Photo: Anna Issakova/Shutterstock

Traveling in the Face of Death

by Aaron Hamburger Sep 10, 2014

My uncle died.

I went to the beach.

Normally, I’d have flown from my home in Washington, DC to Detroit for the funeral. However, my husband and I had already spent a significant chunk of cash to rent a house for the week on the Delaware shore to mark our anniversary, an advance payment which was not refundable. My uncle, who was 90, had been ill for months and I’d had the chance to visit him before he died. He was my father’s brother, and my father had died years ago, though even when he’d been alive, he was not the type to ask for my emotional support during a dark time. Also, plenty of other family members would be in attendance.

I made a condolence call to my aunt. I gave a donation to a charity of my uncle’s choice. I mailed a sympathy card.

“These things happen,” my mother said. “You do what you can.”

This was what I could do: I could pack up our car and, with my husband and our dog, I could drive to the ocean.

* * *
Dewey Beach, Delaware is where DC’s Millennials come for the weekend to get trashed until they black out and/or troll for sex. Families stay there too, and when they’re not playing in the sun, they smash the dead bodies of steamed crustaceans with wooden mallets on newsprint-lined picnic benches. Finally, Dewey Beach also attracts pet owners like me, because unlike its tonier neighbor, Rehoboth, Dewey allows dogs.

We’d rescued our five-year-old Pomeranian from a high kill shelter in the west part of Virginia. As far as we knew, he had never even smelled the sea, so we were curious to see how he’d react. At first, he trotted gingerly over the sand, pausing every so often to lick his paws clean. When we got to the water, he darted into the foamy surf to take a drink, until a few laps of salt water cured him of any desire to get near the ocean, with its terrifying and noisy waves. The rest of the afternoon, he took shelter on a towel under our beach umbrella, where he gnawed at his paws with a startling fervor.

“What’s he doing, licking off the salt or the sand?” my husband asked.

“Is he upset?” I said. “Does he want to go back home or stay here with us?”

What was our dog thinking? But of course, he couldn’t tell us, so we were left to wonder.

* * *
Back at the house we’d rented, I watched my uncle’s funeral online. You can do that now.

My uncle, like my father, was from a generation when men were generally expected to be sturdy and silent, especially when the topic of conversation turned to feelings. During the funeral service, my cousin told a story of spending the day fishing with his dad. After several hours of sitting on a boat together and not speaking, my cousin turned to his father and asked, “What are you thinking about?”

Apparently, my uncle’s answer was, “I’m fishing.”

As I listened, I wondered if perhaps that was only how my uncle had answered the question, though in fact it was not what he’d been thinking. Maybe the question had caught him off guard. Maybe its demand of intimacy had made him uncomfortable. Or maybe he’d been thinking something, or even feeling something that he couldn’t quite put into words.

Or maybe he simply didn’t know the answer to the question. Dear reader, right now at this moment, what are you thinking?

And so we are left to wonder.

* * *
As I walked along the edge of our continent and thought about all this, it occurred to me how little we know about these beings we call people. And in that category, I suppose we must include ourselves.

Maybe that’s why some of us love animals so well: We expect so little of their consciousness. When my dog gnaws his paw with the intensity of a hawk going after a dead mouse, I don’t expect him to tell me the reason. But with people, we want to know why. Why did you say that just now? What were you thinking a few seconds ago? Why didn’t you go to your uncle’s funeral?

Yet we rarely stop to consider how we might make use of this information, even if it were accessible. Would it make our lives better? Or theirs?

So we go on struggling and failing to read our own hearts and the hearts of the people we love and who continually disappoint us because they are unable to do for us what we are often unable to do for ourselves. Maybe that’s why we’re so disappointed in them. Maybe that is the door that slams shut with such depressing finality when someone dies. Now we’ll never know. As if we ever could.

* * *
I enjoyed my week by the sea, and I thought of my uncle.

Before leaving Dewey Beach, my husband and I waded out into the salty water and said a prayer in my uncle’s name. When we were finished, we smiled at each other and then lifted our faces toward the silent sky.

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