I spent February 15 to 20 back in the Carolinas visiting my relatives, and in a very real sense it was the summation, and completion, of my life's journey.
Sometime in early childhood, maybe around three or four, we start to develop an awareness of an outside world of other people and different places. We start to explore it. It's as if our lives are a gigantic whiteboard and we take a marker and start tracing the path of our lives on that whiteboard. We go through childhood, then adolescence, then young adulthood, and into middle age and beyond. The line made by my marker on my life's whiteboard has often been a dizzying series of loops, swirls, starts and stops; sometimes I took two steps forward but then a step back. It would include stops in places like New York City, Dallas, San Diego, and Las Vegas along with various wives and significant others, assorted writing and editing jobs, flings of entrepreneurship, and periods of obsession with different interests and ideas.
I don't know if I'm typical, but at this point in my life I need to make sense of that line I drew on the whiteboard. It's not that I'm looking for the great cosmic meaning of it all, but I do want to see if there is some common theme, some coherence and sense in all those squiggles.
It was very emotional arriving in Charlotte on the afternoon of February 15. My condition is rapidly deteriorating, and I wanted to make the trip while I was still able to travel without special assistance. I also knew this would be my last chance to see my childhood home and relatives. As with all visits back to the Carolinas over the past two decades, the impact is disconcerting. Everything is so familiar, but everything is also so different. At times, I feel right back at home but at other times I feel like a total stranger.
I said goodbyes that week to many people and places. I visited the graves of my parents and grandparents for the last time and took soil from each; I will have that soil sprinkled on my body when it is cremated. I also got to see almost all of my aunts, uncles, and cousins together on Wednesday night when we all gathered at my Uncle Grady's house. That night, I was able to do something that I needed to do while I still could, and that was to take each of them aside and tell them to their face how proud I was to be related to them, how much I appreciated all the love and support they had given me over the years, and how much I loved them. It was an emotionally wrenching thing to do, but I had to do it and I'm glad I did.
Departing Charlotte on the morning of February 20 was depressing and heartbreaking. In fact, the only time I think I have felt more emotional pain was the death of my mother. I knew that morning I would never see my relatives and the Carolinas again. And I was in a very dark, anguished place as I waited to board my flight to Dallas.
But then I thought back to the gathering with my relatives on Wednesday, and how so many of the stories told were about other family members who had died. The stories were told with great love and affection; the virtues and good points of departed family members were suitably exaggerated while their shortcomings and failures were conveniently forgotten. There was much laughter as what the late members said and did were recounted, and for many minutes those departed members were once again alive and with us. It's on evenings like that you realize you can indeed live on forever in the memories and hearts of those who love you.
And then I also realized that one day they would be swapping stories about crazy cousin Butch----or "little Harry," as some still call me------and that on those evenings I would once again live in their hearts, with all my virtues enhanced and my shortcomings ignored.
That was the moment when I realized the marker I was using on my life's whiteboard had returned to the point where I first started drawing over five decades ago. That crazed, demented circle was finally closed, and I understood the message in all those loopy lines: the love of your family and friends is what makes life worthwhile.
I felt the sadness lifting as I waited for the plane to take off. Yes, I would never see my relatives or the Carolinas again, but they will always be with me in my heart. Things are playing out as they were meant to play out. I have no idea how the end will be, but I do know things will happen just as they are supposed to happen.
Oh, I know this must be confusing gibberish, especially if you are healthy or otherwise not looking down the barrel of a gun. But the world looks different to me than it did just a few months ago. Your perception changes radically once The Beast has you in its deathgrip. But thanks to that trip I made last week, I feel an acceptance of my fate and an inner peace about the sum of my life that it is both wonderful and liberating. And it is all because of my family and friends, and I love and thank all of you.