Life Gets in the Way of … Well, Life
Sometimes you are so busy living your life – “your life” defined as your normal, day-to-day routine – that it hits you like a ton of bricks when “real life” comes a knocking.
You are working on the weekly conference report at the office, eating lunch at your normal time, running your average five minutes late for every single place you need to be, avoiding the gym after work (promising you’ll go tomorrow), when your phone rings. And suddenly a normal day in “your life” is not so normal anymore.
And then you go weeks without posting on your blog. You don’t return emails. You don’t read the book you started or watch the movie you rented. Your leftover Thai food sits in the fridge untouched, even though a day earlier you couldn’t wait to finish it off.
About two weeks ago, I was having a pretty normal day at work when my phone rang at around 3 p.m. It was my Dad.
I knew immediately it wouldn’t be good. Unexpected phone calls from parents during the workday are never good news.
“Michael died today,” my father said, quietly crying. Michael being my Uncle Michael, my godfather, and the only member of my father’s family that I could remember ever being in my life. He was the oldest brother of four, who courageously led the entire family out of desolate poverty in Maine to find work and a new life in Boston. He was a successful accountant who, some years, made Christmas possible for our family by bringing gifts my parents couldn’t afford. My Uncle Michael had struggled for years with multiple sclerosis, which deteriorated both his body and his mind from when he was diagnosed in his early 20s in Vietnam to when he died, alone in nursing home in Newport News. He spent most of his life struggling with the debilitating disease, and never had the opportunity to find love, marry or have any children.
My uncle loved horse racing and Lean Cuisine meals, Winston cigarettes and the Redskins. He was an avid reader of the Washington Post (especially the funnies) and never missed Jeopardy or Wheel of Fortune. On Sundays, he would talk to you on the phone for hours and hours, alone in his one-bedroom condo in Washington, D.C. He never complained about his illness or even asked for help, so much so that when my family returned from living in Germany for eight years and we went to visit him for the first time, we were astonished by how bad his condition had become and the squalor in which he was living. He struggled to walk, much less clean the apartment or fix the toilet which had overflowed all over the bathroom apparently weeks ago. Cockroaches had taken over the entire condo, and my uncle hardly even noticed their presence. I will never forget being nine years old, sitting on the couch, my knees up against my chest, and watching as my uncle put on shoes to go to Red Lobster for dinner (his favorite). As his slipped his socked feet into the shoes, you could hear the cockroaches crunch inside the shoes – and my uncle didn’t even bat an eye.
I don’t tell you any of this to gross you out (although it was quite disgusting), but to give you a snapshot of the struggles in my Uncle Michael’s life, and share with you how terrible of a disease multiple sclerosis can be. After this incident, we helped clean up his condo and arranged for nurses to help take care of him, which helped my uncle get through the next dozen or so years. Eventually, when he was too far gone to live alone (even with a nurse), we moved him to a nursing home near my father’s house.
I’m ashamed to say that, as a family, we didn’t visit my uncle enough, especially when he was living in D.C. We didn’t spend enough time with him or show him how much he meant to us. We called, and visited a few times a year, but there were always so many compelling reasons why we didn’t visit more. I was busy with school. It was summer and we were going to the lake every weekend. I was broke and couldn’t afford the gas up to D.C. The holidays would be here soon, and we’d go then. And, maybe the biggest reason was that it was terribly difficult to see him in such a poor condition. Every visit he was slightly worse, and every visit we felt increasingly guilty because we didn’t do more, that we couldn’t do more for him.
When I got engaged, I called my uncle to tell him about the wedding. Luckily, I got him on a pretty lucid day. “I’m marrying the guy that drove you back up to D.C. a few Thanksgivings ago, Uncle Michael,” I said. “I would love if you could come. We’ll figure out a way to get you there.”
“I’d love to be there,” he responded. His response was a miracle in itself, because usually he just talked, talked, talked. And you just listened. But this time, he listened to my important news, and responded. Sadly, he was ever able to attend my wedding.
The phone call from my father at 3 p.m. Wednesday, May 11, shouldn’t have been a surprise. Uncle Michael was sick as long as I could remember. But, somehow, I was shocked. He had always been so sick that it was just the normal state of being. I didn’t expect him to suddenly be gone. There would be no more chances to try to make up for not being there enough for him in years past. No more chances to somehow try to make up for the unfair cards he was dealt in life.
A week later, I’m back into the normal routine at work, and my phone rang again in the middle of the day. My close friend and coworker Becky’s husband was calling me. He has never called me. I knew immediately it wasn’t good.
“Becky’s been in a serious car accident,” he said. “I’m on the way to the hospital now, but I wanted to tell you since she won’t be into work.”
Again, there’s “real life” getting in the way of life. In a second, everything can change. All those things that you wanted to say, wanted to do, may no longer be possible. A new reality may become your life.
After several hours of anxiety, we found that while it was a terrible accident, Becky was going to be OK, with some broken ribs and cuts but nothing life-threatening. Our entire office, and I’m sure her husband, breathed a collective sigh of relief.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about these two events, my uncle’s death and Becky’s scary car accident. They have both really affected me the past two weeks, and I didn’t want to post about some random topic on this blog until I was able to work out my feelings about these events and write about them.
I’ve come to a couple of conclusions. First of all, I want to appreciate and respect the people in my life right now. Not tomorrow, or the next day, when I have time to visit them and show them the attention and love they deserve. This is not a new lesson for me, but this incident was a good reminder. And I don’t want to let guilt over my past actions keep me from doing the right thing now. For years, I wasn’t the niece I should have been to my Uncle Michael. I like to think I made up for it a bit at the end, but the fact is, I shouldn’t have waited so long. And when I heard about Becky’s accident and my mind jumped to the worst possible outcomes, it occurred to me that I had never told her what an amazing mother, wife, coworker, friend and woman I think she is. I’m glad I had the chance to do so.
Seeing my uncle die alone, without any romantic love for decades; and then seeing the pure love, worry and fear in John’s eyes after Becky’s accident, something became very clear to me. I want to be loved. I want to be cared for. I want a partner to share my life with, to stand by my side, to worry about me as I worry about them. The past several months I’ve been feeling very jaded. I’ve been feeling like I don’t even know if I want to find the right person for me. Like maybe it’s not even worth the hassle of possibly getting hurt again. But I want to find it. I need to find it. I deserve the kind of love I had for my ex fiancé and I don’t want to be afraid to find it anymore.
Now is the time to love the people in your life … tomorrow may be too late.