Families are a beautiful, messy creation aren't they? Sometimes you can't picture life without them, and then other times you find yourself taking a trip across the ocean just to get away from them. Of course, the minute you meet someone in your travels, your stories circle back to where you come from: of the crazy things you have done with your sister or brother, of the trips you have taken with your mom and dad.... of the summers you spent running around the fields behind your cousin's house; about the time you had to be on the end of the chain of hands linked together conducting a current from the electric cattle fence. Ours is no different; held together by stories and ties so strong that my cousin and I have often shared similar dreams. Not the kind of dreams of "we-both-want-to-grow-up-to-be-doctors" type dreams (though we did), but actual non-lucid dreams, wayyyy past REM type dreams.
A few years ago my cousin (one of my dad's brother's daughters) won a contest for "best smile" on her local radio station (and truly, I can attest, she does have the best smile). We've always been more like best friends then cousins and I was SO excited when she took me as her "plus one" to Orlando Florida for the prize winning trip in which we were to compete in the Guinness Book of World Records smile competition for most people smiling in one place at one time. While we were there we both woke one morning on the "proverbial" wrong side of the bed. After tip-toeing around each other one of us confessed "I'm sorry I'm so grouchy; I had a bad dream about my dad last night." To which the other replied "no way. I had a bad dream about my dad too." That was in 2010. In 2013 my dad suffered a massive heart-attack and double-bi-pass surgery. A year later my Uncle Dave was diagnosed with Prostate Cancer. Last night after two years of treatments and trying every avenue under the sun, Uncle Dave joined my Grandma and Grandpa and one of his older brothers in heaven.
I feel compelled to sit here and write today because my heart is broken. I ache for more time with our complete family together - to have it the way it once was, to relive all of our gatherings all over again. And because I need people to know what my uncle lived: life is best in the moments that strike you as ordinary; the sharing of a glass of wine, of catching up on a couch in a sun porch, a good steak dinner, a sing along at fake Christmastime in November because that's when we could get everyone together in the spirit of holiday. To him, family was everything and to his family, he was a pillar and a rock. I'm swept in my own grief which I know is only a portion of what my cousins and my aunt are staring down today.
When we were 11, maybe 12, my cousin and I lay in bed together as we so often did when we got the chance to visit each other on March break or summer holidays, talking and chatting and sharing life stories. I remember saying to her, "Keelan, I think we can only feel real joy when there's pain in the world." I'm not sure if that was something I thought up on my own, or if I heard it somewhere, but all these years later, it has stuck with me. Something I've admittedly had a hard time buying into - but nevertheless it doesn't make it any less true: When life is very very joyful, it makes the pain of loss that much more unbearable. But we only get the joy because we've felt that pain; because we've had to let go of someone we love.
I have to tell you what kind of man my Uncle was.
When I was just finishing University I was living with my Cousin in Waterloo and working in a town about half-an-hour away, commuting in an awful K-car that should have been taken off the road years beforehand. The amount of times that my uncle came and rescued me off of a curb that summer are embarrassing to admit to. Showing up with coolant in one hand he took my keys off me and climbed into the tiny car and drove it with me following in his car to the nearest Canadian Tire to have the head gasket patched for ... the fourth, fifth time. Uncle Dave was tall and he looked ridiculous driving that thing but he dropped what he was doing to rescue me - and so many other people in his life so many times over. Because people were the most important to him. People, and then animals, and then much much later: material stuff. Need a garden planted for your back-yard wedding? Yep he and my aunt will be there. Your dad's in the hospital after having a heart attack? Guess who's first to show up and take you out to dinner to ease your worried minds? Uncle Dave and Aunt Muggs. There are too many examples to point to. The take-away here folks is that as Ernest Hemingway said best, we all perish, but it's how we live that separates us from one another.
He was the life of the party which I'm happy to say, lives on in my cousins. As little kids, all of us cousins would pile into one bedroom with our sleeping bags, resting our heads on our pillows as we lay on the floor above the kitchen below. Do you know how happily we would drift off to sleep listening to the ruckus of our parent's laughter rising up through the floor boards? As we got older and became adults ourselves, so many gatherings starting on a Friday night when the convoy of my cousins and aunt and uncle arrives on your doorstep, to the Sunday morning when, holding your head, you stand in the driveway and wave good-bye to their car beeping as it leaves town again.
One time our families were "making merry" and my Uncle and I decided to put some of those President's Choice hors d'oeuvres in the oven for a bit of a midnight snack for everyone. (Do you know the ones I'm talking about?) What we didn't realize at the time was that the oven was already on and in our hastiness, we turned it OFF. Of course the group of us forgot the snack anyway as the evening surged on, but when we were cleaning up in the morning, my uncle comes running out of my sister's kitchen with the tray of melted and gooey appetizers in hand laughing and giggling at our failed attempt the night before. Honestly to share a party with my Uncle Dave was a treasured experience because he truly embraced your company and loved you for the time you were spending together.
On Monday night my husband was shushing me as he read a text on his phone, and he spontaneously broke out into a daffy duck impression to quiet me down.
"That's weird," I said to him. "I've never heard you make a Daffy Duck impression before!"
"I know," he said. "I don't think I ever have!"
It took me aback because my Uncle did the best Daffy Duck.
One summer when my cousins and Aunt and Uncle were visiting we were all startled from our positions in the house by a loud "AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH." Coming from the back yard. We rushed outside to see Uncle Dave walking away from our pool with an empty jug of chlorine in hand.
"What?" He said to us. "I just shocked the pool." Dad jokes abound.
These are some of the memories of my Uncle - the man who cleaned up my vomit from the back seat of his Astro Van when my motion sickness got the better of me, the man who reamed my cousin and I out for our "Cosmo" Magazines when we were much to young to be reading them, who cared about our eternal salvation and about our earthly well-being. Make you happy, make you rich in love; that's what my uncle set out to do and everyone around him knows this to be true.
There is no doubt in my mind that my uncle is in heaven right now. Most likely joined by his beloved Irish setter Paddy, and his spaniels Riley and Finnegan. He has found God's grand piano, and he's playing the most beautiful piece of music that he wrote for all of us. And the next time we gather and laugh really hard, we'll be able to hear it. This isn't something I'm comforting myself by saying; this is my belief. And I know he felt it too. It's a scary process this life, but my Uncle lived by an example of Faith and has left so many people around him in awe of his courageous ability to put his Trust in things that are not of this world, in the one who breathes life into us.
Friends, if you put your kids to bed early every night and you shy away from staying over at your sibling's house for fear of wrecking your "routine" please don't: Please pack their pyjamas and stay up late and let your kids be together. Let them be silly and goofy and awake until midnight. Take turns going back into the room and give fake "warnings": "I said it's time to SLEEP." And then go back and join the other adults and know these are the nights they will cling to when they're older. If you used to visit with your brothers and sisters but you just don't have time any more, please reconsider. If there's distance, if you've got your own priorities, if it "seems like" money's too tight to make a trip to visit, just remember, the "good old days" are now. They are today, they were this past weekend. They can be this weekend, too. But don't stop and wait for that gathering one day- get together here and now, put your phone down, and visit and be present with one another.
So hold a Christmas in November with your extended family, show up at your brother-in-law's house with a steak dinner in a cooler and ask to use the BBQ. Look your nieces and nephews in the eye and ask them how they're doing. Give humongous bear hugs when you say hello and when you leave someone's house, for crying out loud honk your horn and wave like that's the last time you'll ever see them. Life is busy and complicated but my Uncle showed us how families are made; not even necessarily by blood, but by the ties that you bind together, moment by moment, memory over memory.