This time last week, not long after posting my blog, my phone rang. It was my mom.
“We got some sad news early this morning. Uncle John died yesterday.”
A million thoughts could have run through my head at this moment: How? He wasn’t sick. What happened? Where? Why?
But my immediate response to this shocking news was to challenge it: “But I just emailed him. I just emailed him the blog like 30 seconds ago.” As if this fact somehow invalidated her words, as if my magical thinking carried weight in this argument: He can’t be dead. I was just thinking, before the phone rang, ‘Oh, Uncle John is going to like this blog. We will have a good conversation about this one.’
I emailed my Uncle John my blog almost every week, because even if I thought it sucked, he would find the one golden nugget in a pile of manure. In the past week, I have gone through all my emails from him, and every word is positive, encouraging, and affirming. He believed in me, and he wasn’t shy about saying it:
I loved this blog. You are a fantastic, funny writer.
Love, Uncle John
My Uncle John was my dad’s brother. Ten years older than my father, he was in many ways a mentor to my dad. While their other six siblings scattered across the country, my dad and Uncle John raised their families in New Jersey, remaining close both physically and emotionally. Uncle John and Aunt Mary Ann had two boys, Stephen and Douglas. They were the closest things I had to brothers growing up; they would protect me at all costs, and make fun of me at all costs.
I want to say that my Uncle John was a survivor – which he was – but that doesn’t seem to cover it. He did more than survive – he thrived. He overcame. He transcended. He LIVED. And he encouraged others to do the same.
Uncle John was born on a farm in Orleans, VT -“North Country”- a small town on the Canadian border. At age 16, he was stricken with polio and spent a year in a Burlington hospital – in an iron lung. Apparently I should have stayed awake in 10th grade history, because I thought an iron lung was a section of the hospital. No, Jessie. This is an iron lung:
I never would have known that my Uncle John went through something this traumatic, because he never mentioned it. Being a victim just wasn’t his style. He taught himself to walk without braces on his legs, and swam everyday to keep his upper body strong and lean. He skipped a year of high school, attended NYU on a full scholarship, and then put himself through law school. He loved his career as a lawyer, and worked up until the day he died.
Speaking of style, Uncle John was not just stylish…he was dapper. Perhaps he was compensating for what he and my dad call “humble beginnings,” but my Uncle John knew how to dress for success. Polio had ravaged the muscles in his pencil-thin legs, but when his tall, lanky, and broad shouldered entered a room, you noticed. He was a presence. And what some might call a “limp,” I call the Polio Swagger. He sauntered across the room with an air of sophistication, slow and deliberate, with his eyes only on you. He would then open up his arms – an enormous wingspan to a young kid – and say in his distinctive, plummy voice, “Jessica!” before gathering you up and pulling you in for a full on embrace. He was part John Wayne, part Thurston Howell III. A class act.
My cousin Doug gave the eulogy at his father’s funeral on Monday. Years ago, Doug started a list called “John Power’s Words of Wisdom;” a collection of wise words his father had passed on to him. Doug hung this list over the desk of every job he’s ever had. And now, I am lucky enough to have that list hanging over my desk.
The list goes up to #35. Doug shared his favorites with those of us gathered that day, and I would like to share mine with you here.
John Power’s Words of Wisdom
- The only constant in life is change.
- Be confident in yourself and your decisions. Trust your instincts.
- Don’t be a sheep. Forge your own path. Only your path will be the best for you.
- Don’t give your kids money. Give them jobs to earn money.
- Every family should have a dog.
- Minimize stress. It will age and kill you.
- Be careful not to drink too much – you are Irish after all.
- People make their own luck by positioning themselves for luck to happen to them.
- You can accomplish anything. The hardest part is figuring out what to accomplish.
- If you are feeling sorry for yourself, go to the hospital and look around.
Last November, when my friend and former neighbor Jen passed away suddenly, I blogged about it, and then sent it on to Uncle John. He wrote this in response:
Jess, you have a gift. You converted a very sad story into an inspirational message for all of us. I believe it was your friend’s destiny to depart this world at this time in order to be a teaching occasion for you and others who knew her. That was her gift to you. Be very grateful.
Uncle John, wherever you are, I am grateful to you. Thank you for believing in me, and emphasizing the importance of believing in myself. Thank you for getting my head out of my ass and showing me that we all have something to offer the world, if we can only find the courage to put it out there. Through your example I have learned that we all have a choice in how we respond to life’s challenges. We can see adversity as a brick wall, or we can find a way to climb over it. I will keep climbing.