This must be the place: Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road
It was around midnight when I crossed the Mason-Dixon Line. With Maryland now in the rearview mirror, I pushed into rural depths of south central Pennsylvania. It was Christmas Eve and the temperatures had dropped to around freezing, a far cry from the sunshine felt earlier that day in Western North Carolina.
My smartphone rang. It was my mother. I figured she was calling to see how much longer I had left on the drive back to my native Upstate New York for Christmas.
Instead, her voice was somber. She told me that my Aunt Bonnie had passed away (on Christmas Eve). So, now I was returning home for not only the holidays, but a funeral, too.
Though we had known about her deteriorating health for the last few years, the news still came as a shock. At 69, Aunt Bonnie should have had many years left to live, many more memories to make with family, friends and loved ones.
My father’s sister, she was one of eight siblings on the Woodward side of things. With the passing of my Uncle Scott (2016) and Aunt Bev (2017), there are now only five left. It’s a surreal thing to be in this phase of one’s existence where relatives start to disappear into the ether, more so at an increasing rate lately.
And yet, I’ve been around these kinds of things since I was a kid. I grew up in an older family, where my father was 43 when I was born (I’m the oldest at 34, my little sister being about two years younger).
So, when I came onto the scene, most of my extended family was already in middle age. By the time I was 4, both my dad’s parents had passed on. When I was 14, my 103-year-old great-grandmother on my mom’s side headed out into the heavens, too.
I remember my great-grandmother Florence well. A feisty woman who was born in 1896, our time together spent watching “The Price Is Right” and eating tomato soup in her kitchen was straight out of the 1940s. She would tell stories (told in a thick French accent) of being a kid at the turn of the 20th century riding cargo ships along the St. Lawrence Seaway, seeing the first automobile arrive in her town, and what being a kid was like back then.
By high school, my grandmother had passed away unexpectedly after a short illness, only to lose my grandfather the week after I graduated college. So, by the time I was 22, I had no grandparents left. And this doesn’t even include all of the dear friends I’ve lost to car accidents, drug overdoses and suicides — too many to count, sadly.
Thus, I’ve made amends with death years ago. It’s something I do have the utmost respect for, but I also see it for what it is — the natural cycle of things. Death brings urgency to life, and to making sure your time on this earth is well-lived.
The oddest thing is how I’ve become the “eulogy guy” in all of this. Most folks fear public speaking, let alone keeping it together at a memorial service in front of those who know you the best and love you the most. But, I’m glad to stand up there and speak truth to the grandeur of a particular human being.
At my Uncle Scott’s funeral, I spoke of the idea of “time” and how we find ourselves grieving through the loss of a loved one. 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 grandiose nature of.
As I continued to make my way back to the North Country on Christmas, I found myself on Interstate 88 between Binghamton and Albany, New York. The early morning sun pierced through the frigid night I’d been traveling through for several hours.
I thought of my Aunt Bonnie, and of my Uncle Scott and Aunt Bev, too. Memories of my childhood and being embraced by their love and support, something that carried into my adulthood. I was lucky to have them in my family — same goes for the rest of that wild and crazy tree of immediate and distant relatives.
Be aware of your family. Embrace them. Honor them. Take the high road and set aside the differences. The blood you share is the common ground by which a foundation of a relationship has been set in stone those many generations and centuries ago. Track down those familiar faces and listen to their stories — the pain and struggles, happiness and dreams.
Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all.
1 Andrews Brewing Company (Andrews) will host the “Lounge Series” at its Calaboose location with Joey Fortner (Americana/folk) at 6 p.m. Friday, Jan. 3.
2 The Haywood County Arts Council annual show, “It’s a Small, Small Work,” will be held through Jan. 4 in HCAC Gallery & Gifts in Waynesville.
3 There will be a special “Pottery & Pints” class held by Viva Arts Studios from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 9, at the Innovation Station in Dillsboro.
4 The Franklin Open Forum will be held at 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 6, at the Rathskeller Coffee Haus & Pub in Franklin.
5 Innovation Station (Dillsboro) will host A. Lee Edwards (singer-songwriter) 7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 4.