Uncle Buddy (rip), one of my heroes

Last month, I flew to Detroit to visit my Uncle Buddy, the first time back home in 20 years. He was battling stage four cancer but still had enough energy to share a few meals, read my book, and dissect my West Coast lifestyle, which required much explaining when set in comparison with his Midwestern heritage.

My previous attempt to visit in December had me routed through Minneapolis the one day that they closed the airport due to a snowstorm—three gate changes, two taxi rides, and 14 hours from door to door, only to arrive right back home in Seattle.

Despite the abundance of fast food we ate and game shows we watched, I considered March’s trip a success, beginning with an actual landing at Detroit Metro, and ending with my uncle’s teary goodbye in the drop-off lane as confirmation that we had a wonderful visit. (Winning a grand at bingo with my Auntie Jill didn’t hurt, either.)

This trip was completely different. It began with a late night phone call from my aunt on Wednesday.

My ringer was turned on, providing the ironically perky juxtaposition of Steve Perry crooning, “Don’t Stop Believin'” with the grim harbinger of my aunt and uncle’s names displayed on the caller ID. I already knew that it was my Auntie Jill, not my Uncle Buddy—and I knew why she was calling.

When I didn’t pick up on the first ring, her response to my, “Hello?” was a sharp, “Where were you?!” She was calling to say that my uncle had died two hours before that; she was eager to know if I could fly back to Detroit for the funeral.

Browsing last-minute flights on line, I was coming up on the high side of $1,100, even at the bereavement rate. Thinking of the high-pitched, panicked tone in my aunt’s normally brash voice, it was easy to write off the sticker shock with a sigh and a shrug; she needed me, no question. As I clicked, “Next,” Delta offered me the option to upgrade my flight to first class for an additional $75 each way, something I never do. In this case, I shrugged again and figured that $150 was a small price to pay for round-trip comfort especially in this circumstance.

Yet, as much as I wanted to enjoy the cushy service, Friday’s flight was hardly memorable even if it was comfortable.

That night, when we arrived at what is now just my aunt’s house, we were met with heretofore unprecedented disarray that my fastidious uncle never would have permitted. Haphazard stacks of papers, a messy kitchen, and a guest bed with no sheets on it were signs of her mourning.

As I set my bags down, I quickly sensed the absence of my uncle. I’ve been other places where ghosts seem to linger, but there was no spirit left here; he had already departed to begin his next adventure.

Earlier that week, I researched the concept of the hero’s journey on Wikipedia, realizing that I could frame my NIAUSI presentation around its basic components. On that evening, as I was missing my uncle in his own home, the notion of a hero’s journey and all its stages quickly became relevant in many ways.

As someone who has known more funerals than she has weddings, even at my young age, I confirmed that this trip itself was a hero’s journey; it was much less about me saying goodbye to my uncle and more about ferrying my aunt across the river to begin a new path of her own. In this sense, we were all a shade of the hero: my beloved uncle, the quiet military man facing the end; me, the niece who had traveled to keep a promise and pay last respects; and my aunt, a grieving widow challenged by a very foreign chapter of her own life.

It had only ever been the two of them. She met my uncle, an older man, before she turned 18; she went from her parents’ house to the home she and my uncle made together. Their lives were very small—no world travel, no time apart—just card games, hunting, bingo, evenings in front of the television, and three short kisses before either of them left the house.

Though I’m half her age, I am more familiar with what my aunt is about to experience as a 65-year-old widow on her own for the first time. Perhaps that’s why she asked last night about accompanying me to Civita this summer. My thoughts skipped back to my own hero’s journey, a path of letting go of the world in Seattle, climbing that bridge, stumbling my way through each day’s lesson, slaying monsters to win the golden fleece, fighting my inevitable return home, and finally unifying what I learned in Civita with the person and life I had once known.

So recently set adrift from my uncle, her anchor, her hero, her “little Italian man,” as she called him, I realized that her request was more about grasping for safety than it was about embracing a newly expressed desire to travel. She wasn’t looking for Civita, but a shepherd; at this stage, she’s substituting travel for independence because she’s not sure yet how to go about being the anchor or the hero of her own life.

When I suggested that she and I try domestic travel together first, she quietly assented. I noted that she’s flown only a handful of flights her whole life, the last in 1994, and always with my uncle. Civita seemed like a lot to ask of an inexperienced traveler, though that wasn’t the only reason I balked. I realized that the kindest thing I could do was not to lead her through the same experience that I had, but to give her the space to make her own.

That’s the thing about the hero’s journey: the hero has to make choices for herself.

The cycle begins when she is presented with an opportunity, but shies away from it, thinking herself unworthy. Only when she believes in herself does she truly have the power to leave the known world; only then is she free enough to  set fear aside and push through the gossamer veil that separates home from the world of adventure, danger, fantasy, and passion. Then, she can rightly take up a sword and shield, relying on her own resources to overcome battles and accomplish great deeds.

Likewise, only the hero holds the power to return herself to the known world after winning the prize. It takes as much mettle to break into that other-world as it does to leave it.

The hero’s cycle is contingent on this last leg of the journey. Sometimes, heroes choose to remain hidden away in that other life, enjoying milk and honey for themselves rather than sharing the bounty of their prize—wisdom, knowledge, gold—to benefit the world back home.

I think the self-assurance it takes to share the fruits of one’s journey is both the greater reward as much as the immediate prize itself. The resolve to remain whole, to know oneself, while giving away what was so hard-fought and well-earned is the mark of a truly evolved hero—one who realizes that she actually loses nothing, and instead gains a thousandfold through her generosity.

As I fly home, enjoying my roomy first class seat, I can feel my uncle’s religious medals settle against my chest. They’ve been rubbed smooth in some places from the number of times he prayed each day; like dog tags, his medals went everywhere with him. Their clinking sounds remind me of the lures he’d produce from his tackle box when we went fishing together; silver droplets that spun around and flashed to attract fat blue gills to our lines.

If Father Geary was right in my uncle’s eulogy, then heaven is a place where we get to live our happiest moments forever. In that case, my uncle is sitting at the end of a dock in his Detroit Tigers cap, khaki shirt and jeans with his rod and reel, drinking a Budweiser and smoking a cigarette under the warm sun just as the fish start to bite.

He’s smiling because he knows he’s bringing supper home to Auntie Jill and teaching his pony-tailed niece how to do the same. His hero’s journey is that of a protective hunter providing shelter and food for his family.

For people like me, and perhaps someday my aunt, our happiest moments are the hero’s journey itself and all the challenges and wisdom that come with each day’s adventure—and sometimes, if we’re willing to shell out just a bit more—a big, roomy seat.