I went this past weekend to Ojai.  I went to Ojai with two dear friends – two of my graduate school roommates that have been faithful companions to me especially in this last year of mourning.  It would be my first time away from Hannah and Daniel since 2015.  It was a small but important step.  Dollaya flew in from Dallas, Janice from Berkeley.  I picked them up from LAX.  We drove up the coast and caught the sunset in Malibu.  In Ojai, we hiked the Shelf Road trail and found a cactus with heart-shaped blooms.  At the farmer’s market, we sampled lush blackberries and sweet tangerines, all just-picked from local farms.  We approached the elderly gentleman with the ‘Free Hugs’ sign who has been coming to the Farmer’s Market every weekend for the last seven years.  “I always start here and get my hugs before I plunge into the farmer’s market,” an attractive woman with a handsome spaniel explained as I watched my friends enjoy their embrace.  We ate the hand-painted chocolates Dollaya had brought from Dallas, we played the cards Janice had brought from Berkeley, and we drank the cabernet I had brought from home.  We talked about Trump and we talked about nail polish.  My friends had come into town to take me away, intuiting that I could use some time off from my life.

When we were planning this getaway, I had explained to Daniel, “I need a break,” thinking of the stress of this past holiday season.  “What do you need a break from?”  Daniel had enquired, honestly oblivious.

The last time I was in Ojai was 2012.  Daniel, the kids, and I escaped to Ojai instead of being home to host another Thanksgiving. As much needed change in an over-scheduled holiday routine, it was really lovely.

When I was there this weekend, I remembered what it was like being there that last time.  I remember walking to town from our B&B, along the footpath on the side of the road.  I remembered hiking down the part of the path that wound its way under the branches of willows.  I remembered mounting our steeds at Oso Ranch, where we had arranged for a guided horseback ride in the chaparral, the sage and the manzanita brushing the legs of our horses as they carried us up and down the paths.  The dry riverbeds, the hills in the distance, and the roadrunners dashing out before us.

I remember going up to Meditation Mount, a meditation center built on top of a hill high above Ojai, with an oak-fringed view of the verdant valley.  We had walked from the parking lot down the lavender lined meditation path, past the pond, to the overlook point, the kids leading the way.  We sat there and took in the scenery.  I remembered thinking how happy I was to be there with my family, Dragon 12 and Hannah 10.  We had taken photos in the sunset light, the golden rays highlighting sweet Hannah’s features. Daniel snapped a photo of me and Dragon as he and I sat side by side, my arms around his shoulders, pulling him in close.

It was hard to be in Ojai again, the scenery the same, my internal scenery so different.  And yet, I sought it.  I wanted to take my friends to see this vista, to re-experience this place as I had before.  I wanted to walk the paths I had walked with Dragon.  As it is in many places where I have memories, I could feel Dragon with me.  Yet I was also so aware of his loss.  His earnestness.  His mischievousness.  His smile.  Vitality boy.  When the tears threatened to overtake me, I didn’t stop them.

It was a good, hard cry – one that I had been subconsciously suppressing since LAX.  After the cry, as my friends sat and held me, I said a prayer.  I spoke to Dragon and told him how much I missed him.  How I felt him with me.  How sorry I was that he was not physically here.  I prayed to God and asked for His blessings – for Dragon, for Justin, for our families, for us, for Hannah.  I thanked God for His goodness, for the beauty of this valley, for the kindness of friends.  I wiped my tears and blew my nose and turned to walk back up the path, back to the parking lot.  Back at the meditation center, I rang the recycled sawed-off scuba tank that hangs upside down, and serves as the bell to call people to meditation.  The bell rang loud and clear.