It was a twenty-hour trip by car, if we were lucky. For reasons my father never quite bothered to explain in depth, traveling by airplane was not an option. Afraid of heights? Afraid of an untimely death via crashing to the ground in a fiery explosion? These were possibilities.
I never asked; I could only assume that whatever his fear was, he was willing to trade four hours by airplane for the heinously long twenty hours by car.I imagined our progress as ants crawling across a map of the Eastern Time Zone from South Eastern Michigan to Northern Florida. Sitting in the same spot for twenty hours got old within twenty minutes. My older brother stayed at home, and with his absence brought a lack of entertaining stimuli.
The conversations I held with my parents were limited before they were lost in the monotony of the interstate highway. There were only so many books I could read before the words floated off the page into a jumble of gibberish. In between quarter-hour long naps, I would stare at the fabric on the ceiling of our mini-van, looking for patterns in the randomness.
I could feel madness creeping in the farthest recesses of my brain, uninvited. There were a handful of twenty minute breaks at shabby rest areas, but those were far and few between and didn't accomplish much. At most, they barely managed to keep Rigor Mortis from setting in.
Before I could properly relish in the joy of free movement, my parents would shepherd me back into the minivan. I came to regard these rests as disillusionment, a bi-product of my developing insanity. I could tell we were headed in the right direction as the pine trees became few and the palm trees frequent.
My parents repeatedly assured me that the end of our journey was no more than an hour away. They continued to lose credibility for every hour they spouted this lie. Eventually, we reached our destination.
My (great) aunt's condo was dank, the air was stale, and the furniture seemed to have an unidentifiable yet pungent smell about it. It may have been the dog, an unremarkable terrier whose grayish-brown fur could at one point in time have been described as pristine white. Like a semblance of a regular family, we sat at the table for hours on end, more or less shooting the breeze.
Occasionally, my aunt veered away from the strained chitchat and reminisced about her late husband and deceased mother. After these tangents, the air grew thick with a palpable solemnity. Her eyes grew distant as she petted her dog mindlessly, and we could practically feel the sorrow she emitted.
Nobody needed to tell me that she could hardly remember what it felt like to be happy. And so it went for a week. It was clear that my aunt was dying. She had some variety of cancer, and it was obvious that she had gone through hell and back. Her skin sagged as if to suggest it was losing the war against gravity. Her hairless eyebrows enhanced her gaunt and expressionless appearance. She donned a wig; we smiled and told her you could hardly notice it, which, I'm sure we both knew wasn't true. Looks aside, there was something even more distressing. In spite of her tiny little terrier's omnipresence, it was obvious she was dying a lonely death. Visiting for a week only alleviated solitude for seven days, and after we left, we could only implore Pluto for swiftness and mercy. When we left, we managed to make that trip in exactly twenty hours. We crept out silently at four in the morning and arrived at our house by midnight. It didn't feel quite so long and unbearable as it had before. It was only one day out of our lives; we could live to spare it. If nothing else, it became clear that time is a cruel prison, and we had no right to complain about five-sixths of a day. We drove on, maintaining a constant rate of five miles above the speed limit. Perhaps our rapidity was driven by a yearning for home, a place distinctly bereft of solidarity, sickness, and loneliness. Perhaps we thought that the faster we could speed away from Death and where it lurked, the longer it would stay as a non-presence in our own lives. We dared to dream that it was only a matter of North and South and the distance between.