Feeling All the Feelings

The road trip that changed the way I think about family

In the past, flipping through photo albums with my grandparents, they would tell me anecdotes about every family member we saw in the pictures. Everyone except for my uncle. Any time they saw his picture they would instead pause for a moment and we’d all wallow in silence. My Uncle had died of AIDS when he was 31 years old, and we never really talked about it.

I was three years old when he died, so I only have very fleeting child memories of him. If I think hard I remember a smiling, dark-haired man that I knew was family. I remember him losing his hair. After that he was gone, and I was helping my parent’s decorate his patch on the AIDS quilt. My grandparents were very sad about his passing, and I understood their silence as pain.

Growing up I always wish I had gotten the chance to know my Uncle. Walking through the woods with my dad or family vacations I would sometimes try to imagine what it would be like to know him. What would he say, how would we hang out as a family? Would he be a proxy parent like all of my aunts and uncles on my mom’s side were? I would never know. What I did know was a tiny collections of facts that I had held close over the years. He was a talented mechanic and was always taking apart and resembling engines on cars as a kid. He was in a pit crew, and loved NASCAR. He was a picky eater. He spent his last years in Kansas. He had been adopted like my dad. My aunt said he reminded her of my little brother.

As I entered my 20s I started to understand more just how hard it must have been for my dad to lose his only sibling. I love my brother, and I can’t imagine life without him. The realization that my dad had experienced this kind of loss felt unfathomable. I was getting closer to the age my uncle was when he had died.

I knew that my uncle had been buried in Kansas near his wife who was still alive at his death, even though all of his family lived on the east coast. His wife had since moved on and was married to another man. It suddenly occurred to me that my uncle was all by himself in Kansas, and I had never visited his grave as an adult. At the time I had just left a job, and had a wide-open summer and savings account. I realized that I wanted to go to Kansas to visit my uncle’s grave, and I wanted my brother to go with me. My little brother, always the more adventurous sibling, was totally game. He was about to enter his junior year of college, but had some free time over the summer. We quickly blocked off some time and got to work planning our trip.

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