The Costs (& Benefits) Of Traveling 1500 Miles To Say Goodbye

This past weekend, my little family flew out to Santa Fe to rendezvous with my extended family and say goodbye to my Uncle David, who died unexpectedly in July. He had not, according to his will, wanted a funeral or a burial. He donated his body to science. Still, we thought a memorial service would be appropriate, and we chose Columbus Day Weekend, as the occasion when my father passed away six years ago, as an opportunity to honor both men in the place where they felt like they did their best and most satisfying work.

Nice gesture, right? Unfortunately the costs were considerable, so high that I don’t want to think about them. The only way to get through making all the purchases required was, at some point, to squeeze my eyes shut and click “Add to Cart”: on the three round-trip, over-night flights to Albuquerque, which were hideously expensive but not as gruesomely expensive as the ones directly to Sante Fe; on the hotel room for that first night in Albuquerque because we were scheduled to get in at 3:00 AM our time; on the rental car to take us to and from Santa Fe once we recovered from the flight; and so on.

If the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, the road to the poorhouse may be paved with good deeds. Honestly, I don’t care. I didn’t get to spend a lot of time with my uncle in life and, whatever it cost, it seemed important to pay my respects to him in death. He was an eccentric though good-hearted old bachelor who loved mystery novels, local politics, and The New York Times. He wore, through the 2010s, the same turtlenecks and plastic-framed glasses he had bought in the 1970s. He never figured out how to use the Internet; he was so fascinated by CDs when I showed him some at my older brother’s graduation from college in 2003 that I can only imagine what he would have made of MP3s.

I thought of him sometimes as a benign alien, someone not quite of but interested in our world. Then, over the course of the weekend in New Mexico, I got to understand more of him.

One of his best friends was a woman named Kay who spoke movingly at the service about working with my uncle in State Government. How he encouraged her, believed in her, and helped her get hired back in the 60s; how she became at times his boss, and yet their personal relationship never shifted and their mutual respect never wavered.

Another of his friends mentioned his championship of the college film society. Even when politicians threatened to cut off state funding to his university because of his “racy” and objectionable cinematic selections — and, worse, tried to have him expelled — he stood by his principles. Eventually even his college president stood with him.

A couple of his cousins, who made it to the service, mentioned to me how generous he had been to them. I knew that he had remembered them in his will, but I didn’t know the extent of his support of them until I found myself in a lawyer’s office later that day with my brothers, sifting through my uncle’s personal effects. “Look at all these unopened letters,” I said, lifting up a stack. “He kept them for years and years just like this.”

Unable to countenance throwing them away, I took the unopened letters with me, along with photos, a haphazard collection of frayed, yellowed news clippings about his various noteworthy successes as a teenager (he won a scholarship to UVA on a quiz show!), and a paperback mystery. Back at the rental house, I opened the dozens of letters one by one and found thank you notes from three different generations. His Aunt Gittie wrote regularly to praise his kindness in sending her much-needed checks. His cousins wrote him regularly to say the same. Younger family members too. Even, I was surprised to discover, me.

“This is from my bat mitzvah!” I told my mother, waving an oh-so-familiar envelope at her. He had given me a generous check, which went straight to my college fund, and I wrote him a card to express my gratitude. He never opened it. Decades later, I opened it for him. It was a pretty good thank you note, I think, as cards from 12-year-olds go. He just didn’t want to read it. He didn’t want to be thanked.

Maybe it would embarrass him to be thanked now. I’m going to do it anyway, because I think someone should. Thank you for standing up for artistic expression, Uncle David, and for women in the workplace. Thank you for being such a mensch where your family was concerned. And thank you for the Bat Mitzvah gift. It meant a lot to me, and it still does.

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