The Love of My Uncle
On Wednesday my Uncle Richard lost his painful fight against an unrelenting pancreatic cancer. He was 70.
Richard was happily wed to my mother’s sister Marie for 41 years. When I say happy I actually mean blissfully. They were the kind of couple who still held hands and kissed in front of strangers. Marry your best friend. This was what they taught me. I always held out hope that I could find the same.
My own father walked away before I was even born. My stepfather made it clear to my mom that he had no interest in helping her raise her kids. The only man who ever showed me love was Richard. He had two sons of his own, but always made me feel like I was the daughter he never had. Every time I walked through their door he would light up. “There she is”, he would say with a wide smile. “Maybe there was a mix up in the hospital,” my sister would tease. “You do look like David and Andrew.” I can’t say I didn’t often hope that was true.
When I was a kid I would spend vacations with Richard and Marie in Cape Cod. We would take long walks to the cove, have picnic lunches, and play dominoes until dark. When Marie would insist I eat maple syrup and water chestnuts (something I still refuse to eat) he would wait until she left the room and quickly eat them off my plate. When he would take my two boy cousins fishing he would let me tag along. We would wait until the sun was just about to set for the fish to take the bait. It was quiet and probably the first time I can remember feeling complete peace. We explored lighthouses and ate penny candy. We would read books and listen to classical music. It was the only time I ever went on a vacation. One summer before a big storm hit I wandered too far while swimming in the Atlantic Ocean and got pulled into the undertow. It was his loving arms that pulled me to safety.
He was an incredibly sweet man, the kind of man who would spend his free time volunteering at the Free Clinic his wife built or the school for disadvantages children where she was Chaplain. He never liked to talk too much about himself. He would rather listen about you. Happiness was being around his family. He worked for 40 years at WCAU Channel 10 in Philadelphia as the transmitter technician. He was an avid ham radio operator and the only person I have ever met who actually knew Morse code. He had a childlike love for trains. He would politely eat anything put in front of him. I never heard him say a bad word about anyone.
When I moved to Los Angeles in my 20s I was newly single, had yet to meet any friends, and was trying to somehow figure out how to pay my bills. I would write him letters and wonder if things would ever change for me. Would life ever get any easier? It would, he would say. I just needed to have faith. I could do anything.
So it is no surprise that the day I was married I chose him to walk me down the aisle. I can still remember the way he looked at me in my wedding dress. The twinkle in his eyes, the squeeze of his hand, and his warm words are something I could never possibly forget.
When I became a parent I really began to understand what an incredible gift he gave me. It takes an extraordinary person to love you like his or her own child. What every child wants and deserves is having someone tell them how special they are and how they matter in this world. He made me feel like I was spectacular.
While newly pregnant with my son I flew home to Philadelphia to meet my father for the first time. It was a long and painful day that ended well after midnight. He stayed up to make sure we got home safely. Even as adults with children of our own he worried about us. On the car ride back to the airport I sat and sobbed as he listened patiently and offered comfort. He was the closest I would ever come to the unconditional love of a father.
He kept pictures of my children and me in his office. He sent me beautiful letters and cards and would sometimes leave long voicemails.
Thanks for all the latest pictures from New Jersey. The prints we received today are wonderful. They will be displayed in a place where we can brag to all who view them. I don’t know whom the overweight gray haired old fellow is holding Mia but I think he needs a lot of time at the gym. Hence just in case I am the guilty party I have started spending some time at the local YMCA gym.
Hope all is well with Mia Dan and yourself.
Love as always,
Thanks for the heart melting Valentine picture. There is no doubt in my eye about their mom and dad. You do a fabulous job in making first class children.
Love to the entire family.
When we found out he was sick it was early in the summer. He had been having pain in his side that seemed to only get worse. By the time they found the cancer it was stage 4. How could a man who could hike a mountain suddenly have a dwindling amount of time left on Earth? So I packed up my family and headed back to Philadelphia to spend time alone with him. It was my intent to tell him just how much he meant to me. I wanted him to hold my new son. But when we reached their home he had already begun to lose weight and had difficulty swallowing food. It seemed like the last thing I needed to do was have a final conversation. What he needed, I thought, were moments of joy and hope. I would be back, I told him. But as the car left the driveway that night I knew it would probably be our last time together. I burned the image of him waving in my brain and on my heart.
I bought him an Ipad so I could send him videos of me with the kids sending words of encouragement. Maybe, I thought, if he can see and hear us it will help him get through the long days of treatments. But his treatments were only making him sicker. He wanted some quality of life. He watched David get married at City Hall in New York City. He enjoyed visits with friends, old and new. He spent much needed time with his sons and Marie at home. At one point he regained his appetite. But then he got sick again.
I explained to my daughter Mia that Uncle Richard was on his way to heaven. He would be with God soon. “He’s sad, mama”, she explained. So I asked her what he could do in heaven. “Oh, he can eat hot dogs.” I bet he could. “He can have treats with God.” Yes, that he could too. “And if God goes poop on the potty he gets an M&M”, she squealed while raising her hands in the air. Yes, that was true too.
But he couldn’t fight the cancer any longer. He wanted more time with us all, but his body wouldn’t let him.
And now each night we will walk past his picture on the landing in the stairwell where all our family pictures hang. Uncle Richard, I have and will always explain, will look after us. Because I know that his love will stay with me. Even as I write this with tears dripping from my cheeks and onto my laptop I feel warmth around me that can only be his arms.
He was an incredible man who will never be replaced.
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