The airplane leveled out at 32,000 feet and I settled back into my seat. Every single person on that plane had a singular purpose for being there. No one flies to a small city in Iowa on a lark. More than a few were returning home from vacations in the Sunshine State. The rest, like Michelle and I, were flying to join our families up north for Christmas.
When the woman at the car rental desk in the Cedar Rapids airport wished us a Merry Christmas, it would be easy to say that things are simpler in Iowa, that political correctness hasn’t yet trumped tradition there. But that would be discounting the Santa-hat-wearing shuttle bus driver at the St. Pete–Clearwater International Airport, who, along with telling jokes, wished each of his passengers a Merry Christmas, in contrast to most everyone else working there who wished for “Happy Holidays.” The driver reminded me that the big city in a big state and the small town in a small state really aren’t all that far apart.
But some things are different. The wintertime light on the northern plains is pale, turning the sky into a quiet riot of pastels, particularly at day’s end. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t unhappy about a brown Christmas in Minnesota. Any nostalgia for snow banks and snow angels has apparently faded into the past somewhere over the course of 2011. I’ve seen enough snow.
Christmas wasn’t over before I skipped right into the New Year. I was sitting in my mom’s living room watching my amazing family simply having a good time together. Five of my six nephews were in the room and it seemed only an hour ago they were tearing the wrapping off the toys they had wanted for Christmas. Suddenly, literally within the span of moments, they were all grown up, now teachers and college students making lives of their own.
As the volume of laughter and voices rose in the room, I could hear it all but understood nothing. My hearing impairment rendered the sound I could actually hear into a muddiness that might as well have been a foreign language. I could feel it, however; I could feel the love and good cheer. To my nephews and their brilliant girlfriends in attendance, I will remain the weird uncle. The one member of the family they never knew while growing up, as I’m the only member of the family who moved far away. I’m the guy who has to feel what they are saying because I don’t understand the words the are speaking.
I’ve been hearing impaired since I was a child. I think sitting in that room on Christmas Eve has finally brought me to the point of accepting it. I decided to make some changes in my life — with regard to my hearing and in my life in general, coming as revelations a week before the typical resolutions.
Those revelations came as I enjoyed the feeling in the room with my family on Christmas Eve. What will next Christmas hold? Will it be the same, filled with the joy of a happy family? So much can happen — airplanes fall out of the sky, buses careen, hearts attack and cancer lurks. But that’s no way to live, wondering how it will all end — or even when it will end. Most of us are blessed with ignorance about such things, taking for granted tomorrow’s sunrise. And that is how it should be. But it also makes living on the other end of the country more difficult. Hugs have to be held a little longer, goodbyes are more heartfelt and sincere.
In my brother Mike, I am able to see what my Dad may have looked like had he lived past the age of 43. Through him, I can also hear my Dad’s laugh. As he always does, he stopped by to see us before we left town after Christmas. He is looking forward to the possibility of an early retirement and my prayer is that it happens for him, enjoying a life that is his with his wife and grown sons. Hearing his laugh brought me back to a different time; a happy time of growing up savoring the long summer days offered by the north, savoring the snow and a town filled with people that were, by and large, trustworthy enough so not only were doors unlocked, we didn’t even have the keys to them.
Another revelation was that Worthington, Minnesota was no longer my home. On every past visit, I would arrive with happiness over the familiarity and leave with a heavy heart. I was stunned with the realization that it took 49 years for me to find my own home but somewhere over the course of 2011, Ruskin finally became just that. Sitting in the church that I had known all of my childhood life on Christmas morning, I recognized only two people, and knew none of the names listed in the bulletin. I had moved out of that town three decades ago, but the reality was that Worthington had moved on without me.
The brown prairie is speeding past the window as Michelle drove our rental car back to the airport, to our (hopefully) waiting airplane, back to our life in Florida. I am the son and the brother who lives far away. I am the weird uncle that hears little but tries, with varying degrees of success, to understand everything. I wish I had been a part of my nephews’ lives as they grew up, but that time has passed now. I know full well that time and distance hasn’t changed my love for them and for my entire family. I am and always have been where I am supposed to be — or I try to be, anyway. For the first time in my life, I am aware things are as they should be. At this moment, that means traveling under the pastel blue sky of the northern plains on our way to an airport that no one visits on a lark. Its purpose is to take us home.