Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Goodbye again


Yesterday we buried my father-in-law.

His family gathered a day earlier in a great hall, as it generally does on Easter and Thanksgiving, to share food, drink and stories. Only this time, Bob wasn’t there except in a makeshift altar bearing ancient photographs, a few flowers, a guest book and a small plastic box of ashes.

At the cemetery yesterday they gathered again for a final goodbye to the first of seven siblings to pass. The other six were there, of course, as were many of their spouses, children and friends. Some spoke of their love for Bob and the family as a whole. Some remembered another funny story. Some kept it to themselves. My wife placed the box into the open grave and wept on my shoulder.

We all hugged, vowed to get together in a few weeks for Easter and went our separate ways.

A few months ago we buried my first mother-in-law. Again, we did it as families have always done, with comfort food and bittersweet memories. It’s the being together that matters.

A few years ago we said goodbye to my dad. Tears, hugs; food.

And here’s what gets me in the gut once these tragic gatherings have ended: for all our togetherness at such times I have never felt more lonely. I suppose it’s partly the idea that burying our immediate elders is inevitable and that it’s our turn next. But even more insistent is the great lingering “why?”

What is the point of life at all if eighty-some years of living and learning is to be simply extinguished and interred or scattered to the winds or placed in a vase on the mantle? Why do we go through this exercise if it is ultimately meaningless?

Meaning, of course, is the personal pursuit. Whether your answers are found in faith or merely in the warmth of loving memory it is as unique to each of us as the paths we have taken. I find small comfort in that because the question mark remains. But here is what I have come to this morning, after days of grieving and wondering and a blessed good night’s sleep:

My father-in-law’s life was meaningful in its very occurence. He touched each of us and we, in turn, are touching those around us. Not very profound, perhaps, but unlike mere faith this is undeniably true. We are all the sum of the people we have known and loved. And they in turn, are us.

That’s not just a sympathy card platitude. It is the brilliant simplicity of an answer.

Why, indeed! I exist so that my children and theirs may have the great gift of my love and life.

Thanks, Bob, for the wonderful memories and for becoming part of our spiritual dna.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Camping in the 21st century: Part one

Last summer our family went camping in Sequoia National Park and we had a wonderful time. So, this year we’re going again only this time we’re heading to Pfeiffer Big Sur California State Park, twenty-six miles south of Carmel. There will be about twenty of us, possibly a few more, and that means we need at least three campsites. Four would be better. I’m in charge of making the reservations.

The idea of having to reserve a camping space six months in advance of a trip is still hard for me to come to grips with. When I was a kid my dad would announce at the dinner table that we should go camping this weekend and so we did. No big deal. Even when I became an adult and started planning my own camping trips I could pack up the car with my tent, sleeping bags, Coleman stove, lanterns and whatnot and just head to the mountains or ocean with a good idea of where I wanted to go but with no reservation and no worries. That doesn’t fly in the 21st century. Not in California.

Yesterday, February 1st, was the first day campsite reservations became available for August of this year. That’s the way it works. If you want to go camping in any state park anytime at all next August you need to get a reservation within the first fifteen minutes of February. I’m not exaggerating and I couldn’t make that up, I’m not a state employee.

I was at work yesterday morning so my wife and son sat down at their respective computers with two phones each and began phoning and logging in to the California campground reservation line and website at 7:45AM. At the stroke of 8:00 all the campsites in California went up for grabs. By 8:15 all 191 campsites at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park were totally booked. No kidding. I’m guessing the Rolling Stones and Hannah Montana are going to be doing nightly concerts there.

Carolann and Jeremy managed to come up with two campsites, miraculously next to each other, but that still leaves us short of space for at least five people who want to go camping six months from next weekend. I’m going to keep attacking the website for cancellations. In July we’ll probably have to hold a lottery to see who has to stay behind to water everybody’s lawns and pick up the mail. By the time we actually make the trip I figure I will have invested two or three months in scheduling a four day campout.

Twenty or thirty years from now when my grandsons are grown and have families of their own I imagine this will be the dinner table conversation. (Of course, Americans stopped eating together as families decades ago but just for the sake of the scenario…)

TYLER: Honey, why don’t we phone Isaiah and Hannah and see if they want to take the kids camping?
MILEY: When?
TYLER: I don’t know. Soon. Next year, the year after, maybe.
MILEY: Next year? You think you can get reservations for next year?
TYLER: Yeah, you’re right. Maybe the weekend after the Fourth of July four years from now. The weekend after the Fourth is never busy.
MILEY: We have an appointment with the family counselor that Friday.

My dad got grumpier with age and I’m beginning to understand why.

© 2008 by David L. Williams, all rights reserved

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