Heart and Soul

Tuesday, May 17, 2005


I have a very special cousin who lives in Kansas City. Throughout our lives the two of us have never been particularly close, due more to the distance between our homes than any other factor. So in an effort to become more connected, a few years ago we decided to regularly stay in touch, using e-mail as our steadfast communication form.

My cousin’s most recent e-mail started out in what has become our shared pattern. We apologize for the long lapse since our last correspondence and offer a litany of business and family obligations that always derail our best intentions. Then we generally launch into the latest batch of family news, which this time for my cousin included a rash of health problems suffered by her father, the most significant being the advancement of his Alzheimer’s.

In describing her father’s failing health, my cousin noted that once her dad’s physical condition stabilizes, he will be relocated from the hospital into a facility that specializes in Alzheimer care.

I stared at my cousin’s e-mail for a number of minutes, reading select passages time and again. With each review, I kept hoping that somehow her words would reveal a different message. That my brain would make a new order of her carefully scripted report that my uncle no longer recognizes his only daughter. That the whole thing was really my comprehension error, rather than her true-life reality.

Finally, I stopped reading and allowed my cousin’s words to incisively make their mark. Tears compassionately released the pain from my heart. Cherished memories comforted my soul. Images of my uncle surrounded me—summer days at Crystal Beach Amusement Park, backyard baseball games, twilight captures of magical lightening bugs, Buffalo Bills football games in sun, wind, rain and snow, Disney movies, silly jokes, joyous laughter, and, always, an ice cream cone along the way.

Yet more painful than recalling those special memories was the knowledge that the person who helped to create those moments that literally defined my life…the person who knew about my family -where we came from, how we evolved and even where we might be going…that one-of-a-kind person has been lost. No matter that his body is still with us, the part of my Uncle that made him so uniquely "him" is now locked away in a prison without keys and with no guardian aside from his own territorially defensive mind.

It was only a year ago that my husband and I traveled to Virginia to visit my uncle. He had just moved out of his home of over fifty years into a senior residence. As an aging widower it was a needed move. It was the right move. It was also a painful move, clearing out the home where he and his "bride" Irene once raised their three children and become pillars of the community, he as the town Recreation Director and she as the ultimate "mom" to all who knew her.
I can still see him, sitting in that small apartment that newly defined his shrinking world. He was surrounded by objects that held the greatest meaning—photos of his family, sports trophies, team memorabilia, and a baseball game playing on TV. After his family, sports were my uncle’s life. No matter how confused he might become over names and faces, he always knew the box scores and the latest Buffalo Bill’s updates.

As I re-focused my attention to my cousin’s e-mail, I briefly considered getting in the car and driving to see my uncle. Yet the words embedded on the computer screen before me clearly indicated that my trip would be largely in vain. So instead, I went in search of a blank journal long ago tucked away. Bringing it to my desk, I carefully folded back the cover and on the first page inscribed my uncle’s name. Underneath I began transferring my carefully preserved memories of this special man.

Since then, little by little, I have been working to recreate my life experiences with my uncle so that all of our family who know and love him, and those who never will have that chance, will be able to recall and experience his kind and caring ways.

While I can’t change the evolution of life I can at least create a lasting memory of a man who in his own quiet way always made an effort to better the life of every child he knew… including me.
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