It hits you as soon as you get off the airplane. The air smells different, it feels different. The word “humid” doesn’t capture the sensation that the walls and the carpets and the people are literally shvitzing: emitting moisture into the particles in the air like we emit breath. The air reeks of plastic and nylon and brick and flesh all mushed up together. All of the materials of the environment seem to make up the air you breathe. It’s nauseating and it’s comforting. It is Florida.
Florida is where my grandparents retired to when I was about 5 years old. They moved there with my grandmother’s three best friends (her two sisters, and her brother). They went as so many do, refugees first from Eastern Europe and then from New York. Florida was where you went and what you became. My grandfather died five years after retiring, leaving my grandmother to live without him but among her beloved siblings for the years until she moved to Los Angeles to be near us. She died before my second son was even conceived just four years ago.
The last of my grandmother’s siblings died last week at 100 incredible years old, just 12 hours after my husband and two boys arrived at my in-laws to spend a relaxing vacation in Northern California. My younger son and I bought the most expensive plane tickets we could find (that’s sarcasm) and we even found fights with the glorious promise of several hours of layover in lovely Phoenix both ways (still sarcasm mixed with anger). As Christmas Day came to an end, we were spilled onto the streets of Sunrise, Florida.
I told 3-year-old Fred that we were going to a party of sorts in Florida. But that it was a party where some people might be sad and others might be happy. In Fred-speak, he tried to make sense of it:
“Miles sad me Batman party. No presents.”
“Yes, Fred. Miles was sad at your Batman party because he didn’t get any presents.”
The trip went miraculously well, all things considered. Twenty of us stood at a grave and paid fitting tribute to the last of a generation in our family. Almost all of our small but mighty family was able to be there. No one fought (at least not in plain view). We ate together before and after the funeral. We laughed a lot. We cried. We looked at photo albums of our respective branch of our modest but lovely dynasty. Fred was a champ, breastfeeding as needed on airplanes and napping at the exact moment I thought I couldn’t stay awake myself one more minute. The trip was great. So why was it so sad?
It’s what hits you as you get off the plane. Florida may not be where I was born, but it is where people die. I sat in the backseat of my parents’ rental car (they don’t live in Florida and never will, they detest it so) and I instantly became a child, sitting in the back of my grandparents’ old Cadillac Seville. A collective sense of intensity, inanity, and intangibility well up in me now that I am an adult and it happens only in Florida.
Indeed, it was a party with sad people and happy ones. I spoke of my great Aunt’s friendship and how much it meant to my grandmother. Fred saw me weep pitifully and then he fell asleep at the end of the funeral, so I was able to shovel dirt into the last of my family’s Florida graves. He didn’t see the sweat of burying a loved one mix with my tears but I am sure it hung in the air, as all things do in Florida.
At night, I dreamed about my grandmother. I dreamed I was tying a bright scarf around her head in a bow. She kept redirecting my tying of it, though. I tied and retied it and I just couldn’t get it right. She was hard to please alive, must she be so in death as well?
What was I trying to make right? Was it death? Was it life? Was it the unavoidable fact that all of us will pass on and leave behind people to speak of us, to cry for us, to shovel dirt? Whatever it was, it hangs in the air. And it hits you as soon as you get off the airplane.