Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Death and Living On

I know, such a melodramatic title.

The thing is, I lost a family member in the past few days and it happened fast. Three days ago I got an email announcing a diagnosis of brain cancer for an uncle who is mine by two marriages. He married into one family, the family of my grandma's second husband - also known as the only grandpa I remember. Complicated to describe, yes. Complicated addition to my life, no. 

He didn't live to experience the excessive trauma of cancer treatment. Instead, a couple of days after the first email, a blood clot found his brain and he went into a deep coma. One more day and the message was that the service was scheduled for... today. Fast. 

My heart aches for his immediate family. Even though I had only a handful of summers staying in his house, with his extremely smart and deadpan-humorous wife Rhoda, a couple of very clear memories put me into mourning with the rest of the family. 

Little me with my Grandma, Jay and Karen at their (and Rho and Herb's, Wendy and Ellen's) house.

He loved whales. He was a surgeon, a detailed, delicate, and powerful profession, and he cultivated a seemingly similar intricate knowledge of the lives of whales. He spoke of his time on a whale watching cruise with an engaged reverence and a child-like wonder, feelings I could share with him. Observing a sliver of a whale's life, so large and slow and contemplative - and whales peeking up at humans are curious and contemplative - put a profound weight, a steadying weight, into how Herb experienced being alive on this world.

I'm not a chess player. But Herb tried with me. I don't know what I was thinking about (probably boys) when the photo above was taken, but I do remember that Herb took the time, slowed me down, and tried. That may have been the only time I wasn't thinking about boys during that stage of my life. I was intimidated but not uncomfortable. 

Herb could have been intimidating. An older, distant-uncle-figure can easily be intimidating. But he wasn't. He had a dry, wry sense of humor that let you know that he was being playful. He had a slow, thoughtful look, often over a pair of glasses, like a grey whale rolling onto its side and eyeing your little boat on the surface of life, that said, 'yeeeeeessss, I'm listening.' 

And I can only hope that he knew what he was doing and where he was going over the last week of his life. If anyone can know, he would have. We will all follow him eventually, and I envy him his avoidance of cancer treatment, if not his abrupt, painful departure. He left a family that knew they were regarded with sincerity and loved for their honest selves. I miss all you in Toronto right now. 

At Rho and Herb's cottage, eating snacks with Grandpa Joe

Hold on to one another while you can, team. Don't be afraid to live.