When I was a child, my family lived in a home that was quite lovely, set back from the street with a long driveway, with a lush yard that was surely at least an acre. The home was built into the side of a hill with a picture window in the back. It had three stories: the basement – where the rec room and garage were – the main floor, and the top floor, where we girls had our bedrooms.
At some point my dad installed one of those electric garage door openers, and when someone pressed the button to open it, you could hear it even up on the top floor.
When I was in fourth grade, my uncle Ed passed away and Dad made his way upstairs where he gathered all of us kids in my room to give us the news. (Ed was my great uncle, actually, as both my parents are only children, so I have no aunts, uncles or first cousins.) It was a heart attack, it seemed. I began to cry. I then felt that strange feeling one only feels when remembering the mortality of being human. This would be my first funeral, my first relative passing away, my first experience with how suddenly things can change.
I was not especially close to my uncle. He was not like a grandfather to me or anything like that. He was just a really nice person and he happened to be married to one of my favorite relatives, my great aunt Nina.
Ed had a slight build and was a man of few words. He was very much a farmer. We used to love going up to the farm for Sunday dinner every now and then. We kids would explore the barns and ride the tractor and Nina would make a huge dinner after which we’d all get sleepy. In the fall, we would go up and help them pick apples and then the females would set to work helping Nina make jars and jars of apple sauce.
They lived in one of those towns where if you blinked you’d miss it, whose biggest landmark was a grain elevator.
Beyond the usual memories a child might have of a funeral – like noticing how weird Ed’s face looked with all that makeup on (a called the color “peach”), and remembering that my aunt had a floral dress on instead of black – I remember developing a strange behavior that lasted for several months afterward.
Every time I would hear that garage door start to open, I would drop everything and race down the first flight of stairs, fly around the main floor to the second set of stairs, and then leap down that second flight at record speed, after which I would run out into the garage as fast as I could in bare feet, hoping to catch whichever parent had decided to go on errands.
Huffing and puffing, I would run up to the car and they would roll down the window and I would say, “I just wanted to say goodbye!” Huff. Puff.
I would then climb both sets of stairs and go back to whatever I was doing.
It seems I had become deeply afraid of not having the chance to say goodbye.
This racing to the garage went on for several months, until I must have realized that at some point, there was bound to come a moment when someone would manage to run off to the grocery store without my hearing the garage door go up. (Or maybe I just got tired of wearing myself out doing sprints.)
Some time passed and eventually I settled into the knowledge that in life, sometimes people leave us suddenly, and that everything is temporary. Everything but death, that is. That one tends to stick.
I wish I could say that this transformed me from a shy, introverted young girl into an always-expressing-my-feelings kind of person who never lets a loved one get out the door without a great big bear hug and an, “I love you,” but it didn’t.
In fact, I haven’t gotten much better at letting most people know how much they mean to me and making sure they know that I’ll miss them when they’re gone. And you know what? Maybe I should get on that.