Death and Dating

My uncle Jerry passed away this week. He was 70 years old and my dad’s only sibling. I wasn’t particularly close to Jerry or his wife, but they are my family, so I felt it only right to go to the funeral home. My dad and step-mother did a great job of finding photos from his days in the Army, his wedding, and his many trips to the Smoky Mountains – my uncle loved the mountains – to create a collage of his life. There were even a few pictures of me and my sister as kids.

Jerry was one of those folks that people might call eccentric or odd. My dad liked to tease that he probably had the first dime he ever made and when my grandma was alive, she loved to tell the story of how they all went to Gatlinburg one summer and Jerry asked to see the hotel room before he would pay for it. When it wasn’t up to his standard, he negotiated a better deal right there on the spot. What I remember most about him was that he lived in the same apartment all my childhood and drove the same meticulously maintained car – a 1976 Chevy Monte Carlo. Though he later bought a house (just up the street from my dad), he still drove the car until the day he died. I also remember stacks and stacks of Pepsis (his drink of choice) in the garage, where he would stock up on them when they were on sale. You might say he was extremely frugal, which is one thing we had in common. The other was our love for my grandma.

Funerals are a time of reflection, whether we want them to be or not, and the thought of how short life really is can’t help but enter one’s mind as they stand beside a casket. For me, I couldn’t help thinking about how my uncle had devoted the last years of his life to caring for his mother, my grandmother, and within just a short time of her passing, he was gone as well. He was only 70 years old. All those trips he’d put off, all the dreams he may have had for retirement, were never realized, and it made me sad. And angry…at myself.

A lot of my own goals and dreams are unrealized too and while I describe myself as a caregiver for my mother, the truth is, she is not incapable of caring for herself. She can (and does) do a lot on her own, she just needs help from time to time, especially with the yard and house maintenance and driving to appointments. Yet, for some reason, when I think about travelling or even going away for a weekend, I feel like I’m abandoning my responsibilities. So, I put these things off, telling myself that I’m needed here now and there will be time for our adventures later. But what if there’s not?

Our goal of doing 48 Really Great Dates this year was partially an attempt to mitigate those circumstances. We thought it would be wise to set aside time for ourselves and do something fun, to lessen the tension that sometimes comes with doing so many things for other people. The crazy thing about that – having to plan dates caused more tension! Where we once simply decided to do things together – like go for a hike or visit a museum – we were now putting so much time and energy into planning the perfect outing that we forgot the point – to just do something fun together.

As we looked at the photo collage of my uncle Jerry’s life, one thing stood out – there were dozens of photos of my uncle and aunt doing crazy normal things…together. From barbecuing in the backyard to washing the car or sitting atop the World’s Largest Rocking Chair, they were always together, and they were always smiling. I’m not talking about canned smiles either. In every photo, they were grinning like they were having the time of their lives. I have to think that they had a good life – that despite having to spend nearly a decade caring for my grandma, they managed to find joy in every day living.

And that’s what I want for us.

We’re still working toward our date goal, but without the added pressure now. Instead of alternating weekly date planning, we sat down and brainstormed a big list of things we wanted to do this year. Each week we pick one that fits in with our other plans and obligations. This means, our dates are sometimes as simple as a long walk, and other times, we may manage to get away for an entire weekend. We probably won’t do everything on this list and that’s okay. Coming up with it was half the fun anyway. For a little while we got to dream and plan together and, in the end, we realized we don’t need to go on an elaborate date in order to connect, we simply need to make time for each other.

My uncle was buried with full military honors in a cemetery an hour away. Sadly, his wife will never get to visit his grave. Earlier this year, when they realized she could no longer live at home, she went to live in a nursing home. She has Alzheimer’s Disease. They had no children to pass their stories on to, but their life did not go unnoticed. I noticed. My dad noticed. My brother noticed. And each of us left the funeral home that day affected in different ways. Seeing my uncle’s life laid out in pictures helped me to remember that every new day is a new chance to do something spectacular – even if it’s just washing the car with your wife.

Alaska or Bust??

I read The Box-car Children when I was in 3rd grade and decided then and there that I wanted to live in a boxcar. To my 9-year-old self, stealing milk off doorsteps and sleeping on a straw mat seemed an adventurous and independent thing to do. Then I read Where the Red Fern Grows and instead of boxcars, I wanted two little puppies to hunt with. Mind you, I never wanted to actually kill anything; just go out at night with my pups and a lantern…maybe steal some milk off a doorstep and sleep on a straw mat. Even now, I still read every day and I still want to go, see, and do the things that I read about.

A few months ago, Angie and I were on an Alaska kick. My mom had gotten us hooked on Alaskan Bush People and we had each picked up a few books about folks living in remote Alaskan villages (like If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name by Heather Lende and Forty Years in the Wilderness by Dolly Faulkner). As always happens, we started daydreaming about going there and even looked into Alaskan cruises. We both told our parents that “our next big trip would probably be to Alaska”. And it probably will be. But when we say the words “our next big trip”, we don’t exactly mean the next time we pack up the car and pull out of the driveway. It could be a few years before we make it to The Last Frontier. In the meantime, we have other plans, though none of those plans included hurting the feelings of someone we love. Yet, it seems that we did.

Angie’s mom said she wanted to go with us if we went on a cruise to Alaska. We said that sounded great, and we moved on without much of a second thought. Why? Because my mom always says that she wants to go with us to Hawaii the next time we go. My nephew tells us every time that he sees us that he wants to tag along if we ever go to Ireland. Angie’s aunt and uncle said once that we should all plan a road trip together and my niece mentioned at Christmas that we should go with them to Florida this summer. It’s something people say and sometimes it turns into a real plan, but more often than not, it’s just a way to daydream about a vacation together. But Angie’s mom was serious, and it seems she was expecting us to go this spring.

Of course, now we feel terrible. So terrible in fact that we considered hastily putting together a trip just so we wouldn’t let anyone down or make anyone mad or cause anyone to miss out on such an opportunity. Thank goodness we came to our senses, because we are in no way ready for such an undertaking!

And honestly, most folks aren’t either. Did you know:

  • 75% of Americans have gone into debt to pay for a vacation at some point in their lifetime,
  • 23% did so in the past 12 months,
  • 55% don’t budget for vacations (or factor them into their annual expenses), and
  • Over the past year, Americans borrowed $12.64 billion for vacations, racking up $778.77 million in interest and other charges?

Have you ever heard the term “debt-lag”? It’s what happens when you return from a vacation with debt. We’ve only ever had it once – when we hit a few snags on our 2014 trip to California and Hawaii – and we decided then and there, we would not have it again. Not for any reason. If we couldn’t completely pay for a certain vacation destination, we would simply not go there. There are way too many other, cheaper places to go when the “exotic” or “once in a lifetime” locales are not [yet] within reach.

Our plan for Alaska (or any other big destination) is to save up before we set off. Looking at cruises, lodging and activities gives us an idea of how much we need to add to our vacation fund and how long we need to save. You might say, a lot of dreaming and scheming goes into our travel planning process. I get that it’s not the same for everyone, and that’s okay. If you are ready for and able to take a big vacation, like an Alaskan cruise, and that’s what you have your heart set on doing, then that’s what you should do. We just aren’t there yet.

We gently and lovingly tried to explain our position to Angie’s mom. She was disappointed, but I’d like to believe she respects our decision to avoid debt. More importantly, I hope she understands that though we might not be going to Alaska this year, she is always welcome to go with us wherever we may roam…even if it’s just to the park. (We have plenty of hammocks, by the way 😊)