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Life Gets in the Way of … Well, Life

May 26, 2011

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 sister Debbie and my Uncle Michael - I apologize for the quality of the pictures

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.

My sister Debbie, my Uncle Michael, and me. Yes, I was a chunky kid. Keep the jokes to yourself 🙂

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.

48 Comments leave one →
  1. May 26, 2011 9:01 am

    I’m so sorry to hear about your uncle. You and your family are in my thoughts.

    I’m glad that your coworker is going to be ok!

    • 2NewBeginnings permalink
      May 26, 2011 9:10 am

      I am sorry for your loss. I think if there is anything you can learn or take from all of this and to honor your uncle, is to LIVE. Don’t be afraid of love again. Have the things that he couldn’t have. Enjoy your life and move on from heartache. I think you have realized this from reading the last part. Life isn’t easy and sadly there will be heartache, but we can’t let it stop us from living and finding the life we deserve. You will find who you are meant to be with, and one day you will have that wedding and I truly believe your uncle will be right there in spirit along side of your family. Glad to see you writing again.

      • 2NewBeginnings permalink
        May 26, 2011 9:12 am

        BTW, this reminds me of the Swan post. 🙂

        • June 1, 2011 11:19 pm

          Haha, I knew it reminded me of another post but I couldn’t remember which one! Because of you rcomment I added a line linking to Swans. Thanks for the reminder 🙂

      • June 1, 2011 11:21 pm

        I like your message here and I didn’t think of it this way, but my uncle didn’t really get a chance to live. Not the way he deserved, anyway, and not the way that most people are able to live. I think it would be a great way to pay honor to his memory to live – not just for me but for him too. Thanks so much for your comment and your insight (as always). Means a lot to me.

    • June 1, 2011 11:22 pm

      Thank you! And, I saw Becky today, and she’s already getting better. Life is full of miracles. Appreciate your thoughts.

  2. May 26, 2011 9:11 am

    Catherine, I am so sorry for your loss.

    Real life really does get in the way of life. And trust me, it’s not just you who feels that way. I’ve been selfish with my own life and realize when it’s too late. We really do need to appreciate the people we love today rather than putting it off until tomorrow.

    • June 1, 2011 11:19 pm

      Thanks, Amanalynn. Glad to hear I am not alone in this. All we can do is try to do better, right?

  3. May 26, 2011 10:12 am

    Thank you for reminding us how short life if and we need to tell and show the folks we love that we love them

    • June 1, 2011 11:16 pm

      Thank you for your comment. Life is really short, when you think about it. It’s flying by … and none of it matters if you don’t love people and treat them well. That’s what I think, anyway.

  4. May 26, 2011 10:16 am

    So sorry about your uncle- for his struggles especially. It sounds like he got dealt an awful hand but fought through it as best as any man could.

    I’m really glad Becky is ok.

    It’s good to appreciate people whilst there there, but so hard to remember to do xxx

    • June 1, 2011 11:15 pm

      Thanks, Harri. You are right, the hand he was dealt was miserable. I always wished things could have been different for him, and it’s hard for me to come to terms with how he could have been dealt the cards he did, but others are so much more fortunate. I just hope it’s all part of some master plan, because otherwise, it’s just not fair. You are right about it being hard to appreciate people while they are here. It’s worth reminding yourself every once in a while. Hopefully writing about it, for me, will help me remember 🙂

  5. natasha permalink
    May 26, 2011 10:20 am

    I carry the same guilt you do. I wish we had visited him more and had done more with him. I wish he had found love. I am thankful for our stepmother, Rike. So very thankful that she visited him regularly and brought him his favorite foods and has pizza parties with him. Because of her, his last year wasn’t spent alone.

    • June 1, 2011 11:12 pm

      I know you feel the same way I do. I’m so thankful for our stepmother as well, and finally had the chance to tell her the day of his funeral. Since we can’t change the past, we just have to do better with the other people in our lives. But, I know he loved us, I just hope he knew how much we loved him.

  6. May 26, 2011 10:51 am

    Catherine, I am so sorry for you and your family’s loss. Please don’t allow yourself to feel guilt over not *being there* enough. I am sure your uncle knew and felt the love toward him. You and your family are in my thoughts. And very happy to hear that your coworker will be fine. What a terrible two weeks for you! Stay the strong person you are. xoxox

    • June 1, 2011 11:11 pm

      Thanks for your thoughts. I’m trying to push down some of the guilt, and writing this post helped, but it’s still there. I’m afraid it always will be. But I think it serves a purpose – I certainly don’t want to feel this guilt about anyone else in my life. I’m determined to appreciate people while they are around – before it’s too late. I really appreciate your kind words.

  7. May 26, 2011 11:06 am

    What a beautiful, poignant post. My thoughts are with you, your family, your work community.

    Take this time to express compassion to those who you care about, but mostly, be compassionate with yourself.

    • June 1, 2011 11:09 pm

      Thank you (as always) KD. You are such a positive force in my life and I really appreciate it! Oh, and I totally owe you an email. Hoping for this weekend 🙂

  8. Kevin Waggoner permalink
    May 26, 2011 11:25 am

    So sorry to hear of your loss Catherine. Kevin T had told me last week about being down in Newport News for that. It reminds me of the struggle my own uncle went through with ALS which is often called Lou Gehrig’s disease. That was very hard to see someone who always wanted to work and do stuff being so debilitated like that. Hope you and your family are doing ok!

    • June 1, 2011 11:08 pm

      Thanks, Kevin, and sorry to hear you have gone through someone similiar. It is hard, especially with diseases like these, when there isn’t a whole lot you can do to help. There is such a feeling of helplessness about the whole thing. You’ve just got to do what you can and believe it’s enough, right? I appreciate your kind words.

  9. May 26, 2011 11:27 am

    Raw and heartbreaking post, Catherine. I know those feelings of losing someone and wanting a re-do of life with them, and I’m sorry you’re going through that now. I think you’ve found a pretty brilliant lesson in all of this, though. There is such a value in sharing your life with someone, and too many people don’t see the important of love until its too late. Big Hugs, lady!

    • June 1, 2011 11:07 pm

      Thanks, Tori. I really appreciate your support, and can’t tell you how much I agree about the value of sharing your life with someone. I saw someone accept a lifetime achievement award the other day, and in their acceptance speech, they thanked their husband, who supported them through thick and thin, and said, “because this is not just my career, it’s OUR career.” It was so beautiful and just another reminder that I want someone to feel that way about. And I think I deserve it.
      Also, as a side note, I feel awful that I’ve been so out of it lately that I haven’t been able to read your blog. I really enjoy it, I just haven’t had much time to breathe. I really look forward to catching up.

  10. Kelly permalink
    May 26, 2011 11:31 am

    I know exactly how you feel, and I am sorry for your loss. Just remember the good times that you had with him and know that he will always be angel in heaven looking down over and protecting you and your family.

    • June 1, 2011 11:05 pm

      Thanks, Kelly. I saw some of your Facebook posts this week and it does seem you know exactly what I’m feeling. I hope you are going to be OK too.

  11. May 26, 2011 11:42 am

    Beautiful post Catherine. I am sorry for your loss, but I am happy you have taken time to let it sink in and have come to the conclusions you came to. It’s important to take in the lessons life is offering in these moments, and to check in with what your truths are.

    • June 1, 2011 11:04 pm

      Thank you very much. I’m trying to remember these lessons – sometimes it’s easy to let them slip by and go back into the old habits, isn’t it?

  12. May 26, 2011 3:10 pm

    I am so sorry for your loss…and I can relate due to things going on in my life right now….thank you so much for such an important reminder.

    • June 1, 2011 10:54 pm

      Thanks, Melissa. I’m sorry to hear that you have similar things going on in your life and I’m sending positive thoughts your way.

  13. May 26, 2011 4:38 pm

    My deepest condolences on the passing of your uncle. Looking forward to a new chapter in the life and times of Catherine, a woman who now knows exactly what she wants.

  14. Deb permalink
    May 26, 2011 5:55 pm

    I swear you have to be one of the best writers in the world…Uncle Michael was the best, and it kills me that even at death I couldn’t attend the affair. He was a wonderful man, I feel honored to be loved by him. Just like you said he was never one to complain about what was going on. He was what every man should be. BTW great pics, I love them :o) And once again a wonderful blog, you should of been the one to write is obituary….I love you!!!!

    • June 1, 2011 10:53 pm

      Aww, thank you Deb. We really missed you at the funeral but I’m glad you were able to participate with your jacket and by text message :). Glad you like the pics, wish they’d come out clearer. I also wish I had more of him before he was sick, but I’m thankful for these. I love you too!

  15. Grey Goose, Dirty permalink
    May 26, 2011 8:07 pm

    Catherine, I just finished your beautiful post with tears in my eyes. I am so sorry about your Uncle’s passing. Death does make you look at things with an entirely new perspective.

    I know you’ll find that wonderful man to love you as you should be loved. We all deserve that. Hopefully we’ll all find it. ((hugs))

    • June 1, 2011 10:51 pm

      Grey Goose,
      Thank you for your kind words. I do hope we all find it – and I’m going to focus on believing we will.

  16. May 27, 2011 10:57 am

    John Lennon once said, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”

    Sometimes it takes a tragedy to make us realize that life is going on all around us. Losing a loved one is never easy and I wish you comfort. Your uncle was part of your family and part of you… he will live on in your memories. As your sort of neighbor up the road, let me know if there’s anything I can do for you.

    • June 1, 2011 10:51 pm

      Pammy Girl,
      Thank you so much. I really appreciate the offer. And, at some point, we should definitely do a blogger meet up in DC! We’re too close that it seems silly not to!

  17. May 27, 2011 4:10 pm

    Beautifully written, as usual. 🙂

  18. May 27, 2011 6:41 pm

    So sorry to hear about your loss. Try to think of it this way – it would be awful if he died and didn’t have people like you to feel the sorrow of it.

    You said you want to be loved and you certainly deserve it. You are a caring, thoughtful person and I am sure you will find the right person. Keep yourself open to possibility – and also remember you are loved by many in your life already.

    • June 1, 2011 10:49 pm

      Workingtechmom…. “It would be awful if he died and didn’t have people like you to feel the sorrow of it.” That really moved me, and it meant a lot to me. Thank you so much. You are right, I do have a lot of love in my life… it’s just now that I’m realizing that I really want a true romantic love, someone to spend my life with. I hope I’ll find it.

  19. May 28, 2011 2:29 am

    I’m sorry you had to get such a hard dose of real life these past few weeks. It’s good to see you back, though, and I’m sure everyone understands your absence. 🙂

    Hope things are able to get back to normal soon….

    • June 1, 2011 10:48 pm

      Thanks, Dennis. It’s hard to explain, but the past several weeks have been really challenging. For the reasons I’ve discussed in this post but also for other reasons. I’m trying to get my footing back but it’s taking some time. I’ll get there 🙂

  20. May 31, 2011 10:49 pm

    Thanks all for your kind words and condolences. I really appreciate all your support. I’m sorry I haven’t replied earlier, I’ve been out of town since last Friday, and now my Internet is down. Life is impossible without the Internet! They say they are fixing it in the morning, so hopefully I’ll be back tomorrow night after work to reply to all your comments. I just wanted to take a second to say thank you – your words mean so much to me!

  21. June 1, 2011 9:29 am

    I don’t think there is anything you can write that won’t invoke emotion…not just emotion but the essence of exactly what you are feeling at that moment.

    • June 1, 2011 11:44 pm

      Thank you, Matthew 🙂 I just wanted to let you know I appreciate your understanding for cancelling our plans and really hope we’ll get another chance to meet up! Oh, and I really need to catch up on your blog. Sorry I’ve been out of it, but can’t wait to read what’s been up with you!


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