‘I’m gonna miss you’ Those were the words that stuck with me.
My sister and I were sobbing. Huddling up against my uncle. He could barely sit up, but for this moment he did everything he could to sit straight.
‘Do you understand why I am going to do this?’ My uncle asked us.
We both nodded. ‘Hmhm’ we mumbled. I looked at my dad, and I started crying. His eyes were swollen, red. His tears had already made their way onto his t-shirt. He was in the door opening, next to my mom. I couldn’t look at her. I could only hear her unsettled breathing. But I didn’t have the strength to look at her, it would break me even more.
My uncle took a deep breath and sighed. I could feel his big, comforting belly rising and falling. It was a place that felt like home. I had spent many nights laying on this belly, looking at the stars, or falling asleep. It felt different to lay my head on his belly then.
My uncle grunted as he was struck by another flood of pain. ‘I can’t go on like this.’ He said looking at my sister and me.
‘We know.’ I said, but deep down I didn’t understand. I had never known so much pain as my uncle had. My young teenage mind just couldn’t tackle the immense burden this was to him. All I could see was my uncle. My second father. The man that had been there for me since the moment I was born.
Our Lives Passed
For a long moment, all I heard was the calm breathing of my uncle and his rapid heart rate.
‘Do you remember how we used to play boules in France?’ My uncle said, breaking the silence.
‘Oh yes, I do!’ My sister said excitedly. At a moment’s notice, we all smiled. I sat up straight. My sister quickly followed.
‘I loved to play boules’ my sister said. ‘I also loved to play in the forest, and oh…’ she turned around jumped off the bed, ran into the hallway, and fumbled around in a backpack. She ran back, jumped on the bed, and…
‘I will always remember this!’ She said as she pulled a small stuffed animal from her back. My uncle laughed.
‘I still remember how excited you were getting this little rascal here. You were very little, I could still carry you on my back.’ My uncle said. Everyone laughed.
‘I loved it when we would play Backgammon in the shade after we played in the pool.’ I said, looking at my uncle. He looked at me with a soft, yet vivid twinkle in his eyes. One I don’t often see anymore. It’s a twinkle most adults lose, a magical twinkle. A spark of joy.
‘I loved that, you were getting better and better at it. You even beat me a few times.’ He said giving me a friendly punch on the shoulder.
‘I know! I am getting good at it.’ I said.
The magical memories of our lives passed, one by one. It was like a game, all of us were joining in. Telling stories. The stories of my uncle’s life. The stories of the beauty of living. The stories that were so important at this very moment. The stories were reminders that we were still alive.
We might forget the hard times in our lives, or the ordinary moments, but we will never forget the things that made us feel alive. We cannot forget these. They are ingrained in our hearts. Never to diminish.
‘Can you promise me one thing?’ My uncle said all of a sudden. In his voice, I could hear the strength it took to say this. Our last moment in this life was nearing.
‘Yes.’ I answered.
‘Can you promise me to make the most of your life? To be kind to your friends and family. To take care of my lovely wife, your aunt. And to go after your dreams…’ His voice broke off and he started sobbing. But most of all he tried to continue ‘Can you promise me to keep cherishing life.’ Tears were streaming down my face. My uncle smiled and wiped his tears away. He looked at me and my sister, at my mom and dad, and finally at my aunt.
‘I will’ I said and hugged him as hard, yet as gentle as I could so that I wouldn’t cause him any more pain.
‘Good’ He said. ‘Because I am gonna miss you.’ He added.
‘I’m gonna miss you too’ I softly whispered in his ear.
A Horrible First Impression
‘How are you Daan?’ My college professor asked as I sat across the table from him.
‘I’m okay.’ I answered.
‘That doesn’t sound very convincing’ he said as he put away his papers and looked me in the eye. ‘You know these one-on-one meetings we are gonna have are meant to clear things up, to get to know each other. So if anything is bothering you just throw it on the table.’ He added. He had sincere and kind energy hanging around him. It comforted me.
‘Well, to be honest, I don’t feel so great. I am stressed.’ I stopped for a moment. The professor nodded in sympathy.
‘You see a few years back my uncle passed away, he was suffering from cancer. It was eating his body alive and he was in immense pain.’ The professor looked at me. Shocked.
‘Ever since that moment’ I continued ‘I haven’t been feeling alive. I’ve been worried, stressed, anxious, fearful of each day. For every day I had to miss him, but not just that. Every day I felt that my life could end.’ The professor was speechless all he did was lean into the table.
‘In high school each morning as I woke up that anxiety, that stress was such a burden that I often gagged in front of the mirror. I was unable to speak for most of the morning. I didn’t say much to my parents and most of the time hummed a bit to relax my throat. I couldn’t speak to my friends with whom I cycled to school. If I did speak it was as short as possible, and it took a tremendous amount of energy to not gag straight away.’ I stopped for a moment because I felt the frustration with myself rising.
‘I don’t know what to say.’ The professor said. I just continued.
‘The very first day of my second year in high school began with me almost throwing up in the bin, right before the eyes of my friends. I think it kinda made the first connection of our unique bond.’ I said whilst chuckling a bit.
‘They are still my friends, but they too never completely knew how I felt inside. They just knew the outside version of me. The one that seemed to be fine all along. The who was working hard to get his degree. But underneath all of that, I am still fighting.’ I stopped again, trying to hold in the tears.
‘Fighting what?’ The professor asked politely.
‘The memories, the fear, the anxiety that I feel each day! The fear of death. Seeing my uncle on his deathbed sitting next to him. I cannot seem to find acceptance with it. It is consuming me like it was consuming my uncle then.’ I looked down at the table, sobbing. There was a long moment of silence. The two of us didn’t know what to say.
‘What a great way to make a first impression.’ I thought to myself.
‘Would you allow me to help you?’ The professor asked.
‘Yes please, because I don’t feel alive. I want to enjoy my time in college more.’ I said.
‘Good. Because I cannot take this away from you. I can only give you something that might help you. A practice all your classmates are gonna do too, but for you, it’s gonna be a more impactful practice.’ The professor handed me a few sheets of blank paper.
‘I want to ask you if you could write down your story for me. Go through the memory again. It’s gonna be a rough one, but I think it’s gonna help you.’ He looked at me, waiting for an answer.
‘Okay.’ I said, grabbing the sheets of paper from the table and putting them in my bag.
Death is Never Alone
The sun was setting as I grabbed the sheets of paper from my bag. I placed them on the desk, grabbed a pen, and looked out over the gardens outside my window. I put the pen to the paper and waited.
“‘I’m gonna miss you’ Those were the words that stuck with me.”
That was the first line I wrote down. It was a long evening, a tough evening. With a lot of tears, and a lot of pain. A few hours went by.
‘If I were to describe that day now, I would…’
That was the last sentence I wrote down. I took my pen off the paper. I looked around, and wanted to write down what I thought to myself: ‘I am not gonna miss you any longer, cause you are all around me.’ Instead, I wrote down ‘I’m gonna miss you.’ because that’s what he said.
I smiled. Put away the sheets of paper, and a felt a tear rolling down my cheek. I laughed out loud. ‘Death had been around me all this time. Always. I just never noticed it. I never noticed its constant beautiful reminder.’ I thought to myself.
In the window, flowers were withering away in the setting sun. The day was turning into night. I released a sigh. A breath that would never return. The days of stress, anxiety, and fear were long gone. All of it, I noticed, was a constant cycle of life and death. A beautiful spectacle going on in every single moment.
Why beautiful, you might ask? Because life could not exist if it weren’t for death on its side. It is their companionship, their unbroken bond, that gives this life beauty, excitement, growth, possibilities but most of all death gives us a constant reminder of love. The love for everything that is. The people we meet. The things we do. The emotions we experience. The dreams we have. And the beauty we get to witness. For the very next moment could be our last.
We could make the most of it. But I say no matter what happens, whether good or bad, we love that moment with all our heart. For if we don’t it will be long gone. Every moment will face the inevitability of death. I was reminded of this when I wrote down what happened when I sat on the side of his deathbed. How my uncle just before his final moment reminded us of what we live for. To fall in love with life, to cherish every moment.
For as long as we embrace that unconditional love for everything life is, every moment of death will always be followed with the grace of life that’s still left. So cheers, to being alive. To falling in love, making new friends, experiencing new things. Cheers to all the things that remind us that we are still alive. Cheers to death, for it is the biggest reminder that we are still alive. And so, remember those last words my uncle said, let’s cherish our life. For today we live.