*Note: Please do not leave comments of sorrow at my family’s loss or other condolences. I will delete them from my comments section. I’m sorry if I sound callous, but I’ve written this post as a reflection, not to seek comfort. Thank you for understanding.*
Last Thursday evening I’d been doing the usual (what I consider the new “normal”) – trying to find a good weekend hike and reviewing my Mega Pre-A.T. To Do List – when I got a text from my aunt. “Uncle artie died 1 hour ago” (sic).
Uncle Artie is my grandmother’s only sibling. He’d been increasingly ailing for several years and finally succombed to his illnesses – peacefully, at home, surrounded by loved ones. My grandmother had flown up from Florida to New Jersey the week before when it became apparent that her baby brother had taken a turn for the worse.
Everyone had been checking on Grandma all week to see how she was doing. My grandma is a rock, a matriarch in the truest sense of the word. I can only aspire to be as strong as Grandma has always been. Having faced many hardships in her 89 years, she has never wavered. Her family and community have always been her domain, and in many ways she is the glue that has held us together through the years.
So when, with shaky voice she said, “I remember when my parents brought him home from the hospital,” my heart ached and eyes stung. In the same way that a parent does not expect to experience the death of a child, an older sibling does not expect to outlive a younger one. As an older sister myself, that sentiment conveyed everything that needed to be said.
Once I heard the news of Uncle Artie’s passing, the calls and text messages began flying. When’s the funeral? Who’s going? Should we cancel other plans? Is it even practical? But beyond everything, the unifying question became, “Is it important to Grandma?”
On Friday night, I ultimately decided without a doubt that I would be going. Yeah, there are only five weekends before I move. And, yeah, I haven’t finished buying everything yet. And, sure, I had been planning to try out new gear on a hike with this dwindling timeline constantly in the back of my mind. But hiking the Appalachian Trail is not my priority, nor has it ever been.
On Friday, my dad flew into Richmond, Virginia from Colorado. Coincidentally, he had been planning a weekend visit with my baby sister Ari for months. The next morning, he and Ari drove up to D.C. and picked me up. We made it to my aunt’s house at about 2pm.
We spent the afternoon visiting with my aunt, uncle, my 24 year old cousin, and – of course – Grandma. The conversation took many twists and turns, as it tends to do, especially after a long absence. Yet it seemed like a lot of the time was devoted to talking about my A.T. plans.
I hadn’t kept my plans from the family, but I hadn’t really advertised them either (although my cousin’s been excitedly reading my blog. Hi Viv!). My dad’s side of the family tends to be more conservative, and I wasn’t sure the feedback I would get, not to mention that spending the night outdoors is a completely foreign concept to them. But since my older sister Lauren hadn’t yet arrived, there was nobody to dominate the conversation (tee hee hee, younger sister comment…and yet so true), so I took an out-of-character role as the center of attention.
The reception was inquisitive and warm and encouraging. Grandma and my aunt both wanted to know my blog’s URL so that they can follow. “Brave” was a word that was thrown around a lot. I’m not someone who needs adoration for my “feats,” but I do find comfort in my family’s approval of my life choices. Like I said, hiking the Appalachian Trail is not my priority.
The rest of the weekend was a whirlwind. After dinner at a local diner (New Jersey is the state furthest south on the East Coast where you can eat at a genuine diner, not something to be taken for granted), we all met back at Grandma’s house to await the arrival of Lauren and my uncle from Florida. With a bluster of energy, hugs, and kisses, they walked through the door after 9pm, and the collective volume increased. Then I went to the airport with my cousin Viv to collect another cousin Sandy, who was toting her (adorable) six month old son (youngest of four children) for an 11pm arrival from North Carolina.
When all was said and done, I crawled into bed at 1:30am, awash with the day’s events. Of course, we all wish the circumstances could have been better, but how fortunate I felt to gather with my loved ones on the somber occasion.
The following morning I was up before 7am and had a few minutes of solitude before others awoke and arrived. Soon thereafter, my father returned from his daily hour-long run, breaking my morning’s silence. And then it came like a flood as the house filled with nearly a dozen voices. We are not a quiet people.
At about 9am, we all piled into a few cars and made the long drive to the funeral chapel. We were joined there by more relatives – great aunts, great uncles, cousins; first, second, third – and many others there to remember Uncle Artie.
The funeral was a beautiful commemoration of Uncle Artie’s life. A proud World War II veteran, Uncle Artie was always active with the Jewish War Veterans, and they honored him with kind words, over a dozen members (and friends) there to pay their respects. They were followed by Uncle Artie’s childhood friend of 80 years, Jerry, who warmed fellow mourners by sharing tender, funny memories spanning the years. Finally, each of Uncle Artie’s two grown children spoke of their father, hopefully finding peace in the words as they fought back the deep sadness at their loss.
From the chapel, a long disjointed snake of cars drove to the cemetery to lay Uncle Artie to rest. A windy 45 degree day, many people bundled up against the chill and gave thanks for the sunny weather. The pallbearers hoisted Uncle Artie’s simple but elegant casket on their shoulders and conveyed him to the gravesite. A pair of Navy sailors honored his service to our country by playing Taps on a bugle and saluting him, ritually folding an American flag into a triangle, and presenting it to his grieving widow. Then the rabbi began the service, and we mourners chanted the prayers in our turn.
Having sung the Mourner’s Kaddish, we paused to watch Uncle Artie’s son pour a small vial of sandy soil into his father’s grave, soil that my grandfather had brought back from Jerusalem many years ago. (As an aside, my beloved grandfather died at age 94 almost three years ago to the day of Uncle Artie’s passing.)
We each had our hand in burying Uncle Artie, sinking a shovel into the displaced mound of soil next to the gravesite and scattering the moist earth back into the now-occupied hole. Uncle Artie’s son insisted on completing the burial – a Jewish tradition to show respect, and he and several others spent over an hour filling the hole back to grade, sweating out their grief, as their last gesture to a well loved man.
After the funeral was over, we all said our goodbyes and began the long travels home. My dad, Ari, and I dropped Lauren and my uncle at the airport. We then drove back to D.C. I was concerned that we would hit traffic in anticipation of the following day’s presidential inauguration, but fortunately that was not the case. I made it home by 8:30pm, and Ari and my dad continued on their way. It was a long, exhausting weekend, but I’m so grateful that I went.
Sitting in the funeral chapel on Sunday morning listening to each of the mourners, it was clear that Uncle Artie will be remembered for the ways in which he enriched each person’s life. Clearly I’m anxiously anticipating my Appalachian Trail trek, but I mean it when I say that hiking the Appalachian Trail is not my priority. Hiking the A.T. is an adventure, a goal, but it does not define me. What defines me is my place among my loved ones – both friends and family.
Six months is a long time to be frolicking around in the woods. Something (joyful, sorrowful, or in between) is bound to happen in that time. Life is bound to happen. When it does, I’ll likely take a minute to lay out the options on the table and ponder the right path to take. And, no doubt, I will question my priorities. If it comes to it, I’ll remind myself: the A.T. will always be waiting for me when I return.