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When a Family Trip is Healing

After their mom died, these kids and their dad took a special vacation

By Dan Browning

Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing Next Avenue series about one family’s experience coping with frontotemporal dementia or FTD.

As long as I can remember, “family vacation” was synonymous with “road trip.”

I grew up in southern California, and my family and I would pack into the car and follow Route 66 toward Viper, Ky., where my dad was born and raised in the Cumberland Mountains.

When I was seven or eight, we began branching out. We drove north along the Redwood Highway and marveled at trees so wide that we literally drove our Cadillac through a tunnel someone had cut into one. We visited Lake Louise in the mountains around Banff, Canada. We drove through Glacier and Yellowstone national parks. Back then, grizzly bears lined the highway to browse on a buffet of marshmallows and potato salad and other snacks put out by tourists eager for a photograph. (Some got more than they bargained for.)

(MORE: A Mother and Son’s Baseball Trip)

On later trips, we drove to Ensenada, Mexico, where we went deep-sea fishing and horseback riding on the beach, competed in and won a “Twist” dance contest and ate exotic foods like chorizo and eggs for the first time.

To say I have wanderlust now doesn’t begin to describe the effect these trips have had on me.

A Lost Opportunity

But since I got married in 1990, I grew more tightfisted and family vacations became mundane. Most of the time we all drove to St. Louis to be with my wife’s siblings or flew to California to spend time with mine. We stayed with relatives to save money and took short day trips to touristy spots like the Gateway Arch or San Francisco’s Chinatown.

My son, Nathan, is a bit of a homebody and didn’t mind our bland itineraries. But my daughter, Elsa, sees herself as an adventurer. She’d complain that we didn’t take advantage of school breaks like some of her well-heeled friends who could travel at will.

(MORE: The Final Note: My Wife’s Death From Dementia at 53)

I got to thinking about this after my wife, Liz Cummings Browning, died in May. I was listening to a song she wrote called Tropical Getaway, in which the singer pleads with her lover to drop everything and take a trip.

We need the chance to be nothing more than you and me
I say what time is better than now?
We’ll walk on the beach at night and
Count the stars in each other’s eyes
Go to sleep to an Ocean lullaby.
Hey, why wait
What’s another busy day?

Liz had always wanted to go to Hawaii. I promised I’d take her, but unfortunately, I was too caught up in work and too worried about money. I just couldn’t let go, and the opportunity slipped away forever.

Car Conversation

After she died, I resolved not to let that happen again.

I asked Elsa if she wanted to take a weeklong vacation before returning to college.

“Oregon?” she asked.

“Not enough time. Yellowstone,” I said.

“Sure!” she replied.

Nathan, Elsa and I piled into my Prius (I’m still a tightwad) and headed west on Interstate 94, bound for Billings, Mont. We drove 850 miles that day, and the road opened up a sorely needed conversation.

Elsa shared her worries about school. She’s majoring in math and physics, but doesn’t know what she wants to do, or whether she’ll be good enough to compete in those heady fields. I tried to reassure her. College is the place to find your passion, I said. Experiment. Take some fun classes. If you find something that interests you, pursue it. You’ll do fine, I told her.

Nathan, who has Asperger's syndrome, prefers the back seat of the car. He didn’t talk much, except to crack jokes that he found hilarious and we struggled to understand. He did say that he misses his mom and our dog, Dallas, who died of age-related ailments two weeks after Liz. Nathan is worried about taking a college class for the first time and about what might happen if he fails. I told him the whole point is to give it a try and see what happens. Either way, I said, you’ll be loved.

The conversations diminished as we drove along the steep switchbacks of the Beartooth Highway. Mountains speak to me like no other geographic feature.
They capture violent upheaval, frozen in time, and provide a platform for the beauty that finds a foothold there. They put ego into perspective.

Life is a gift that goes on whether we appreciate it or not.

The Road Ahead

We entered Yellowstone through the north gate and soon saw the wildlife we had come for, though nothing like the parade of bears from my childhood. We saw American bison, three pronghorn antelope grazing alongside the road and a few female moose lounging in tall grass by a river.


We pulled into Snow Lodge, the newest hotel in the park, at dusk and had dinner at the Old Faithful Inn, a marvel of log architecture. The service was slow, and we had a number of long silences while we waited. It impressed upon me the need to get to know my children, who somehow had become young adults, seemingly overnight.

The next day, we got our fill of geysers and mud pots and went looking for more animals. We saw a bear, far away, in the shadows of a tree, and many more bison. Then we moved to a cabin attached to the Yellowstone Hotel, where we ate more delicious meals. (I tried not to look at the prices.) We visited the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, and later saw a couple of bears as they fled over the hills to get away from the prying eyes of photographers and tourists like us.

On our last day, we picked up an old friend who now works in the park and headed south to see the Grand Tetons. Unfortunately, the mountains were obscured by a storm until we were on our way back. But we made the best of it.

The next day we rose early, planning to drive home in one shot. The miles were made easier by some long conversations, mostly about dogs. Nathan didn’t like the idea of getting a new dog so soon after our beloved beagle, Dallas, had died. But I said I wanted a companion as winter approached. It would make me get out of the house as the darkness and cold descend, I reasoned.

“It’s just too soon,” Nathan pleaded.

I suppose he thinks that if I can “replace” the dog, I can replace his mom, too. I remember him asking, soon after Liz died, if we would be all right. I assured him that we would.

“Sometimes I dream that mom is still alive,” he said.

(MORE: A Wife's Death Means a New Beginning)

Elsa also expressed concern about whether her mom would be displaced. She asked if something was “going on” between me and my friend who works in the park. “Not at all,” I said. “It is way too soon for anything like that.”

The Pull of Life

Elsa spent much of our drive home on her iPhone, reading aloud to us about the traits of various dog breeds. She scanned hundreds of dogs that were up for adoption, looking for just the right partner for her grieving dad and brother. Among them was a 10-month-old dog who looks surprisingly like a polar bear.
At home again, we celebrated Nathan’s birthday by going to the Minnesota State Fair. It was the first time we’d gone there without Liz, and her absence was palpable.

Elsa left the next day for Morris, Minn., where she attends college in an old Indian boarding school on the windswept prairie.

Nathan snuggled with his 16-year-old cat and said he was going to miss his sister.

Me, too, I said.

Hey, why wait
What’s another busy day?

I adopted the dog who looks like a polar bear. It turns out he was rescued from a “high-kill shelter” in Kentucky, less than 10 miles from my dad’s birthplace.

Nathan says he likes him — even if it was too soon.

I named the dog Yama — Japanese for Mountain.

Dan Browning is an investigative reporter for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. He previously wrote a series of articles about his wife, Elizabeth Cummings Browning, a bright, loving, mother and talented singer-songwriter who was diagnosed in August 2012 with probable frontotemporal dementia (FTD), the most common form of brain wasting that strikes people under 60. Read More
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