The Farewell Tourists

The first vacation I ever took was to say goodbye.

Photo credit: Sharon Mollerus, CC BY 2.0.

I have a small family: one younger brother, two cousins, and three aunts, none of whom were married when I was a kid. I had no uncles by blood or marriage growing up, but I did have my “Uncle Bears.”

My mom met Craig and Mark in Ohio as she was preparing to move to Berkeley, California for grad school. The three of them became fast friends and my mom lamented that she met two such wonderful people just as she was leaving. Luckily for her, Craig and Mark didn’t let 2,500 miles get in their way. They stayed in touch and introduced my mom to friends of theirs in San Francisco. Eventually they relocated to Arizona and made fairly regular visits to the Bay Area. Time passed, my mom met my dad, they had me and later my brother, and Craig and Mark became part of all of our lives.

When I was very little, I once asked my mom if Craig and Mark were brothers since they were always together (and had matching Tom Selleck mustaches). She said no. I asked if they were best friends. Kind of, she said, and explained that they were a couple like she was with my dad. It was never a big deal. I called them my Uncle Bears because they had given me my favorite teddy bears from when I was born.

It always felt like they were around, even when we went for long periods without seeing them. Craig is an artist, and a few of his collages helped decorate the walls of our house. There were phone calls and cards in the mail, each with a signature swipe of a rainbow crayon at the end of their message. Occasionally there would be packages with gifts, mostly for my brother and me. The Uncle Bears loved to spoil us.

The package that came for my tenth birthday is the one I remember most. Along with my birthday card was a separate envelope with instructions in Craig’s unique handwriting, asking me to give it to my mom. I did, and quickly returned to scrutinizing my new presents. When I went back to my parents’ room, I found my dad holding my mom. She was crying. I asked what was wrong.

“Mark is sick,” she said. Except he wasn’t just sick; he was dying.

This would be the catalyst for my family’s first vacation.

My family didn’t have a lot of money. Dad was an independent contractor whose business had ups and downs. Mom worked in education. Although we always had food on the table and could afford to live in the Bay Area, disposable income for luxuries like vacations didn’t really exist when I was a child. Most of our excursions were within driving distance: a day out in San Francisco, a visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and once a long weekend in Lake Tahoe at a family friend’s cabin. I was jealous of my classmates whose families got on planes to go to Disneyland or Hawaii in the summer. Now we’d finally be jetting off somewhere, but it would be to Arizona during winter break to see Mark one last time.

The flight was exciting, despite knowing full well why we were on it in the first place. I sat in a row with my mom and brother. My dad sat across the aisle next to a girl my age who was traveling alone to visit her father. Then Dad and I switched seats, and I spent the flight making friends with the girl and deciding to be pen pals. (Unlike other pen pals, we kept up our correspondence. For a while.)

I remember landing in Phoenix and spotting Craig waiting for us at the terminal gate with bear hugs for everyone. It would be the only flight I took before 9/11, when this type of immediate reunion was still possible.

Craig drove us to the house and I realized I was nervous. The last time I’d seen Mark, he was a vibrant emergency room doctor. Now, he was a patient whose health was in sharp decline. It wasn’t easy to witness in person. He looked older and frail. His behavior changed and he was openly irritable at times, not like anyone could blame him. I was so used to visits with the Uncle Bears being fun and breezy, and this was initially anything but.

Still, it was a wonder to actually be at Craig and Mark’s house. They had always come to us—we’d never visited them. Their home was beautiful. We finally got to see the workspace where Craig made his collages, and meet the pets we’d only ever seen photos of. There was Sierra, their sweet golden retriever, and Apollo, the talking parakeet who chirped phrases such as “I love you” and “pasta fazool.” We weren’t sure where that second one came from.

The Uncle Bears also owned a laser disc player, which we all thought was cutting edge technology back then. Since Mark wasn’t very mobile, we stayed in and watched a lot of movies together. One afternoon while my brother showed a Power Rangers VHS to Mark in his room—a testament to the man’s patience up until the end—Craig and my parents and I watched Forrest Gump on laser disc in the living room. Each time a major character died, I excused myself to cry privately in the bathroom. I might have been better off with the Power Rangers.

My family stayed in a motel and I childishly expressed disappointment that it wasn’t a hotel. I was of the opinion that proper lobbies and indoor hallways somehow legitimized a worthy place of lodging. My parents chose the motel because it had a kitchenette, allowing us to cook our own meals instead of going out every night. We stayed in one room with two beds, one of which I shared with my brother, who had a cold. I’ve always been a light sleeper, so one night I dragged a pillow and blanket to the bathroom and slept in the tub to avoid his snoring. I complained plenty, but you’d better believe I secretly loved telling Craig and Mark about it the next day.

Even though the true reason for our being in Arizona was considerably melancholic, my parents made noble attempts to let us enjoy ourselves a little on our first big trip as a family. My brother and I were treated to more junk food than usual, probably because my mom lacked the energy to argue against it. We made a drive out to Sedona one day and I took home a stuffed coyote doll from a gift shop. My dad’s souvenir was decidedly less cuddly: a giant, unwieldy steer skull which he later struggled to shove into the overhead compartment of the plane on our ride home, much to the amusement of our fellow passengers.

At the end of our visit, Craig drove us back to the airport. Mark came along; it was the only time he left the house while we were there. Halfway to the airport, we pulled over to take a few photos together, and a photo of my brother and me with our arms thrown around Mark sits in a frame on my mom’s credenza to this day. It was the last bear hug we’d give Uncle Mark. He died a few months later.

I had assumed my mom at least would attend the memorial service in Arizona, but I later learned that she essentially had to make a choice for us to either see Mark while he was still alive or go to his funeral. There wasn’t enough money to do both. I’m still grateful for that decision—and grateful to my parents for making it happen. As much as I desired a “normal” vacation as a kid, I knew even then how lucky we were to have that time with Mark, no matter how difficult it was. I wouldn’t have traded it for the Magic Kingdom or Maui if I could have.

Marissa Rose is backpacking through Europe and Latin America until she runs out of money. She is trying to write a little here and there.

This story is part of The Billfold’s Vacation Series.

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