My uncle passed away last night.
He wasn't quite seventy, and he died of a massive heart attack at his family's cabin. He had just retired last year after forty years of working on a fishing boat like a good Newfoundlander.
It wasn't his first brush. When I was ten he got into a horrible snowmobiling accident that resulted in metal plates in his face, and a massive loss of blood. It was also at the cabin. He has been bringing the snowmobile into park it and he hit a massive rock. Luckily someone from his daughter-in-law's family found him and he was rushed to the hospital. My family exhumed the rock and painted it, only to tuck it onto the porch in a characteristic show of gallows humour.
A few years later after the plates had been put in, and his face had healed as well as it would, he was electrocuted on a fishing boat. He had to be airlifted to St. John's, two hours from where is wife lived. Again, he pulled through. He was a quiet, stoic man and he always managed to pull through.
My dad was eight when his father died. Stomach cancer. Dad was a surprise baby, over a decade younger than his brother. Eight years younger than his closest sister. It was the mid-sixties and the last memory my dad has of my grandfather is the speech he made at my uncle's wedding. He married the girl he fell in love with when he was fourteen. They were teenagers, but older than their years. Shortly after the wedding my grandfather passed away and my uncle became the eldest man in his family.
At my brothers wedding there was no bouquet toss. My sister in law decided to give the bouquet to the couple that had been together the longest. That couple was my Uncle and his wife. Fifty years of a hard life in a small town, of him going to sea, and her cleaning his wounds.
As they danced together, to their wedding song, there wasn't a dry eye in the house. My Uncle grasped my Aunt tightly and still after fifty years, looked at her like a smitten fourteen year old. I know people do it every day but I don't know what her life will be like now.
They existed for each other.
My Uncle was like a father to my dad. He was reserved, and witty, the first to tell you when you spelled something wrong. My dad was a shit disturber, set on seeing the world. He joined the navy at seventeen and never looked back, while my uncle hunkered down and became the figure head of the family. In a town where the families had been there from the 1750s, our name on placards and business, on gravestones and boats, he became an institution. He moved slow, whether from his accident or just his way, but talked fast. He had a cutting gaze, and a soft voice that could tell stories for hours.
He was our family historian. And in a town where the same families have been fishing and growing for over two hundred years this is as prestigious as it gets.
My dad and his brother are not that much alike. My dad is a joker, my uncle tempered him. My dad chokes on I love you sometimes, my uncle could wax poetic.
When I was twelve my Nanny died. She has cancer for six years. It happened two days after her birthday and I was at a slumber party at my friends'. I cried all night, and couldn't explain why.
My dad didn't say a word.
But for a year we would both wake up in the middle of the night, creep down to the living room and watch TV. Eventually I started sleeping through the night. Then a few months later he did too.
We didn't have words, we didn't have hugs. We had co-existing silence. But I got up every night for twelve whole months to let him know I love him.
Now I am across the country. Thousands of kilometres away and not enough money to make it home. I talked to him this morning, but we both knew that words aren't our thing. I told him I love him, he said he loved me too. I told him I wish I could be there, and he laughed a little and said he knew.
But what do we do when words don't work? How do you help someone grieve across long distances?
I loved my uncle, I'll miss him dearly. But what I care about more than anything is my Dad. He doesn't deal well with grief. My parents' relationship doesn't deal well when he shuts down. It was his father he lost, just as much as it was his brother.
If this is the price I have to pay to make a life for myself, to make a living wage, to see the world, well these are the days I don't think its worth it.
I knew I had to move from my small East Coast town but I didn't expect to be gone for so long.
Four years, I have been away. Four years of birthdays, and Sunday dinners and board-game nights. Four years of being able to get up in the middle of the night to co-exist with my dad.
It made me think of home, and wonder why I am so far away. I feel its draw sometimes, but it fills me with such a deep melancholy because I know it isn't the place I left behind. And there it is, with one less person. One less defining spirit. A little bit less home.
I've been thinking about this comic by Kate Beaton a lot lately. It's a beautiful, sad thing. An encapsulation of what it is like to be a Maritimer today. That feeling of leaving and stepping out of a reality, only to have it go on without you, ticking along slowly and surely. People don't get younger as much as we want them to.
And despite the number of times you share moments of humbling love, it never seems like enough.
So how do we deal with grief when you don't have the warmth and noise of the people around you? How do you prop someone up when you aren't a family that deals in words? And how do you deal with the feeling that you should be home, that you're being selfish by staying away? Obviously there or no answers to these questions, but that doesn't stop them from popping into my head.
So if you're drinking run tonight, groupthink, think about my rum-running uncle. Lambs was his favourite, but if someone else was pouring it didn't really matter.
ETA: Thank you so much for the thoughts, and responses guys. I really appreciate groupthink on days like this. xoxox