I truly believe that life is a journey and not a destination. The goal in life is not to rush to the finish line, but to enjoy every step of the journey as much as possible along the way. Nothing makes this sentiment more clear than when you lose a loved one. I know this because I just loss one of my favorite uncles who always seemed to live life out loud. He was so full of life and laughter. You always knew when he walked into the room because he had such a grand presence. Ironically, he was also the one in the family who assumed the role of notifying family members when there were grave illnesses and deaths of other family members and longtime friends. Sometimes he would call to announce deaths of others who had such a distant and/or non-existent relationship with you that you would have to ask, “Who”? Then he would go through the lineage year by year; person by person, until you finally said, “Oh yeah, I remember – that is so sad to hear of their passing”. Sometimes what I would really be thinking is, “Um, I really have no idea who you are talking about”. But, in any case, I would express my condolences all the same.
Although my uncle was a very religious man, he seemed in many ways to be intrigued by death. I am not sure if this was based on the time he spent in the military, or what. But, anyone over 50 was considered old by his standards and was subject to the grim reaper knocking at their door at any moment. Anyone older than that just needed to be thankful as they were simply living on borrowed time; according to my uncle’s ideology, anyway. By the way, I loved my uncle dearly yet I have never shared his preoccupation with death or his rigid views on the relationship between age and death. It’s a good thing he was always up for a good debate. My viewpoint on the correlation between age and death, I would tell him, was predicated on the fact that we all know of little ones who have had very short lives here on earth as well as knowing elders who have lived well beyond a century! My uncle and I even debated this very subject during the funeral of his dad, my grandad, who lived to be over 90 years of age. And his mother, my great-grandmother, I reminded my uncle, was over 100 years old when she passed.
My uncle would humor me by listening to my side of the debate, but in all the years I have known him, he has never changed his opinion. Even though I did not agree with him on many things such as this, I have always had respect for people who have strong opinions and are not afraid to voice them; even if it may not be a mainstream point of view. That was one of the many things I loved about my uncle. He had many opinions that were clearly not mainstream. If you knew him; you would always know where he stood on issues. I do, however, believe that he and I both agreed on at least one point concerning life which is that our time here on earth is very precious. That is why it is so important to live life to the fullest and enjoy the journey each and every day. I remember the last time I saw my uncle. It was an invaluable experience that I would not trade for any monetary or material value.
Speaking of such, on the day that I went to see my uncle in the hospital, I actually had a prior engagement planned. My friend and I had already made plans to hop on the train and do a day trip to one of the outlet malls to shop for handbags. We had been talking about this day trip for months and finally made arrangements to go. At the very last moment, in the midst of planning the last minor details for the trip, I received a phone call from my mom who informed me that my uncle, her brother, was in serious condition in the hospital. I could hear the fear in my mom’s voice which confirmed to me that not going to the hospital to visit my uncle that day was simply not an option.
I am sure my friend could not believe that I was cancelling our shopping trip. We both knew we were foregoing what most likely would have been a blast because when she and I get together, we tell jokes, poke fun at each other, and constantly laugh about the minutest things. Everyone should have a friend like this. Every now and then, we have serious conversations. But for the most part, she and I just seem to find humor in many different situations. It’s like being friends with Jay Leno or Eddie Murphy – she’s that funny, but without the cursing! Once we were out having lunch during the work week and an elderly gentleman came over to our table after he finished lunch and playing chess with his friend. Obviously retired, he said he and his buddy have been playing chess for years. He said he just had to come over to our table before he left and comment about how he got such a kick out of listening to our non-stop chatter and laughter. That’s the kind of fun my friend and I always have whenever we get together – the laughter is contagious!.
However, I knew going to visit my uncle was going to be my priority that day of our trip. When I got to the hospital and saw my uncle, the look of surprise and sheer joy that came over his face when he saw my mom and I was priceless. I will never forget the way he threw his head back in laughter just for the simple fact that he was happy to see us. My uncle has always had such a strong presence and a bigger than life personality. Seeing a glimpse of that as he lay in his hospital bed was a memory that I will cherish forever. On the flip side, for just one brief moment, I looked at him in that hospital bed and for the first time I felt his vulnerability. I saw for one fleeting instant a sign from him that he had accepted the fact that he was seriously ill. I tried to play down his comment to me when I leaned down to kiss him on the forehead and asked him how he was doing. He responded, “Oh, your uncle is just too old”. Like I said before, my uncle has talked about aging ever since I can remember. But, it was the way he said it that time which made it seem like he was succumbing to his illness. I tried to dismiss what he said – but deep down, I felt he really meant it. My uncle has always been the strong, prayerful warrior who would visit the sick and shut in and give them hope. Now, as he laid in that hospital bed – even with his bible laying across his chest and reading glasses nearby, I felt he was now that person who was in need of prayer and encouragement.
After we greeted each other, I immediately poured my uncle an obligatory glass of ice water. Not just water, it had to be ice water. This gesture was my “job” which my uncle had assigned to me when I was a little girl. This tradition was part joke which we always laughed about each time we saw each other and it was also part of what sealed our connection as uncle and niece. I took my “job” of getting him a glass of ice water very seriously. I am pretty sure there were times he wasn’t even thirsty, but it was our tradition and he would always drink the obligatory glass of ice water no matter what. So after the traditional pouring and drinking of the ice water, all the childhood stories and reminiscing began between him and my mom. This was one of their traditions each time they got together. They proceeded in telling the same funny childhood stories about growing up in the country which they said they would not have traded for anything in the world.
My mom and uncle laughed and then laughed some more as they retold the “milk-‘n-bread” AKA the “milkybread” story which I may have heard over a dozen times (or two) over the years. But it has always been just as funny each time I hear them tell the story of how all their siblings would gather around a pan of fresh out of the oven cornbread doused with buttermilk. They all readied themselves with their spoons in hand waiting to dive into the delicious feast; each one vying for their favorite section of the bread pan. My uncle, being one of the oldest and biggest, always got his favorite section as well as his fair share of the pan of bread. My mom, the ultimate negotiator/diplomat, always seemed to have gotten her favorite corner piece, as well. I almost feel like I was there with them, back in time, as I watched my mom and uncle’s eyes light up as they relived their “milkybread” story through tears of joy and laughter. Of course, they also had to tell the story of when my mom was a majorette and my uncle was the drummer in their school band. As the story goes, they would ride back home on the school bus. My uncle, being the prankster that he was even back then, hid behind one of the seats in the back of the bus. He did not resurface until after he heard his cue which must have been music to his ears listening to my mom shouting at the top of her lungs to the bus driver in sheer panic to, “Stop the bus, my brother is missing!” Only then would my uncle pop up from hiding after hearing her shrilled command to the bus driver. They laughed and laughed as if it had just happened yesterday. The story-telling would not be complete without them re-telling the story of the snakes. They talked about swimming down by the creek near their house and then noticing there were snakes swimming in the creek with them. Listen, it does not matter that the size of the snakes gets bigger and bigger each time the story is retold. The point is sharing in the joy between my mom and uncle as they laugh while telling their childhood stories. To this day, however, because of the snake story I cannot put on a pair of boots without first smashing down the entire bottom half and shaking it out rigorously, just in case a snake is hiding in there.
Well, the story-telling has ended and I cannot believe that my uncle is gone now. I try to find comfort in remembering that he is now in a much better place; even better than his childhood memories that brought him so much happiness. He is in a familiar place that he prepared himself for his whole life to spend into eternity. Fortunately, his boisterous laughter and memories will live on forever in my heart and in the hearts of everyone who was lucky enough to have known him. I am so glad that I made the choice to go with my mom to visit my uncle that day in the hospital. Although I had no idea that would be the last time I would see my uncle, the memory of his laughter and storytelling are forever embedded in my memory.
Oh, by the way, and on a lighter note – my friend ended up going shopping at the outlet without me that day. She sent a text that evening and asked me how my uncle was doing. At the time, he was actually doing better which I explained to her. Shortly thereafter he had even been released from the hospital. She said she was happy to hear that he was doing well. After all the pleasantries and well wishes were extended, she then texted me a picture of the brand new Kate Spade briefcase that she bought during the shopping trip. You know the briefcase, the one I had my eye on for months! She’s got a lot of explaining to do. She didn’t stop there. About a week later, we were in a joint meeting at work and she had the nerve to place the huge, and admittedly gorgeous, briefcase right in the middle of the table across from me. I think she was trying to be cute – or spiteful; take your pick. I could literally smell the new leather aroma from across the table! Of course, no one else in the meeting knew she was taunting me, so I just had to chuckle to myself and keep it movin’.
But guess what? In all seriousness, the last minute decision that I made that day to forego my shopping trip with my friend and visit my uncle was one of the best decisions I have ever made. The positive, lasting memories that came from that one moment in time was shockingly the last time I will ever see my uncle, kiss him on the forehead and bring him a glass of ice water. That moment will far outlast any material thing on this earth. Like I said before, the goal in life is not to rush to the finish line, but to enjoy each and every step of the journey as much as possible along the way. The unforgettable journey through a time of shared memories that I experienced visiting my larger than life uncle for the last time here on earth was priceless! You just never know the last time you will have the opportunity to see someone and tell them you love them. With that in mind, make your journey through life one that you will be proud of and one with no regrets. And remember, live life out loud day by day as a beautiful journey.