“We should start a Dinner Tour,” said my husband.
“What? What’s a Dinner Tour? It sounds like we are Led Zeppelin, combined with a dinner theater performing Oklahoma or something.”
“Well, it will be our own kind of tour. There are these people we love, whom we never see. We say we should visit them, but something always gets in the way. So, we need to start planning to go visit people. We will go all over and have dinner with everybody we love. Our own Dinner Tour. Time is ticking. You know.”
I do know. Death is a more frequent visitor once you hit your fifties. In the last year alone, I lost two of my first cousins. My cousin Ann died from cancer, which she had been fighting valiantly for years. Her death was tragic but also expected. We knew we would lose her. In shocking contrast, my cousin Mark, always a favorite, died suddenly in a freak car accident. One morning, I got a two-word text from his brother, who lives in California, which filled me with dread, “Call me.” I called Ben immediately, bracing for sad news about older members of the family. Instead, Ben said, “Mark died.”
“Mark died? Mark? Mark died?!” Shock. Tragedy. Sudden loss. My gracious cousin, 70 years old, eldest of his clan, was suddenly and irrevocably gone. None of us said goodbye to him. None of us thought he would die that day. Sometimes, that’s how we lose people. One second; and they are gone from us, forever.
So, Doug and I have commenced our Dinner Tour. This summer, we spent two weekends traveling to see far-away family. We visited with my aunt Betty, half of my remaining first cousins, three first cousin-spouses, six first cousin-once-removed & three of their spouses, and three tiny first cousins-twice-removed. My heart swelled to see them all, my family whom I never get to see, because they live thousands of miles away.
At the end of one gathering, I bade farewell to everyone, and hopped into our rental car. But before we departed, my older cousin Andy walked outside. Andy doesn’t say much; he is a gentle, quiet man. He can sit for hours watching other people talk, with an ironic half smile on his face. Andy was heading toward his car. I had already said goodbye to him, but I jumped out of the car again, one more time, to give him a hug. I wouldn’t normally do this, but a new impulse pulled me out, borne out of the new awareness that truly, anything can happen, to either of us. We hugged each other one more time. His low quiet voice whispered in my ear, “I love you.”
I answered, “I love you too”, and got back in my car, crying. Andy has never said that to me before. I didn’t know he loves me, but now I do.
There were goodbyes I said peacefully, fairly confident that I would see that relative again. Then there was the goodbye to my 93-year-old aunt. My dear Aunt Betty is the last one standing of her generation in our family. There has always been an particular sweetness to her. Even when I was little, I felt an extra bit of attention from her, an extra bit of interest and care for me. The busy mother of five boys, she always made the time to talk alone with me, her youngest niece. Maybe I represented a little bit of the daughter she never had. Maybe she represented a little bit of the mother I never had.
For the last few trips, I have said goodbye to my aunt, wondering silently if I would see her again. Ever perceptive, Betty always said brightly, “I’ll see you again!” or “Don’t worry!” This time, she hugged me a little longer, and whispered, “I don’t know if I will be here next time you come.”
I said rather firmly, “We will be back next year” and hugged her tighter. I held myself together as she headed off, walking quickly with her cane, despite her curved back. Then I had a stiff drink in the bar and a long cry.
I guess I’m not making a good case for visiting family far away, because I keep talking about crying. But I am so grateful for these trips.
In my work, I have sat with many grieving people. One thing that comforts them deeply is the conviction that they did everything they could for their loved ones. When people know they called their grandmother, or just visited her, they are still in pain. However, they aren’t suffering from regret. Some of the hardest deaths are when a person feels she wasn’t there for her loved one.
“I said I would call but I didn’t.”
“I promised I would come last year at summer, but I had to work instead.”
“She knew you loved her. She knew that,” I answer softly.
“Yes, but I should have been there. I wish I had been there more.”
So, I ask you, are you making time to see your dear far-away people? I grant you, it takes effort, money, and planning. There are invariably good reasons to put off the trip. It always seems like there will be a better time to go. Perhaps in the spring. Perhaps after that work project is complete. Perhaps once you find a better dog sitter. Perhaps after the holidays. Truly, I get it.
Here’s the thing: don’t keep putting it off. Tomorrow is not promised for any of us. I always thought I would see my cousin Mark again. But I won’t. I wish our dinner tour had commenced earlier and taken us to see him in Santa Fe. But we didn’t go. There were reasons we didn't get there. But those reasons don't matter now. Now it’s too late.
I’m not sure where the next installment of our dinner tour will take us. We have family to visit in Florida. We have friends in Rhode Island. Over the years, loving friends and family have extended invitations, inviting us to visit. We always meant to go, but we were busy with our own little family. Now we are in our fifties, and our girls are out of the house. Folks, the Doug and Lise Dinner Tour is on.
Look for us on the road. Life is short, and love is sweet.
And consider, you could start your own Dinner Tour too.