“I’ve got eight more months”
This was my uncle’s update at lunch last week. Calm, accepting, subdued. My uncle’s once intimidating frame is now a shell of itself due to the rapid spread of cancer, but his eyes still shined the same. But sadder.
My mom and I met with my uncle on what he called his “Farewell Tour” as he made his way to see his friends and family along the east coast while he still has the strength to drive. He is taking this time to hold onto the independence that has been his hallmark for my entire life. It had been a couple of years since I have seen him. He usually came down as we hosted Thanksgiving, but he wasn’t up for it the past couple of times. I now know why, and I have a sense of guilt for not being more proactive and reaching out.
Ten Lives, maybe more
Uncle Don has always been a wildcard. He may have been the only person in the history of Middlebury College to get kicked out for drugs. In the ’60s. (?!?!) He worked as a ski patrol/ skiing instructor in Vermont in the winter, and a beach lifeguard in Ocean City in the summer. During the Vietnam War, he was drafted into the Marines, but I am not sure if he ever went down range or not. He married, had a daughter with, and divorced a physician in California in the ’70s.
In the 80’s he moved to south Florida and lived in an apartment that seemed to overlook the Cuban refugee camps in Miami from the beginning of Scarface. I believe at this time he was involved with a two-way smuggling effort helping Cuban refugees to escape from the island while moving partisans back to counter the communist government.
As a child, he showed me the first real handgun I had ever seen in my life. Alongside it, he showed a picture of a shark he had caught on light tackle in the sea south of Florida that he had shot with the pistol so that they could eat it. He struck wealth as a marine construction company owner following Hurricane Andrew in 1992 but then burned through all of the possible gains in short order. This list could go on longer, and I will likely learn more and more as I read through the books and photo albums, and other items he has left me.
Walking down the one-way road
My uncle is the second successive generation of men in my family that will die of cancer. I’ve seen both of them as it has taken away the life force within their bodies and watched them both move to a point of acceptance. It is strange to think that there is a good possibility that I will likely be in the same position. How will I handle it? What feelings will I focus on as the end becomes a definite point on the horizon instead of a nebulous concept?
I asked my uncle a two-part question while we were there together: 1) What do you want to do with the time you know you’ve got left? 2) Are there any doubts or regrets that you are thinking about? He gave an answer that was nearly directly from the Top Five Regrets of the Dying. “I wish I wasn’t so selfish and was there for Ross (his daughter). But at the same time, I don’t know if I could have lived my life any differently. Because what I did was stay true to who I was.” He said he is going to try and make amends to people he may have hurt during his life with the time he has left. That made me ask another question – if your life was spent being true to who you are, why do you feel like you have to apologize for it?
We finished lunch and walked out to our cars. It was a really beautiful afternoon in Annapolis when we said our goodbyes. My uncle tried to stay somewhat stoic, but we held our hug for an extra few seconds. I stood back as he and my mom hugged and I could see the toll this was weighing on her. We were both together when my grandfather died of cancer in December 2008. We were by his bedside an hour and a half before he died. When we were at dinner together afterward we knew almost the moment he had passed. No idea what exactly signaled it for her, but I felt radical chills as we sat down at Lemongrass Thai restaurant in Annapolis. She got the call from my grandmother 8 minutes later that he was gone.
I could see in my mom’s eyes that she was seeing the same erosion of her once protective big brother playing out just like it had happened to her dad.
Living to be true to yourself
My mom and I stayed outside on the sidewalk together for some time after my uncle drove away. We both felt bad that we hadn’t been more proactive in staying in touch with him. She was visibly shaking and struggling to process her emotions. She has never been good at processing her emotions, but this was becoming too much. We sat down together on a bench overlooking the water at the end of 4th street and talked. Both of us agreed that we had grown apart, promised to be more communicative, and talked about some ways to better process and acknowledge. Then release our emotions and feelings.
We came back to my uncle’s statement about apologizing to the people he hurt by living a life that was true to who he was. My mom thought that did not make much sense. I wanted to dive deeper into it. Finally, we said our goodbyes as well and I got back on the road home.
I couldn’t shake that concept. What does it mean to live a life that is true to yourself? Does it mean accepting that it will result in pain for many that you care most about? Does it have to be that way? Is this a selfish way of thinking? Have I been living true to myself? Where have I missed the mark? Regrets are inevitable, can I accept that I will have those regardless for the remainder of my life? How do I want to finish this race?
More posts coming
I’m just diving into this deep pool and starting to swim down into the depths. I do not know what I am going to find for myself going forward. I am turning 40 this year. Just shy of the halfway point for men in my family. I am going to work on seeing if there is even a way to answer those questions from above. I’ve been reading a few more books on life and the acceptance of death and how various people have lived through the process of dying. I want to figure out where and how things will continue to move forward – do I live to minimize regrets, reduce pain and burdens inflicted on others, maximize my experiences, and increase selflessness? It’s a winding road. Here’s to seeing where these leads take things.
Note- I highly recommend that you read three books (amazon links below):
Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing
Cicero: On living and dying well