Getting to New York proved to be a 48 hour odyssey of sorts. I managed to make my flight with 10 minutes to spare out of San Francisco towards Chicago moments after rear-ending a brand new red Fiat on the freeway in rush hour traffic. Luckily, the driver of the car was an extremely gracious woman, slender and my age or younger but with a far more professional air; both of us apologized to each other profusely and exchanged information. My roommate, Miller, was in the passenger seat as he was planning on driving my car home from the airport. He had been in a car accident much worse than this only a couple weeks before and was still dealing with the pain of a slipped rib so this experience only exacerbated it.
I landed in Chicago only to find that my connecting flight to Watertown, NY was canceled because of the impending hurricane. I was determined to get home that evening so I rushed over to the next available plane headed in the general direction. There was a 4:15 flight going to Syracuse, which was only a 30 minute wait. But because of the storm, the flight was under weight restriction and planning to take more fuel than people. Though I was tearing up sporadically, the woman at the desk could only put my name at the end of a long standby list and give me a boarding pass for the 6:55 flight later.
So I wasn’t called for the 4:15 flight, nothing I didn’t expect. I decided to spend the next couple of hours on the phone with my car insurance company beginning the claim for my accident earlier. Of course I wasn’t looking forward to it but I knew I’d feel better if I got the process started. Oddly enough, Andrew, my claims specialist for the afternoon, was a beaming consolation, walking me through every step with positivity and reassurance. I told him if he ever quit his job at Progressive maybe he should think about a career in therapy.
I sat at the gate until about twenty minutes after 6pm when I got a call that the 6:55 flight to Syracuse was canceled and I’d been bumped to a flight in the morning. Up until this point I was rather impressed that I hadn’t flown into a panic. I had a couple moments of wobbly weeping but I was extremely resistant to this growing possibility that I would be stranded in Chicago for the evening and little bits of hysteria were starting to seep into my brain.
All the flights to New York were canceled for the evening. The closest flight was to Ottawa, only an hour and a half away from my mother’s house, but I didn’t have my passport with me and the airline wouldn’t take the risk of having me sent back and them incurring a fine. I thought about taking the flight to Detroit but figured that really wouldn’t make any difference being stuck there for the evening instead.
I resigned to the situation and started looking for a hotel. The Hilton at O’Hare airport was full so I spent an hour waiting for the Super 8 shuttle to take me out to Elk Grove Village. I had very little faith that the flight I had in the morning going to Syracuse wouldn’t be canceled but I felt a lot better just being out of the airport and in my own private space for awhile. I had the time to get a drink, take a bath and collect my thoughts.
Jet lag and stress only gave me about three hours of sleep but I rolled out of bed to catch the shuttle back to the airport at 8am, hoping that my efforts back through check in, back through security and then an hour waiting for the plane wouldn’t result in a day running to various gates only to sit awhile and wait for each flight to be canceled and then end up back at the hotel. I was very lucky. The plane to Syracuse left promptly at 10:10am. Once I was secured into my seat, I let myself finally relax and I slept nearly the entire two hours. I woke occasionally to see the cold white gust we floated on out the window disappear into a green and beige patchwork of farmland, blocks of brilliant yellow autumn trees mixed with some already bare for winter and houses in neat rows with sprawling cut lawns.
I’ve never been so happy to see Northern New York. I wanted to sprint off the plane and down the long hallway to the baggage claim. In my head, once I saw Dad just past the security check, I ran towards him, flailing my arms ahead of me yelling “Daddy! Daddy!” But we try not to be that outwardly emotional in our family so I filtered that feeling through my skin, smiled a little and nonchalantly but firmly walked into his arms for a quick catch and release kind of hug.
In hindsight, I feel like this might have been the point when I entered into an alternate reality. I got in the backseat with my Grandmother to my right, my Aunt Joanne was driving. I was still trying to clear my right ear by jiggling my pinky as deep in the canal as I could get when Grandma handed me a large freezer bag with a cheese sandwich in it. They both immediately asked about my trip, Aunt Joanne favoriting the phrase, “I know how that is,” equating my car accident, two canceled flights and a extra night in Chicago to when the airline lost her luggage for a day. I know she meant well.
Of course, we also discussed the various clips we had all seen showing the Hurricane Sandy devastation in New York City, which in context of the situation, felt like small talk. Grandma mentioned very matter-of-fact, “this is a good place to live, we don’t get any of that kind of weather here.” She went on to say once in awhile it gets rainy and windy and it’ll snow a lot but when it does “you just stay inside and wait it out.” Don’t have to worry about much else. I thought this was a funny thing to say at the time but in many respects she was right. Northern New York is far more mild than most other areas in the country as far as natural disasters are concerned. Though I would disagree about one particular: it snows so frequently here that if you were to wait until the snow cleared, you’d likely lose your job.
I found the conversation rather awkwardly comical considering the circumstances that brought us all to be huddled in Grandma’s blue-capped white Lincoln Town Car. Aunt Joanne brought up shortly after we exchanged pleasantries how she woke up the other day to see three white ducks in the yard, which happened to belong to the neighbors and how it seemed so odd that when one moves one would think to pack three white ducks. It was quite a strange conglomeration of subjects, presented completely outside any order of importance, sprawled between quiet pensive gazes out our respective windows. I appreciated the strange magic of this particular small talk. It felt absurd but real; we all played our parts and that was how we were deciding to cope. We weren’t going to talk about the motorcycle accident or Sally being gone or all the things that probably needed to be done. It wasn’t time for that yet.
We rolled into Sandy Creek, along the hills of wet green fields against the gray weeping sky. As soon as we got to Grandma’s, she immediately took me upstairs to show me some of the clothes I might be able to use that she picked up from the Friendship Shop, a local thrift store where she volunteers and shops. She has really created an art form out of her finely-tuned incessant thrift collecting for her three children and their partners, a fleet of grandchildren, and a growing boatload of great-grandchildren. In minutes, I was out of my pants and into a pair of black “slacks” that turned out to be quite suitable for the fancy funerary occasion in my near future.
We had time for a coffee, a homemade molasses cookie, a quick chat while Dad and Joanne were starting up the tractor and digging up some pruners. I didn’t know how to bring up Grandpa’s passing. There wasn’t anything to say really. I just wanted to listen, anything she wanted to say would be fine. I wanted to know how she was. She mentioned that naturally she gets lonely at night sometimes but Sally’s death was bothering her quite a bit more than her husband’s which occurred only a few weeks ago. It was different, “he was ready; Sally wasn’t.” She told me that Sally sent her a card a few days before; Grandma had new teeth put in and it had been quite painful. She started going into great detail about the procedures and the trips she took to Canada with Dad for the work. I knew she was deflecting so I let her finish her thought and went outside to help Dad and Joanne.
Dad collects beehives for decoration and there was one high up in a tree across the road from Grandma’s. Aunt Joanne was operating the tractor while Dad stood in the bucket being lifted towards the nest. It was still too high so he threw a rope around the branch and let the ends dangle for me to pull. I bent the branch down to him enough for him to break it off and take the nest. Aunt Joanne lowered him down; we felt so accomplished that she took a photo of us mouthing “dead bees,” holding up the beehive like it was a prize fish. There was something really meaningful that happened for us in that moment. It at least felt significant at the time. I realized later that we just needed some small task that we could persevere and complete together; somehow that would bring us closer and help us with our grief without actively addressing it.
Grief is never easy to navigate. Plates of food were piled on Dad’s counter: an entire platter of Subway sandwiches, pies, cookies, pasta dishes and breads. Just after Dad and I got home, Norm and Belle Ann stopped by to offer their condolences. I hadn’t seen them in at least ten years. At first, the three of them sat at the dining table, stiff and awkward and desperately searching for neutral conversations. There isn’t really anything to say when in such a horrible situation. So in lieu of having the right words we resort to talking about anything that seems banal and routine. Somehow the feelings get conveyed regardless of the topic. Naturally, the discussion started with the deer Norm and Dad had seen that year and which they had killed. Belle Ann showed us photos of some of the cakes she was making in her new business and there were a few photos of her new grandson, Kenton. It was nice to catch up with them and I appreciated their support for Dad.
Dad and I had some time later in the evening together. We stood outside and soaked in the full moon through the silhouette of bare tree limbs, its reflection glittering on the pond near the barn. The air was strong and cold and the water flowing out of the pond made a faint whispering sound. We had a great conversation, which honestly may not have been possible five years ago. We talked about how I connect with him differently than I connect with my mother; they are both quite different from one another. We talked about how I felt about him while I was growing up, how I assumed that all those times we sat in silence on the porch looking out towards the barn that we were bonding without having to speak. We talked about how he had very few regrets in life but that not telling Sally more often that he loved her is one that he will have to learn to live with. If he’s learned anything from Sally, it’s that in order to really have good relationships with people you have to be willing to open up and share your feelings.
The conversation was getting a little serious so we toned it down for the rest of the evening, went to the barn and sprayed the beehive to preserve it and discussed a couple of his creative woodworking projects. Soon after, Ethel Mae, Sally’s eldest sister, and her son, Jon, came over. They would be staying with Dad for a week or so. They were both so welcoming. Ethel Mae gave me a big warm hug and showed me a photo of her family from 2002, from the Christmas they spent with Sally at Dad’s and I was surprised to see myself there next to Sally. I didn’t remember that event at all but I was glad she did. She knew just how to make me feel included. And oddly enough, this first day being back in New York, in a place I rarely have felt comfortable in the past, has given me my first taste of true acceptance.