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.
The first step was figuring out exactly where my Uncle had been buried. There was a lot of stigma surrounding AIDS when my Uncle died, especially in the Midwest, so he had to be buried in a cemetery that was essentially in the middle of nowhere so protestors and religious fanatics couldn’t find it. My parents unfortunately didn’t remember the address or have it written down.
We wanted to do this on our own, so we decided to investigate. We called the Kansas state government, and were transferred to the office of records. From there we were told to write the office of records (a letter!) requesting a death certificate. We did, and after some back and forth in the mail we were able to purchase my Uncle’s death certificate for $15. We found out my Uncle was buried in Waco, KS. Finally we had a destination.
Then for the first time in a while, I really looked at a map of the United States. I had forgotten how incredibly huge and expansive it was. It was a 21 and a half hour drive from NYC to Waco, if we didn’t stop driving (which was probably impossible). So we broke the trip up into a couple legs. They were still ambitious (we averaged 7-10 hrs a day) but they were much more realistic. From a poll of our friends and the couches they had available we got our other destinations: Cleveland, OH. St. Louis, MI. Waco, KS. Colorado Springs, CO. Council Bluffs, IA. Cleveland again. Then Beaverdale, PA, and finally back home to NYC. We agreed to take turns driving, and if one person got tired we’d switch back. I bought a re-issued Polaroid camera and some film to document the trip for my parents. Our parents agreed to let us borrow their Subaru. After that, we packed it up with some luggage, and set off.
We got going to St. Louis early in the morning. We had a lot of ground to cover, and all of it through strange states. For the first time on the trip I was starting to feel nervous. We knew the town my Uncle was buried in, but were having trouble tracking down the exact address of the cemetery. We were a few hours away, and then had to continue onto Colorado Springs in the same day. What if we didn’t find the cemetery? What if we didn’t make it to Colorado Springs?
The next day we started out super early, and got moving. The closer we got to Kansas, the flatter the land got and the sparser the population. We passed through Wichita, the city my Uncle had lived in, and continued onto Waco. To call Waco a town was kind of generous. It felt sort of like a neighborhood that had lost its city. There were lots of houses, but no apparent center of town. We drove to the address we found online, and there was a power plant and a cornfield, but no cemetery. I felt completed defeated.
But then my brother found the cemetery. It was on the other side of the cornfield. Google maps had just messed up the entrance. There wasn’t really any place to park so we left our car in front of the visitor sign near the entrance. We soon found my Uncle’s gravestone. It was nicely kept even though there was no one left to keep it, and it had a vase of a fake flowers, as well as a picture of him and his wife on the front. The left side had his name and date of birth and death. The right side was blank for his wife. My brother and I sat down and took a moment to write letters to our Uncle, and left them underneath some stones. My brother, being an artist, also left some drawings. My parents had given us seashells from my Uncle’s hometown, Northport, NY to leave on the grave. Then we then took Polaroid’s of each other and left them behind too. After another hour or so of visiting we decided to get back on the road. It was a strange feeling. We had completed the purpose of our trip, but we were so far from home, and still had a long way to go.
Kansas got more and more empty the further we drove through it. We kept thinking we were approaching a town or a border, and then would get let down a few miles later when we realize our ‘town’ was just a bunch of farm machinery seen from the horizon. It was pitch black once we started to reach Colorado. Finally at 11 pm we got to my friend’s apartment in Colorado Springs. We woke up and were shocked by the giant, beautiful mountains we were surrounded by. After several more stops and hospitable friends, we made the long trek back to New York City.
Later on, we got a call from our grandparents. They had found out about our trip, because my uncle’s wife had been in the cemetery in Waco for a funeral. At the end of the funeral, she went over to my uncle’s grave, and saw that we had left notes and photos. She called up our grandparents and in turn they had called us. They were happy we had visited his grave. Ever since our trip our family has been more open with memories about our uncle. There’s no more silence when we pass over his pictures in the album, only stories. In a way it seems like his spirit was looking out for us, trying to bring us all back together. And best of all, I finally feel like we have a better connection with him now that we’ve taken the time to visit. And I know it will only get stronger when we go back.
[Image courtesy Fox Searchlight]