On Friday, my feisty, hilarious, loving Uncle Hank passed away.
I got the email from my aunt, who knew my parents were on vacation and may not get the news right away. My heart sank as I read the message. I was standing in line at Locolate, a little coffee shop owned by a Belgian immigrant, waiting for a frothy hot chocolate and feeling really great after dinner with my friend G. at a cute little Ethiopian place.
And then, “Hank didn’t make it.”
I took my hot chocolate and walked to my apartment and sat down on my couch in the quiet. And I just sat there for a few minutes, thinking about how strange — how utterly strange — it feels to hear that someone you’ve known your whole life is now gone. I know we’re all going to die, but when it happens — even if you expect it — it’s just so jarring. In so many ways, I still can’t wrap my head — no matter how hard I try — around death. My cousin B. wrote on her Facebook wall: “It’s surprising how physically painful the sadness is.”
I emailed my parents, and sent notes to a few of my cousins. And then I turned on some music. I listened to a song that I played over and over the summer that A. and I fell in love — and the music made me think about A. and then think about my Aunt Gretchen and how she lost her partner and best friend of nearly 50 years. And I cried tears of sadness for her, for my adorable, vivacious aunt who reminds me so much of my mom.
Lt. Col. Hank was a Vietnam veteran with very conservative views. Two summers ago at Bethany Beach, the last time I saw him (and it was clear his health was deteriorating), he told me I worked for a pinko organization. “A bunch of commies,” he said, sporting his light blue fisherman hat. He always said things he knew were provocative — but his infectious laugh made everyone around him smile.
Everyone loved Uncle Hank, and it’s hard to say goodbye — my heart goes out to my cousins (his three daughters) and my aunt. I have a feeling next weekend, at the funeral in Lebanon, Pa., where my mom grew up and where I visited many summers, there will be a lot of tears — and probably a lot of laughter, because that’s what our family does. We laugh. A lot. B. said she can’t wait for the family to get together because she “needs the comic relief.”
We’re going to miss you and your provocation and your laughter, Uncle Hank. Family gatherings won’t be the same. But you’ll always be with us in our hearts and minds.