Time Runs Out

July 7, 2018: I called a friend  to talk about a common interest. His voice was quiet when he answered and I checked if this was a good time to visit or if he was with a client.

“I can’t talk well anymore,” he said. “I don’t have long to live.”

We hadn’t seen each other for a couple of months when he had shared with us that he experienced a couple of mysterious health incidents during the early winter that had left him feeling unlike himself. In late spring he was still trying to keep the situation under wraps from his employer which was difficult because his work is up front with clients during the design phase of projects. We were concerned, but assumed he would get stronger.

But he didn’t, and he won’t. His wife took over the phone conversation. Our friend was diagnosed quite recently with untreatable brain cancer and it is taking him quickly. She said they are limiting visitors to family. He wanted the phone back and told me that our friendship had meant a lot to him. We had a garbled last few sentences.

That’s the end.

We were supposed to talk about his writing project and a fundraiser for a nonprofit. And he’d tell a few good stories about his grandkids, kayak fishing, his wife’s garden and when he planned to retire.

Life goes on. His family is keeping vigil and we are cleaning the garage, going to the post office, talking about August and September plans. On any day someone is dying and someone is having the best day of their lives. No matter how many friends or family members we lose, the loss is always new because it has a different name.

 

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In memory of Joe who passed away July 28.  And Skye’s husband who also died in July. With warm thoughts for my first publisher who has begun hospice care. You will not be forgotten.

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Mom’s Inspiration

For years, my mom had a clipping stuck on her refrigerator with a magnet.

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Although it was in a semi-public place, the clipping was a private message for her, not a directive for the family and friends who might see it.

Mom knew she’d be in and out of the refrigerator numerous times a day. She probably hoped that by putting the clipping right there she’d be forced to notice it. At least once a day, she’d really see the words and be reminded of her intentions. Every day, she could rededicate herself to the effort of becoming her best self.

As a visitor, I saw it often but never thought too hard about it. They were her goals, not mine, and Mom wasn’t in the habit of preaching about her values or goals.

But when the clipping turned up in a box of Mom’s things that my sister had saved, I realized how much her example has influenced me. I, too, regularly rededicate myself to the effort of being my better self.

I make New Year’s resolutions (often the same ones about health and writing – they’re still good, because I frequently stray from my goals). Throughout the year, I also take stock and evaluate whether or not I’m living the life I want to live. For example, I might ask myself: Am I too bizzy with household tasks that don’t matter? Am I letting other people’s agendas overtake my own? Can I be more tolerant and easygoing and let go of irritation faster? Am I pushing myself creatively? And more.

My refrigerator is bare. Unlike Mom, I keep my resolutions and inspirations in journals or in the Notes app on my phone where I see them often. When I reread my intentions, I’m pleased to see that I’ve followed through on some. Others, not so much. But I’m easy with myself – effort counts. I’m a work in progress and I just need to keep trying.

Mom’s clipping lists five goals. I love that she circled the two that were most meaningful to her. As her daughter, I can tell you that most days, she nailed them.

The Nature of Being an Aunt

As a child, I didn’t think deeply about my aunts and uncles. They were a kindly presence at family gatherings, people who smiled at me, asked me about school, sent birthday cards, and gave me first communion and graduation gifts.

I recently saw my 10-year-old grand nephew. If pressed, he might recall that we had fun exploring a nearby creek and that I gave him Halloween candy, but I wouldn’t expect him to know more about me than that. I didn’t know much about my aunts and uncles when I was 10 years old either.

When I was a child, all I knew about Aunt Corinne was that she didn’t have children of her own, but she was fond of her nieces and nephews. She and Uncle Bob always gave us treats when we visited—cookies or candy from the stock Uncle Bob used in his vending machine business.

When I became a mother, I suddenly got it—I saw how much my brothers and sister cared about my children and in turn how much I cared about theirs. The connections between us are strong.

Aunts and uncles are part of a whole circle of people standing behind a child. We’re interested our nieces and nephews’ activities. We know this one is a sprinter, that one is good at hockey, another one loves theater. We’re concerned about their problems—this one got laid off or that one is going through a breakup. We’re pleased about their accomplishments—this one won a prize at school and that one is getting promoted at work.

When things are going well, we’re more in the background, but if something happened to one of our siblings, we’d come forward to help out.

Aunt CorinneI gained new appreciation for my aunts and uncles, especially Aunt Corinne, who would have been 90 on her birthday a few weeks ago. As an adult, I understood more about her life. She had systems for running her household and was meticulous about details. For example, her address book was always up to date and she kept her coupons in an organizer. She worked full-time as an office manager. I can imagine her as an organized and competent worker. She was also a sympathetic listener and seems like the sort of person who would have brought baked treats for her coworkers.

I’m glad I got to know her well enough to discover what we had in common—she liked NPR and cared about politics. She was funloving and always willing to go out to lunch, to a show, or to travel. She was as particular about coffee as I am. If it’s warmed over, we would rather skip it. Only when I was middle-aged, was I able to talk to her woman to woman. Then I could ask about her health or we could share insights and concerns about family members.

Because I live hours away from my nieces and nephews and don’t see them often, they don’t know me very well. They would probably be surprised at how much I know about them. But I’m observant. And your parents talk about you! My nieces and nephews may never know how much love and support their aunts and uncles have invested in them, but being a secret supporter is a pleasure. If our relationships deepen as we get older, that will be a gift, too.

Who knows? Maybe twenty years from now at some family gathering, my grand nephew and I will discuss politics or the books we’re reading!

Treasure

Before we went to Italy I photographed all the jewelry I’d really miss if it were stolen. Some of the pieces have street value, but most of them are keepsakes and their associations are what make them valuable. My childhood charm bracelet with the teeny orange crate. Mom’s matching sweater pins with the blue, rose and yellow rhinestones. A cameo necklace from my grandmother. Rings from my sister and my sons.

IMG_0447I felt paranoid and silly, but took the photos anyhow. Two friends have had jewelry stolen while they were away from home. Because they didn’t have photos, their insurance companies couldn’t value the items and the police couldn’t identify the jewelry if they found the stolen property.

If my jewelry were stolen would I be comforted to get it back? Probably not. The simple joy in wearing the earrings, rings, and bracelets is that they’re pretty and I like thinking of the people who gave them to me. If they were returned to me after a theft, that event would distort my feelings about the pieces.

My impulse to treasure keepsakes is misplaced. Regardless of whether or not I possess the jewelry, I will have the memories of the occasions and the people who gave them to me.

What I really want is to protect what is irreplaceable. If only the police could show up at my door and return all of the people I lost last year: Mom, Aunt Corinne, Uncle Jim, and Uncle Rocky.

I am rich in memories but still making payments on how to accept impermanence and loss.

Lessons from a Life

This week, guest blogger and WordSister Brenda van Dyck continues our meditation on fatherhood.

Finally it happened. Father’s Day came and went, and instead of feeling sad, I was grateful. Every June in the eight years since my father died, I have met Father’s Day with dread; the day was an annual reminder of what I no longer had. But this year, I found myself thinking more of my five-year-old daughter and what my dad can still teach her.

My daughter, Shelby, was born three years after my dad died. He was 41 when I was born; I was 41 when I gave birth to my daughter. I think that’s as far as the similarities go. For him, I was the fourth child to come in the four-and-a-half years since my oldest sister was born (yes, that’s right, four kids in four-and-a-half years). For me, the birth of my only child was a much sought-after and anticipated event.

Brenda and Shelby

Brenda and Shelby

In the months after Shelby was born, I mourned the fact that she wouldn’t grow up with my dad around. He was grandfather to nine others before her, and in many ways, he was a better grandfather than father; without the responsibility of having to provide for his grandchildren, he was more relaxed, more playful, and more able to enjoy them without worry. She wouldn’t experience his sense of humor, gentle teasing, or steady presence.

Despite his absence, he can still teach her things.

My father was stubbornly stoic—a man of few words and even fewer expressions of emotion. He wasn’t one to give advice. But he taught me a lifetime’s worth of values, not from what he said, but from how he lived.

Here is what I think he would say to her.

Work hard and you will overcome your struggles. There is always value in working hard. My father only had a primary school education; he grew up in a village in Yugoslavia where more schooling than the basic Catholic primary school was a luxury that few families could afford. When he was 14, my father moved to Munich during World War II to become a baker’s apprentice. In the long trajectory of his life, he would live through the war, immigrate to another country, learn how to fix mainframe computers, and retire from a steady career working for Control Data. He made the American Dream his own.

You are not a victim of your circumstances. Despite what you witness, despite what you live through, know that you will live through it. My father didn’t like to talk about growing up poor or living through the war. He didn’t say much about his father, who died when my dad was 16. There was certainly a lot of pain in his life. And while he was not given to emotion or affection, the hard times of his life shaped him into a man who was strong and quietly compassionate.

Four kids in four-and-a-half years

Four kids in four-and-a-half years

Family is the glue that will keep you together. Family will help you keep perspective on what’s really important. My father’s immediate family, consisting of my dad’s parents, three brothers and two sisters, was broken up by poverty and war. After my father was about 12, the family never lived together again because of various circumstances. But when my father came to the United States, joining an aunt and uncle and their children in a small house in the east side of St. Paul, he finally experienced the family life he had longed for. It gave him the semblance of a normal life at last. He would go on to meet my mother and raise four children in a very conventional and blessedly uneventful way. And they created a solid footing for the next generation to come.

Don’t be a phony. If you are overly concerned with what people think of you rather than being a good person, you’ve got it wrong. My dad could always spot a phony, and he wasn’t shy about showing his disdain for those who spent more time trying to appear to be hot stuff rather than being authentic. He wasn’t impressed by wealth, and was even turned off by it, but he was more impressed with authenticity, kindness, and respect.

Parents love you the best way they know how and they aren’t perfect. They will disappoint you, hurt your feelings, and even fail you. Learn to forgive them for their shortcomings, because it will make you who you are. There are many things I wish my father had done differently. I wish he’d been more communicative and more nurturing for starters, but I know that he did the best he could. And what he did do in providing a stable home, was pretty darn good.

Be responsible and dependable. Do what you say you’re going to do and be the kind of person that people can count on. My father was reliably on time. If he said he would do something, he always followed through. I hope that I have inherited that quality from him.

Lastly and maybe most importantly, leave those around you better than when you found them. Through your love, your gifts, and your efforts, make this world better. Do right by your family and friends and the rewards will come back to you. This, in essence, was my dad’s life. It’s what he did for me, and it’s what he has enabled me to do for my daughter.

Brenda van Dyck is a writer and editor who lives in Minneapolis with her family. She writes memoir and essays, bolstered by her WordSisters since first joining the writing group ten years ago.