Archive for October, 2015

What We Remember

This past weekend I made a trip to Virginia to see my uncle. Let’s just be clear about his condition. Hospice is now coming by regularly and there are two types of cancer that have taken residence in his body. He and I have spoken on the phone a few times but it had been too long since an in-person visit had been made. I drove over from West Virginia and my cousin drove down from New York City. Those types of visits are never easy, but they are always good. And here’s the thing—we are all dying really….at some point. But I’m sure none of us know how we will really react when we realize that our time is drawing to a close sooner than later. That’s our prerogative. But to be in the presence of someone who has come to acceptance with this realization can be a beautiful thing.

And that’s where my uncle seems to be. He told us that he had accepted his condition because he knew he had lived a full life. He told us this with tears in his eyes—the only tears that we saw from him during the entire weekend. That moment in itself is one that I will always remember and it brings me comfort. However, the story that preceded this statement is the more important part of this little piece.

My uncle was unfortunate enough to come of legal fighting age during the time of the Vietnam War. Like many young men his age, he was sent halfway across the world to get his first taste of adulthood. It’s not something that he really ever talked about. I’m sure that’s not uncommon among vets of that war. I have no doubt of the atrocities he must have seen in his time over there. But as we sat in his living room, at the base of the Blue Ridge Parkway, with the leaves turning beautiful colors all around us, he told us a very different story.

During his time in Vietnam, my uncle happened across a monastery and was invited inside. The other people that were with him would not go in because they thought it must be a trap. Nevertheless, my uncle went inside where he had lunch with the servants and then spent the entire afternoon with the head monk, a young man who was the same age as he.

My uncle didn’t expand on what happened during that visit as two men from warring countries sat across from each other in a moment of peace. He didn’t talk about the mysterious workings of the universe that put two men of the same age in such different situations. He didn’t talk about what the visit really meant to him. But fifty years later, he still remembered that moment and it is the story of Vietnam that he chose to leave with me and my cousin. And in the next breath, he spoke of his lack of regrets and his full life.

It took a full day for me to process this part of my visit with my uncle. And then what I came up with is this: he took what must have been a really tough part of his life and found this beautiful moment to bring forth from it. That is nothing short of amazing. He could have chosen to bring forth the resentment, the anger, and the pain of his experiences fighting in Vietnam. He could have blamed this war for anything else that had gone wrong in his life. He could have used a bunch of if-only’s and coulda-beens. He could have shaken his fist at the sky and cried that he wasn’t given a fair chance in this life.

Instead he sat there, fully aware and honest with himself about his condition, and told us of this moment of beauty. And it wasn’t just to paint a pretty picture for his two nieces sitting in front of him. It wasn’t for our comfort. No, no……it was for his. He took what could have been a mess of rubble and hurt and uncovered the beautiful jewel of the human experience that lay within it.

I believe that maybe the capacity to do so was due to the fact that he was at a point in his life in which he had to make hard decisions…..and choosing to find beauty in rubble is a very hard decision. But are you ready for this? It’s a decision that we all can make consciously even if our time here on earth is far from over. We don’t have to wait. We can look at that icky part of our history, be it a part that happened 20 years ago or 20 minutes ago and we can look for the shard of beauty that lies within it. Those if-onlys and coulda-beens are much easier things to go to. Trust me, I’ve gone to them a thousand times. And we could take that part of our lives that aren’t so pretty and gleaming and hold them up like a badge and say to the world ‘this is my hurt, and I choose to carry it with me forever.’ Or we can dig in the rubble and maybe find this little itty bitty part in that mess that shines and hold onto it for all we are worth. Perhaps it’s a valuable lesson that we learned, maybe in heartbreak we discovered how big our hearts actually were, or possibly when someone hurt us, someone else stepped in to help us. I don’t know….all of our stories are a little bit different. This whole human experience thing? It just means that we are all dying, but before we do so, we are going to live out this crazy existence, this storyline. All I’m saying is—maybe we don’t have to wait until the final chapter to find the beauty in the rubble.

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