Priorities, or Death When You’re Away

Nana and I
Nana and I

Enough people have died when I travel for it to give me pause.  When I was twelve and in Colorado for a school trip, my dad took me away from my friends to his hotel room to tell me: “Sister Peggy passed away.”  He exhaled it all at once like he had been holding it in since the phone call, trying not to let is slip out in front of everyone.  Sister Peggy was my great-aunt, my Nana’s sister as well as a nun (Sisters of Notre Dame) and she had died five months after my Nana, almost to the minute, of a very similar complication.  My dad hugged me and told me we would miss the services.  Sometime later, perhaps when she took me to the grave so I could finally feel like it was real, my mother said she never would have told me if I’d been on the trip alone.  Without my dad there to look after me, the news would have kept till I was back in Massachusetts.

This picture of Terry, my mother and I hung on Terry's fridge for years.
This picture of Terry, my mother and I hung on Terry’s fridge for years.

I was blessed with an abundance of grandparents, both biological and honorary.  When I was in Rouen, France five years later on a short-term high school exchange, I only talked to my parents three times.  The final time, just a day or two before I flew home, I remember hanging up and thinking about that time in Colorado.  I knew my parents wouldn’t have told me if something terrible had happened, if someone had died, and I went to sleep uneasy.  On the ride home from the airport they told me Bud had passed away, one of my grandparents of the honorary variety.  There’s something extra-special about people who don’t have to love you but choose to anyway, not out of any sort of obligation but the one they feel in their heart.

My father, my Gram and I.  She is 84 and still going strong!
My father, my Gram and I. She is 84 and still going strong!

Just over a year ago, I went to a party at a friend’s house in my hometown.  We had known for a while that my next door neighbor, Carolyn, was dying.  There had been several phone calls over the past few months with updates on her health, but mostly as a gentle nudge to say my goodbyes.  I had a feeling that this one last nudge was the right one though, and I went to the party planning to be at my parents’ house the next day.  I had a feeling she wouldn’t be there to see me anymore.  I was right, and I expected to feel guilt or regret, but I honestly don’t.

Cousins at the MS Walk in Portsmouth
Cousins at the MS Walk in Portsmouth

Four years ago, one of my mother’s favorite cousins finally succumbed to a long and difficult illness at the end of a brief and happy, but incredibly difficult, life.  My mom decided she was done saying her goodbyes at wakes and funerals, or even at hospital bedsides.  Of course I wouldn’t hear about this decision for another month or so since I was in Cuba for the first time, but when I did I thoroughly agreed.  I had come to the same conclusion when a close relative was diagnosed with a degenerative condition.  What was the point of missing a fun dinner for yet another protracted club meeting?  In the grand scheme of things, what was the cost of missing a meeting here or there, versus the cost of missing out on time with a loved one?  What was the point of ever missing an opportunity to see the people we love when we know we could lose them soon?

Carolyn at my dad's birthday party.
Carolyn at my dad’s birthday party.

So that’s how I had been with Carolyn.  I had spent many afternoons at her house since we moved to the Terrace during the early 1990s.  What art skills I have came from her, and she made my American Girl Doll clothes more beautiful than anything in a catalogue.  She tailored a bridesmade dress for me, which is when I found her cheat sheet: Kevin: boy, tall, brown hair.  Delia, girl, brown hair, glasses.  I saw her in her hospice bed, many times.  I held her hand, and told her stories even when she didn’t know my name.  I delighted on the days her face lit up with recognition of mine.  As my mother said, I was done waiting for people to die to miss them.  I was determined to enjoy them while they were still here.

At a family reunion.
At a family reunion.

And that’s how we came to miss a funeral of one of my mother’s relatives, even though I was in the country.  We sailed right past the exit toward Terry and Bud’s house.  While he had died in 2006 when I was in France, we had seven more great years with Terry.  Bud’s funeral was also when I decided to go to college in Boston.  My older brother had been forced to miss it and it pained him, and I decided I didn’t want that.  I wanted to be able to go the things that mattered to me.  Terry mattered to us, an awful lot, so I found myself in Hyde Park on a bunch of days off with my mum.

We would drink tea, eat tune salad sandwiches, and talk about books, Boston politics, JFK and feminism.  I found myself ditching work a couple of times to go to Block Island with her and the rest of her family, who rather generously made room in the family roster for my parents, brother and I.  I remember dumb things, like giving her my cone when hers broke one night that last summer, knowing she would be gone soon and that I would wish I had given it to her.  And rubbing the dry skin on her hands with lotion on the last day I saw her alive, taking photos of her with my mother because I knew she would want them.  Looking back, I remember thinking god, how pissed would I be if I missed Block Island with Terry to work a shift at Kohl’s?  How pissed would I be if I missed this because I didn’t have the guts to ask for a day off from my job, a job which wouldn’t even exist six months later.  I look back and thank god I traded whatever day to day crap I was supposed to do for all those afternoons in Hyde Park and long weekends on the Island.

It’s how I knew the answer, right away, when my mother asked me if I could afford to go to the funeral of another honorary grandparent, my Nana’s cousin Fritz.  Sure, I missed yet another Arabic class and had a job interview that I rushed to afterwards.  I  ended up with a C for the semester.  But those wheels were already in motion–it’s not like I could trade the funeral for an A.  And how much would it suck to miss the funeral and get that grade anyway?  Some things matter more than others, and while Arabic class mattered in the aggregate, Fritz’s funeral mattered, period.  Besides, I got the job, which sent me to Greece.

If travel is your life, inevitably, you will experience all aspects of your life in connection to it.  Travel bloggers don’t usually write about death.  The usual stance on missing out on home is that you should just go because you won’t miss anything worthwhile; everything and everyone will be the same when you come home.  That’s mostly true, except for when it’s not.  And it means when you’re home you have to make a bigger effort to see the people who matter, since you don’t have as much margin for error.

Team Rojo in the Dominican Republic
Team Rojo in the Dominican Republic

Of course my philosophy isn’t perfect.  It’s much harder to prioritize people who are young and healthy, especially when everyone is so busy and there are so many friends criss-crossing the country and the globe.  I genuinely have no idea when the last time was that I saw my friend Naman, who died at 21.  I’d like to think it wasn’t when we left the Dominican Republic, but it could be.  For whatever reason I spent the next few semesters too caught up in the bubble of my daily life and my ex-boyfriend’s friends, people who I haven’t seen in years now, to spend time with one of the best groups of people I’ve ever traveled with.  To spend time with a perfectly healthy 21 year old who was taken well before his time.

Goofing around with my brother and cousins on Christmas morning.
Goofing around with my brother and cousins on Christmas morning.

It gets harder as life gets busier, and as the competing offers get more interesting, to see in the moment which choice you will thank yourself for later at a funeral.  Every time I find myself thinking, “I wouldn’t miss this for the world,” I try to remember that really, we’re all just one complication or offer too good to pass up away from missing even the most important events.  That’s what I was thinking about when I woke up early this morning for Terry and Bud’s memorial mass: not just to remember the people I miss, but to spend more time with everyone else I love who misses them so much.  And it’s what I think about every time I spend Friday night with my 9 and 12 year old cousins.  Sure, they can’t have a beer with me for another decade or so, but it’s important to me.  Some day, when they look at the sum total of their lives, they will remember that in spite of how often I left the country, I was always there, the whole time they were growing up.