The blessing and burden of family

Four generations, age 5 to 89, set out on a wild west adventure the day after Christmas in a beast of a rental RV through snow and cold, across 900 miles (one way).

Why?

One word: family.

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We spent twice as much time, maybe more, on the road than we did in Denver, which probably makes us crazy, but love is a strong motivator.

It’s been a month since my uncle died, since my grandparents lost a son, my mom a brother, my cousin his dad, and while I don’t know what purpose our trip accomplished, I know it wasn’t a mistake, even with the bumps along the way.

Bumps like snowstorms that delayed travel on multiple fronts and days. And a kid who spent two nights puking in my cousin’s house for unexplainable reasons. And bumps like navigating the emotional states of 12 people in various stages of grief and weariness, including two children who can’t be expected to sit for terribly long periods of time.

On paper, this trip was a disaster in the making. Or a grand adventure full of memories. In truth, it was both and neither.

Some of my favorite things about the trip are not extraordinary, awe-inspiring moments (though I do enjoy the Rocky Mountains). They are ordinary moments of time that I wouldn’t know I was missing had they not happened.

Moments like when two strangers at two different restaurants shook my grandfather’s hand because of the “World War II veteran” hat he wore. A simple gesture that reminds me why this 89-year-old man is important beyond our family.

And how my cousin and my son bonded over Transformers. And my aunt and daughter discovered their shared love of dolls and doll clothing.

How I was transported to the past watching my daughter play a card game with my grandma. It was my childhood playing out in front of me.

How normal and grown-up it felt to go out with my brother and cousin and two of our three spouses. wpid-psx_20141228_091141.jpgThe three of us used to spend summers together in my hometown, cooking up adventure and a bit of trouble. Those meetings have been fewer and farther between as we’ve grown up and put more physical distance between us. Weddings have brought us together in the past few years but it was fun to spend normal time together, learning about each other again and just being in the same place.

On Sunday, we sat around in my uncle’s house eating pizza and cake and watching the Broncos. I wondered if this was a normal thing, to occupy the living space of a dead man, and to be celebrating, no less. (Three birthdays and a Broncos win.)

My uncle, he didn’t want a fuss over his death, didn’t want anyone to make an extreme effort to mourn him (well, we showed him!), but he cared about family in a way I didn’t fully appreciate.

He always sent cards for Thanksgiving and Christmas. He liked every status update and post I put on Facebook. He called on birthdays and holidays. Even as his days dwindled and the disease took him closer to death, he e-mailed to update us.

And when we would visit Colorado in years past, he loved to show us around, to point us to places we’d love, to host us in his home. I don’t have a lot of these memories. I’ll need to ask more questions to recover the details.

So I think we did right. I think my uncle would approve of us sitting together, eating his favorite pizza, celebrating birthdays in his house.

I don’t know much, if anything, about closing out a person’s life or the hole that never quite fills when they’re gone. I don’t know if our presence was helpful or stressful, a blessing or a burden. Maybe it was both. I know that family life is messy whether traveling or not and that sometimes extreme circumstances bring out the best and worst in people.

But at the end of the day, we’re still family.

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Bound by blood.

And love.

In good times and bad.

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