I’ve just returned from another quick trip to California. Last week my father’s big brother and only sibling, passed away. It seemed important for me to join my parents in Sacramento to provide some sort of support. I did what I could…I stood by their sides, helped my mother in and out of cars, got flowers to take to the funeral home, took my father’s place when he said he wasn’t up to doing a reading during the service, snapped a picture when he was presented with the American flag that was draped upon my uncle’s casket. In stressful situations, give me a to-do list and I’m a happy girl. Well maybe happy isn’t the best choice of words in this situation, but at least I felt useful.
It also seemed important for me to be there to represent my siblings in paying our collective respects to an uncle we all loved and admired. I loved my Uncle Jack because he was my uncle; my dad’s brother; family. He had a dry wit, and a good sense of humor, (just like my dad) and when he smiled his entire face joined in; his eyes curled upward just like the corners of his mouth. He was our family doctor when I was a kid. He poked me and my siblings more times than I can remember; he made house calls when one of us was burning up with a fever; he prescribed the antibiotics I took endlessly during my early adolescence for my chronic tonsillitis and he yanked those tonsils out once it was clear I wouldn’t be cured. Like my dad he could be ornery, and just as a smile engaged his entire face, he also wore a frown from forehead to chin. And he had that fabulous knack of making a person feel as though they are a very important person, worthy of being listened to, a joy to behold. Perhaps that ability accounts for his success and reputation as a doctor. Unfortunately, that was the capacity in which I knew him best. Once having my uncle as my doctor became too embarrassing I only saw him at weddings, an occasional holiday and the times he’d stop by our house to visit with my dad.
My uncle and his family lived directly across the Flint River from us, probably only a mile as the crow flies, in a house I always thought looked like a ski lodge; which was apropos for I remember their Christmas cards always included a family portrait taken on the top of some double diamond ski run, my uncle, aunt and three cousins all wearing really cool and fashionable ski wear. We grew up in close proximity, but miles apart in other ways. Fortunately my dad and my uncle remained on good terms all their lives. I think they really liked each other.
My uncle’s first marriage ended in divorce. In the early 80’s he married a woman with six children of her own. Soon after, they moved to California and purchased a house on a beautiful piece of land. My dad tells me that living in California had always been Uncle Jack’s dream. Once settled there, he resumed his medical practice, worked on his ranch and became step-dad to his new wife’s children. He seemed happy in his new life. I visited him there ten or so years ago. He and my dad took my son for a walk in the hills around his home. I saw again how he could make a person feel special.
Families can be messy; people who love one another don’t always act like it; people who are wounded sometimes find solace in unhealthy things and acceptance with unhealthy individuals. Sometimes people who love one another say things they wish they hadn’t. In the last few months there has been some drama in my uncle’s family. I don’t know details. It was likely drama of an historical nature that bubbled and boiled, and then, due to the stress of my uncle’s failing health, spilled over ultimately involving my father. My dad tried his best to be a good brother, providing advice, trying not to violate boundaries, but it saddens him to know that, in the end, things weren’t resolved between Uncle Jack and his children. A part of me likes to think my siblings and I will never find ourselves bathing in bad blood, but perhaps we’ve never been tested. I spent some time with my one cousin who made the trip to his father’s funeral. We had a lifetime of catching up to do. It was good to see him and get to know him as an adult. But I could see how isolated he felt in his grief. There were moments when my heart ached for him. Sometimes the family drama distracted me from my purpose and I had to refocus my attention to my parents and their needs. On our way out of town my dad said he was grateful for the care, the love, the honor and the respect his brother was given in his last days. Uncle Jack’s step family did everything they could to honor his last wishes. And they were very kind to my dad and mom. In my mind the line between our families blurred. They aren’t blood relatives, but clearly they treated my uncle as I would have expected anyone to treat a beloved father. What makes a family? Is blood thicker than water? Can the two ever mix or are they like oil and water?I think it will take me a while to sort through the myriad of feelings I have resulting from the past few days. I’m doing a little yin/yang exercise to organize my thoughts and feelings…sorrow/joy, regret/delight, birth/death, forgiveness/blame…it’s amazing how one can recognize so many things at the same time. For now I’ll just wish my uncle a loving farewell.
John Alden Best, M.D.
November 11, 1922 - August 30, 2006
November 11, 1922 - August 30, 2006
And did you get what you wanted
from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved,
to feel myself beloved on the earth.