Last weekend, I did something quite rare for me: I flew to a distant city and returned two days later. Waiting in line to board, I tried to remember just how many airplane flights I had taken in my life — about a dozen was my initial estimate, and my counting and memory came close to that number. So I am not accustomed to flying and still feel a bit disbelieving and unnatural when the wheels lift off the runway. And the feeling of being packed like sardines in a narrow aluminum tube is still strange and a little claustrophobia-inducing to me. Still, my wife and I made our trip of some 400 miles in about an hour, did not fall from the sky and did not get arrested or too humiliated by the Transportation Safety Administration personnel. On Sunday, the process worked just as well in the opposite direction.
We did this because we are growing older and with age comes wisdom — the wisdom of knowing just how important family and family events are. We attended a wedding of the son of my wife's first cousin. This cousin, though not estranged by any means, was not exactly close. For most of their adult lives, my wife and he have lived 1,000 or more miles apart. He and his family visited our home 30 years ago; we have never visited his. The groom, this cousin's son, probably could not identify either of us in a lineup. Still, it was important to attend this wedding.
It was important because the only times we had seen this cousin or his wife or his son recently were at funerals. The wedding provided a reason for cousins to gather without there being a burial involved. The wedding rites were fittingly brief, but the conversations and the laughter were long. Six of the eight first cousins in my wife's family attended the wedding. They buried the ninth cousin two months ago, which gave the surviving cousins greater impetus to gather this time, on a happy occasion. These cousins have recognized, a bit unexpectedly, that we are now the Older Generation. It is our grandchildren who are scurrying all about, getting to know their cousins; it is our children who are supervising cooking, drinking and play. We have taken the roles of our parents, filling the vacuum their deaths have left — cautious, careful and nostalgic.
One of my regrets in life is that I did not attend the funerals of several aunts, uncles and cousins who died and were buried far from where I was living. I had plenty of excuses: We didn't have the money to go (which was very true) or we had to work and couldn't get away. But if you grasp the importance of family, you know that neither money nor time can substitute for the relationships you build with those with whom you share DNA and memories and love.
I did attend the wedding of one uncle, a gentle, faithful man who loved to laugh. I drove eight hours to the funeral and back in one day. This uncle once told me, "All we have in this old world is family." Spend all the time you can with your family; you won't get a second chance.