Several years ago, my mother was laid off. She had been expecting it for months, and the prospect had been very stressful. So when it happened, she told me via the telephone. I remember it well. I was an airman, I think, and I was driving to my barracks from the mini-Nex on Coronado. Mother was relieved and happy enough. Of course the apprehension was worse than the reality, but it wasn’t just that. She was also happy because my brother was only a baby then, and she knew that on her death bed someday she would be happier to look back on years spent caring for him, rather than on years spent hustling to keep a job that it turns out she didn’t really need or enjoy. I’ve never forgotten that.
I’ve also never forgotten the final years of my uncle’s life. Uncle Pete was intelligent, often astringent, deeply feeling, proud, and… well, what can I say? Can I sum up a man with a few words? I haven’t even got a photograph of him, though I can remember his face and his clothes and the smell of his house. He was the most skilled musician I’ve ever known, as well as the most passionate about music–and he had the best taste in music. Over the years, I have listened to some things I know he would have scoffed at. After a while the novelty wears away, and I scoff at them too; then I return to the blues and rock ‘n’ roll my uncle taught me.
The entire time I knew Uncle Pete, he wasn’t in the best of health. He was older than my parents. He was a Vietnam veteran (a fact I believe he hated). He had ingested and inhaled plenty of drugs and alcohol. He had had plenty of recreational injuries, too, from motorcycling and things like that. Whatever happened in those last few months, I don’t know precisely, but I won’t even write what details I do know because I must still respect his pride, dignity, and privacy. What I do know is that I had wanted to spend more time with him, had said I would, and had wanted to tell him without prompting that I loved him. He was my uncle, and I do still love him like I love my parents; indeed I could not be who I am if it hadn’t been for him and his damn near incessant criticism! No, he didn’t denigrate anybody (though he did sometimes accuse people of committing, “assholisms”). He criticized poor logic and hypocrisy. He pointed out where my manners needed improvement. He explained things about my parents that were puzzling and troubling to me, and he showed me sympathy. Perhaps most of all, he treated me like he had high expectations for me.
And I truly hope he did. And one of my greatest hopes still is that if he were alive he would be pleased with my progress. Of course if he were alive, probably he would have stopped speaking to me when I joined the military. Or perhaps not. Perhaps he’d have understood better than I did why it was an extremely pragmatic decision.
Regardless, circumstances were such that I did not get to see him as often as I wished to in his final days. I never spontaneously told him I loved him either. This requires explanation. Though I did fear my uncle at times (he was the tallest member of my family and went nowhere without his German Shepherd, which is frightening for a small child), I always loved him. I felt that he doubted this, however. The only time I had ever said, “I love you,” was in response to him saying it to me; and he hinted at least once that he thought I was saying it because I felt obligated to. That was not the case, however, and I don’t recall ever telling someone I loved them without having felt it genuinely, to this day. So when he became gravely ill, I intended to make sure he knew that I really did love him. But I never did! When he died, I felt regret for the first time. I still feel it, of course. But I learned from this, I hope, and anyway, I have never forgotten about it.
So how do we spend our time? What is worth while? Shall I one day look back on how well I asserted myself? Will I be glad that I found a political party I really fit in with? Will identity matter? Will labels, categories, denominations, or titles matter then? I suspect not. I suspect what matters in the end of our lives is what matters at the beginning. Before we are taught to love acclaim and wealth, to be proud and serious and ambitious, we are silly, honest, and innocent little children. We say what we think, and ask for what we want. What matters the very most is Mom and Dad, or perhaps Grandma or someone else; what matters is the human relationships we are part of. Why should the middle of our lives be different? Why should we spend our vigorous and independent days looking for answers to questions that ultimately do not matter? Intellectual and emotional exercise is great, but like physical exercise, must not be taken too far.
We must not define ourselves too narrowly, for three reasons. Firstly, if we define ourselves too narrowly, we limit ourselves on an individual basis. Secondly, if we define ourselves too narrowly, we limit ourselves socially; that is, we miss out on relationships with people who do not define themselves the same way (or whom we misread). Finally, when we spend too much time defining ‘who we really are,’–whether that has to do with sexual preference, movie preference, profession, religion, ethnicity, or favorite sport–we are really wasting time. By all means, seek to know yourself. Seek to understand yourself. Your likes, your dislikes, and the reasons behind them, if there are any. Look humbly at your own best points, and soberly at your worst. But do not be excessive in all of this. You have a son who needs you, or an uncle: spend more of your time with them.