This must be the place
I stepped out of the airport and into the afternoon sunshine.
A moment later, my father rolled up in front of the terminal a few miles outside of Burlington, Vermont. It was another hour drive north and over Lake Champlain to my hometown of Plattsburgh, New York. A bluebird sky hung high over the Champlain Valley as my pops and I began our inevitable conversation.
“So, how are yah doing?” I asked.
“Ah, I’m OK. I’m OK,” he kept reassuring himself.
For a man who just lost his little brother unexpectedly last week, my dad was somewhat at ease with the whole situation. Being the patriarch of our extended family, he’d been the first one to get the phone call in the middle of the night from my aunt that my uncle has succumbed to a heart attack.
A decades-long beloved track and cross-country coach at Peru High School (my father’s hometown just south of Plattsburgh), my Uncle Scott was as dedicated and passionate for athletics as he was for the students he taught in the classroom. He was a hardcore road cyclist and running enthusiast, one who got up every day and took to the open road, in search of not only fitness but also himself.
So, it came as a shock that, at age 60, my uncle (number 7 of eight kids) had transitioned into the great beyond. My father, being a steadfast and stoic rock for our family, took the death pretty deeply, as seen by his tears shed at the wake (a rare sight for me to witness). Over a thousand people lined up to pay their respects at the wake, which was in a funeral home bordering the endless, mesmerizing apple orchards of Peru and greater Clinton County, a tired sun fading behind the ancient Adirondack Mountains to the west.
And with the funeral the following day, I was asked to speak at the mass. Approaching the microphone, in front of a large crowd at the church, with dozens standing outside the room due to a packed house, I scanned the room. They were all there. My parents. Aunts. Uncles. Cousins from California, New Hampshire and points elsewhere that I missed dearly and hadn’t seen in years. Numerous running friends of mine from my days as a fierce competitor.
I spoke of the idea of “time” and how we find ourselves grieving through the loss of a loved one. For me, I’d made amends with death a long time ago, due to countless friends and family members I’ve lost too soon over the years. And with mourning someone close who is no more, I approach from the angle of celebration, of recalling great times with those we hope to see again someday.
For many, there are three things that cause sadness through mourning — you feel cheated out of time, not telling that person you loved them enough, or you never righted the wrongs between the two parties. But, you must remember that we all have a finite amount of time on this earth and within the presence of those we couldn’t imagine living without.
So, what does one do? Well, if you make sure to wake up every day and are aware of those three things above, then you’ll be better equipped to not only reinforce or rekindle love with those you care about, you’ll also have a keen sense of your place in the cosmos we often ignore or don’t appreciate the grandeur of.
Life is not about winning, it’s about having the will each day to get up, get out the door, and compete. And though my uncle was very successful in his endeavors, he would attest to that mantra written across the walls of my soul.
And as the weekend rolled along, I found the frowns of my family slowly switch to the sincere happiness of being around each other, even if it’d been years since we’d all stood in the same room. The tears were traded for cheers and salutes to my Uncle Scott, and to all of us, for coming together, pulling each other aside every so often, the words “it’s so good to see you” and “I just wanted to tell you that I love you” echoing genuinely off our tongues.
Come Sunday morning, I awoke from a deep slumber, from some haze of memories, stories and interactions. The previous three days felt like a haphazard rollercoaster of emotions and solidarity. And as I reached for my cell phone, there were messages from my cousins and extended family, wishing the best for the ongoing present and unknown future, with plans already in the works for a rendezvous sooner rather than later.
I walked into the bathroom and flicked the light on. It appeared that there were a few more grey hairs and wrinkles than when I’d left Western North Carolina for Upstate New York. But, that’s OK, for those wrinkles are well-earned, for all of us, just as time spent with loved ones is, too.
Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all.
1 Bluegrass legend Peter Rowan will perform at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 26, at Cataloochee Guest Ranch in Maggie Valley.
2 Humps & The Blackouts (psychobilly) will perform at 9:30 p.m. April 22 at No Name Sports Pub (Sylva) and 9 p.m. April 23 at The Water’n Hole Bar & Grill (Waynesville).
3 Films created by Western Carolina University students will be screened at the eighth annual Controlled Chaos Film Festival at 7 p.m. Friday, April 29, at the John W. Bardo Fine and Performing Arts Center in Cullowhee.
4 The Colby Deitz Band (Americana/bluegrass) will perform at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 28, at the Jackson County Public Library in Sylva.
5 Bosu’s Wine Shop and Feline Urgent Rescue (FUR) present the “If I have not but nine lives, let me fill them with wine” event from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday, April 22, at the shop in Waynesville.