Can’t Really Prepare for Death

Uncle Mike Uncle Mike

By Kathy P. Behan

My uncle died suddenly. Though he was overweight, a smoker and in his early 70s, I never seriously contemplated the possibility of losing him. He was just… always there.

My uncle was really important to me. Part of the reason was that we spent so much time together. When we were little we lived in the same apartment building as he did. But even after we moved into a house in the ‘burbs, we’d continue to see him and my grandmother every weekend until we were in high school.

He loved my sisters and me without question or qualification. He took enormous pleasure in even our most modest accomplishments and would regale his friends — and anyone else he could strong arm — into listening to our latest coups. For instance, when one of my children was born, Uncle Mike had his friends at the bank flash this news on their electronic billboard. Another time, he sent away for the Phi Beta Kappa key that my older sister never wanted, so he could have it mounted in his office. He also kept my younger sister’s college mug from an Ivy League school (“Buy me the biggest one they got!”) prominently displayed.

Uncle Mike was an amazing character, full of fun and good humor. I can never think of him without smiling. He taught me how to play (and cheat at) poker, how to swallow a pill (even though he couldn’t) and how to prepare some of his favorite dishes (he was a fabulous cook). He’d insist that we always wear life preservers on his boat, though in fact, he was the only one who couldn’t swim. And while I was away at college, even though he wasn’t big on letter-writing, he would faithfully send me quick notes, and enclosed in each, a $20 bill.

He was an avid photographer and took an endless stream of photographs of myself and my siblings. When we’d grumble about having to rebrush our hair, or to stop what we were doing for a Kodak moment, he’d say, “You may complain now, but you’ll thank me later.”

After he moved to North Carolina and our regular visits were replaced by regular phone calls, I looked forward to our weekly conversations (even though he’d somehow always manage to call during dinner). He continued to call me regularly even when we lived in Europe. I could always count on his phone calls, but more importantly, I could also count on him. That is, until two days after his 71st birthday, when he died of a massive heart attack.

I don’t think that you can ever really be prepared for death. Even after a prolonged illness, there’s always shock, and the full meaning of the loss comes afterward. But sudden death brings its own unique brand of torture. There’s so much unfinished business. You don’t get to say goodbye, or to apologize for all the real or imagined slights that build up over a lifetime. You’re haunted by all you did, and didn’t do. You want one more chance to set the record straight. To tell the person how much you appreciated and loved them. To say these words not to everyone else, but directly to the person you love.

More than anything else though, I just want to see my Uncle Mike one more time. I feel his loss most around holidays, or when I come across something that reminds me of him. My birthday was really hard for me this year because for the first time ever I celebrated it without hearing Uncle Mike sing me a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday.”

By conventional standards Uncle Mike probably wouldn’t have been considered very successful. He never made or had a lot of money, or a job that he could brag about. In the most important sense though, my uncle truly was a success. He made his mark on the people around him. He had family and friends who truly loved him, and miss him very much now that he’s gone.

Kathy P. Behan, a mother of three, is a nationally published freelance writer, specializing in health and family issues.

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