Yesterday I had to say good bye to the nicest, kindest, handsomest, funniest man you’d ever hope to meet. And the most modest too. Don’t believe me? Ask anyone who ever met him, because he certainly told them at least twice. Uncle Dan was my Grandpa’s brother. Most people don’t know who their grandparent’s siblings are, but Dean and Dan were good friends as well as brothers. Uncle Dan was there for most of our family holidays, birthday celebrations, and the near-monthly family get togethers of one kind or another. Grandma and Grandpa’s families became so close over the years, that when Grandpa’s oldest sister passed away almost 5 years after Grandpa died, Grandma was asked to help make the arrangements since Zelda didn’t have any children. After 47 years of marriage and most of a lifetime in a small town with each other’s siblings, the lines between blood and in-laws just didn’t matter any more. So when I tell people who Uncle Dan was to me really, most people give me a confused look and can’t understand why I’m mourning his loss like my Grandpa died again. To me it’s my favorite Uncle who’s passed away. Nevermind that we’re too far removed to be considered immediate family.
Uncle Dan taught us kids so many lessons in life. Always be the one who started it, that way you can be sitting back laughing when the others are getting in trouble for being rowdy. Life is short, eat pie first. And since kids aren’t allowed to have pie first, cover your pie in gravy so they won’t be able to tell that you’re eating dessert first. It’s always the fault of whoever isn’t in the room at the time. Anyone who says you’re getting older is a damn liar. Teach small children to say rude things to their parents and sit back and watch the fun. Love kids. Love your own kids. Love other people’s kids. Kids can never have too many people who love them. There’s always somebody a little worse off than you are, do what you can for them not because they might return the favor, but because helping people is fun. Flirt with everybody, because it’s fun. There are no occasions for which a well timed joke is inappropriate. Tell tall tales with a straight face and lots of sincere belief. And don’t ever take yourself seriously.
He started leaving us a couple of years ago when Alzheimer’s made it hard for him to keep doing the things he had always done. He’d latch onto an idea and wouldn’t be able to let it go. It was hard for the people in the family who were caring for him, mostly because they forgot that last rule: don’t ever take yourself seriously. One day I was out running errands with a couple of cousins and Uncle Dan, after his Alzheimer’s began getting really bad. My cousins nearly had a heart attack when they heard Uncle Dan and I chatting in the back seat….
“I heard you’ve got a fancy new job now. Are you making lots of money?” Uncle Dan asked.
“Oh, I’m making enough to get by. It’s a pretty good job.” I replied
“Now that you’re making all this money, you’ll have to pay for me to go down to California and visit Dee.” Uncle Dan said in his trademark serious tone that we all know not to take seriously. Dee is Dan’s oldest son.
“Oh, sure. I’ll pay for you to go visit Dee.” My cousins were giving me panic eyes in the rear view mirror trying to get me to stop, worried that he’d latch on to this idea and pester them about it once I was gone. I just smiled and gave it 10 or 15 seconds, just like Uncle Dan would have done. “Yup, I’ll pay for the trip down to see Dee. I don’t know how you’re getting back, but I’ll pay for the trip down. You’ll have to hitch up your pant leg and hitchhike back because you know how cheap Dee is, he’s not going to pay for you to get back.”
Uncle Dan looked at me with a crooked grin and a sparkle in his eyes and chuckled. Then he shook his head. “Well, I don’t know about that. I’ll have to think about that a little bit.” And that was that. He was never serious about having me pay for him to take a trip.
Not long after that, he asked me if I’d bought a house yet. When I explained that I wasn’t that rich yet, he said my rich aunt would surely pay for most of it. I laughed and told him I didn’t think she loved me that much. He shook his head in mock consternation and then asked why I hadn’t bought a house with all the money I was making at my new job. I told him I was saving up my nickles and dimes but that he could donate some money to buy me a house any time he wanted. He was having a serious conversation with me about having a secure future for myself, but he framed it as a joke as always. That was how he showed his affection, and he did care about and worry about all of us.
His service was as he would have wanted it. The military honors he was due as a veteran, followed by a short 5 minute service, reminding us to celebrate life, love our kids, and just live life. That was it. No formality. No sermon. Then a party, where Uncle Dan would have been quite happy… lots of pie, plenty of rolls, and everyone talking, laughing, and catching up. It never fails that I cry during the military honors, just a little bit. But beyond that I don’t think I’ll be crying. I don’t believe that they ever really leave us. I think they pop in to watch over us when we need it. Or just to laugh at us during the everyday silliness of life. When Grandpa passed, he shows up in my life in two ways… sometimes I hit my head and that’s a reminder to pay attention and take care of myself. And then when things are really bad and I’m losing hope for myself, a particular song will come on the radio. The week he died I couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing that song. Now it just shows up every once in a while, a reminder when I need it. It will be interesting to see where Uncle Dan shows up in my life. He was a prankster in life, so whatever tricks he decides to pull will bring a smile to my face.