We didn't know what to expect, except that it would be different. The last time we visited with my uncle was at my aunt's funeral, some six, maybe seven, years ago. She was not the one who was supposed to die. Her disposition was perpetually sunny, and she managed to live each moment fully, without complaint. At 60 she took up rollerblading around the small island of Coronado. By age 70 she biked daily around the island on her old three-speed, ringing her bell and waving to neighbors. When her odometer turned milestones of 500 and 1,000 miles she'd celebrate by inviting over friends for a gourmet feast she prepared.
My uncle always was quick to smile, but had an edgy sense of humor that sometimes carried a sting. Sarcasm could be laced with anger, especially when exacerbated by a couple of martinis.
My aunt brushed off most of the comments, choosing instead to maintain a spirit of kindness. Not a pushover of any sort, she managed to rise to the level of vice president for a national food company in an age when women in business were a rarity. But I don't recall stress being part of her vocabulary. He too was successful, able to retire early, retreating to his chair for a daily dose of news programs, leaving him to bemoan generally the state of affairs in our country - from one decade to the next.
So it was quite a surprise when her heart stopped first. I was mad because it certainly was not the order of events that I anticipated. My guess is my uncle too was angry, but at the time we merely tried to console each other as best we could. When our family said our good-byes after her funeral I was not certain when we'd meet again. Growing kids and half the country kept communication at the Christmas-card level during the intervening years. Guilt often would gnaw at my conscious, and we'd give serious thought to making the trip out west. But there always seemed to be some other pressing trip that topped our list during limited vacation time.
When this spring break rolled around, we groused about because we had no real plans. Then the San Diego fares dropped to levels not seen for some time, maybe six or seven years. It was then that my husband suggested we pick up and go.
My uncle represents the last tenuous tether to my mom's side of the family, and even though he's related by marriage, he still is part of our family. When we walked through the door of the first-floor condominium the lack of change was remarkable. Everything in the place seemed frozen in time, including the position of my uncle, firmly ensconced in his favorite chair. Except, well, he looked different from the last time we visited. At 82 his hearing had taken a turn for the worse, and mobility was limited to wheelchair nearby. While I remembered my uncle as an opinionated man, on this visit he refrained from any political diatribe, content instead to bask in the sun as we wheeled him around. He smiled often as the girls fought about who got to "drive" next. The topics of conversation centered on the weather and dinner plans, sprinkled with a few fond stories of my aunt and her antics.
I generally don't think that death happens for a reason, sometimes it just happens. But I do think my aunt was there in spirit during our visit. And I can't help but believe that even though her heart was the first to stop, that it still lingered in their home, and somehow had made its way into my uncle's spirit as well. One delightful difference I did not expect.
Cindy Bargell is an attorney and a mom who lives outside of Silverthorne with her husband and two daughters. She welcomes your comments at email@example.com.