The hardest part about travel is leaving. I procrastinate packing, flip through pictures, smell the room and the people in it, and tightly hug my loved ones, closing my eyes over their right shoulder, seeing my entire travels thus far flip through my mind like a yearbook.
“Ok sweetie, we love you,” Grammie smiles.
“I love you too,” I whisper through my constricted throat.
“Ok, darlin’ thanks for comin’ to visit your grandmother and Paw Paw,” Pop-Pop adds, doing one last pull-a-quarter-out-of-your-ear trick that I’ve always been fond of.
I slowly walk to my car and turn on the ignition. I take notice of every place in which I made a new memory this week as I make my way toward the main entrance of the community. There’s the porch swing where soul-to-soul conversations happened with people who mere strangers only moments ago. There’s where I parked my car that first night and looked up at the abundance of stars, the warm air matching the feeling of my heart. There’s Grammie’s niece’s house in which she showed me books full of lineage, telling the stories of people who shaped lives that shaped mine. It all feels too much, and tears come on full swing, cries rising along with my speed as I enter the highway to Tampa, where I’m soon to meet my cousins.
Was this my last time seeing them in person? I wonder. Was that the last time I played Scrabble with Grammie? The last time Pop-Pop “got my nose?” Heaven forbid your hearts leave this Earth any sooner than they have to. But if they do, these audio taped conversations will preserve the sound of your voice. These new memories will be the joy that interrupts my tears with a smile. These funny things you said that I captured in my journal will be the laugh that interrupts my mourning.
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I’ve always found it funny how many different ways the same place can look from air and land and bicycle. Tampa is no different, this being the first time I’m seeing it from my car rather than a tiny airplane window. My heart’s invigorated as I pull up to the driveway. I’m in a much better place now than some of my previous visits here, when I was in the thick of my worst anxiety. I make it into their home right before dinner, and as we eat, my younger cousin Kinley- technically my second cousin- and I play our usual “twin game,” in which we keep saying, “Me too!” as we learn more of each other’s lives. After dinner, my older cousin Kim and I share the kind of heart-to- hearts that make me feel as though Tampa and DC are right next door and we saw each other only yesterday. Tiredness takes over and I soon turn out the light, whispering over to Kinley who’s in the bed next to me, “I love you!” “I love you more!” she responds back, and we laugh a sleepover-everything’s-funny-at-midnight kind of laugh.
The next day, we drive to Bradenton to see my aunt and uncle, Kim’s parents. An afternoon full of catching up and dinner on the back patio leaves just enough time for Kinley and I to run in circles on the empty golf course behind the house as the sun does its beautiful decrescendo. Kinley coaches me on how to do a handstand. “Go slower, there, yes, now kick your legs up!”
“Ahhhh I got it!” I shout for a millisecond, until I fall over and we laugh under the stars. We use a stargazing app to find where the International Space Station and the Little Dipper are hiding tonight. “Woahhh, that’s so cool” becomes a repetitive affirmation of the great big world. At 16 years old, her heart is already so wise, exuding a passion for life and love of adventure. Sometimes I look at her and wonder if I’ve ever seen a soul so free.
I sit down with my aunt over breakfast before we head back to Tampa. She brings out a box full of letters dating back to the 1890s and early 1900s, still in crisp, neat condition, written by people who somehow connect back to Grammie’s parents and grandparents. The black calligraphy and formal language get my mind wondering about the people behind the pen. I feel some strange connection to these letters of people I’ve never heard of. Perhaps it’s human to look old letters and photos and want to know even more now that you saw their handwriting or their face, knowing they were once a part of someone’s life whose life brought new life that beget new life and now we’re here, carrying parts of each other in our pockets, in our cells, in the same toothy smile, in the way we embrace.
I say goodbye to my aunt and uncle, and then my cousins. The road now leads two hours north to see my other aunt and uncle, Heather’s parents.
I don’t know what to expect. It’s been a mere month and a half since her passing. I share a happy smile with my Uncle John in the driveway. We step inside, where my Aunt Debbie and I embrace, both immediately starting to cry. We sit down together over dinner, laughing over shared memories. Perhaps the best thing about sharing memories with family is that the people around you can usually add some detail to your memory, and soon you are laughing about the silly things we said as kids or delighting in the forgotten trip to the park. Enjoying the friend-like relationships I now have with older adults such as my aunt and uncle and parents, I open up about things I never shared before, feeling a new door opening of honesty and candor, together learning about who we are when we’re not reuniting with each other after a few years of not seeing one another.
I say goodnight to my aunt and uncle, remarking to myself how much this uncle looks like my other uncle, and how that uncle resembles so much of Grammie. As I turn out the light, my soul whispers to my cousin. I’m sleeping in your old room tonight. The last time I slept here, it was you and me. I was in second grade, sleeping on the floor, to the right. I just learned how to spell your name and was talking to you non-stop, overjoyed by the ability to be with you. I think you pretended to be asleep before you actually were, which looking back, just makes me laugh… I love you.
We let the next day linger until it’s time for me to head on the road. Now used to the waterworks that abound when I say goodbye to family, we embrace and my uncle sends me off with a wave. I begin driving northbound, but I can’t. These were your stomping grounds. If ever there was a time for me to have a moment of grief alone with you, my couz, this is the time. I don’t know where else to go so I’m driving to your high school; the place where you played softball and sent us graduation photos in your blue and gold cap and gown. I park my car and sit on the hood. I play Lady Gaga’s “On the Edge,” an acoustic version. I knew you always liked her. You always advocated for equality of all kinds, gender, race, and especially LGBT rights, just like she sings about. She wrote this song for her grandfather. Now I’m playing it for you.
A soft breeze blows and feels good against my warm tears. I look up at the sky and the low hanging branches of willow trees. “I’m on the edge of glory and I’m hanging on a moment of truth. I’m on the edge of glory and I’m hanging on a moment with you.” I play the song again before driving off, and feel you with me.
The next five hours of driving rotate in and out of tears, singing, reflecting, crying, missing, and fearing the bad weather which turns to winds I can feel pushing my car, rain so heavy, I put on the hazard lights. There was a tornado watch earlier in the day, but I thought it passed by now. I find an old song on the radio that used to bring me comfort when I was dealing with family challenges in high school. “I’m finding myself at a loss for words. And the funny thing is, it’s ok. The last thing I need is to be heard, but to hear what you will say. Word of God speak, would you pour down like rain?” I drive slowly on the county road, eyes on the pavement, heart reminded of how much I will always need God in my life.
Driving the rest of the way home the next day, I think about how this trip was every bit as much about life as it was death. As it was about grieving as it was celebrating. Grieving not just the loss of my cousin or the impending loss of my grandparents which could come any year now, but lost time spent in secrecy, not sharing our truest feelings. Celebrating not just a family that makes leaving so hard, but the open road, a big God, and the feeling of knowing where you come from. I feel every bit as much connected to past family members I’ve never met who shaped the people who shaped me. Together we weave a pliable connection that nets you in like gravity whenever you start to feel lost, unsure of where you came from, uncertain of where you are going, afraid you’re gonna fall off the edge. I feel every bit as much connected to those people who will live onward after me, even if their bodies do not ever directly trace to mine.
Perhaps this all is part of the reason why my cousin and I spent all that time out there stargazing. Because the stars remind us of where we came from and what were made of. The same wonder that draws us to stars is the same wonder that draws us to the open road, both sky and road going onward seemingly into an unknown infinity, only to make our way back around the planet, back around the atmosphere, seeing and experiencing it in all new ways. And all of this same wonder leads us to wonder about each other. For some of us, that curiosity leads to love. And that love doesn’t extend solely to each other but onward into new souls, be it in children or friends or earth and song and art and laughing dances in the rain, head skyward, drinking up every droplet wanting more, more, more of this life.
Yes. It’s been a trip to look up toward the sun and say proudly, “This is where I come from, and know the story behind it- the told and hidden parts.” This is my family, our hearts, our stories. Home is when we are together. Home is that feeling of their presence even when we are far away. Even when it’s hard, even when we don’t tell each other everything, even when we experience deep pain that our family pictures don’t portray, this is home. 1,906 miles later, the interstate brings me back to a different kind of home. The 36 degree weather is a cold awakening. But inside, my heart is warmer than when I left, renewed by laughter, cleansed by tears. If this new year should end with a staggering halt tomorrow, I will already have learned so much.