The drive to New York is getting harder to do. I never expected to say that.
There is a significant part of me that hopes that this is one of the first signs of getting old. That maybe getting in the car and going for fifteen or sixteen hours is a game for the young, and that time is rapidly receding in the rear-view. At least then, it wouldn't mean these feelings were inevitable, and I have simply arrived at them.
I've done it four times so far this year. I've driven about nine thousand miles in four months. There are people along this route that recognize me now. The woman at the register at the chili place in Cleveland. The manager in the back half of the liquor store in Buffalo. The trip is starting to get little idiosyncrasies and diversions that I never would have tolerated a decade ago. I take too much time out now, preferring to add some variety rather than just get home.
And when I get into the car now, I don't want to do it. I don't want to stare at the speedometer and stare at the clock and wonder why the fuck they aren't doing what they supposed to be doing in the right measures. I don't want to look at the same stretch of interstate every single time.
I don't want to have to sit there and think for that long. I will beat the shit out of myself, given enough distance.
New York is slowly becoming crowded with ghosts. There have been three funerals in the last eighteen weeks.
The first was for my uncle. He's actually my first cousin once removed, but he got the title of uncle for a while until we unconsciously dropped it twenty or so years ago. And neither of these descriptions really come close to the heart of it at all. I spent so much time with his family growing up that I consider myself one of their children. He died so fast. It was less than six months.
I had planned to go and see him in February, but I ended up being three weeks short. I had planned on going out there to yell at him for the mess he was leaving behind for the rest of us, but in particular for the mess he was leaving for me. I didn't want to be angry, but I was and I was hoping that telling him about it would somehow make things better for everyone. It was a lofty goal at best. Maybe it was better that I missed out on that opportunity.
Everything there was snowy and cold. We were staying in my grandparents' old house, which has been largely abandoned for the greater part of a year. We slept on the one remaining bed there, laying on the floor in the finished basement. The pilot on the furnace went out once, and I had to stand there with a flashlight and a book of matches, hoping that I didn't send the whole house up in a massive fireball. It was impossible to do anything in that house more than sleep and get ready to leave.
I wanted desperately to fix everything. Instead I brought booze. It was close enough. We drank and talked and held each other and hoped we would all get better soon.
Finding a place to stay in New York is more complicated now.
My parents sold their house. My younger brother packed up his family and moved to California. The cousins are in a bit of a complicated situation, or they are on Long Island, or they are dealing with losses of their own. I haven't been able to spend much time in Syracuse because it's not possible to conduct business in Albany from there. I'm floating from couch to couch to basement, working my way up to Minerva when I can.
I'm homeless in the place that I consider home. It's not the first time, I guess.
The second funeral was for my grandfather on my mother's side. He wasn't exactly in good shape the last few years, but the end was rather abrupt and confusing. He fell in January, and it was one mysterious thing after another for a while. He never left the hospital again. A blood clot in his gut eventually got him.
I was able to see him a few weeks before, when they weren't sure why he couldn't drink or eat. He told me that all of his dreams were about water. Laying under a waterfall. Swimming in the ocean. He had a very stong Long Island accent, and I can still hear his voice. The cadence of the story, like the water. I wish I could remember more of that conversation. I wish I could remember more of all of it.
I stayed in Voorheesville that time, at what is now just my Aunt's (first cousin once removed, again not even close to right) house. My parents flying in from wherever in the southwest they had temporarily ditched the camper and crashing with me there. I felt like I was more outside that time, like my role there was mechanical and understood. I saw uncles that I hadn't seen since the mid 1980's, all looking like older and sicker versions of themselves.
While my part was better understood, the future was much more hazy. What was my grandmother going to do? She was also sick, and no one knew how that was going to turn out. What would happen with the old house? When would my parents be able to get their camper and get home? Would all of us ever be in the same room together again?
He was buried about twenty feet away from where my sister is buried. I stood next to her headstone during the burial, shaking my umbrella and hissing at anyone who tried to stand on her. Seeing my nephews and my niece standing in that cemetery was one of the most heart-breaking moments of my life. My sister-in-law brought them over to where I was standing. "That's your Aunt Diane," she said to them.
I knew they didn't quite understand. I'll help them when they do.
There are babies in the family now. I say babies, but some of them speak in full sentences and want to play Wii with me when I see them. Others of them I can poke at and pick up and cuddle, and they can't do anything about it.
But that puts me in the middle generation now, and I don't think that had become real for me until a few weeks ago. The clock is ticking on all of us. I haven't begun fruitlessly thrashing at that clock yet, but I can feel the urge bubbling up inside me.
We're somehow supposed to be the adults now, trying desperately to live in the nearly heroic roles that our parents and grandparents filled for us. I know I am terrified that I'm going to fuck it up. I'm terrified that these kids are going to need those heroes, and they're going to be looking for me to do it, and there is no way I'm going to be able to be that. Not the way that my grandfathers did for us. Not the way that my Great-Great-Uncle did for them, who my family is still talking about in epic tones nearly a hundred years later.
I'm not afraid of dying. Death has been chasing me for a quite a while now. But I am afraid that it's going to take me a long time to get myself together, and then I'll be too late to build important memories. I'll evaporate before I can make any progress. That I'm not going to be any help at all.
I want to help get the kids running before I disappear. Maybe this is that fatherly impulse I was supposed to be carrying around all this time.
This last trip was for my Great-Aunt's funeral. She was ninety, which is a really good run. She was cranky and mean a lot, but I don't remember being on the receiving end of her wrath as much as others were. But I was different in her eyes, I think. I took her maiden name as my last name a decade ago.
There was no way I was going to make my wife take my last name when we got married. And I wasn't going to take her (not Dutch) last name. So we took my grandmother's maiden name. This Great-Aunt was my grandmother's sister.
When I told her that I had changed my name, she was very excited. She wanted to know when my wife and I were going to have babies, and give them the last name too. I didn't have the heart to tell her that it was never going to happen that way.
Maybe some kids in a generation or two will take the same route we did, and the name will float back to the top again. Maybe it won't. Who can say.
This time I walked around the cemetery with my family, and they showed me where a bunch of my relatives on that side were buried. I was missing that connection, and I am glad that I have that now. I feel stronger for knowing that information, for being able to retrace those steps when I home next time. I'm looking forward to showing others. Here they are, and here I am.
I'm headed out again in July. While it won't be a funeral, we are spreading some ashes. There will be somber moments. But there will also be booze and pinochle and little babies and more long talks, and I need that more than anything right now.
This will be the first time we're collecting back together again, just us kids. But we're not the kids anymore. And I'm scared. I think we're all scared.
I'm already dreading that drive. But I need what's on the other side.