Goodbye, Uncle Dennis: Lessons Learned from a Life Well Lived

Two Sundays ago, my husband’s Uncle Dennis passed away. The death came suddenly, unannounced by any previous illness or medical condition. A shock.

The 3rd of 10 children, and the eldest boy, Dennis was the first to pass on. That is a different sort of shock, when your own generation starts to die. The remaining siblings look at each other and think, “Who’s next?”

Dennis was a man who never complained at hard work, and who would show up on the doorstep of anyone who needed help. When I heard the phrase “salt of the earth” I thought of him.

He wasn’t a perfect man, as he would readily admit, but strove to be better every day. Religion was his strength. Farming was his passion. Family was his life. His death has left a huge hole in many people’s lives, but left all of us with essential lessons:

Live your truth. Own your mistakes. Make amends as best you can. Work hard. And most of all, in word and deed, love the people you call family.

Because you never know when this time will be the last time.

Good-bye to Cousin Warren

My folks were supposed to spend Easter with cousin Warren and his family, but a week prior he emailed and cancelled, saying he was having side effects from chemotherapy. He closed the email with a cheery, “There’s always next year.”

Warren died on Easter Sunday 2016.

Warren was the younger son of my great-uncle Ed and great-aunt Marge, as well as a husband, brother, father of four, grandfather of four, and friend to many.

Warren was my dad’s first cousin. When they were kids, they saw quite a bit of each other as the families spent time together. The Christmas the boys all got tin trumpets is a favorite family story. As the families aged, they saw less of each other as everyone went their own way.

When I was a very small child and my great-grandmother still lived, the 3 branches of the Warren family gathered together for holidays. When great-grandmother moved to a nursing home, those gatherings ceased and we rarely saw each other as time and distance took its toll.

In the past few years, the Warren family cousins have reconnected. The deaths of Aunt Clare, Uncle Ed, and Aunt Marge (the last of that generation) within a few years of each other seemed to bring the need for family and the awareness of our own mortality to the forefront.

I have seen Warren several times over the past few years, and what I remember most was his smile. Like his parents, he had an unfailing positivity, a cheerful attitude, and a generous spirit. His warmth filled the room, and he had a knack for giving you his undivided attention even in a crowd.

Warren is my father’s first cousin, making me his first cousin once removed. Nevertheless, we connected over genealogy. Warren’s mother Marge was the last surviving Warren Sister, and she had inherited all the family errata. Warren painstakingly went through the boxes of paper and pictures and came out with gems—photos of ancestors back to the Civil War, ancestors we never had photos of before. He also had batches of photos of my great-grandparents, as well as some papers such as letters and deeds. He handed all of them to me, since I am the family historian.

It is always wrenching to lose a family member, but especially so when you feel like you are just getting to know them. I will always remember his laugh, his intelligence, and the genuine joy in his face when we would meet.

Godspeed, Warren. We will miss you.

Goodbye to Uncle Bill

This past weekend we lost my Uncle Bill suddenly. Although he had some health issues, his death at that moment was unexpected and devastating. We will all miss the generous, jovial man who was husband, father, brother, and uncle to a family that loved him dearly.

You always knew when my Uncle Bill walked into a room. He was a big man, physically, but that wasn’t the reason you noticed him. Uncle Bill’s warm voice flooded a room, his ready smile and quick laughter lit up the space, and his hand reaching out to greet everyone brought joy with it.

My Uncle Bill was a people person. He never met a person he didn’t want to know. He would talk to anyone and everyone he met. He would charm the ladies and pal around with the men. Within minutes of meeting someone, he would know their life story. He defined the word “extrovert.”

He got along so well with people because he had a strong sense of empathy. He was always quick to offer help to those in need. He would share whatever he had with people who had less. He would be there for people when they needed someone to talk to or just someone to care. This is why he was so passionate about his work with the band cadets at Valley Forge Military Academy—he wanted them all to succeed in life.

My uncle’s own life, like most of ours, was not free of setbacks. But the thing about my uncle is, his setbacks did not define him. He picked right up and kept on striving, kept on trying, kept on working hard and honestly in order to reach for his dream. That takes a lot of courage, to keep going when times get hard. But I think the thing that sustained him through any disappointments was knowing that his loving wife and children stood beside him always. To Uncle Bill, his FAMILY was his ultimate success, and the rest was just window dressing.

Family meant a great deal to my uncle. My memories of family get-togethers always feature Uncle Bill’s booming voice—and his stories. Who could forget his stories? My uncle was a born story-teller. He would have us all laughing so hard we couldn’t breathe, and tears would stream down our faces. We all knew that his stories “evolved” over time, and that they had their share of “enhancements”, but that was part of the fun—and the heart of the story always remained the same.

In the end, I think what defined my uncle best was his heart. His empathy, his courage, his laughter, and his love all poured out of his huge heart. He was a generous, kind man who spread warmth and goodwill in a world that needs many more people like him.

I have no doubt that he introduced himself to everyone in line while waiting at the Pearly Gates. I can see him now, recruiting angels into the Celestial Band. I can hear him talking to Moses, and saying, “Don’t worry about all those years lost in the desert, Moses. My infamous driving shortcuts never worked out very well, either.” Most of all, I can see him hugging his mother and father, sitting down to a huge family dinner with them and all our ancestors, and regaling them with stories of what we’ve been up to down here on Earth while they were in Heaven.

Uncle Bill lived life fully. He would want those left behind to do the same, not to let his passing stop their joy. We can honor him by reaching out to others, even if it’s just a smile for the cashier at the store or meeting someone’s gaze as you pass in the street. Uncle Bill’s gift was in making everyone feel like they mattered, like someone really saw them, really heard them. Our divided world needs more people like him who reach out and say, “We’re all human, we all matter, and we all have worth.”

So think about how you can make a difference in your own life. Think about where you will go from here. Think about your own dreams and how you will reach them. After you’ve thought long and hard, answer the deeply philosophical question that was Uncle Bill’s trademark: “What’s the pla-ha-haan?”

Then go out and do it.

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