I had visited a friend in Vermont and on a long drive to Maine I chose to take only the backroads. The sun was streaming in through the car windows, reflecting off the bitter cold frostbitten ground, but still warming my chest. Every little while, I would pull over to tank up or get a coffee. I would take a breath. Deep. Slow. I inhaled the crisp Winter air around me, smile at this little luxury and think of those schmucks, my coworkers, stuck at work: "if only you were here with me, taking a few days off," I thought. I finished a book on tape, listened to NPR on the radio and let me mind wander a little - just a little I was driving after all - to prepare myself for what lay ahead at my destination.
My aunt had married a man for love who was 15 years her senior. I was just a young boy when she did and do not remember, but it was special since they had been together for many years. He was a Korean war veteran and had actually run to join the Army right after he had graduated Princeton, something his parents did not much approve of, they were scared for their boy, their only child. While in battle, organizing and commanding the US Army's artillery engagements on the front line against the Chinese, he was shot, twice. Many a night was spent at Walter Reed Hospital, but ultimately he rehabilitated and lived the life and legacy of a handicapped veteran.
I was always struck by his decision to join the Army. He was a gentle, thoughtful and kind soul, not one that I would immediately picture on the front line of battle. I am sure he was all these things before heading to Korea, but I think that seeing such battle and hardship only deepened these traits. Having the luxury of never having to work (he was the son of a prominent New York City family) he and my aunt immersed themselves in the English language, devoting their loving times together to the study, creation and curation of their poetic poetry. They loved each other so very much and spent every waking moment together.
I was driving help my aunt bury my uncle.
I grew and learned a lot on this trip. It sounds rather funny, the trip was only 8 hours in a car, but it was transformative. I was warmed by the sun on a cold day, I saw day turn into pitch black Maine-country night, and greeted by welcoming people of all types. It was as if the world conspired to push me - support me - on my way to see my aunt.
I was alone, though. With this blessing and curse I was free to reflect on my truly stunning surroundings, able to sing along to my music, and remember days gone by with my aunt and uncle and how fleeting we exist in the world and how much we have to make it matter.
My father had died just a few years before. Being an only child my uncle and my father were beacons of what a man should stand for, how gentlemen behave in the world and what a gentleman should do. My world view was shaped by these titans, and now, having lost one in a gut-wrenching, horrid, long kiss goodbye, I was getting prepared, yet again, to bury another one. It was mental murder.
As I approached the final miles on this drive I reflected on the day spent driving: my uncle, and my father, were supremely tender and gentle souls. They had soft hands and happy grins, big hearts and warm hugs, and a capacity to care beyond anyone I have ever met. I am lucky that both men gave to me the raw materials of these gifts they so possessed. And, although I had spent a long time fracking my mind, I came out the other side richer for the discoveries and emboldened for what lay ahead.
Though the task was sure to be heavy, my soul was light. In my car, warmed by the sun, on the back roads of northern New England I lost, learned and lived more than I ever had.