After his son died of a heart condition at age 5, James G. Robinson planned a month-long road trip across America to help his family begin to heal. What they discovered was that despite all the amazing monuments and curiosities America has to offer, the best times were spent in the car as a family, enraptured by Harry Potter audio books, quintessential sing-along road trip songs, and a playlist curated for each state.
After all, part of this trip was figuring out how to be together — as a family of four (rather than five), each of us wrestling with grief in their own way.
I’d brought along a secret weapon: the complete, unabridged “Harry Potter,” read by Jim Dale, spanning 117 hours over 99 CDs.
It was probably the most useful item we brought on the entire trip. We got through the first four books, 50 hours in all (leaving another 67 for our next trip). Our older son had read them already, but as the miles flew by he was just as rapt as the rest of us. The only problem: if we stopped before a chapter ended, the boys would refuse to leave the car, begging us to turn it back on by crying “Hawwy Potttoooo!” in mock baby voices.
I’d also created some Spotify playlists to keep us company, including an assortment of energetic road songs: The Muppets’ “Moving Right Along,” Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again,” Waylon Jennings’ “The Dukes of Hazzard Theme,” and Johnny Cash singing “I’ve Been Everywhere.” We played this every time we set out, and by the end of the trip, we were all singing it together; yelling extra loud each time Cash mentioned a place we’d visited, too.
To ease the pain, we decided to collect stones wherever we went, inscribing each with the place and date and setting it aside in a small canvas bag. When our son’s tombstone was finally set, we’d bring the bag to the cemetery and stack them above his grave, according to Jewish tradition.
The ritual of finding stones helped us evoke his memory and acknowledge his absence. By the time we returned home, we’d collected 12 pounds of assorted rocks and pebbles, as well as a crab shell and broken sand dollar that the boys found on the beach in South Carolina.