Wide Awake: Uncle Don
This virus has taken (and taught) so much

When I was about 11, my Uncle Don drove my cousin Karen and me to the movies. For some reason, we decided to walk back to their house when the movie was over. So when Uncle Don arrived to pick us up, we weren’t there. I can’t remember why we left without him, but I clearly remember what happened later that day.

We were sitting in the kitchen, and he very calmly came in. I can still see him: kind of slouched, his back leaned against the sink. He looked deflated. He talked for a while about pulling up to the theater and not seeing us, about how long he had been driving around trying to find us. He said he had been really worried and really scared.

I’m guessing our pre-teen faces were glazed over, because you could tell he didn’t think he was getting through to us. Then he stood up straight and jolted his right arm out in front of him. He took his left hand and karate-chopped right above his elbow.

“Imagine if someone cut off your arm right there,” he said with great passion. He had our attention. “Think of how you’d feel, how lost you’d feel because something just wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. And now life wouldn’t be the same.”

He said this slowly: “Can you imagine how sad you would be?” Then he took a dramatic pause and put his arm down.

“That’s how I felt when I couldn’t find you.”

He got us. We felt terrible, and apologized. There’s a really good chance we cried, and I assure you we never did anything like that again. My Uncle Don was a successful salesman his whole life, and he convinced us to buy what he was selling, which was how much he loved us.

Last month, this tormenting virus took my Uncle Don.

I watched his funeral live streamed on my computer, which just isn’t how it’s supposed to be done. I was never a big fan of viewings, but now I understand their purpose. I wanted to hug my cousins and talk about their dad. I wanted to remind Karen about that afternoon in the kitchen. And I wanted to honor my uncle by simply showing up – standing in line and staying at the funeral home for a while. I feel like when you live for 85 years, you expect that is how your story will end. You believe someone will sit alongside you when you pass, and people will grieve and pay their respects.

But that isn’t how Uncle Don’s story ended. So I would like to top off a life well lived by honoring him here. By letting you know what a kind man he was and how he had continued to make new friends well into his eighth decade. He played cards every week with a group of men from his apartment building. He only moved there a few years ago. He was easy to like.

We went to my Uncle Don and Aunt Joan’s house for a spaghetti dinner on the day after Christmas every year. As I got older, I started to enjoy that day more than the 25th. At Uncle Don’s house, everyone was relaxed. Holiday stress was gone. The food was delicious, the conversation was flowing, and the only goal of the night was to enjoy each other’s company. I was comfortable there. I felt welcomed, and again, loved.

My Uncle Don was known for singing funny songs with magician-like hand gestures. I know that is hard to understand, but it’s hard to explain. (If you were with me, I would sing you a few notes and you’d see.) He enjoyed having a good time and making people laugh. I think that is why he was so good in sales, he wanted to discover what made you happy and then make sure you got it. He was as friendly as a person could be, and he could make an immediate connection. Uncle Don learned the name of every waiter or waitress who ever served him. And he repeated it throughout the meal.

One of the things I’ve realized from this pandemic is the importance of rituals and traditions around death, which was something I was never all that comfortable with. Now I fully understand why dying deserves as much attention as living, and why it should be natural to celebrate someone’s life when they die. Uncle Don was a good man. His story is long and full and interesting. It just has this unusual ending. But maybe that is ok, because my Uncle Don’s life was filled with happiness. That’s the part of the story we’ll remember.

Read more Wide Awake here.

June 2020
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