This Christmas I learned beloved Jack in England passed away.
He was my cousin Audrey's husband, a jolly and witty English gentleman. Memories of him and of Audrey during their travels to see us in the U.S. extend well into childhood.
By the time Jack died a few weeks ago he was in his late eighties, so by most accounts this should have come as no surprise.
But after the shock of hearing that he had passed away, a different feeling passed over me- parallel to the soft sadness...it was gratitude.
Four and a half years ago I travelled to Europe because I was looking to find joy again in life. So much had left to be healed and I was trying to find some way to do that.
On that trip, the one that cathartically and very purposely cleared my savings account, I took a bus out to Ripon to visit Audrey and Jack at their home. I had just finished a reunion in Oxford with my study abroad program and a whirlwind 2 week guided coach tour of eight different European countries.
For most young adults, the idea of spending time for three days with a couple in their eighties who no longer got around much might seem pretty lackluster. However, I found this to be the most enriching final days of the trip. We sat and talked over tea and toast with Audrey's homemade lemon curd which I loved. And she loved lavishing me with gobs of it...and eagerly copied down the recipe. Jack mused about the goings-on of their little town and its quirky political ways.
This visit with them was very different however. It came with profound realization that aging was finally catching up to my seemingly 'ageless cousins' from abroad. As a child I had marveled at their stories and whimsy as they traveled by caravan everywhere the 'tred-worthy' world would allow them to go. They sought adventure and collected tokens from across the globe to fill the shelves inside their tiny bungalow upon their return. But in August of 2007 I saw two people who were at last coping with the effects of time.
Jack had lost all but a tiny shadow of his sight. A driving enthusiast, he had at last had to turn in his keys, and his wanderlust that had been the open road. The whimsical drive we took with him through the rolling hills and dales of Yorkshire in the summer of '99...stopping for sheep and laughing at other motorists was just a faded memory. The darkness Jack was experiencing was the tightening grasp of macular degeneration.
Audrey whose gift for gab was unparalleled, too had changed. It became clear to me that although sharp, and still a teller of tales, her stories had begun to contain a significant amount of repetition. Audrey, although then undiagnosed, was in the early stages of dementia.
I had been given a gift that summer. Three days of stopping from the hustle and bustle of travel and adventure to be with two heroes of my childhood. The adventurers who lit my imagination with stories of places I one day wanted to visit.
As they reminisced with me, the American cousin they'd seen grow up before their eyes, the magic seemed to be returning to their lips. Sharing with a captive audience, the stories came alive again. I longed to hear them because I knew it might be my last time. It's not to say this was pessimistic. It was realistic. Living an ocean away, I knew this would likely be a last visit.
The night before I left, Jack had delighted in treating me and Audrey to a dinner of fish and chips. With joy he took me to see the shop and ordered his usual. "You can't leave our fair England without such a treat."
I remember our final goodbye at the train station...
"Off you go" said Jack softly as he patted my shoulder and "stay safe and mind the directions", said Audrey. They both seemed to love the role of care-taking, and I even relented, letting them convince this bold solo-traveler she needed their gentle reminders.
I felt tears come, but I winked them back and swallowed the lump in my throat. I rounded the corner and headed up the platform steps. I waved till they were out of sight.
Audrey, according to reports from family in letters, is now quite deep into dementia and now she is missing her partner in life and all adventure. I am left with but a fond collection of recollections of my favorite globe trotters.
I was so very lucky to have that time.
If there are reminders in life that ring true, then this is one.
Don't put off everything until tomorrow because the years creep up on you. Seize the day and spend time with the people you love even if it costs you a little something ( for me the better part of a savings account). In life this was a case where the reward far outweighed the expenditure.
Below is a link to the blog I wrote about that trip in 2007. If you scroll to the bottom, there is a video with the last message I taped of Jack and Audrey that I wanted to show to our family back home.
"Don't wait too long now. We are getting along in years," Jack says.
Memories are priceless.