, girls. Have fun in London! I’m right here with you. This is going to be an adventure!”
Thank you for finding us, Kev, I thought. I needed you to tell me this was the right thing to do. I’m so glad you’re still right here with us; I didn’t want to do this without you.
I swiped the wetness from my cheek and stood up, reaching out my hand. “C’mon, Beary, let’s go grab the bus. Where do you think we’re going next?”
P.S. We had a marvelous time; it was an adventure we’ll never forget. Just as Kevin and I had hoped, the traveling bug has bitten our little Bear and she and I are already planning our next trip — knowing that Kevin will be with us the whole time.
I’m giving her the world, Kev…just like you wanted.