Some of my earliest memories are making the drive to Pensacola, Florida to visit my aunt, my uncle, and my three cousins. I remember their house, pushing around an OLD (even then!) Hoover self propelled vacuum cleaner. I remember my aunt making me toast with real butter.. which, as you all know, is IMPOSSIBLE to spread! I remember egg salad sandwiches, cookies, chicken and dumplings. I remember sitting on my uncle David’s lap watching football… Gators of course!
You never knew what my uncle was thinking or feeling. He was the definition of stoicism. I grew up always wondering what he thought of me. I knew he had high expectations for his family, and I worried I had let him down. Although he was very hard to read, there were times, seemingly out of no where, when he would just jump up and start playing with my brother or I. When we were little, we went to live with them for a while. It may have been 6 months, it may have been a year, but as a little kid, it felt like a lifetime.
I didn’t learn of his illness until less than a year ago. He was always such a private man and his family respected him so very much. When I heard, I made every effort to be there for him. I think I was in denial for a while though, thinking that surly he would beat the cancer. He was always so strong and I just knew he was stronger than it was. In May he went in for surgery and dad and I went there to be with him. The night before, we stayed late at his house just listening to him. I could see he was a changed man. You could see he was trying to make up for all that lost time. He told us story after story and I wanted so much to burn it into my memory. I had considered recording him, but somehow I just didn’t think it would have been the same, or that he wouldn’t want to share as much… So I sat there and just listened. He went in the next day for his surgery. I cried and prayed. I looked at his family and prayed for them as well, and also was thankful it wasn’t me sitting there in their shoes. When it was over I visited him and he told me everything I needed to hear. He was proud of me, he did love me, and for me, the most important of all for me, that he thought I was a good mother. I cried like a baby. My thoughts were all over the place. I couldn’t think of anything coherent. I stayed in Florida until I thought things were under control. I promised I would be back in a month with the kids.
I made it back the next month, expecting to see him doing so much better. I was so sad at what I saw. He was so thin, pale, tired. My heart ached. I wanted to stay and spend every minute with him, at the same time I wanted to emotionally distance myself from him. The last time I spoke to him, I told him I loved him, he told me he loved me. He asked if I was going to come back and see him again and I promised I would.
Last Monday I upheld my promise. Dad, Jonah, and I drove into the night to get to his house. We arrived at 1130pm. I knew he was sleeping and didn’t want to bother him. I couldn’t hardly sleep that night. I wasn’t sure he would make it through the night. I woke up around 630am. The nurse had said he slept really well that night and was doing well in his pain management. I, again, didn’t want to disturb him, so I let him be. Around 720am, while I was pouring my coffee and we were watching Jonah play with the kitchen cabinets, we heard the hospice nurse call for my aunt. We all ran in the room. I thought maybe he was just having some trouble, but he was gone.
I will not share the intimate details of his passing. I will say though that the cancer did not win. Uncle David won. He wanted and was ready to go home. He was unafraid all the way to the end. He knew there was a better place he would be moving on to. I know he had to have known Jonah and I kept our word to come back and visit him. No one could mistake Jonah’s belly laugh he reserves just for Aunt Marilyn and he had been doing that laugh late the night before.
Sharing in the final moments was one of my Uncle’s dearest friends, Mack. I learned a lot about friendship this past week. I have learned that you need to look long and hard at who you allow to be your friend and who you keep close. I learned how important it is to maintain friendships with those people, even after they have moved away. Mack did so much for my aunt and uncle. He helped my dear uncle David transition on, helped my aunt through some of her grieving. I watched Mack watch his best friend die.
When it came time for the funeral, Mack gave the eulogy. He slowly walked up to my uncle’s urn, his arm interlocked with his wife, Dot’s, arm. He paused. Stood at attention. Saluted his buddy one last time. What a friendship they must have shared. I sat there and listened to every word he spoke of my uncle. My emotions were uncontrollable as I sat sobbing in the front row holding a sleeping Jonah in my arms. Watching this made me want to look around at who I hold close to me. I am similar to my uncle in that I tend to keep people at a distance. I don’t want to wait 40 years to change that, but I don’t know how to change it right now. I realize I need to work on nurturing the long term relationships I have. I need to make sure the family sticks together.
Finally, to close out this blog post, is the poem that I learned was his favorite and he had memorized it. I want to share it here.
Psalm of Life, by Longfellow
Tell me not in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou are, to dust thou returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each tomorrow
Find us farther than today.
Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.
In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!
Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act, – act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sand of time;
Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.
Let us then be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.