I’m currently sitting in the airport waiting on a delayed flight for a trip I could have never imagined taking when I was a child. I mean, it makes sense, but for most of us we don’t let our minds go certain places until we have to. For this trip, I had to.
I was flying with my two girls and wife along with a dozen or so other family members coming from different directions to see my Uncle Roy who is dying of bone cancer. And, while he is 90, he’s a man I’ve known my whole life to be as full of life and intellect and spirit as anyone you could find. A scientist, an educator, a father, grandfather, and great grandfather. I hadn’t seen him in years and wasn’t really sure what to expect. He’s been suffering a long time. But, when I sat down next to him, I found it was only his body failing. The rest was intact.
“I picked up your book again, Creating Matters. I read it when you first wrote it. I can’t help but believe there is a connection to God there.” He continued talking about Biblical creation and we made the connection to where and how I had found myself and my connection to a higher power through the process of creating art, how while I do not go to church, my family and I go to the mountains – our way of touching transcendence.
I immediately had a feeling this was how he used to talk with my Dad. I sensed in my gut he may have been hoping for this conversation with me. But, I wasn’t sure what his stamina was at this point, so I just let it all sink in as things fell quiet between us – the splashes and laughs of my kids playing in the pool resurging to their rightful place in the moment.
“I used to love to talk with your Dad.” He stated quietly as he broke back into the moment without looking at me. He continued matter-of-factly and affirmatively. “I know I’m not long for this life now. I loved your Dad. I know I’m going to get to talk to him again soon.” He gazed forward almost longingly.
These words would be powerful regardless. But, Uncle Roy is a steadfast Christian. Something my Dad was not, and something I can only imagine they spent countless hours discussing and debating – a scientist and an attorney, a Christian and a victim of the Church’s guilt and judgment. My Dad died by suicide 17 years ago.
I know this part of my family loved my Dad for who he was in life and death. But, I never asked what any of them thought religiously about his suicide. I honestly never considered it. I didn’t really care.
So, it was surprising how much Uncle Roy’s words about talking with my Dad again hit me. They landed as more than words. They were a pronouncement, a proclamation. They were a beautiful and hopeful vision of two very different lives and spirits rejoining in an afterlife to continue their conversation – probably, in part, about whether or not there’s an afterlife.
The weekend was a joy and a celebration with cousins I’d grown up with but rarely see, with their children, and with the child of one of their children – the great grandchild, the great nephew, four generations together. A two-year-old for all of us to love and dote on as we wittingly or unwittingly sought to hold on to life and light despite the cause for our gathering.
It’s only been a matter of months since we also said farewell to another dearly loved uncle, Uncle Ty, of the same generation, who added an accountant’s perspective to the dialogues of the attorney and the scientist.
I’d visited Uncle Ty just months before. And, it was the last time.
This is 47 years old, I guess. This is the generational shift. This is the cost of a lifetime of joy and love and connection (and the invariable dose of dysfunction) with a big family. The fortune. The pain I must reframe and reposition in relation to the size of the gift.
I’d already broken down in tears before it was time to go to the airport and had mostly regrouped with the love and hugs and kindness of my daughter. She gave me strength. She gave me grounding. She made me feel better as I deal with losing my past. She and her sister are my ultimate present and future.
But, then there’s still that moment. It’s finally time to go to the airport. Which means you line up with other family members at the foot of the wheelchair to give a hug that everyone knows is the last time.
The moment starts to consume me. Its potency is magnified by the mutual recognition. And as I leaned over to hug Uncle Roy, I wasn’t sure how long I could contain myself. I was just trying to hold on long enough to get my sunglasses back on and get out the door where I would feel free to lose it again.
“I love you.” I whispered haltingly to my uncle.
“BUTT PASTE!!!” A tiny but loud voice came shattering through the moment.
The great grandchild and 2-year-old had been enjoying a new audience during the weekend. He’d been saying “butt paste” for two days and getting a laugh from all ages and directions. But, this one he brought with conviction, louder than he’d said it all weekend, an exultation for all to witness! A call to the altar of life.
It was the youngest spirit in the room reminding us – “Hey! I’m here. You’re still here! Butt paste!”
And, it continues. A life that is so much more than us and so much bigger than we can conceive. A spirit that connects us, came before us, and lives after us. An energy that can lift us and break us and lift us again. A life so wondrous that it begs for an afterlife, but still grounds and humbles us with butt paste.
I hope Uncle Roy tells my Dad about butt paste. He’ll think it’s hilarious.