In all honesty I'm not sure what happened after I heard my sister's voice.
I'd immediately assumed the worst; my sister rarely calls and I rarely call her. If she's calling me, I thought, at 8:30 at night, Eastern, a week and a half before Christmas, then someone had died.
Someone important and loved by both of us.
In her sobbing, I could only make out the important part of her call. It's all I remember, really.
"Grandma was killed in a car accident this morning and -- "
I don't remember what came after the and. The shock of it all stopped my brain from processing the rest.
My grandmother pretty much raised me. After my grandfather died, I'd moved in to her house on the farm to keep her company. I slept on her bedroom floor - despite having a bedroom of my own - from age nine until I entered seventh grade.
Every morning before school, the whole family would gather at her place. We'd all have coffee and toast, then I'd kiss her and her toy poodle goodbye, and we'd head off to start the day.
My grandmother was the only woman I can honestly say I've ever loved and trusted completely, my conscience, my keeper of secrets, my most trusted advisor.
And then, of course, there were her biscuits and gravy, her pancakes, the fondness for fried okra and bass fishing alone...
* * * *
Two days later, after spending the night in Cincinnati's train station (soothing, really, because most of the building is now home to the Queen City's best museums) and an 11-hour trip on Amtrak's Cardinal line into Charlottesville, I arrived back in the ol' Home State.
The train passed through West Virginia, 70 miles north of the town where she was born - tiny Newhall, a community of less than 700 people. One of more than a half-dozen children born or adopted by my great-grandparents in McDowell County, who were themselves from large Coal Country litters of children.
I imagined the hundreds, possibly thousands, of distant relatives roaming the Appalachians all around me as I passed through the state, staring at the imposing mountaintops and pristine whitewater stretches as the train rolled down the line.
I thought about her kinfolk, her brother she lost to the mines, the one she rarely would discuss, the stories of her parents and grandparents, her father's innovative "indoor plumbing" system (he built his house atop a spring, yet until the 1960s they still used an outhouse), and the stories her brother once told me that made her blush...
I was the last person in my family to speak to my grandmother alive, for two hours on the phone, a few days before her death. The last thing we talked about was her father and the Blair Mountain War - the fight of the miners to bring justice and fair wages to Appalachia, against company, state, and even federal forces.
And that, yes, is a huge burden.
I sat in silence, staring out at West Virginia for hours, thinking about that conversation.
And I found comfort in my thoughts.
* * * *
The next week sped along a blur of emotion, funeral arrangements, and estate issues. Grief took second seat to the reality of having to dispose of human remains, to settle insurance issues, to prepare family heirlooms for shipping and furniture for eventual auction.
My father and I each delivered eulogies. As with my grandfather's funeral, I did not shed a tear; in fact, I even cracked a few jokes. I'm sure some folks thought it was inappropriate; most, however, did not.
As a child with my Grandpa's death, I was honoring a grandparent's last request - be strong, don't cry, don't grieve in public, as it makes others cry. That was, well, a wrong-minded approach - not grieving simply masks the same reality as shudder-filled sobbing. But as an adult, I've managed through much meditation to shake off many of the Western traditions associated with the often selfish emotions tied to death.
For some reason, I feel comfortable enough with human mortality to simply stand in front of a church full of mourners, to remind folks that we all die, and that we remain in this world forever so long as those left tell their tale.
* * * *
From Virginia, a five-day trek across the US, to California, on a road trip. My dad, brother-in-law, and I left Christmas Eve morning, spent Christmas Eve at my place here in Oxford, Christmas Dinner a truck stop meal in western Missouri.
As strange as it was, it's actually one of the most adventurous, exciting holidays I've experienced since childhood. The only gift granted was the hum of wheels on the open highway.
And that, yes, I view as a blessing in disguise, a reminder at how big this country is, how full of life and diverse in terrain North America is, from sea to shining sea.
* * * *
Days in California passed too quick. After a little more than a week, I returned to Ohio, to an empty apartment filled with boxes of childhood toys, trinkets from my childhood, and a large portion of the family library (containing the collected literature of five generations).
The new year, already upon us. A return to work, to life, to the concerns of the living. As December marks the death of every year, so too does the following January mark the birth of a new one.
C'est la vie.
"Because of its tremendous solemnity," the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote long ago, published in one of those works, "Death is the light in which great passions, both good and bad, become transparent, no longer limited by outward appearances."
“It is not death that a man should fear," Marcus Aurelius reported wrote again, in another one of those volumes, "But he should fear never beginning to live.”
After cleaning out the fridge, running to the store to reload on vittles, and unpacking my well-traveled bags, I sat down and closed my eyes.
A chance, yes, to catch my own breath, to rest in solitary peace for a moment.
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