Death and Dating

My uncle Jerry passed away this week. He was 70 years old and my dad’s only sibling. I wasn’t particularly close to Jerry or his wife, but they are my family, so I felt it only right to go to the funeral home. My dad and step-mother did a great job of finding photos from his days in the Army, his wedding, and his many trips to the Smoky Mountains – my uncle loved the mountains – to create a collage of his life. There were even a few pictures of me and my sister as kids.

Jerry was one of those folks that people might call eccentric or odd. My dad liked to tease that he probably had the first dime he ever made and when my grandma was alive, she loved to tell the story of how they all went to Gatlinburg one summer and Jerry asked to see the hotel room before he would pay for it. When it wasn’t up to his standard, he negotiated a better deal right there on the spot. What I remember most about him was that he lived in the same apartment all my childhood and drove the same meticulously maintained car – a 1976 Chevy Monte Carlo. Though he later bought a house (just up the street from my dad), he still drove the car until the day he died. I also remember stacks and stacks of Pepsis (his drink of choice) in the garage, where he would stock up on them when they were on sale. You might say he was extremely frugal, which is one thing we had in common. The other was our love for my grandma.

Funerals are a time of reflection, whether we want them to be or not, and the thought of how short life really is can’t help but enter one’s mind as they stand beside a casket. For me, I couldn’t help thinking about how my uncle had devoted the last years of his life to caring for his mother, my grandmother, and within just a short time of her passing, he was gone as well. He was only 70 years old. All those trips he’d put off, all the dreams he may have had for retirement, were never realized, and it made me sad. And angry…at myself.

A lot of my own goals and dreams are unrealized too and while I describe myself as a caregiver for my mother, the truth is, she is not incapable of caring for herself. She can (and does) do a lot on her own, she just needs help from time to time, especially with the yard and house maintenance and driving to appointments. Yet, for some reason, when I think about travelling or even going away for a weekend, I feel like I’m abandoning my responsibilities. So, I put these things off, telling myself that I’m needed here now and there will be time for our adventures later. But what if there’s not?

Our goal of doing 48 Really Great Dates this year was partially an attempt to mitigate those circumstances. We thought it would be wise to set aside time for ourselves and do something fun, to lessen the tension that sometimes comes with doing so many things for other people. The crazy thing about that – having to plan dates caused more tension! Where we once simply decided to do things together – like go for a hike or visit a museum – we were now putting so much time and energy into planning the perfect outing that we forgot the point – to just do something fun together.

As we looked at the photo collage of my uncle Jerry’s life, one thing stood out – there were dozens of photos of my uncle and aunt doing crazy normal things…together. From barbecuing in the backyard to washing the car or sitting atop the World’s Largest Rocking Chair, they were always together, and they were always smiling. I’m not talking about canned smiles either. In every photo, they were grinning like they were having the time of their lives. I have to think that they had a good life – that despite having to spend nearly a decade caring for my grandma, they managed to find joy in every day living.

And that’s what I want for us.

We’re still working toward our date goal, but without the added pressure now. Instead of alternating weekly date planning, we sat down and brainstormed a big list of things we wanted to do this year. Each week we pick one that fits in with our other plans and obligations. This means, our dates are sometimes as simple as a long walk, and other times, we may manage to get away for an entire weekend. We probably won’t do everything on this list and that’s okay. Coming up with it was half the fun anyway. For a little while we got to dream and plan together and, in the end, we realized we don’t need to go on an elaborate date in order to connect, we simply need to make time for each other.

My uncle was buried with full military honors in a cemetery an hour away. Sadly, his wife will never get to visit his grave. Earlier this year, when they realized she could no longer live at home, she went to live in a nursing home. She has Alzheimer’s Disease. They had no children to pass their stories on to, but their life did not go unnoticed. I noticed. My dad noticed. My brother noticed. And each of us left the funeral home that day affected in different ways. Seeing my uncle’s life laid out in pictures helped me to remember that every new day is a new chance to do something spectacular – even if it’s just washing the car with your wife.