Most of us have an interesting uncle. I’ve been thinking a lot about mine lately. Intelligent, quirky, hermited, disheveled. He walks a lot. He adored his wife, followed by a devastating divorce he never quite got over. He idolized his mother, quit a high-powered career to care for her for eight years. He leaves handwritten notes, staked with sticks and sellotape beside her grave.
He doesn’t spend holidays with family. In fact, we rarely see him despite his proximity. It’s always by accident and it’s been over 15 years for most of us. He doesn’t have an e-mail address. I’m not sure he has an answering machine. He volunteers at soup kitchens on holidays from what I hear.
He’s not hard to make fun of. He’s hard to relate to. It seems he gave up on life in general — and its core components of accomplishment, romance and connection — when his mother died. (If you believe the core components in life are limited to such.)
Who Talks to the Isolated?
He rarely speaks to anyone I know. For years, he even refused contact from his brothers, each within a short drive. But he always had a soft spot for my mother, and my mother, barring a few clashes, always reserved a soft spot for him.
My mom wouldn’t have classified herself as an intellectual. She was the epitome of extravert. A former beauty queen, she dressed to the nines, carried herself with a simultaneous softness and class. On the surface, she and my uncle had little in common at all.
But my mom related to the world on a completely different level. She saw similarities, not differences. She empathized where she had no experience. She could connect with virtually everyone. The only people who eluded her compassion were bullies of some sort. She wept for victims, stood up for the disenfranchised, opened our home to the homeless, brought laughter to the chronically depressed, encouraged the continual basketcases. She cheered at the worst criminals captured and sentenced, then wept again for their victims, for their mothers, mourned their executions.
And she understood emotional pain. She felt her life story was one of transcending tragedy. She believed the way through was to feel and heal.
Yesterday morning, I thought a lot about my parents. For long-time Christians of the arguably most judgmental denomination, they were astoundingly accepting. My mother taught me early this same trait. “Hurt people hurt people,” she’d say. “They just need an inner healing.”
Just Say Yes
After school one day, a tall, model-thin upperclassman chatted me up and offered me hard drugs I declined. Her mom had lupus. I came home and recounted the story, expecting my mom to validate my “just say no” behavior. She reprimanded me instead. “You’re missing the point. Invite her over,” she said. I did. She accepted.
My mom didn’t have a heart-to-heart with her about coke. She didn’t preach to her about religion. She didn’t ask her about her mom. She complimented her, told her self-effacing funny stories, cooked her food, sent her home with more. Invited her over again. And again. I befriended her, listened to her life with the same nonjudgment. She stopped doing drugs on her own accord. She started doing well in school.
I can’t remember her name. I have no idea where or who she is today. I don’t know if her mom ever beat the lupus, or if she buried her only parent after high school. I don’t know why she improved her life during that year. I don’t know if any of the kindness we showed her helped.
But I know that for that single year, she could always catch a ride to my house. I know she relaxed, had fun, maybe escaped a little. I know she swore up a storm and my mom never blinked. She just saw a girl going through it. A girl with beautiful dark hair. A person with defenses. A person with, like most people with walls, some pain they’re defending against re-injury.
And that’s how she saw my uncle, too. “It doesn’t matter what it is,” she’d always explain. She’d lost a child of nearly three, died suddenly in her arms. She’d lost two brothers before the age of five. She survived a terminal disease in her 30s. Barely. She survived war-time, bombs and virtually every abuse imaginable. It makes sense why she would hold compassion for such things.
But what always simultaneously bewildered me, she didn’t stop there. Grieving for your dog six months later? You get a plant on your doorstep on the anniversary. Lost your job? Expect a weekly card with handwritten encouragement. Can’t get past a decades-old divorce? She got it; she’d listen. People would always say to her, “There’s no pain like losing a child.” Strangely, though she was one of the few people I knew at the time with that experience, she’d disagree. Because it didn’t matter what it was.
“For some,” she’d say, “it’s a divorce. For others, the worst pain they feel is when their kids are alcoholics. For others, it’s the pet. It’s all equal.”
Through the Pain to the Good
I’ve been thinking about my interesting uncle for a while. I’ve thought about calling him. We never do. There could be some benefits; maybe he knows some historical detail about our family, maybe he might share a memory about my dad. But the odds aren’t good. He’s not totally linear and they were fairly estranged. These really aren’t my reasons.
I just keep thinking of my mom seeing through his awkwardness to the pain, through the pain to the good. The deep bond he held for his mom, the loyalty, the intelligence, the straightforwardness, the reverence for yesterday, the sensitivity, the soul. And I keep finding myself astounded he responded to her, in an era of life where he responded to virtually no one else, not even blood relatives.
I get it a little. I see through the sticks and sellotape missives, the technology aversion, the isolation, the strangeness. It doesn’t matter what it is or when it was, at least to me. I’d just like to hear him, to maybe help him feel understood, offer a connection, card, validation, kindness, laughter.
Diary of a Strange Woman
We spend so much of our thoughts focusing on normal, right, ideal, functional. We bring expectations. We operate in judgments, then defend their existence as “healthy,” “right,” “balanced,” “positive,” or even “enlightened.” We want to define our values, and once we’ve defined them, we stick with them. We want to surround ourselves with those who share our lifestyles, hobbies, views, status levels, philosophies, circles. We like the winners. We seek the good times, we want the laughter. We’re human and we want to be happy.
But there’s this strange woman whose face I’ve seen all day long in my mind’s eye. She went to funerals for people she didn’t know, when she intuited they’d be empty ones. She worked with AIDS patients when it was still considered dangerous. She invited her teenage daughter’s drug-pusher to come eat with us. She invited the mentally ill to our house after church to our mortification. She packed an extra lunch every night for the divorced dad working on our roof for weeks.
She had a strong sense of justice, but couldn’t care less about rules. She saw wounded and healed instead of degrees of “healthy.” She was unapologetically herself, and she expected you to be — equally unapologetically — yourself at all times.
Tonight, it struck me. I don’t care who doesn’t get this grief. I’m not sure I even care who gets me, at this point. No one wants this, any more than they want the divorce, the dead dog, the alcoholism, the eating disorder, the drug habit. But, despite my fumbling steps sometimes, I’ve got this belief that we can heal through the tragedies, make good on them, let them transform us, give it out when they do. Even to the aggravating. Even to the self sabotaging. Even to the misfits.
There are no misfits if there’s no box to fit in. There’s no anger without judgment. There’s no self sabotage when there’s no societal ideal. When we check our judgments, we check our aggravations. We open ourselves to the value of living beyond the components or measures of our lives. We begin to inhabit an openness that compassion dwells in and kindness spills out of. Onto your favorite uncle. Onto your interesting one, the same.