As a self-employed twenty-something bachelor, I’ve had the flexibility over the last 5 or 6 years to accompany my grandparents on their annual vacation down to Mexico. The arrangement is pretty simple: I cover the cost of my ticket and my food while I’m there, and they provide me with a room in their villa.
There have been a couple of years where even this greatly discounted deal has been a stretch for me financially, but I’ve always made it work for the simple reason that my grandparents are getting older and I never know the last time I’ll see them.
I joined them again back in February, and this time it was the three of us plus my brother Liam and my uncle, Fr. David. In years past I’ve been in the bad habit of spending a significant portion of the mornings with my face buried in my laptop or phone, trying to pass the hours until the afternoon beach volleyball game. This year, however, I decided to make a concerted effort to spend some quality time with my family.
I ended up getting to have deliberate sit-downs with all of them. I learned about my brother’s decision to attend college seminary, I heard stories of my grandpa’s long journey to meet my grandmother, I laughed as my grandma related memories of growing up in Mexico, and I found out that my uncle was going to have a bone marrow transplant in the coming months. Overall, it was a very enjoyable 6-day trip. I even got a tan out of it.
Fast forward to May, and we find out that there had been a complication with my uncle’s transplant. He had developed a bacterial infection, and had no immune system to fight it. Days turned into weeks, and he kept fighting…but then on June 6th I got the text.
“The hospital just called to say David passed away. He went into cardiac arrest. They said it was quick.”
I got the text right after pulling into the driveway of a buddy’s house, and I just sat there. It didn’t feel real. It still doesn’t. It was only a couple of months ago that I was sitting on the beach with Uncle David. He was so…joyful. Happy. Funny. Alive.
I keep imagining that I’ll just see him again at my sister’s wedding, which he’s obviously going to celebrate, like he did for my brother or my cousin. Or at Thanksgiving, where he’ll provide us with a private mass at whatever time we want. Or in Mexico next year. Or on Words with Friends. He’s not gone. He can’t be. He’s too big for death. Too vivacious. Too charismatic. Too alive.
I remember a couple of years back realizing that no one I knew well had passed away yet. I still had (and still have) all four grandparents, so the only thing that came close was when my great aunt passed away…but she was 93, and that’s different.
Then I lost my uncle Rob to cancer in July of 2018. And now this.
It’s got me thinking a lot about death. What it means. How to process it. The worst ways to die, and the best. I think a sudden accident would be the worst – there’s no time for the person to set their house in order, so to speak, and no time for the loved ones to prepare. On the other hand, at least with something like cancer you have time to say your goodbyes. I got to fly out to California to say goodbye to Uncle Rob. That didn’t make his death less painful, but it was better than nothing.
But you know what’s beautiful? My last memories of Uncle David are phenomenal.
I can’t really recall ever having had a long conversation between just the two of us, but back in February we had not one, but two. We talked about how he wanted to go to the Oberammergau Passion Play in Germany this summer. How he had been using Duolingo to brush up on his German, his 3rd language…or 4th, depending on how you count it. We talked about some of the struggles he had had with some of the things happening within his congregation. How he had grown as a person and a priest because of them. How he could count on one hand the number of days he had missed mass, and how most of those involved crossing the international date line. We talked at length about his medical condition, something to do with bone marrow. He gave me all of the ins and outs, inadvertently displaying his unparalleled intelligence and memory by describing it using every. single. Latin. name.
But it wasn’t just the conversations. One of the nights there was a Mexican Fiesta on the beach, full bar included. Uncle David drank to the point of levity, and he was hilarious. He started to poke fun at the cacophonous performance by singing along with the musicians, but purposely loud and out of tune, often crossing deliberately into wailing. He would make snide remarks about the show, and it was all Liam and I could do to keep ourselves from dying of laughter.
In fact, one of my fondest memories of that vacation was when, about an hour or so after he had told me about his upcoming transplant, I began to explain to my grandparents how I had some sort of low-grade fever that I couldn’t seem to shake. Uncle David interrupted good-humoredly:
“Excuse me? Being sick is my thing. You don’t get to complain about you being sick. Find your own thing.”
Everyone laughed. I think that’s the thing I’m going to miss the most – his amazing sense of humor. Uncle David had a way of making everyone in the room happier.
But that’s not my fondest memory.
My fondest memory of that vacation is when we said goodbye. Both Uncle David and Liam had to fly out a day early, so we said our goodbyes in the villa. I gave him a hug, and he held on a little longer and a little tighter than usual. I remember it vividly, because that was the moment that I realized the bone marrow thing was serious. That he wasn’t sure if this was the last time he was going to get to say goodbye. That if it was, he wanted to make it memorable.
Well Uncle David, you succeeded. I’m never going to forget that last week we got to spend together, or the last time we said goodbye. Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule for that vacation, and for taking time out of that vacation to spend with me. Those are memories that will literally last forever.
Life is short. So, so short. My uncle Rob was 54. Uncle David was 55. I’ve always kind of assumed I would be like my grandparents and make it well into my 80s at least. But maybe not. I’ll be 28 in August – if I’m like my uncles, I’m already halfway there. If I’m like countless others, it could be sooner. Which reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Steve Jobs:
Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Almost everything–all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure–these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.Steve Jobs
The passing of my uncle has reminded me that I need to fervently dedicate myself to the things that are important today. That I can’t bank on 10 years from now, or this summer, or even tomorrow. That I’m not going to remember the score of a beach volleyball game down in Mexico, but I will remember talking to my uncle for hours. The relationships we build and cultivate with the people we love – those are the things that matter most.
Uncle David, thank you for being such a clear example of that. I’m going to miss you. As Desmond from LOST would say, I’ll see you in another life.