The black and faded grey asphalt of I-95 southbound leads straight into the sunset. Trees on the interstate edges cascade from bare brown to hunter green with the passing of each new state. A free, soothing feeling comes back to me, as though it had been dormant the cold Northern for years. It’s been a while since I’ve felt this level of “yesssssss” about being in the driver’s seat. Four car accidents in 4 years left my mind screaming of foreboding danger with nearly every turn of the ignition. Slowly since that last accident in 2009, I’ve rebuilt trust in myself, now able to offer driving friends on hiking and camping trips. I tell them my usual speech before we head out about how I drive like a Grandma, so if they can chip in not with gas money, but with humor and grace, that will get us where we need to go. I’ve remained a hypervigilant driver, but here in this moment, I’m enjoying mindless free flow, as clarity and sweet melodies lead the journey instead of flashbacks and fears. I drive on like this for another 6 hours until I reach Fayetteville, NC. The friendliness of their fuzzy local AM station wins me over into feeling ok about sleeping alone in a low budget hotel room.
A good night’s sleep and cheap coffee take me further southbound. Stop and go traffic litter the remaining 400 miles, but I don’t mind. It’s warm so I keep the windows down. A rowdy car in front of me plays Chinese fire drills. I keep right behind them, turning the radio up louder, hoping to catch their attention so that we can sing outloud together to the one or two rock and pop stations scattered between the plentiful country and Christian. Not that the latter two are bad, necessarily, but certainly not conducive to roadside karaoke. No luck and 15 miles down the road, they change lanes, and we never catch back up to each other.
Traffic eases until the Florida line. Honestly, I’m enjoying these last 2 hours of the drive, unsure of what to expect once I arrive. The hard truth is that this trip started off with a twinge of uneasiness. Two years ago, my grandmother sent me a letter that contained some words about my life choices that felt critical, mostly encouraging me to re-focus my life on getting married and having children. Traditional gender messages surrounding marriage and family are a hot button for me and the wording was enough that I swelled with anger, then cried. I didn’t tell her any of this, of course. Not able to get over my anger but not wanting to bring it up, my e-mails and phone calls faded into a quiet ember until 6 months later, when my dad mentioned Grammie hadn’t heard from me in a while. No one ever needed to remind me to keep in touch with my grandparents before. Embarrassed by my own (in)actions, I quickly got back to emails and phone calls and developed a burning desire to interview her about life experiences. So here I am now, this trip. I waited for her to bring up the topic of having children during the course of our days together. She never did.
The closest we came was on New Year’s Eve morning, when we did the bulk of the interview. She began telling me about having children, mentioning my aunt and uncles by name. When she got to my dad, she paused for a moment, reflecting on watching her kids become parents. She talked about Eric, Lauren, then me. “Your parents could have stopped with Lauren assuming they had enough on their hands,” referring to the challenges and joys of having a child with Down Syndrome. “But then they had you. Aren’t you glad of that?” She smiled. Warmness pumped throughout my insides, sending moisture to my eyes. “Yes.” I smiled back, stepping away from viewing my life through my own eyes and into my parents’. She was not trying to guilt trip me or subtly push me into procreating. Instead, it felt like the two of us in rocking chairs, marveling at the creation of each human life and the backstories that lead up to every one of our births.
“We knew we wanted Eric to have a sibling he could relate to,” my mom once told me several years ago. I still remember that because it felt so kind, so caring. Each of us kids were loved and wanted by two parents who were willing to give their time, energy and resources in a unique way they never could have anticipated but embraced anyway.
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I arrive at my grandparents’ small Christian retirement community slightly disheveled, having gotten out my last curse word back in Georgia when I rooted through the chaos in my trunk for the third time that day, only to find that what I was looking for was actually in the front seat. I hug my grandparents tightly and fall asleep smiling.
After Sunday morning church together, Grammie begins the afternoon by calling several female friends to see if they would be willing to let me interview them about life stories they were willing to share, in particularly to offer the opportunity to participate in a book project I’m working on. I really just wanted to begin with my grandmother’s life, as I had lots of questions, but appreciate the appointments she sets up.
The first woman I meet is described by the community as a youngster at 89 years old. She first talks about her husband who recently passed, describing him as an avid storyteller who always made her laugh. We transitioned into other family stories, politics, and peace advocacy, laughing as though we’re old friends remembering the good old days. As our time together fades, she mentions her husband once more. “You know, he never said ‘I love you’- to me or the kids. And that bothered me. I wanted to hear it so badly!” she exclaims. She holds out two index fingers. “I always wanted our hearts to be like this,” she shares, pressing her two fingers together. “But really, we were like this,” she sighs, spreading her fingers apart. I don’t know how to respond. We soon wrap up with small talk and I slowly walk back to my room, thinking about her experience. It’s hard to reconcile a love so strong that you never want to leave, yet it feels like some crucial cornerstone is missing, so you choose to embrace the charming lean-to you’ve created instead.
The next morning brings more interviews, this time on porch swings with old souls. “Have you ever heard of selfies?” I ask one such soul. “Oh! My friend from Mexico used to say that word, so I thought it was something Mexican.” We both laugh, smiling at my inverted iPhone.
That night, my grandparents and I sit around a table looking through photos I brought. It’s amazing to finally hear the explanations behind the photos you could never quite figure out-like of her sitting on a golf cart with clown paint all over her face. It’s heartwarming to hear the backstory behind the tape my dad gave me in which he recorded his dad- my natural grandfather who died before I born- giving a sermon on a lake. It’s humbling to hear Pop Pop share a brief memory of fighting in World War II- something he rarely opens up about. He was honorably discharged and spent 16 months hospitalized, having lost an eye and the ability to hear out of his left ear, amongst other injuries. One day Helen Keller stopped at his bedside. “She put her fingers on my lips and told me I have a good life to live for- I had one eye and I can make a success out of my life. I’m not sure if I would have thought that way had she not shared those words,” he reflects.
We end our conversation with the story of how they met in Rome a few years after each losing their previous spouse. Death can be so unexpected. But how beautiful to think the death of one soul does not mean your ability to love intimately must forever die too. Watching the two of them tenderly lay their hands over each other’s, I soak in each of their perspectives. Pop-Pop shares his memory of meeting my family- which then consisted of my Dad, Mom and brother, with my sister on the way. “I immediately felt welcomed with open arms. It meant so much,” he recollects in his warm southern voice. My eyes moisten. He’s the only grandfather I’ve known- my maternal grandfather also died before I was born. I can’t imagine life without his jokes and big smile that usually involves jazz hands. My heart feels equally warm tonight- for my Pop Pop and my Grandfather Marc. I feel no pressure to reconcile one with the other. There is room in my heart for two Grandfathers in one family line. Warm affection burns for both of them. But a deep sadness emerges from never having the opportunity to meet one of them. I grieve as though somehow we already met, as though we have a stockpile of memories that make this loss so much harder. Still, I feel lucky and go to sleep grateful for one more hand of love in my life.
The next morning brings new interviews that segue into a lunchtime conversation with Pop-Pop that somehow circles back to the war. Earlier when Pop-Pop stepped out of the room, Grammie shared a couple of his experiences. “He told me he saw this boy dying in front of him, calling out in desperation, ‘Help me! Help me!’ He was all bloody with guts literally coming out. Pop Pop couldn’t do anything at that point and stood horrified as the boy died on the street.” I shuddered. Meanwhile at the lunch table, Pop Pop shares something a little different, as though trying to put a hopeful coda on a dirge. “The war was hard but it’s been a good life,” he says with a slightly lifted smile. I smile back.
I go for a run later, legs moving fast, breathing heavy in the 75 degree air. I can’t shake Grammie’s words from this morning. Is this what it was like for you? I wonder, running harder. Were you running like this, only running as fast as you could away from ammo, violence, and strife? Or were you running to your wounded comrade, begging your legs to get there faster because your friend’s breath was getting shallow now? Were there tears in your eyes as you wondered how you got here, into a life you hardly recognized? One that now has a before and after: life prior to war and life after? How did you make it through ok, into the smiling grandfather I know, who always has a joke and makes everyone feel loved? I have no answers to these questions. I’ve been quick to dismiss war, throwing up peace signs and opinionated beliefs about non-violence instead. I’ll always cling to these ideals, but here in this moment, I am convicted that I must be willing to hear the stories that feel too heavy to take in. To appreciate the people who’ve seen things no person should ever have to see. Who probably wrestle with themselves and the world knowing so few people will ever fully understand the told and untold imbroglio of war. Lest my nonviolent beliefs rub salt unto your literal and proverbial wounds. Lest those wounds remain unhealed.
The next day’s interview doesn’t go like the others. I begin the afternoon welcomed with tea into the home of a woman who grew up in rural Ohio. She joyfully walks me through her experiences of falling in love with music, thanks to her elementary school teacher. An avid pianist, her voice quiets as she describes a car accident that left her with impaired mobility. “I didn’t play for years,” she says lowly. “Until one day, my son encouraged me to play. I sat on the bench unsure what would come from my fingers. But it came back to me, the music, the love,” she tears up. One man’s invitation sparked a love reignited. It’s a privilege to receive this shared memory. We’re quiet for a moment. Then, I’m not sure how it happened, but the conversation turns toward religion, a particular Christian worldview that makes me cringe. She talks about the experiences of Christian missionaries in Africa she’s interacted with. “Africa is Africa, and I have great respect for it. But how much is it going to cost us in lives to help them help themselves? When are they going to start helping themselves? We’re trying to get them to do what we’re doing. But they’re the ones seeing their voodoo doctors and not getting anywhere,” she states matter-of-factly. She continues, transitioning into urban poverty. “It makes me angry when nobody works. They know they’re going to get a cell phone, food stamps, housing. What else is there? We give them all these things! And to them, that’s all they need.” The “us vs them” mentality vitiates. After sharing some of my experiences working and living in underserved areas, the conversation fizzles and the clock calls us to a close. I thank her for her time and step outside into the sunshine.
I’m sick of holy huddles. I want whole hearted living. Open minds, open hearts, open hands. I want to be a part of interfaith community. One in which I don’t even have to state what religion I come from because I believe in a God so big that these experiences can’t be codified and calling it Christianity feels like I’ve severed off the rest of God’s creation.
Worked up, these thoughts take me into the woods, where I sit on a bench, and cry a little. I ache to meet Grandfather Marc. Everything I’ve heard about him makes me believe that we would’ve gotten along very well. I hope I haven’t made him into the image of who I’d like him to be, but I truly feel like we’d have a lot in common. I lament to him my frustration with much of Christianity. I feel like he’s right beside me, completely understanding. I imagine his stoic, peaceful presence leading us into a talk about life, God, Jesus, and religious pluralism that restores my soul to peace.
The day lends itself to New Year’s Eve celebrations. Pop-Pop, Grammie and I head to an auditorium for a country and western celebration. Everybody is invited to dance on stage, so I join in for the electric slide. “The woman next to you was a former nun,” my grandmother shares with a chuckle when I come back to the table. I watch this woman walk back to her table grinning. I wonder about her journey and am already intrigued.
At 7:45 pm, we have a mock midnight countdown complete with a ball drop. Laughter and noisemakers fill the air, soon giving way to song. “Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind?” a soft, harmonious chorus asks with hands held. Familiar tears come to my eyes and the eyes of a few people around me. How many people here have lost someone this year? How many people are unable to hold the hand of their beloved this year because they didn’t make it New Year’s Eve? I wonder. And yet, these hands held in love remind me that in community, one can still celebrate with joy even the hardest years.
We gather up our belongings and I say goodnight to my grandparents. At 9:00, I’m not quite ready to call it a night so I head to the chapel, where the sanctuary is open for meditation and prayer. A few other people scatter the wooden pews in silence. Soft organ music plays hymns from the speakers above us. This is the last place I thought I’d be on New Years Eve. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been to church this year. But sitting here tonight feels holy and right. Not the only holy and right thing in the world. But a holy and bright space. Red poinsettias hug the altar. Grammie designated one of them to honor my cousin Heather who died in November at age 32. In recent years, during the last few minutes on New Years Eve, I ask for just one more year of all my loved ones making it through alive. This was the first year that didn’t happen. Reconciling this tonight on New Year’s Eve, I feel an incredible sadness. Unsure what to do with it, I start to pray. God, I begin. I hesitate, lip quivering. My heart is already thankful, and I know God knows this without my saying. The words would only give way to a massive deluge of tears, and the thought of the exhaustion that comes from such cries is enough for me to not utter any more words. I simply look heavenward and know this quiet exchange with God is all my soul needs right now. I don’t need words. I don’t need spoken prayer. I just need to kneel beside my creator, or better yet, cock my head against His/Her shoulder.
As the chapel closes, I take a walk outside. At 10:30, there’s a few faint lights inside homes, but mostly they’re dark. I’ve never been alone on New Year’s Eve before. But tonight, I am. Only it doesn’t feel lonesome. I feel at peace, thinking back on how I thought I was going to spend the holidays. Heather moved out to Colorado a week before her death. Leading up to the move, we talked about me visiting around this time. “We could go to the Grand Canyon!” she enthused. I imagined the heart-to-hearts we could have driving to Arizona together. But I am not in Arizona and you are not here.
So instead I am retracing roots.
I am digging up clues.
I am holding fragments up to the light.
I am stringing together pearls of every color.
I am looking deep into my insides.
I am seeing two sides of every story.
I am understanding my past-
The past that can only be experienced when you sit next to someone you love and trust to tell you their truth. The kind of past that is experienced only by connecting with other humans grappling with life on this side just like you, telling you of their memories before you were capable of memorizing.
I look up at the sky and hear fireworks off in the distance. It’s 2015 now. I walk back to my room and I am unafraid.
The journey continues—- Part II: The Panoramic Intersection of God, Family, and The Open Road-2015