The memorial service for my Aunt Francine was held at the First Baptist Church of Childress, Texas recently. She was my father's only sibling. Because of his Parkinson's disease, he was unable to travel the nearly 500 miles from Houston. I went on his behalf and had a moving and profound experience as I visited iconic places of my childhood and tried to come to grips with my own mortality.
Aunt Francine and Uncle Bill have lived on and operated a large cattle ranch outside Childress my entire life. It is remote, enormous, and beautifully rugged. As a kid, I used to visit my cousins on the ranch - this was like visiting another planet in a time machine for a boy growing up in Houston.
[Cousins Amber and Ty both have families of their own now. I'm so proud of the people they have become. I would like to write about them sometime, but that's for another day.]
At the memorial service, Ty read a passage from Aunt Francine's Bible, noting the words she had underlined and personal notes she had written in the margins. Seeing a Lieutenant Colonel in the Marines be emotional and vulnerable in front of the crowd was powerful and moving; it left everyone wiping their eyes.
After the service we drove back out to the ranch - for me it was like driving back in time. Very little has changed since I was last there 18 years ago at Amber's wedding. In fact, very little has changed since I was a kid 40 years ago. Then and now, it's like it was when I was a child; you can still see the open land for miles in all directions. There's a neighbor a mile or so to the east, another a mile or so to the west. It's rugged, expansive, beautiful, and almost timeless. Almost.
[One of the views from their backyard]
[I remember being there in a thunderstorm in 1981 when this bell was hit by lightning.]
In the evening after the memorial service, we sat on the stone patio Aunt Francine made and enjoyed the view, the shade, the breeze, and mostly the family. I really enjoyed visiting with my cousins and their spouses and kids, and Uncle Bill, of course. It was hard, however, to speculate about the future with them. As our parents age, how do we respond? How do we want our own children to respond as we, ourselves, age?
These are questions I have been wrestling with for the last few years in the back of my mind, but this weekend in the Texas panhandle brought them to the forefront with new poignancy.
I would have liked to spend another day with them, but I had to leave early the next morning. I decided to drive the additional 100 miles to visit Ralls, Texas where my father grew up and grandparents lived.
About halfway between the ranch and Ralls is a scenic overlook where the ultra flatness of the Caprock gives way to the rolling terrain to its east. This is a special place for me; it's the place I proposed to Martha in the summer of 1992. Again, hardly anything has changed there. The land stands in contrast to our lives; it moves at glacial speeds in comparison. Forty years ago this place looked exactly the same, except for some new wind turbines that peeked up over the horizon.
One of my imagined alternate lives would be to live there, owning and operating a wind farm. In fact, I even toyed with writing a novel set here. I wrote a few chapters about an introverted engineer living here, but instead of ranching cattle like my Uncle Bill, he harvested the wind.
On the subject of harvesting, when my grandfather died, my grandmother planted an oak tree in his honor at the little church he attended. I had not seen the tree in a long time and I wanted to see how large it had grown to be. As you can see, it's doing well! I even took a handful of acorns to plant myself.
Before I left town for the long drive home, I visited the cemetery where my grandparents are buried. I felt compelled to do something that I have never done before. I stood at their grave and talked to them. I'm not sure why I felt I had to do this, but the feeling was strong, and the act was cathartic. I told them that their beloved daughter had died. I know they already knew this because they are in heaven now, but I felt like I needed to give them the bad news somehow. I left a flower from her memorial service on their tombstone.
When I visited their grave, a wave of sadness overwhelmed me. I grieved for my aunt, my grandparents, my father's struggles with Parkinson's disease, and even the loss of my own childhood. My sense of adulthood, my sense of mortality, and the fact that even the seemingly unchangeable does, indeed, change and move on - these were overwhelming to me. Standing in the cemetery with my camera in hand, I wept like a baby.
The Ralls cemetery has a new chapel and, just behind it, five large wind turbines: symbols that change really does happen, and also that it isn't all bad. There can be hope in change; things can really get better, they need not always decay. This helps me accept my own aging and mortality. This helps me grieve the losses that inevitably come to us in life.
"You will be secure, because there is hope..." - Job 11:18