Last week (or maybe it was this week: Time has become a surreal concept this month), Mary said something to her niece, Sarah, that struck a chord with me. Forgive me, this won’t be verbatim, but she said: “I knew when you came out of the womb that we understood each other.” I totally got that because Uncle Bill and I were the same way.
The more I thought about that, I realized that there are kin and then there are kindreds. There are people you’re related to, share similarities with, and then there are people who are on the same wavelength and I am the lucky girl how had him as both. In fact, many of you have have taken the time this week to acknowledge that, tell me how often he spoke of me and how special I was to him, and I can’t tell you how much that means to me. So thank you.
At the core of this connection is the fact that he and I both have soft hearts that love large and wound easily. We’re not specifically religious meaning no organized religion ever added up just right, but we believe in meaning and find it all around us. Cathedrals come in many forms and my uncle prayed at the altar of art and beauty (and baseball), as do I.
And I don’t believe in coincidences. For instance, I subscribe to this listserve called Poem-A-Day from Poetry.org. It’s exactly what it sounds like: it sends you a poem a day. As I sat down to write Uncle Bill’s obituary and this eulogy, the poem “Eve Remembering” by Toni Morrison was emailed to me and I’d like to read it to you now:
I tore from a limb fruit that had lost its green.
My hands were warmed by the heat of an apple
Fire red and humming.
I bit sweet power to the core.
How can I say what it was like?
The taste! The taste undid my eyes
And led me far from the gardens planted for a child
To wildernesses deeper than any master’s call.
Now these cool hands guide what they once caressed;
Lips forget what they have kissed.
My eyes now pool their light
Better the summit to see.
I would do it all over again:
Be the harbor and set the sail,
Loose the breeze and harness the gale,
Cherish the harvest of what I have been.
Better the summit to scale.
Better the summit to be.
This poem reminded me of him for so many reasons. His love of picking apples in the Fall, and the fact that our family origins trace back to an apple orchard in Michigan. The way he reached out to grab every moment, large to small, as if he could clutch them in his hand and hold them close to his heart. It reminded me of that twinkle ever present in his eyes, that sort of innate glow that lit up a room, and how that lightness will guide us into tomorrow even if he physically cannot.
But mostly this poem reminded me of how much he loved living, which makes his death all-the-more cruel. I’ve never met anyone who extracted more from a single day and savored every minute the way he did. He was the harbor, he was the breeze that set our sail, he was the summit for so many–elevating us by proxy just by bringing us along for the ride. And my, how we’ve reaped what he has sewn.
When he first started treatment this year, I asked: Maybe it’s time you start a bucket list? And he told me he didn’t have one, that he’d been all over the world and seen what he had wanted to see; all he wanted now was to live a normal life, watch his kids grow up, and have the opportunity to work. A complex man with simple desires, in the end.
And this all can be summarized with one final story. Uncle Bill was always the first to show up and the last to leave, in times of joy and sorrow. After my mother passed, everyone had cleared out of her condo by the sea and it was just Uncle Bill and me, drying dishes after dinner. We had her 66th surprise birthday playlist on shuffle, we’d been drinking a lot of red wine, and one of her favorite Gordon Lightfoot songs came on. I lost it, I started ugly crying and pacing around the kitchen. He settled me down with a tight hug, and I asked him: “What am I supposed to do now?” I had commuted weekly between San Francisco and San Diego for over a year as she battled cancer with grace and dignity, much like her brother, and then relocated there full-time for the last month of her life. The purpose of my last year was gone. Uncle Bill said, “You live your life. That’s what she would have wanted most.”
The worst part about death is the helplessness you feel but if there’s anything we can do for him now, it’s to remember him, speak of him often, keep him present in the present, and live of our lives fully and with intention (keeping each other close). That’s what he would have wanted most.