After learning about human physiology in medical school, I started to get the creeping feeling that there was no possible way that that a human being could actually develop correctly. There were way too many processes in the development of a fragile human being that could go wrong. Being able to come out fully and correctly formed seemed impossible. Thankfully, after seeing hundreds of normal newborns in the nursery I have dissuaded myself of this notion and realized that while the process of forming a human is infinitely complex, more often than not things go according to plan.
Unfortunately, I have shed one sense of fatalism for another. Two weeks ago I lost another family member, another uncle. It was my mom’s oldest brother and my godfather. Worst of all, it was totally unexpected. With my Uncle Jim and my Uncle Pat both passing away in the past few months, I have become exquisitely aware that any one that I love can be taken away at any moment.
So then the question is, what to do about that feeling? It seems a bit trite to just say “Live each moment like your last” and “Make sure you tell people that you love them as much as you can”. But while they are nice sentiments, I also worry that they are unsustainable. Human nature is such that we get very bored once something becomes routine and we move on to something else. In fact this is something that is hardwired into our brains. The human brain is so good as a information gathering machine that it has sophisticated mechanisms for essentially ignoring unchanging background noise.
I also worry that both of those activities actually have the potential to make things worse instead of better. By becoming routine and automatic, these activities risk losing their specialness and meaning and instead becoming empty reflexes.
So then what are we supposed to do? How should those of us who have been left behind in our imperfect world by loved ones? There must be some way for us to not just cope but to thrive, otherwise the darkness of our own human frailty will keep us under its pessimistic pall. As I thing back of the all the memories I have of my Uncle Jim, trying to make sense of it all. I continue to come back to the last time I saw him. So maybe, if there is anything that I learned from the life of my uncle upon his untimely passing, then maybe it is this. Look for and relish the small joys in life.
The last day that I saw Uncle Jim was your typical, beautiful summer day in Door County, Wisconsin. The sun was bright and warm, the sky was a bright, peaceful blue only occasionally besmirched by a wispy white cloud. It was the last full day of the annual Sieracki summer trip to Door County and there were so many things to, but so little time to do it. Like so many other days that week, and so many days in years gone by, we were going to go to the beach.
We didn’t have to go to the beach that morning. I had an offer to squeeze in one final round of vacation golf. There were shops that had yet to be visited and a bike ride through the state park that might have to wait for next year. Plus, with vacation soon coming to a close, it would have been understandable to avoid getting another set of clothes sandy and gross. It could have been easy to find a reason to not go to the beach that day.
But to the beach we went and it was quickly apparent that we made the right decision. As described earlier, the day was postcard perfect. Plus, we quickly discovered that my Uncle Jim and his family was there. With a pontoon boat. What more could we ask for.
Uncle Jim didn’t have to let us on the boat that day. It was already full of members of his own family and I am sure they had a plan of their own for the day that did not include us. But being ever the family man and always in favor of some good fun, Uncle Jim was more than happy to have a few extra visitors to his rented boat.
I have no idea how much time we spent on the boat that day. It could have been 3 minutes or it could have been 3 hours. It was timeless the way that all perfect moments are timeless. Amelia was seated in the captain’s seat pretending to steer the boat. Hannah was busy jumping off the back of the boat into the water, playing with one of my cousins. Susie and I were catching up with the rest of Uncle Jim’s family that we had not talked with in awhile. At one point, we were all startled by the loud honking of the boat’s horn. Somehow, Amelia had figured out how to honk the horn and she was thoroughly impressed by her ability to make such noise and garner so much attention.
Through it all, there was my uncle. Taking in the scene, beaming and excited by the presence of his family and his extended family. I am sure that he and I had talked for a bit about something or other, but that didn’t really matter. We were all there and we were all present, taking in the moment. Being together. At some point, we had to go and end that day’s adventure. Hannah was a bit sad that she didn’t get to spend more time in the captain’s chair, but Uncle Jim said that next year we would all come back and do this again and he would make Hannah the captain. Little did we know that next year would not be exactly the same.
Even before my uncle passed away, I had fond memories of that Friday in Door County. It was so simple and so perfect, so Door County and so Uncle Jim. Those feelings have only become stronger since that fateful day two weeks ago when he passed away. The amazing thing to me is that nothing earth-shattering happened that day. It was just family members being together and enjoying each others company on a beautiful day. In retrospect there are so many things that could have prevented that day from happening in that exact, perfect way. But to me, the biggest factor was that we were all present in the moment. We weren’t wishing we were somewhere else, thinking about what else we had to do that day or any of the other tasks that were piling up undone. We were present.
Looking back, being present is the perfect way to remember Uncle Jim, whether it was hosting his siblings’ families after the annual Christmas Eve party, sampling some Christmas cookies that were actually meant for the family dog, retelling stories of his younger days, graciously receiving a “cake” composed of White Castle sliders frosted with chocolate frosting and mustard piping on his 40th birthday or setting off comically large collections of fireworks at the 4th of July. The Captain always seemed to be present in the joy of the moment.
So maybe that is the best thing to take away from this unfortunate event. We should try to be more like Uncle Jim and be present. If you are waiting to only revel in the larger than life moments, you are going to be missing out on a lot of beauty. Take advantage of the small moments, the hidden moments, the simple moments. Be present. And whether with us or looking down on us from above, The Captain will be smiling. And he will be present.