A lot came to mind for the December blog post (meaningful writing you’ve given or received). Letters and emails from mentors/professors, notes left on windshields by my friends and poems written by my sophomore year prom date. None of these seemed to fit the bill, and honestly seemed a little self-serving. And embarrassing.
So over time, because I’m late on this post and had time to think about it, my thoughts wandered instead to a letter that I wrote to my grandpa, and a letter that I wrote to three of my younger cousins.
I began to think about the way that writing is a huge part of our lives, but it’s also a big part of what happens when our loved ones leave this earth, too.
When I was 13, my grandpa passed away. He was hiking with his hiking group and had a heart attack. He was 64.
Grandpa had hiked the entire Appalachian Trail and then some, driving his little pick up truck to all kinds of places, camping, collecting little things to bring home to my grandma. Not when he was a sprite 25 year old, but in his early 60s, after he retired. He had a decent-sized library in his house, on everything from Harry Truman to yoga (which he practiced weekly). He was a self-taught man, since he never finished high school – he moved around a lot as a kid. He absolutely loved to read, and was one of the smartest people I have ever known: so intelligent, but not boastful in the least, or pretentious (probably the result of his self-taught status). He was a Korean War veteran, who met my grandma through her brother. She thought he looked handsome in his uniform and liked that he was quiet and shy. He liked her high Polish cheekbones and dark hair. They had three girls and a boy. He and my grandma were ridiculously hard workers in order to support their children, and for years they only saw each other in passing when he worked the night shift at a factory. Grandpa was ahead of his time in the way that he viewed the world and the people in it. He was practicing yoga in the sixties before it was the big movement that it is now. His friends were African American and Asian during a time of intense racial prejudices. He practiced mediation, but was also not opposed to getting in the kiddie pool with his kids in the summer and chilling out with a beer. He listened to stuff like Johnny Cash and Roger Miller, but his real love was classical music. Beethoven’s 5th was one of his favorites. He was quiet, soft-spoken, but loved his children and grandchildren more than life itself. We used to read the Sunday comics together and watch Devils games. He took me to the Museum of Natural History and made me gazpacho. He had a huge garden in the backyard, with green beans, squash, lettuce, cucumbers – all kinds of deliciousness – and I would help him pick everything. A row of mint plants lined the garden, so we would chew some as we filled our baskets with the ingredients that would later be our lunch or dinner.
I wish that I knew him better, and that I told him how much I loved him.
When he passed, I wrote him a letter telling him so, and put it in his front pocket. We scattered his ashes on the top of the mountains where he was hiking, so he finished his hike. He made it to the top. And my words went with him.
I didn’t make the same mistake with my Uncle Dave. Before he passed at the age of 47 after a short battle with cancer, I told him, within the hospice walls, how much I loved him, how he was in many ways more of a father to me than my father, how he inspired me to work harder, to do better.
My uncle had three sons. He was a contractor, he owned his own tile company, and some of his work was even featured in Architectural Digest. His clients, and everyone he met, were his friends. He was a volunteer EMT in his small town in Northern NJ, and had a kind of bravery that few people possess in emergency situations. He was also a truly modern man: Uncle Dave was usually the one that cleaned the house and cooked dinner for the family. And man oh man was he an amazing cook. When he hosted holidays, I made sure to wear pants that were very loose, not just because of the food but also because he would frequently play “AM Gold” from the 70s, everything from Harry Nilsson to Sweet and after a few glasses of wine, would be dancing in a way that was thoroughly self-depricating, and I would often join in. He always made my favorite apps, bought special trays so that we would have our very own ginormous leftover containers, and would ask you if you had enough to eat about six times throughout the day. It didn’t matter if you said yes, he was feeding you more. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anyone work so hard. He usually worked 60 hour weeks (of hard labor, not a desk job: he was in excellent shape because he was lifting 50 lb. spackle buckets on the reg and ate very healthy), and still managed to find time to spend with his sons and volunteering. His sons were his world, and he was an amazing father, and he passed the idea of giving back to them: they often (and still do) served at soup kitchens during the holidays. A couple of years before he passed, we started a routine where he would call me during the week after dinnertime, and we’d chat about life. I’ll never forget those conversations and the wisdom that he shared with me about all sorts of things. He was a cynical man, but had no sharp edges. He was full of love, humility, energy and sweat. He allowed his actions to speak for him.
I have never been so scared in my life, as when I watched him, the healthiest, strongest person I had ever known, fight cancer and lose.
But when he passed, I took his wisdom and his love with me forever. I was about to turn 30, and his passing changed my life forever, for the better. It was a huge part of the reason that I decided to go back to school and get my Master’s degree. If you dislike something, remove yourself from it. If you love it, pursue it. Life is too short to not do what makes you feel good, accomplished, and alive. His passing taught me that the things many people waste their time on, the negativity, the anger, judging and criticizing others to gain some sense of security or control – dwelling and bathing in those feelings – is just a shame. A real shame. I try my best to follow his example, which I can sum up very simply: help others.
I felt it was important to tell his sons, my cousins, (then 15, 13, and 11) about the man that was their father, my uncle. I felt that telling them would not do it justice. I express myself better through writing. I also wanted to give them something that they could keep forever. So I sat down and wrote everything I could remember, everything I knew about my uncle. I ended up writing many, many pages over several days. I’m sure that by now, that envelope and the pages within are worn beyond measure. And that gives me some sense of comfort, but more importantly, I hope it gives them a fuller picture of their dad, a beautiful human being.
A few weeks after he passed, my mom received an email from someone they had gone to high school with, who saw the notice of his passing in the newspaper. This person, someone she did not know, told her how they remembered my uncle as someone that would make everyone laugh, who would readily help others no matter how much it required of him, and how he just made everyone feel special. Another piece of writing, another piece of light in the darkness.
Writing can be a way to help someone stay here, just a little bit longer. To say what couldn’t be said when they were here, right in front of you. And there’s a lesson and a warning there. Writing is a beautiful way of creating. But it is not a substitute for what we have here, now, in front of each of us. People that we love.
Writing serves many purposes, but it is not a substitute for telling someone how you feel, face to face, using your voice, your eyes, your touch. If you’re lucky enough to love someone or many someones, tell them often. Show them often.
Uncle Dave had this quote on his refrigerator: “Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities have crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense” (Emerson).
When he passed away, I took that down in my journal as a way remember him, and my grandpa, and what they taught me. They taught me impermanence, of course, but they also taught me about serenity and nonsense, and the vast difference between the two. I know that they’re so proud of me – which unfortunately sounds like a trite thing to say when someone passes, but it’s not. They are proud of me, and they are proud of me for being proud of myself, too. Neither of them were perfect, of course, and neither am I – far from it. But that’s the point, isn’t it? It’s what we choose to see and celebrate.
You have a choice each day to sow love or discord. It’s really so incredibly easy, when you think about it.
In honor of 70s AM radio, here’s something you might hear at my uncle’s house on any given holiday (from 1972): I Can See Clearly Now, Johnny Nash.
You can roll your eyes. You can find fault in just about anything. You can work to demean people and their choices, and live a life of ego and exceptional cynicism, competition, superiority, condescension, etc. etc….
But I hope that you choose love, and that you let your heart speak and show it whenever possible.