There is a reason that this specific narrative has been reserved for the final stretch of my project. Of the 100 goals that I established for myself, in 2017, “mending a broken relationship” was foreseen as the most difficult to achieve. Man, I was spot on with that prediction.
Everyone knows that Band-Aid bandages—affixed to skin and hair follicles—have a tendency of inflicting pain, when removed too quickly. That’s common sense, but the same can be said for our emotions.
In our own relationships with friends or families, we employ similar bandages to mend a wound, to heal a cut, or to hide a scar. Sometimes, those wounds never heal—actually, sometimes we choose to never let those wounds heal. Let that sink in for a few seconds.
We choose: to forgive, to forget, to apologize, to reconcile, to ignore, to repress, to say we are truly sorry, or to acknowledge a long-standing pool of indifference on our own behalf.
If you’re stumbling along here, reflecting upon your own short-comings, you’re not alone. This specific realization is one that took a full year for me to arrive at, to embrace, and to act upon. It’s not easy, for the faint at heart, or wimpy.
From time to time, I’ve treated my mother’s first marriage—and subsequent divorce—as something that may or may not have happened. Something of pure fiction. Especially as a kid, it was easy to dismiss that reality, considering the fact that I was placed in a new, comfortable home; my mother had a new husband; I had two new brothers; puppies, rainbows, and unicorns for everyone; batta bing, batta boom. Divorce is a wicked construct of our modern society, and it leaves a stirred sea of heartache, emotional flotsam and jetsam, in its wake. There are never any unaffected parties in the equation, none. I’ll just park that there for now.
But there was another reality to examine: my relationship with my grandmother, my biological father’s mother. I’ve already elaborated on our relationship in Chai Ninjas and Memories of Nana. So, the rehashing of our personal history together is not the focus of today’s narrative, but rather the reconciliation of that relationship.
Reconciliation requires changes of heart and spirit, as well as social and economic change. It requires symbolic as well as practical action. ~ Malcolm Fraser
Believe me when I say that this has been a personal journey, to arrive at this specific point of reasoning, and would not have happened on its own, outside the process of me working through this personal Project 365. No one sits around, in their pajamas, on any ordinary day, and contemplates a strategy to reconcile with ghosts of their past. Unless, your heart experiences a complete and full 180° turn, from its previous course. If you are questioning my motives or sincerity, know that it is true and genuine before throwing stones.
I penned Chai Ninjas… back in September, and by October, I had initiated a conversation—albeit, through hand-written letters—with my grandmother. She and my grandfather had recently relocated from northern Pennsylvania to southwestern Pennsylvania, only an hour from my home. This was a door that I needed to open, and I knew that with every fiber of my body, even if the process would resemble the action of tearing a bandage from an unhealed wound.
With promises of visiting over the Christmas break, I experienced a myriad of emotions: anxiety, fear, uncertainty. I hadn’t visited my grandparents in nearly a decade, or even had a conversation with them. How would they treat me, view me, judge me? Or would they harbor feelings of resentment? I wasn’t really certain. All I knew was that based on reciprocal letters, they anticipated my visit as well as any conversations that we may have.
Due to frozen furnace pipes, inclement weather, and flu season, my visit was delayed by three weeks. More anxiety. A telephone call confirmed the afternoon visit. Finally.
Double Stuf Oreos, Decaf Coffee, and Surreal Conversations with Nana
Van parked in the driveway of a tiny, quaint home in the middle of nowhere. Out of habit, I lock the doors; although, I doubt there are any neighborhood hooligans. With one last dose of trepidation, I approach their front door. This has got to be one of the most difficult tasks that I’ve accomplished in the last several years of my life. Maybe this was a mistake?
I press the doorbell. No reaction. I wait. No one answers. I can hear them speaking through the thin-paned windows. I rap my knuckles on the glass door. I peer through the curtain to see my grandfather approach, a slow and deliberate pace across the span of kitchen flooring. He answers the door. Save for becoming much thinner and grayer, he hasn’t changed since the last time that we saw each other.
Outside of my normal repertoire, I offer the first hug. People always like hugs, and it’s the quickest way to break down a perceived barrier. He accepts.
I have learned that there is more power in a good strong hug than in a thousand meaningful words. ~ Ann Hood
I walk across the span of kitchen, toward the living room, where my grandmother is waiting for me. She’s stationed in her recliner, her aluminum walker at her side. Wrought with medical issues, she appears so delicate. Her silver hair is very thin, and she slightly resembles the woman that I remember, but when she speaks, her voice opens a flood of memories—gateways to my childhood.
I lean in for a hug, careful to not break her fragile frame, and she embraces me, planting a sweet little kiss on my neck. Apparently, she does not harbor feelings of apprehension or resentment at all.
My grandfather positions a kitchen chair next to her, indicating the acceptable range of his wife’s sight and hearing—despite her one hearing aid, she’s limited to an audible six-foot radius. She’s a sweet woman, and we have a terrific conversation, considering that we haven’t spoken for a decade.
We talk about the mountains, deer, and black bear that they both left behind. I ask questions about people and faces that I once knew, Films About Ghosts, and she tells me about their fates—my grandmother is the last surviving member of her own family. She mentions people by name who I never knew existed, until today. She tells me about how each of her sons once knew Jesus, on a personal level; although, she doesn’t know where they stand as adults. I haven’t the heart to elaborate, or contradict her in any manner.
My grandfather is an avid fisherman and hunter, so I capitalize on the moment to pick his brain about trout. Yes, I know it sounds weird, but he has a wealth of knowledge to share. In rich detail, he describes the most ideal spinning reel rig. If ever there was a moment to jot notes, this would be it. I pay attention to each suggestion, in hopes of stepping-up my game in the Spring. With enthusiasm, he eases from his dedicated recliner and heads out the front door. My grandmother indicates that he is headed to the basement to fetch his fishing rod. Apparently, steps are out of the question in his advanced age, where the quickest way to the basement is a stroll outside, and down the easing sidewalk.
She comments on my haircut, complementing my style—I refrained from telling her that I just got my top trimmed, literally, on the way to her house. Occasionally, I have to repeat myself because her hearing aid didn’t capture my sound waves.
Five minutes later he returns with a rod in hand, describing and demonstrating the ultimate rig for catching trout with Powerbait.
All three of us discuss Christianity, and the role that Jesus Christ plays in each of our lives. At eighty-five and eight-six years of age, they describe their reality: with advancing age comes doubt and questions. They have a difficult time understanding why God allows suffering, specifically on a physical level, to those who call Him Father, and to those who He calls Children. I must say that I haven’t experienced this mindset before, and they both attribute that to my relative good health and young age.
There is so much knowledge and insight to be shared between generations. Why is this something that is suppressed, and not encouraged?
Eventually, we migrate to the kitchen to enjoy coffee and cookies. I sip decaf coffee from a ceramic Patriots mug—the Steelers fan inside of me clawing to get out, from the inside. We three sit around the table to discuss another pressing matter: will the New England Patriots clinch a spot in the upcoming Super Bowl. They are both hilarious and opinionated New England fans. We talk about the red glove news that just splashed the television yesterday, analyze the weaknesses of the Steeler’s football franchise, and have a great time.
Fish and visitors stink after three days ~ Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanack
I’ve been visiting for nearly three hours, and the afternoon concludes with a tour of the spare bedroom. A wooden glass cabinet reflects the faces of my grandfather and I. We are staring at his gun collection, or at least what remains. He tells me that most of his pieces were sold, including an amazing crossbow killing-machine, in order to move to their current location. One by one, he removes revolvers from the cabinet. Without much firearm experience, I cannot add much to the conversation. I appreciate the craftsmanship, and comment accordingly, before handing the piece to him once more.
He shows me the two pelts that hang from his wall: a coyote and a bobcat. Like a curious child, I run my hands through the fur. The coyote pelt is very coarse, and not what I expected at all. The bobcat fur is so soft and smooth to the touch, and—of course—there is a personal story attached.
There are stories attached to everything, pieces of everyone that we sometimes wish to share with others. Sometimes we retain such stories for our closest friends or family. Don’t we all have stories to tell?
I know that it’s time to leave. I believe that I’ve determined the perfect duration of time for an estranged grandson/grandparent initial reunion. We say our goodbyes, and utter promises of future conversations about fishing, hunting, Jesus Christ, or even (dare I utter it aloud?) the New England Patriots.
I close the kitchen door behind me, head back to the van, and begin to process the elements of the previous three hours. I experience a joyful glee, as if a possible personal scar has begun to heal, to mend. And then I set the GPS for my next destination.
A common field one day. A field of honor forever.
The preceding title is not my own, I swiped it from the National Park Service. Thirty-five miles away, as the crow flies, and one hour in travel time, lays a somber location, in a lonely snow-covered field, known as the Flight 93 National Memorial.
Call me sentimental, but all year I have been experiencing an enhanced feeling of patriotism and pride in our country. Sure, we have our fair share of chaos and political hot messes, but that doesn’t mean that you cannot find something positive to focus on. Earlier this year, I recalled my personal experience on September 11th, 2001, with a narrative titled We Will (Most Likely) Never Forget. I believe that it is our duty, as Americans, to never forget that day in history. And that is why a visit to the crash site of Flight 93 has remained on my bucket list all year.
Patriotism is love of country. But you can’t love your country without loving your countrymen and countrywomen. We don’t always have to agree, but we must empower each other, we must find the common ground, we must build bridges across our differences to pursue the common good. ~ Cory Booker
Even though the temperature is 40°, the cold wind is blowing across the crash site, dropping the body temperature of my fingers and face. The memorial is, literally, only a vastly huge field in the middle of the countryside. Honestly, I didn’t think that I would make it here today, but I stand along a barren walkway that fringes the debris field. The point of impact is marked with a large boulder and a few flags mounted to wooden stakes. There are only two other people here with me, further ahead near the Wall of Names memorial.
Snow drifts spill over the sidewalk. I stop and listen. Dead silence. Even the wind itself seems to be silenced by the somber reverence that this farm field demands.
Thirty-three passengers, seven crew members, and four hijackers died upon impact as Flight 93 rocketed through the sky, upside down, at 563 miles per hour. Pause for a minute: upside down.
I finally reach the end of the sidewalk to view the Wall of Names, one panel for each lost passenger and crew member. Perched upon the hillside, the visitor center provides a bird’s eye vantage point. That will be my next destination. I pause, reflect, and try to fathom the horror that must have become a reality on that flight. There must have been one specific moment, for each person, where they knew—without a single doubt—that they were fated for death on that day. I have a difficult time understanding that reality.
Back in my van, I roll my hands together in front of the heater. It feels as if the temperature has dropped again. I drive to the aforementioned visitor center, and much to my (un)surprise, the building is closed. Today is the first day in the government shutdown, also known as the Democratic Party versus President Trump, or The Wall versus The Dreamers. Perhaps that is why that very few souls walk the grounds today. Nonetheless, I walk along the memorial and stand on the edge of the lookout, affording a huge panorama of the debris field below. I complete a final exposure on a roll of film that has been in loaded in my toy camera for the last five months, before returning to my vehicle and plotting a course back home.
The attacks of September 11th were intended to break our spirit. Instead we have emerged stronger and more unified. We feel renewed devotion to the principles of political, economic and religious freedom, the rule of law and respect for human life. We are more determined than ever to live our lives in freedom. ~ Rudy Giuliani
Author’s note: in a flurry of last minute goal accomplishment, I gladly eliminate three items from my yearly bucket list: #15 Shoot with my classic cameras and film; #20 Visit 9/11 crash site, Flight 93, in Shanksville; and #99 Mend a broken relationship.