Taking Flight

NOTE: This was first published in the "Writer's Block" in 2015, but feels just as relevant, as fresh, as it did two years ago. Always at this time of year, I think of him...


My favorite uncle lies dying in a VA hospital in California. He was able to eat at Thanksgiving time, but shortly after that the devil’s fist we call cancer started tightening its grip. The doctors are saying it’s a matter of days now and my uncle tells us, as he has all along, Don’t come. There’s nothing to be done. So we wait, digesting this request, this command, like we’ve just been cheated at cards but we don’t want to leave the table.

My dad is two years older than my uncle although they’ve been as twins all their lives. He prays fervidly the only way he knows how: Alone in the silent cathedrals of mountain forests, in chapels of roaring river canyons, and more recently, the sanctuary of his ice shack in the middle of a frozen lake.

For several months I’ve watched an elderly man walk his fuzzy little brown and black dog by our front parlor window each morning. Then last week while coming into town, I witnessed the same dog meet his ill-fated demise beneath the giant tires of a shiny new truck. The driver stopped and got out, briefly surmising the situation, which was quite obvious amid the widening pool of blood and the impossibly huge pile of innards spilling out in the street like greasy sausages.

As I drove by in the opposite lane, the driver climbed back into his truck and roared off. I looked at the mangled mass of what moments ago had been a beloved pet, and as bad as I felt for the dog, I felt worse for the man left behind, perfectly intact.

That’s really what makes death so difficult to contend with—getting our grip on that gaping void that remains in their absence. Figuring out how to store emptiness.

But life goes on, as it must. Every day we work and sleep and romp in striking proximity to death. It is perhaps the most unsettling reality of our human experience, but one we all share. Our cradles set to rock in the shadows of our coffins.

This morning I walked in the early morning light and the sunrise set the skiff of clouds beyond the church steeple aglow in a way that made something catch in my chest. I heard my uncle’s laugh and I was lifted to a place beyond grief, where realization lives of how fortunate we are to have people (and pets) in our life to whom it is so difficult to say goodbye.

My uncle wants no funeral, just a cremation with a request to have his ashes scattered from an airplane over a particular area in the southwest. He was a pilot, himself, in the remote regions of Alaska, off the coast of New Orleans to oil rigs in the Gulf, South America for a time. Soon he’ll lift off again, taking what, for those of us left with only a hole to hold, seems like an early departure.

But he always said he was happiest when flying.