When the Southwest Airlines plane landed in Phoenix Sky Harbor last Monday night, I told the woman seated next to me, “Some things never change.” Since I moved to the east coast in 2002 (first to Philadelphia then to Washington, D.C), I have flown in and out of this airport several times. I’m familiar with the landing route over Scottsdale, looking over Arizona State University’s Tempe campus, then over Camelback Mountain, and taxiing up to one of the orange-brown adobe-looking terminals. It’s a great way to enter the Valley of the Sun. So many memories usually come flooding back — my undergraduate years at ASU, hikes with friends up Camelback, riding my bike up and down Mill Avenue and Rural Road — and other memories flooded back, this time, of family. I had returned, sadly, for the funeral of my maternal grandmother, and I would be greeted by my sister.
Going “home” to Arizona is always an emotionally-mixed experience. Indeed, I miss my family and I enjoy visiting them, but it’s tricky where to pick up or how to re-enter the conversations and the movements of a family I live so far away from and rarely visit. Also, this time, I would see my entire family, all my aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, and nieces, that live near and far, both in Arizona and California. They’d all be at the wake and funeral in a couple of days. In the meantime, as I waited for my sister outside Terminal 4, I was surprised at how chilly the night felt; it was about 30 degrees, which was about the same as the temperature in Washington. When my sister arrived, she was happy and excited to see me — she’s the sister that always has a smile on her face — and my brother, tall and strong, with a braid of long black hair running down his back, gave me a stoic nod and a pat on the back. In the car, my 11-year-old nephew sat shyly against the door as we drove off into the desert night. Our mother was at home, resting, my sister said without my prompting her, pulling me into a dialogue that seemed to be ongoing before I got there.
At the funeral home and then at the service, I was greeted by relatives and lots of children, children that jumped on me, asked me to play with them or carry them on my back. My nephews and nieces were quick to warm up to me, and I felt very welcomed by them, but I also felt a little overwhelmed at the chaos, the constant motion, the swarm of activity. People ran errands, picked up and delivered floral arrangements, photo frames, condolence cards, food. Some aunt or cousin was always looking for a missing child or shushing a toddler or soothing a crying baby. Life and death colliding in a single space.
I recalled the many wakes and funerals of my childhood. My paternal grandmother, who passed away two decades ago, often took me with her to funerals of elderly people she knew. Seeing caskets, sitting in solemnity, observing adults and elders pay their respects to grieving family members, all this was nothing new to me. I had experienced these scenes many times as a boy, but as a man, as an adult, after many years of not attending any family funerals, while sitting among my own grieving family, I felt strangely disconnected and out of place.
These first few days since I’ve been back in D.C., I’ve been thinking about what might have caused this mixed feeling of familiarity and foreignness. A friend recommended I read Joan Didion’s essay “Good Bye to All That.” Didion’s essay is about spending her 20’s in New York City; she reflects on how a few months turned into years like a magician’s slight of hand. She writes, “You see I was in a curious position in New York: it never occurred to me that I was living a real life there. In my imagination I was always there for just another few months, just until Christmas or Easter or the first warm day in May.” Similarly, the life I lived growing up in Arizona now seems so short, while my life in D.C., which was supposed to be temporary, changes from semesters to seasons to years, becoming more permanent than I had ever imagined. I have become an adult here, lived my full 20’s and these early 30’s here, often alone, without very many trips to Arizona. Like Didion, who writes that she entered “a revolving door at twenty and [came] out a good deal older, and on a different street,” I left Arizona at 21 and am now a great deal older and have emerged on an entirely different side of the country.
Didion’s experience in New York and my experience in the desert southwest are comparisons one cannot easily make, yet as I read her reflections, I felt her sentiments immediately. She found herself attached to a place only to realize a few years after she left, that she was no longer attached to it any more. She writes, “I could not tell you when I began to understand” that she had outgrown this place she once loved. Similarly for me, there are times when I long for Arizona, the laughter of my family, the homemade tortillas, the cool summer evenings that blow over the desert landscape, which stretches far into a dark blue and purple horizon. I miss my grandmothers, both deceased now, and the way one treated me like the only person she could rely upon when she needed a glass of water and the other, whose Spanish words ruffled rhythmically against my eardrum. But the place and the people I long for no longer exist in the same way for me. Many have died, all remaining relatives have grown older, and new little ones are being born to take their own places to play in the desert sand. I have outgrown whatever small space belonged to me there, and it’s not mine anymore.
At the funeral, surrounded by so many familiar faces and even more unfamiliar ones, it became clear to me that somewhere along the line, without expecting or noticing it, while living my life in D.C. and while my family kept the motions of their lives going in Arizona, the Arizona of my childhood vanished, and it took this trip for me to realize it has long since gone. The Arizona I remember, the Arizona I long for, seems such a long time ago.*
*Language borrowed from Joan Didion’s last paragraph in her essay “Good Bye to All That”: “We stayed ten days, and then we took an afternoon flight back to Los Angeles…. There were years when I called Los Angeles ‘the Coast,’ but they seem a long time ago.