A Tribute

 

Life can be so confusing. Full of immeasurable highs — exhilarating accomplishments, mind-expanding conversations, the feel of an infant asleep on your chest as you rock back and forth, softly whispering a song (just enough so your breaths bounce off one another), and you know you could rock in that chair for the rest of your life and nothing else would matter. Full of tragic lows — the kind of lows that make you not want to bring any more lives into the world, because one day they'll feel the pain, the longing, the frustrating whys. One day the tragedy, the hurt, will circle around. One day you'll hurt them like you've been hurt.

And at the end of the day, the year, the life, we still don't know what's really important; what really matters.

Except we sort of do, don't we?

My Uncle died on Friday.

I wish I could say we're celebrating a life rather than mourning a loss — the way inspirational people do. But it doesn't feel that way at all. We're all a bit shell-shocked from a sudden and mysterious illness that quickly deteriorated the philosophical mind, the cancer-beating body, the bright, bright light.

His bookends are firmly in place — with a beginning and an end — yet I can still smell him. I can still feel his hug. And the thought of him not being here, not being able to read these words, is unbearable.

*****

Noah is sitting on my lap watching YouTube.

I'm showing him a video of real-life wallabies because for the last few nights I've been telling him a made-up bedtime story about five wallaby friends. I'm not sure where the story idea came from, but he belly-laughs every time I tell it.

"Aww, they're so cute!" he says in a soft higher-pitched voice. As if he doesn't want to disturb them in their cuteness.

Suddenly he turns around and says, "Mommy, sometimes animals die. Sometimes doggies die, sometimes cats die..." he trails off, once again glued to the mini kangaroos.

My childhood cat, Luke, recently passed away, after we tried nursing him back to health at our apartment. Noah knew that Luke was sick and was coming to live with us to get better. Then he went away and never came back.

"Mommy, Luke is dying," he said once the YouTube clip ended. (Apparently my sister explained this to him the day before, but I was completely caught off-guard.) "And I'm never, ever gonna see him ever again."

My heart sunk into my stomach.

"Honey, Luke already died."

He clasped his hand over his mouth and gasped.

"Oh mommy, I'm so, so sad," he said, burying his face into my shoulder.

I tried to explain that Luke went somewhere happier. That we'd see him again. He didn't really understand it — an honest reaction to an incomprehensible explanation.

I wondered who I was trying to make feel better with that rushed, scripted condolence speech, as he hopped off my lap and ran to his train set.

*****

August 27, 2010   11:49 a.m.

Michelle,  Happy Birthday honey. I miss being close to you all on a regular basis. Too bad we live so far apart. Anyway, I've said that before. Have a great day today. I think you're a special person. Every now and then one is born to do some things that influence the masses in a positive way.  In your case, I am convinced that your writing will be that vehicle. Just keep your eyes open, and the right topic will be revealed to you. It might show itself by being attached to your lucky number, 27. Keep looking; it's there. Uncle Lou.

*****

"I'm proud of you, you know that?"

I was standing at his hospital bed this past October — his 5th straight week in ICU. The doctors just finished inserting some kind of tube, and he was uncomfortable. Uncomfortable, but hopeful. He felt like this was it — whatever the doctors just did would fix whatever was wrong.

Even though his face was contorted to mask his obvious pain — waiting patiently for his pain meds to kick in — and even though his body was weak, exhausted, he took me by his hand, looked me in the eye, and said one of the last sentences I'd ever hear him speak. He always told me he was proud of me, but there was an urgency in his voice this time.

He held my hand for the rest of our visit, quietly listening to everyday stories and plans for the future. He smiled whenever Noah was brought up, and asked to see his pictures on my iPhone.

"I have to get one of these things. Are they expensive?," he whispered through dry lips.

*****

*****

My Uncle had a way of making you feel like you were special; of making you realize why you're special. I thought it was just me — revealed in his one-on-one conversations about writing, about books, about the possibilities of numerology (he was a 27, too). But it's a common thread in all of our stories and reflections. He made us feel like our hobbies and goals weren't only worth pursuing, but absolutely necessary. He had a supportive warmth — always willing to share stories and swap theories. He was 11 years older than my Dad, 15 years older than his other brother. He always led the pack, set the example. The story teller. The knowledgeable one.

He laughed at all of his own jokes, with a twinkle in his eye.

He was the best kind of person. A person I hope to be like.

Borrowing from my Dad's description of the big brother he always admired: "He was witty and wise, goofy and philosophical."

*****

One day I'll cross the same path, as we all will. As our children will. As their children will. And I can't think of a better person to be waiting, hand outstretched. He'll tell us how proud he is, and then, with one arm around our shoulders, reveal the secrets he's been waiting to share.

I love you, Uncle Lou. Until then.

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