Farewell Too Soon
Why do good people meet untimely endings?
This week, my Uncle Claude — a man whose mind sparkled with wonder, vivid color, laughter, silliness, love, and joy — met an unexpected and abrupt end when he was killed in an accident.
My father’s sister, Diane, met and fell in love with my Uncle Claude when they were seventeen. Married for 50 years, together they raised two children, my cousins Christine and Craig, and built a life that most people will search for and never find.
On Thursday evening, the weather was fine, and my uncle was out for a walk while my aunt was having dinner with a friend. My aunt will tell you how much he loved being out around people; it was one of his happy places. Knowing that the mild May weather would bring people outdoors, he drove a handful of miles to walk in the downtown area of our small city. Just out for a walk to pass the time, to enjoy the weather and the people when it happened.
I was asked if I was close to my uncle, and that gave me pause. It’s not a question quickly or easily, answered. My aunt and uncle were always a part of the scenery growing up, while my cousins were the starring show. I loved the times we went to their house (or vice versa) because it was always fun and full of laughter. My cousins, siblings, and I would play for hours, run downstairs (or up depending on the house) for snacks, and back at it. The kids didn’t really engage with the grownups — that was boring. But he was always there — an integral part of the fabric of those memories — so he did and still does, occupy a place in my heart. (And to be honest, knowing what I know now, I am fairly confident he would have preferred the fort building and the lego action happening with the kids.)
I remember smiles. I remember silly. I remember the laughter, and kindness, and genuine joy. I remember the stories my cousin would tell me about the elaborate scavenger hunts he created for his grandchildren and how he dressed up in costumes to play. I remember that he always had the most beautiful Christmas fire in the hearth (playing on the TV).
I remember he loved my aunt completely.
But love is too small a word to describe what that actually is. Four little letters do not do it justice.
When my great Aunt Julie had passed away in 2009; my Aunt Diane and I were sorting through her things. There were a few pieces of costume jewelry I had wanted, and I asked her if it was ok. She answered that it was. She then told me how my uncle dotes on her and has given her a few beautiful pieces of jewelry she prefers to wear over costume jewelry. This was not said as a boast by any means. It was said with a soft smile of affection, and devotion. There was a secret in that smile.
That warmth, that smile, that was love. She felt that from my uncle.
When my family moved to Texas, my cousin Christine made sure I always knew I had somewhere to go for holidays. She invited me to her house for dinners, and to hang out. She’s actually quite possibly the best cousin one could ask for.
While I was going through a particularly rough time in my life, she tried to connect with me on numerous occasions. I am not sure why I closed that door and didn’t let her in. I don’t think we can always explain our actions when we are in the throes of difficult times, but I know that my refusal to engage hurt her. But she never stopped trying.
When it got really dark in my life — the time I wasn’t eating, was crying non-stop, and barely getting myself out of bed — she showed up at my door, undeterred. In my memory, she kicked the door open (she didn’t), brought tea and made me food (this part is accurate), and made sure I ate something. I was simultaneously annoyed with and thankful for her. I didn’t appreciate her interference, and I was glad for it at the same time.
This determination is love. This is something she got from her father.
There was always “I should call my aunt and uncle for dinner next week, next month, next year…” Like many families, there were ebbs and flows of connection over the years, and something I realize now is that grief opens the door to regret. I regret not calling.
One of my favorite literary quotes is by Emerson, where he defines success:
To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate the beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch Or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded!
He was, without a doubt, a good man and a wonderful husband, father, and grandfather… and one of the most successful men to have lived.