My uncle passed away a couple of days ago; things have been in such constant motion since then that I can’t even begin to tell you the exact day it happened. Yesterday? The day before? The day before that?
He was a wheat farmer and cattle rancher in a tiny, middle-of-nowhere town in Kansas. My dad grew up spending every single summer from his birth until he was in his early twenties out there helping Johnny and Grandpa Bud run the farm, plow the fields, and all that that entailed.
I’ve always had this supremely idealistic view of small towns, and I think it comes from hearing about how my dad spent his summers as a kid… and, too, from listening, wide-eyed, over the years as Johnny told me stories about the glory days of Yesteryear Farm Town USA.
I decided years ago (before I really even knew what it was I was deciding) that when things were all said and done, I wanted to move up East to some little postcard town in Maine or Vermont or Rhode Island and make my life there. Even though I’m a thoroughbred city girl with a genuine love of overpriced boroughs, metered parking, yuppie street markets, coffee shops that charge 8 dollars a cup for real macchiatos, and the beauty that is skyscrapers as far as the eye can see, there’s always been a part of me that longed for something else.
There’s always been a part of me that’s longed for something like Farm Town USA… except, you know, not Farm Town USA.
Something prettier. Something more picture-esque. Someplace where I could own apple trees, not wheat stalks.
I’m sad… Mostly, though, I’m shocked.
When I was a kid, I never experienced death—at least not the death of someone who was really, really important to me. Death was, at that time, a facet of reality that wasn’t tangibly understandable to me. I didn’t get my first real taste of death and grief until losing my beloved grandmother at age 13.
I lost my Grams to cancer, and although there were only weeks between her diagnosis and her death, I somehow felt prepared for it. I got to spend my time with her. I got to say the things that I needed to say, make sure she knew how much I loved her and how much it meant to me that I was her best girl—the obvious and envied favorite of all the grand and great-grandchildren.
A few years later when I was 18, I had a very similar experience when I lost my dear, sweet grandfather (her husband). He fell ill very quickly, but he held on long enough for me to say what needed to be said. In fact, the last thing I remember saying to him was, “You know I love you, right?” and his response, of course, was an incredulously scoffed, “I know” followed by an, “I love you, too.”
I can’t remember the last thing I said to Johnny.
In fact, the only things I can seem to remember right now are the emails sitting in the inbox of my Gmail account that begged me to come down to the farm for a weekend “since the driving time from your door to mine is a measly 4 hours, 12 minutes.”
And the missed FaceTime calls that I was too busy to sit down and take.
And the invitation to my college graduation that I didn’t send because I knew that they’d drive out and I was leery of having to put them up and entertain them for the week—or, heaven forbid, even longer because we’d all been snowed in a time or two between here and Farm Town USA; the I-70 corridor straight through to the Kansas state line is a dangerous, dangerous path during the winter.
I keep thinking of all these things, and I keep wondering why I acted this way.
Have I been spoiled by the Grim Reaper himself? Has it really taken me 23 years to realize that not everyone gets to end their life in some long, drawn out, dramatic process that enables them to actually settle their affairs and say their goodbyes?
Even though I can’t remember the last thing I said to Johnny, I can remember the last (few) things he said to me.
I remember that he couldn’t even recognize me the last time I saw him—how he held the door for me without even realizing that I was part of his dinner party, that it was me, in the flesh… because there was a whole lot less of me in the flesh that last time.
I remember that he said he was proud of me… That I was beautiful and that I’d done such a good job… That I looked so, so great.
And I remember him asking, one last time, that I come out to the farm before the harvest to visit.
I wish, more than anything, I had.
Johnny had a heart attack; he died in his bed next to his wife of nearly 44 years.
News travels fast, so I’d heard that he’d died long before I heard how, but somehow, I knew exactly what it was that’d killed him.
I knew it was the same thing that I worry is going to kill my own father… the same thing that, if I don’t continue to get a handle on my weight, is going to kill me.
Food. Weight. Food. Weight gain. Weight loss. Obesity. Food. Death death death.
I can’t keep sitting here in limbo. I can’t keep eating and eating and eating when things don’t go my way or when I’m happy or sad or mad or bored. My life doesn’t have to be this way, no matter what kind of picture the rest of my family has painted for themselves.
There’s a lesson to be learned here.
I’m sorry, Johnny, that I had to lose you to learn it.