My uncle Jon will be taking his last breath any moment, if he has not already. He will do it in Thailand, the country of his emotional exile from a family in which he never quite fit. He was a difficult man to know, and damned near impossible to like. Ultimately, his chain-smoking, drinking and constant anger will be what killed him. But, like many, it started much longer ago than those habits. And like all of us, there are reasons, and there should have been more love. I hate writing memorial pieces, but wrote this one this morning. It is a cautionary tale, and a call for a loving future.
It’s hard to know what to say about my uncle Jon as he leaves this life, hopefully to something with much more peace than I think he ever found in this world. I am not really a believer in the afterlife, but every now and then, there is someone who I just hope can have another chance, and Jon is one of those people. Because, when I’m honest about it, I just don’t think he had a real shot in this life. And it was not his fault, at all.
Jon was someone who I always wished I was closer to. The similarities between us were obvious to me, even as young girl. There is a vine wrapped through our family tree that is wildly creative, smart, lusty, passionate and firey. He and I, like his father – my Papa Jim – both have that vine wrapped around our limbs to varying degrees. But despite the similarities, he always scared me. He was too intense for me as a young girl, and too angry for me as a young adult. He frightened me, and I instinctively hid from what felt like a need to control everything around him, including little, uncontrollable, me.
It wasn’t until I was much older that I was able to see that the root of it probably wasn’t a need to control as much as it was a need to be seen and heard. And, perhaps, to declare that he was good enough to be loved, with the defiance of someone who was starving and just wanted a nibble.
It became increasingly clear that Jon was starving for love, but, having been denied it most of his life, had no idea how to create it – and a safe place for others to share it with him. He was born to an angry woman and a withdrawn man. Yet, even as a child, he was the wildly brilliant, creative and shining spirit that we all knew as an adult. That wild energy had no place in the angry and withdrawn home, and was systematically snuffed out at every turn. Told to be quiet, still, shipped away.
It is a testament to the strength of his inner passion that he was never shut down. Indeed, he burned too bright for anyone to dim his light. It is also a testament to his humanity that his energy did shift –from the unbridled potential of youth to the simmering resentment of an adult who knew he was not living the life he wanted. And knew it was because he was never shown how. And knew that he should be smart enough to figure it out for himself. But forgot he was human, and none of us can do it alone.
We nurture because someone taught us how to by nurturing us. We encourage because someone taught us how to by encouraging us. We feel joy because someone joyfully welcomed us into their lives. We do not learn any of this alone, only because someone nurtured, encouraged and loved us, bringing us enough joy that we can share it with others.
No one did that for Jon. The absence of that only expanded exponentially as he grew up and we all kept a distance between him and us.
Yet we all look at him, now and always, with a longing and a love. A hope that peace will come, the anger will subside, we can find a safe nook to crawl in and share.
I do have great memories with him, though they are feelings rather than events. I always felt like he understood me more than just about anyone else. I always felt like he believed I could do anything I wanted. I always believed that he felt anything I wanted to be or do was just fine, even if others would think it ranged from unwise to immoral. In his own way, he was able to accept the wild diversity of the human spirit, perhaps because he knew, more than anyone else, what happens when your human spirit is not accepted.
Mostly, when I think of Jon, I think of a cautionary tale. Here was a man with more potential than most people. He could hear a language and then speak it, he could analyze a quagmire, tell a story, drink every drop of daylight and still do more. He was enormous in his vision and ambition.
But he was, as I think people are finally willing to admit, unloved and unwanted. And no matter how great your potential for growth may be, if no one nourishes your roots, you will die on even the most dynamic family vine.
I look at the children in our family now. Brilliant, every one of them. Some wild, some morose, some perfectionists, some brainiacs, some more at home in the dirt than the dining table. And I hope that we feel Jon’s heart and hand guide us at every turn, showing us how and why they – as we all do – need to be loved each moment for who they are, not what we expected them to be.
As an adult, and a parent, I honestly feel so much pain when I think about Jon. Not for who he is, but for who he was never shown how to become. We all face challenges of bad parenting (even my own daughter will,) but he just never had a shot. His parents were awful at being parents, though each wonderful individuals in their own way.
So Jon, if you hear this – and anyone else who cares to listen – as you leave this life, please know that you do it with great legions of us knowing that your spirit was strong enough to fight until the end, despite it all. And that your suffocated spirit will find a way into the lives of all of our wild children, and it will remind us each day to love them as wholly and freely as possible.
It is possible to set a good example in a variety of ways. You have done that in one of the most unconventional and hardest to recognize. You deserved better than you got. I, for one, will never forget that lesson. And as a result, I will love and nurture those in my life with the vigor of one who knows what the absence of love looks like in a life.
Yours is a powerful legacy. And I hope, more than anything, that yours is now a soul at peace. Whether you knew it or not, you were loved and admired and understood. And that will touch many generations of wild little geniuses in this family of ours.