Thursday, July 12

life's value

In the two and a half years that I have been writing for this blog, I have not once forgotten to post. Delayed, avoided, taken a nap instead, yes, but never completely forgotten...until today.

To be fair, I have been in three different states in the past 48 hours. So that may be why, somewhere around 3pm today, I suddenly sat up and said, "Oh, it's Thursday!" So, here I am, metaphorical tail between my legs, ready to write. Thankfully, we are abysmally unprofessional around here and I have no editor to harass me about missing deadline. I probably should.

I do have a good excuse. I attended my uncle's funeral today. Uncle Wil is the first of my parents' siblings to leave this life for the next, but he too, had a good excuse. Diagnosed with Myotonic Dystrophy, his muscles have for years been slowly atrophying. After a bout with pneumonia and a heart attack this week, his family honored his stipulation to be removed from the ventilator that was helping him breathe. Several hours later, he stopped.

It's a sobering thought that even bringing air into our lungs is work. Sitting in the pews of the church, catching up with cousins, it was easy to forget. But in the last years of his life, Uncle Wil was a constant reminder that life is no given. To the less visibly dying, he was easy to pity, dragging oxygen behind him, struggling to grasp anything with his stiffening hands.

But those who remembered his way of living during the service spoke of a man who humbly took life as it came. He was the only one of his siblings to inherit a genetic sentence of disease, yet he rarely, if ever, complained. He hunted and played ball until he couldn't anymore, and then he enjoyed less active pastimes like gardening and watching Out of Order, an Amish reality television show (yes, this is a real show).

Listening to the story of his life, black mascara tears dripping down my cheeks, I recalled my own ingratitude when faced with illness. Yet, I have never had to carry a tank of air to keep breathing.

I remember a family gathering when I remarked, mostly to myself, "Now where did I put my shoes?" Only halfheartedly attempting to find them, I'd easily given up the search when Uncle Wil approached me, my shoes in his hand. He had overhead me and, without a word, proceeded to look for them.

I've often assumed it takes a highly enlightened Zen master to offer service to another when suffering. But my uncle was a farmer and quiet naturalist. In speech, he tended toward uncomfortable bluntness, but in heart, showed enviable kindness.

After reading countless memoirs, writing a book, and a considerable amount of journaling, I am still coming to terms with my limitations. I only hope to learn the kind of stoic acceptance that seemed to come naturally for my uncle. He seemed born with a certain grace that many of us never achieve. Perhaps that is why he was ready to leave this life after just 60 years.

In the Chicago O'Hare airport, I sat at a table in front of a businessman. He started a call on his cell almost as soon as he sat down, and was still on that call after he'd eaten half a salad. Staring vacantly, his mind appeared to be in a boardroom somewhere. When his main coarse arrived, he was on another handheld device and his second Coke. I had a terrible urge to walk over to his table, lean in to his ear, and ask, "Excuse me, sir, do you know you are alive?"

I needed that reminder this week. I am alive.