I do well with death. I have been to many funerals. I have buried two friends already this year and will be attending a third funeral next weekend. Girl that I grew up with. Another car accident. I occasionally lose the children I work with. I can handle it. I barely ever cry.
But this has been different. This is family. And driving down to San Diego, I could barely see the road through my tears.
My uncle has suffered from bladder cancer for several years, in and out of remission, mainly, but cancer has a way of coming back. I got the call Thursday that he wasn't going to make it much longer.
"You need to come now," my mother said. "Come say goodbye."
My family is very close. My cousins are like sisters. My uncle is as close as I have ever had to another father. I grew up riding his horses and holding his waist on the back of his Indian motorcycle, rolling my eyes when he tried to trick me into eating bacon made from boar he shot himself.
"Never in a million years."
"Psh", he would say, "Vegetarian."
I thought I would be able to hold it together because that is what I'm usually good at-- being helpful in a crisis. Being strong. But when I walked into my uncle's hospital room, Archer resting on my shoulder, I broke down. When I held my uncle's warm, strong hand, I couldn't not turn away and sob in Archer's hair.
That was before he went fishing.
High on morphine, he decided he wanted to fly fish, so he arched his eyebrows and drew back his imaginary rod and cwooooooshhhh... I could almost hear the lure breaking the glassy water. He let go of the line (my hand) and checked (my fingers) his tackle box for bait.
The hospital room was quiet, as my uncle looked on, even Archer sat kindly in my lap for several moments before the nurses came in and with them, more family and friends to hold his hand. I let go and walked out in the hall, toward the elevator and past the maternity ward, where my best friend from childhood gave birth one week ago.
One of my cousins was married this morning, in her father's hospital room so he could be there to give her away. I got to play wedding planner-- buy her a white linen dress and shoes and her fiancee a shirt to match. My aunt made their flower arrangements out of flowers from her garden and my Nana brought Moet and made bellinis. A friend ministered the service outside the window of my uncle's room so he could watch. Because the wedding is in August and he won't be able to make it, even though my cousin said to him, "You'll be there Daddy. You'll be there looking over all of us."
To which he nodded and sighed. "Yeah, Erica. I'll be there."
The whole family is here, now. We're holding hands and we're laughing and Erica is in her white linen dress from this morning's wedding and the flowers from the bouquets are in water. And we stand around my uncle, holding hands-- my cousin Yvette and her new baby, Anushka, in the sling across her chest and my aunt, combing my uncle's hair with her fingers. Archer's chasing my father outside, their red shirts darting back and forth through the hospice window and one by one, we tell my uncle that we love him and we're here.
And he smiles and opens his eyes and looks at all of us and when we kiss him he kisses back and now and then he goes back to fly fishing, casting his rod toward the end of the bed, where his daughters sit and my Nana.
"Did you get a good one?" we ask.
He shakes his head and tries again as the family closes in around him and suddenly this doesn't feel like death at all. This feels like life. The room tightens with the flexed muscle of the human spirit and all its empowerment and love. Hands clasp together like a chain. Sisters embrace.
And we stay by my uncle's bed through the afternoon and the night, watching a master fly fisherman cast his imaginary rod toward the vases of Stargazer lillies, our fading voices rooting him on always, even after he catches his fish and goes to fly.
My uncle passed away the morning of May 9th, 2007. He was 54-years-old.