I write this wrapped in a blue blanket in our little white house. My arms still fit around a sleeping baby, but it’s not as easy as it was a few months ago. Her breathing is a bit labored (remnants of a difficult morning), and the twitch of her hands against my stomach feel like the movement of life.
We’d made plans to visit in August. She was already five months old, and I knew my great uncle would love to hold her. A trip to Portland always made me happy (there’s something about driving over the Piscataqua that turns me into a seven-year-old in summertime), but I knew we’d only be able to stay a short while. Uncle Alan was not doing well, and the last thing I wanted was to tire him out.
It didn’t happen. We got a message — he’s in the hospital, he’s so sad he can’t see you — and I wrote saying we’d see him soon.
I saw my Uncle Alan for the last time on Friday.
Evangeline saw him for the first and last.
I had this image in my head: little Evangeline sitting on her great-great-uncle’s lap, him laughing his full-belly laugh, the sheer size of him filling the hospice room.
When I got there, I was embarrassed by my childishness. A man in hospice does not laugh with his whole body. He does not hold an infant on his knee.
But he did smile. He did know who we were. He did talk to us. But there were so many things I wanted to say and couldn’t.
I will miss your sweet birthday notes on Facebook. I’m surprised how much I looked forward to them. I am surprised at your genuine love.
I wish I were as joyful as you were. I’m sure you had dark moments (who doesn’t), yet you emanated peace.
What will happen to our family history when you’re gone? Who will curate our memories with such care, such attention to detail, and such deep adoration for those who came before?
I will treasure the old books you gave me at graduation. I will keep your notes throughout the years. I pray my daughter has someone in her life who gives her beautiful things and encouraging letters.
I will never forget how you supported my writing. It started with my little magazine, “Ruminations,” and your subscription and dedicated reading of a silly girl’s silly writing. But it continued. I’ll miss thinking of you reading this blog, each entry like a conversation I hope to have.
I never thought I’d be a teacher, and yet how could I avoid it? With such a gifted, influential educator in my family, how could I not be born with a little inkling of teacherness?
The thing I’m learning about mourning is that after the first experience, it is never isolated again. Grief piles on grief, death conflates with life conflates with death, and each time I mourn someone I love, I find myself mourning all those who died before. I cry for my uncle and my aunt and cousins he leaves behind, but also for my Grampa long-gone, my Great-Gramma, for the very fact that everyone I love will die. I look at my baby and I cannot believe it.
Now, when I garden, my grandfather is there. Now, when I garden, my great-uncle will be there, too. When I thin rows of carrots, I see my Grampa sitting on an overturned bucket, doing the same. When I choose flowers for my bees and the hummingbirds, I will see my Uncle Alan and his beautiful gardens. “In the Garden” joins “How Great Thou Art” as songs that conjure an entire person every time I sing them. My Dad will help me pass on these familial traditions to my daughter, and even though she may feel removed from those who came before, she will know them in stories, in music, and in gardens.
We’ll miss you, Uncle Alan.