Well into the prime of his life, my brother-in-law Donald Gray passed away unexpectedly at age 57 while on an eight-day cruise with all his friends.
We weren't close, but he was the "fun uncle" to his nephews and nieces. With a joie de vivre that more than made up for the adversities thrown at him, Don did not have a particularly easy life, dealing with health and family issues for most of his adult life.
We were worlds apart. However, I dedicated the Friday and Saturday of his wake and funeral to his memory, partaking in the collective grief of his passing and the celebration of his life as a person, a father and a son. I became a "funeral hostage," making a conscious effort not to complain about it or run out too early, which would be my normal modus operandi at wakes and funerals.
Don died on the second day of his cruise, somewhere off Puerto Rico.
Not to be too graphic, his body was placed in a freezer on the ship for the remainder of the trip and defrosted two days before being embalmed and flown to New York for his wake and funeral. It was an open-casket wake, something that I am not comfortable with, and worse when you know he has been gone almost two weeks. I guess that this Irish Catholic tradition was important to his mother, siblings and children, being able to see him resting peacefully. So I kept my mouth shut, observing all of the formalities expected of me.
I was fairly emotionless throughout the process and up to the funeral Mass itself, but then I began to sense something of a supernatural presence. It was eerie and frightful, but it was real and it was peaceful. Tears started to drip down my cheeks as I tried to hide that emotional display. How could this happen, I thought, since I have been separated from my wife, Cheryl (Don's sister), for several years, and I had only seen him once or twice in the past 12 months? I was feeling the collective grief of his family and friends. Flanked by my two children, I was unable to explain this surrealistic experience.
Suddenly, I felt the presence, the very real presence, of my own father, who passed away seven years ago, and my mother, who passed away several months ago. They were right there with all of us when something akin to a whisper said, "How grown up your children have become." I looked over at my daughter, Casey, and my son, Nicholas, both in their 20s, and realized, Oh, my God, the voice is right. My children had grown up. When did that happen? No longer able to hide my feelings, I wasn't sure if I had tears of grief or joy. Maybe it was both as I also heard "the voice" whisper that we did a good job raising the kids and how proud we should be of them. At that point, I wasn't quite sure if I was crying for Don, my parents, Don's family or my kids.
I tried to rationalize all of this later that day at the funeral luncheon, but I couldn't. It was far too real. Like me, my son, who never cries, leaned over and tearfully said, "Dad, I don't know what I would do if I ever lost you," and my daughter -- who couldn't stop hugging me -- told me how much she loved me. I know they did the same for their mother, too.
Don's funeral, ultimately, became the most emotional funeral I have ever attended, but I kept that to myself -- until now. I was no longer a "funeral hostage," but a hostage to my emotions, left with an incredible sense of peace, love, pride and accomplishment as a parent. I am sure this is what Don felt about his own children, and now I know this is how my parents felt about mine.
LOVE LETTER TO ALASKA, LAND OF BIG FISH, LOTS OF SNOW
I probably know more about Alaska than anyone who lives there now or who was born there. I'm from Southern California and became a fanatic trout fisherman. Southern California isn't famous for its trout streams and lakes, and I thought I was in heaven at the age of 16, when I caught a rainbow that was 16 inches long in a lake high in the mountains above the town of Azusa.
At the age of 20, a friend and I drove over the Alcan Highway for the adventure and because of the promise of fish much bigger than 16 inches.
Let me tell you about the trip north and what we encountered on the way. I kept a journal en route and looking at what costs were in 1954 doesn't seem real today. When we left Pasadena, gas was 25 cents a gallon. On the Alcan itself, as we got farther away from everything, the price went up. Trucks hauling gas had longer distances and paid more. In my journal, I put down this staggering number for the cost of a gallon of gas in Canada: 66 cents. At Milepost 110 at Rancheria Hotel five gallons of gas cost $3.30. Today, we'd believe we were lucky if a gallon of gas cost $3.30.
My friend and I made it to Anchorage and got jobs on the Alaska Railroad. Extra help was needed in the summer and gandy dancers (track laborers) were hired to maintain and fix whatever needed fixing before winter came.
My friend and I were nearly broke by the time we reached Anchorage, and being hired as gandies seemed to be a godsend. We were sent to the port of Whittier to do our gandying. The wage we made -- I actually have a pay stub from those days -- was $2.29 an hour. But then, being sent to Whittier was an act of cruelty.
That winter, 1954-55, 75 feet of snow fell. My friend was smart enough to head back to California in October, while I stayed to shovel snow out of rail switches so they could be turned, enabling trains to run. All day long, doing nothing but shoveling snow.
In time, I managed to get out of Whittier and wound up living in Anchorage. I lived at 1108 Fourth Ave. in a house I've been told no longer exists. I have the distinction of having been there when Alaska became a state, on Jan. 3, 1959.
Alaska, I love you. I love the 19 hours of daylight in June -- when the sun comes up at 4 in the morning -- and I hate it in December when it comes up at 9:30 or 10 a.m. and is down by 3 p.m.
Our 49th state. What a bargain. Seward's Folly? Where did that idea come from? At the time, William Seward was considered a fool, and America was thought to have acquired a huge chunk of useless land. We paid $7 million, buying it from Russia, and even then, that was chump change that has to be among the best uses of money our government has ever made.
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