My uncle was alive. Alive, living alone in his adorable house close to the USC campus in Columbia, South Carolina. Alive, calling me every week or so, asking, “Whatcha doing, girlfriend?” We talked about traveling, and memories, and family – always family.
My uncle was alive, with a few recent health issues. He passed out at home and had to call the ambulance, and we were concerned. He had some difficult dental work done, and it led to a good amount of frustration. He was always getting sideways about doctors and medical tests and such.
My uncle was alive, dealing with anxiety. It popped up often, especially when he thought about traveling. Change was hard. He didn’t like the pressure of planning a trip, but he hated the paralysis that anxiety brought on. We talked about it, and it often helped, just to speak the words and acknowledge the challenges.
My uncle had good friends. My uncle had strong connections with family. His relationships with my cousins were varied, different based on their interactions and how their lives were interwoven. One cousin lived nearby, and, along with his wife, took care of anything my uncle might need – from general stuff around the house, to a place to celebrate holidays, to the extra stuff that came up more recently, with doctors and medical stuff. Other cousins lived hundreds of miles away – but stayed connected, offered support, strengthened the ties that blood began into authentic, life-long kinship. I was his favorite niece; his only niece.
My uncle had brothers – two still living, holding a shared history of our ancestors, their lives forged in the first few decades of the 20th century that blossomed into the wonder of the 21st.
My uncle was alive, with all these important touchpoint in his life.
And then, my uncle had a fall. He broke his hip, and one thing led to another in terms of medical challenges, and he was stuck in the hospital. And the doctors said, Your heart is just not strong enough. We do not think we can give you a good prognosis.
My uncle was alive, and so we went to see him, and it was perplexing, really. He said, “I just don’t know how I got here…I was fine, but I fell, and I broke my hip, and now they tell me that I’m not going to make it…I just don’t understand…”
My uncle was alive, and so we visited and talked and held hands, but – to be honest – it was just a little bit awkward, because what do you say? It’s like a punch in the gut, because it seemed so ridiculous and out of the blue; to be navigating life at home, and then falling, and then you’re in the hospital and the medical professionals say, Well, looks like your time is up. You sit by the hospital bed and squeeze each other’s hands and affirm love with your body and your eyes and your words, but how do you navigate the shock; how do you prepare for an impending loss that comes out of the blue?
My uncle was alive, and so he squeezed my hand and said, “Okay, that’s enough, kiddo; get on out of here. I need to get some rest.”
My uncle was alive.
Last Friday my uncle was alive. I knew, from my cousin’s updates, that he was sleeping a lot. He’d awoken long enough to see a photo of a brand new baby, the newest addition to our clan – a beautiful great-great-niece. It brought a smile and a pat to the heart; LOVE.
My uncle was alive, but grief hung heavy and thick over my movements, over 300 miles away. I longed to be with him. Tears came, often and quickly. That afternoon I talked with my spiritual director.
I want, with all my heart, to be with him. I want to be present for this.
She let me talk, welcomed my tears and sorrow; and into that safe and sacred space burst the pent-up grief of sixteen years past. Buried feelings tethered to the deep love I have for my uncle were surfacing and finding their voice.
Sixteen years ago, my grandmother died; my uncle’s mom. My grandmother – one of the most influential women in my life. My ‘safe place’. Unconditional love, gracious affection. My ‘Gommer’. She got sick – stomach cancer – and I couldn’t believe it. I wouldn’t believe it. Overwhelmed with a young family and fierce denial, I refused to accept her diagnosis and I stayed away. Somehow, I thought that if left it unacknowledged, I could hold it at bay. So I didn’t go see her, until it was too late. I pretended it wasn’t happening; and then, it did, and I lost her. I lost my chance to see her, to tell her how much I loved her, to say goodbye. I was too afraid.
And now, my uncle – he was always close to Gommer. He helped me stay connected to her memory. He always told me how proud she would be of me; how I was going to be the next matriarch of the family. He told me all the stories I never knew. We remembered her, together.
So when he went into the hospital, when we got this hard news; I vowed that I would be present, that I would not run away. I would not bury my head in the sand. I vowed that I would stay present for this. So I’m trying. And right now, today, with all my heart, I want to be with him. I want to be in this with him.
I ran out of words, so I just sat with my tears. My heart felt huge, broken, longing.
I just want to be with him.
Because, in the end – at moments like this, when you know that life is ending, that you are losing someone you love, nothing else matters. There’s nothing else you can do.
I just want to be with him.
My uncle was alive. I was grieving.
My spiritual director said, I have seen people in hospital rooms with dying loved ones who were physically present but emotionally and spiritually absent. We know that quantum mechanics show that atoms can be in two places at once. We know that there is so much we don’t know about the universe and the reality of what we cannot see….so your grief, your sorrow, this feeling that your heart is with your uncle, this connection with your love for your grandmother….maybe you ARE with him. This longing, this present grief; it matters.
And a vision, of sorts, came to mind. I saw myself, tethered to the earth. I saw my uncle, loosening the bonds of gravity. I saw my grandmother, in an eternal existence. And the three of us, connected.
I sketched it in my journal a few days later.
And in that moment, with the weight of my words released and my sorrow freely articulated, I felt comfort. In the midst of sorrow, a peace – one I did not understand, but one that felt perfect and comfortable, and – most powerfully – true.
My uncle was alive, and I felt the surety of his love and presence and connection with me and with the Eternal that it was….supernatural.
That night, my uncle died.
My uncle is dead.
I have yet to get over the odd rhythm of those words. His memorial gathering will be next month, and so we have had no opportunity to do the communal gathering that allows us to mourn and grieve together. The ritual of our family processing is on hold, and so my grief is limited to these five syllables, repeated a few times a day in a sort of sad wonder.
How can this be?
It is an odd thing, this life, and the way our bodies wind down and eventually give out. It comes to an end – at least here, in this place where gravity holds us down and limits our movement. I submit that while we place great faith in the texts and beliefs of our faith, the comfort that religion gives that there is life beyond this life, the truth is that no one really knows. It is hope and trust, because it is unseen and unknown.
And I think the power of being present can truly transform the way we experience life, and death, and the moments in between the two in a way that brings all of that hope and faith and trust into fullness.
The kingdom of God: here, and now, and for eternity.