Picked from the Vine

I sip from a glass of chilled chardonnay and bask in the glowing, summer sun. I am surrounded by acres of beautiful vineyard property, and observe the shadows cast by leaves upon the dusty earth. It is the sunniest day that June of 2009 has offered us. A month typically full of celebrations – weddings, graduations, beginnings and endings and grand adventures – has instead been gray and drizzly. It must be disappointing to every other Long Islander that they’ve only had five suitable beach days. But for me, the weather is fitting because despite my recent college graduation, and my affinity for saltwater and sand, it was on a gray, drizzly June morning that my uncle suddenly died. This morning, we arrived at my aunt’s house to take her away – physically from the home she shared with my uncle, and emotionally from her raw pain and grief. We are playing a game of make-believe for grown-ups, pretending to feel anything other than the way we do right now. We pick out fresh fruits and artisanal cheeses at the local market. We dress in light, cotton summer clothing. We apply sunscreen to avoid the freckles that will appear anyway. We turn up the radio, roll down the windows, and breathe in the sweet, fresh North Fork air. I feel devastated, but I arrived today on the fierce instinct to protect my aunt, the love of my uncle’s life. She picks out quaint vineyards and rural farm stands at which to stop. She selects freshly baked pies, tries dessert wine for the first time, and picnics with us under wide, blue skies. Her strength is unrelenting. Her ability to carry on seems inspiring. I wonder if she might not be as in need of our presence as I thought. Then, I hear her voice quiver and see a tear fall from under tinted sunglasses and my instinct rises again to the surface. The best part of playing make-believe is that if you play it well enough, no one will know you’re a part of the game. Vineyard owners greet us kindly and describe their tasting menus in great detail. They allow us to disappear into the present moment and have no idea what value their smiles and conversation carry. Today’s outing provides a glimpse of the world that we were a part of two weeks ago and the world we will be part of once again, when death has not rendered us emotionally exhausted. The vistas that span ahead of us as we drive seem never-ending, as if the rows of vines emerge from the horizon itself, melding with the sun in muddy brown and golden hues. It is easy to feel lost when presented with this sense of enormity. But I feel comforted instead, because it reminds me of my uncle’s enormity – the enveloping bear hugs and booming laughter that suited his towering 6 foot, 5 inch stature well. My aunt has chosen “A smile as big as he was” to be engraved on his tombstone, and we all know the words are perfect. Our loss feels larger than life because the person we lost was larger than life himself. The bottles of wine we taste at the North Fork vineyards today have taken years to create. They are crafted with the same careful devotion, love and patience that my aunt and uncle showed each other during their marriage. Their love aged beautifully and stood the test of time for over twenty years. Now, my aunt is forced to begin again as a grape freshly picked from the vine, and we as her family rise to the occasion, devoted to help in this process.