Argentina, USA

The Inequality of Death (Staying Close with Traveling)

My grandfather died a year ago today. In many ways, I think his death was the most difficult for me of all my grandparents. Not necessarily because I was closer to him than the others, but because death doesn’t take people equally.

I didn’t know my dad’s dad. He died a few months before I was born. He died quickly and unexpectantly. I can only imagine how hard it was for the family. I wouldn’t know. I didn’t exist yet.

Conversely, my grandmothers seemed to wither away in a slow decline. With the passing time, they spoke less, moved less, remembered less. As days turned into months and then into years, they were unable to enjoy life as it was meant to be enjoyed. It seemed that by the time their bodies finally died, they souls had gone long before…

With my granddad it was different. I saw him for the last time in November of 2016 before returning to India. Sure, he had gotten frailer since I last saw him a year before. Sure, he was an old man. But despite his body being tired, he still has so much spirit. He was still funny. He was still him. I guess for most people, the death of a 91-year-old man is something to be expected. But he declined so rapidly. He got phenomena. Three weeks later he was gone.

When I went to India in August of 2015, I came to say goodbye to him. Not in a “farewell forever” sort of way. Just in a “my flight is tomorrow. I’ll see you next year” way. He suddenly turned from his very light-hearted nature to more serious and told me, “If I die, don’t come back here for me.” I didn’t know what to say. Luckily my mom made some sort of joke to lighten the mood, in a typical fashion for my family.

However, when he did die, I bought a last-minute flight to D.C. Because you can’t put a price tag on saying goodbye. (Also because my mom paid, but I would have come regardless). And honestly, going back wasn’t for him; it was for me. It gave me a chance to connect with family I only remember from brief childhood memories and in stories for my mom. It gave me a chance to see just how loved my grandfather was in his community. Members from my grandmother’s side of the family came. An elderly couple from Florida drove up to represent the Scottish ancestry group my grandfather had been active in. People he used to work with years ago came to say goodbye. I’ll never, ever forget the over-the-top police escort and soldiers coming to play taps. Or handing my mother an American flag. Having served in WWII, the U.S. Army made a display of his burial. It was altogether inspiring. Though we all knew he would have humbly found it unnecessary.

One thing that bugs me while traveling is when I meet people who tell me they can’t or won’t travel because they “are really close with their families.” While I respect being close to your family, I hate hearing this because it implies that by traveling all the time, I’m somehow not close to my family. Distance has never been a big factor in my relationships. Not the ones that matter, anyway. In fact, it’s been a great way for me to weigh which relationships have really stuck and which were shallow to begin with. I don’t have any regrets about the amount of time I spent with my grandfather (or any of my grandparents) before he (they) died. Whenever I was home, I made a point of seeing them a few times a week.

I don’t believe seeing someone every day means that you are close. One of the only things I am certain of now, having lived on nearly every continent and moving cities with the seasons, is that I will always be missing someone. I’ll always be far away from somebody important. There are just too many people in too many places.

Today, a year after my grandfather’s death, I didn’t do much of anything. I took the day off. I went to the mountains. I enjoyed some wine and good company. I took in the fantastic views. I enjoyed the time I had.

I think about the day I left for India a lot, about how serious my grandfather was about me not coming back for his funeral. Of course, I didn’t listen, I did come back for his funeral. How could I not? But I knew what he meant when he said it. What he really meant. He didn’t want me putting my life on hold for him. And I didn’t. The people who matter, who have always really mattered, don’t care if I’m in North Carolina enjoying the snow, or off in India, or here in the Argentine desert. The distance has never really mattered because when I’ve needed them, they’ve always been there in some form or another. And when it matters, if someone really needs me, I’m never really that far from an airport.

RIP Granddaddy. Thinking of you always.

Death while traveling
Me with my Grandparents, circa 1990

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