Friday, February 04, 2011

Death of a Loved-One Sparks Introspection and Wonder

My Uncle Al, 77, passed away on January 26 after two months of fighting side effects from a “uniquely effective, but uniquely toxic” medication, Amiodarone. Amiodarone is an antiarrhythmic medication that affects the rhythm of heartbeats. He was hospitalized for weeks (including over the Christmas holiday) then transferred to rehab as his health seemed to improve, but eventually found himself back in the hospital sicker than before. In the end, his quickly deteriorating condition, aggravated by internal bleeding in his lungs, was more than his body and spirit could bear.

Once notified of his passing, I started discussing travel arrangements with my sister Barbara who lives in New Jersey, too, and we booked flights for last Saturday from Newark International to Dayton, Ohio. Barbara secured a rental car at Dayton International and she, her four-year-old-daughter, Alexa, and I drove to Cincinnati to stay with our other sister, Karen, and her family. Mom and Dad arrived the next day, so Karen had a full house (she had insisted we all stay at her home).

We drove to Centerville together on Sunday afternoon to attend the visitation. A look of pleasant surprise lit up my cousin Tracy’s face the moment we walked in the room. He, his brother, Mike, and their mother, Aunt Addie, had no idea that Barbara and I would be flying in from New Jersey. I wasn’t sure I would be able to go due to the price of flights as well as possible inclement weather, but both the transportation and weather gods pulled it off without a hitch.

Both days, Sunday for the visitation at the funeral home, and Monday for the funeral at the church and the military internment at Dayton National Cemetery was quite emotional, especially moments when I witnessed my aunt and my cousins and their families shedding tears. Uncle Al was a gentle and compassionate man. I can’t recall him ever raising his voice. Growing up, all the cousins on my dad’s side of the family were very close. Each Easter when Grandma Lucy was still alive, we would gather together for an early dinner and afterwards play a game of kickball or softball; later, my dad would get out his guitar and all us kids would sing along while he played.

This past weekend further reinforced how extremely blessed I am, not only to have my immediate family, but also my extended one. What an amazing group of people. All this made me think of the complete randomness of my even being on this planet at this exact point in time; it sparked many thoughts about evolution.

How the Earth Was Made is one of my favorite History Channel shows – I bought the two- hour DVD a couple years ago, I liked it so much. 4.5 billion years is the generally agreed-upon age of the Earth by the scientific community. This is what they refer to as “deep time.” As I watched it last week (the History Channel aired it again), I started contemplating the concept of time, especially how it only exists once we arrive on this planet, or rather, once we are conscious of it. Think about the billions of years that have transpired before those of us currently living on this planet arrived. It’s awe-inspiring.

I know that my wonderful life is in large part due to the time when and the place where I was born, as well as to the parents who created me. I was born in 1966, a white female, in a small town in the Midwestern United States, to loving parents who struggled day after day to make sure their children had a better life than they did. I hit the jackpot in life compared to so many others in this world.

What if I had been born in a place where hunger and disease are part of one's daily existence or in a country where women are property and honor killings are par for the course if they do anything to bring shame on their families – even if they are the victim of rape? How different my life would be. The trajectory of our lives is largely, though definitely not completely, determined by the circumstances in which we start out.

Life and death are inextricably linked. Once we are born, the only guarantee is that someday we will die. What we do between birth and death is what counts, regardless of our circumstances; yet, we can always offer compassion to those who are less fortunate than us. One of Uncle Al’s virtues was a kind, compassionate heart.

The silver lining of attending a funeral is that you get to reconnect with family. It’s a mournful occasion, yet a celebration of the deceased’s life. We will miss Uncle Al, but the memory of his smile and the positive way he touched all our lives will endure. I am a better person for knowing him. Rest in peace, Uncle Al.