The day my mother and I were to leave on what would be, for me, a month-long sojourn across the country, my uncle died. Or maybe the night before; there’s some confusion about that. We were ripping across timezones and cellular data packets were getting lost to the void, so it’s hard to know for sure.
But we were halfway through Illinois–having left Michigan at 4am to beat the Chicago commute traffic–when my grandmother finally got ahold of us.
My mother’d had a message from her other brother, saying my Uncle Bryce was sick and in the hospital. When my mother answered the phone and started to talk about funerals and Buddhist reverends who could help make arrangements, it was so perfunctory I thought my grandma was delivering random news about some random congregation member.
But it was my uncle, who’d been fine at home in Northern California and then was gone. Brain aneurysm.
I don’t know if you’ve ever driven through Illinois, but ghosts are not the company you want to drive with.
I wasn’t sure what I should say. Should we pull over? What?
But it was better to drive than to do nothing at all, so I drove. We stopped at a rest stop I don’t remember well. We took pictures I didn’t want to pose for. We stopped for gas in a riverfront town on the Mississippi that was themed around Mark Twain. (Hannibal, MO, for the curious.)
My mother was acting as though nothing had happened. But it felt wrong to me, to be wandering around this ridiculous Twain town taking tourist pictures, when my mother’s brother was dead; my grandma’s son was dead; my cousins’ dad was dead. For them, this was it; their lives are going to be completely different than they would have been, forever. Nineteen years ago, my grandma buried her husband; I kept thinking she shouldn’t have to bury her son.
But there’s something you should know about my mother. It took me a night to decide this for sure, but she wasn’t putting on her game face for my benefit–because we were on a trip and we were supposed to be doing fun things, and it was all supposed to be great. And it’s no because she didn’t love her brother, or that it didn’t matter. She does, and it does. But this is the kind of person she is. This is the way she exists in the world.
Grief looks like a lot of things, and does a lot of things. Grief is, truly, infinite things. My problem was, I think, that I had this impression of what my grief should look like; and this impression told me that we had no right to be having fun when people we love did not also have that opportunity. I wanted to put everything on hold; go home, go to California. Cry a lot. Something like that. And I was afraid that if I took that leap, and tried to have fun in the face or something so incredibly sad, it would seem like my uncle didn’t matter to me.
But I called my grandma. She didn’t want us to stop, or prove our sadness. She wanted us to have a good trip, eat good food, take this time to be with each other.
When we stopped to camp, having left southeast Michigan and driven the 11 hours to the Kansas-Missouri border, my mother told a little story about her brother. We got mauled by rapacious Midwestern flies. I made extra sure to hug my mother and kiss her goodnight and tell that I love her. Because that day, we had the privilege of spending time together. That’s not always true.
The next morning, we photographed rabbits and mulberries, and turtles in a pond.
Then we left Lewis and Clark State Park, and we kept driving.
I took this video of my Uncle Bryce at my Uncle Shayne’s wedding in 2010: