(Thanks, Uncle Richard, for letting me use your picture!)
The last couple of weeks haven’t been pleasant for my family, and they’ve felt more like months. We lost a loved one–my great uncle (“Uncle Toy”)–to cancer. When I talked to him on his 75th birthday in July and asked how he was doing, he said, “This is one of the best days I’ve had.” I’m glad, since it was his last.
Cancer is ugly.
Pancreatic cancer might be among the ugliest.
From the moment I received the phone call that the doctors had done all they could, my life has been different. My outlook on life (and death) has been different, although I can’t quite say if it’s positive or negative.
My initial impulse that Tuesday afternoon (September 17) was to leave work and go to the hospital, but I hesitated for a while, thinking I probably had a few hours and could wait until the end of my work day. Then I thought I could wait for Lee to get off work later that evening. After the second phone call, though, I left, hoping and praying that I would make it in time. I did.
And everything that followed changed me.
Somewhere between all the “I love yous” (I know for sure that he left this earth knowing he was loved; I can’t begin to count the number of times those words were spoken to him in the hospital room just in the few hours I was there), the sniffling, the sobbing, and the empty silence, he kept trying to talk, overriding the heavy doses of medication intended to make him as comfortable as possible. His words were barely a whisper, and it became almost impossible to understand him. After several attempts, I was able to decipher…and he confirmed: He wanted everyone in the room to know that “everything’s alright.” Based on what it initially sounded like before I told him to only try one word at a time, I’m convinced that he was actually trying to say, “Everything’s gonna be alright,” but either way, he nodded his head when I asked if that’s what he wanted us to know. After hearing that (and shedding more tears), I went back and sat down near the foot of the bed.
But he wasn’t finished.
“Remember. Only one word at a time. Just tell me the first word.”
“You’re fine? You want us to know that you’re fine?”
He remained with us for about 18 more hours (which was actually much longer than the doctors expected). Although I knew it was coming, I was devastated when I received the phone call the next morning.
There’s just something about knowing someone will be there. Uncle Toy was just a “staple” in our family; you knew he would always be “there” (and smiling). In fact, the morning of his funeral, my mom was trying to figure out who would be riding in which of the family cars, and as she named people, she said, “…Meeka, Aunt Nancy, Uncle Toy…” Then reality hit. And as she said at his graveside later that day:
“I can’t believe we’re just never going to see him again.”
It just doesn’t seem real, and although what she said is true to a certain extent, there is some comfort in knowing that none of this is permanent.
My grandfather was asked to share a reflection at the funeral (September 23). I shed even more tears during his segment, as I realized (in that moment and when he spoke at the viewing the day before) how much I miss him. I miss his soft-spoken, simple way of speaking/teaching and captivating an audience. He’s always had an incredible gift of offering comfort during difficult times.
He told the story of a young man who rode the bus home from work every day and got off at a seemingly odd place: at a cemetery, with no houses or shelter of any kind in sight. The other passengers wondered where he could be going, until one day they discovered that just beyond, there was a stunningly beautiful subdivision that wasn’t visible from the main road. But in order to get there, one had to pass through the cemetery. The journey isn’t pretty, but once you get there…
He didn’t even need to finish the sentence (I’m not even sure he ever did). The mood/energy in the church was absolutely indescribable.
It wasn’t until last week that I finally realized why this ordeal has been so difficult. “Bouncing back” took much longer than I expected, and I was far more emotional than I ever thought I’d be. This whole thing was so ugly. I’ve never watched someone die. And while I’ve lost family members, I’ve never been this close to everything: the grief, the planning, just the sheer ugliness of it all.
And it shook me.
I had conversations I don’t remember, gave responses with messages I never intended. I just wasn’t quite present. I was shaken.
I felt myself coming out of the fog this past week. I finally stopped crying on a daily basis, and I’m starting to see at least part of the silver lining. More on that later.
Until then, we love you, Uncle Toy. Missing you…