my uncle at our wedding in 2010
Late last week, just before my mom’s flight from Houston was due to take off, I received a text message from my brother that my mom had missed her flight. Apparently, she had just missed the two-hour deadline to check in luggage (she had already checked in online the night before) and therefore was not allowed to board her flight to Korea. A member of the airport staff was contacted and she also expressed confusion as to why my mom was not allowed to check in. Essentially, nobody wanted to override the airline attendant’s decision, and so my mom was grounded, her flight rescheduled for the following day.
Several hours later, my mom emailed me to tell me that my uncle had passed away.
I’m not an “everything happens for a reason” type of person, but sometimes it’s hard not to believe that some things in life were, in a way, meant to be. As if there were some cosmic intervention at play. Not necessarily my uncle dying, but my mom missing her flight.
My uncle’s health had been deteriorating for some years now. He had been in and out of hospitals and nursing homes, but it wasn’t until earlier this month, when my mom told me my uncle was in hospice care, that I became really concerned. I worried not just about my uncle passing away, but that he might do so when my mom was in Korea helping with the twins. Knowing my mom, she would have been torn over whether to return or whether to stay.
Despite the news, my mom still had every intention of getting on her rescheduled flight to Korea. As she told me, my uncle’s passing had been something of a long goodbye, and she had already said her final farewells.
But thinking you are prepared for death is never the same as it actually happening. We were able to convince my mom to reschedule her flight yet again (while my aunts, uncles, and family were trying to convince her to go) so that she could stay and attend my uncle’s funeral ceremonies and services. Oddly enough, due to the poor weather, and thus, flight delays, in the city where her flight connected on her new flight date, my mom was able to change her tickets once more without any penalty.
It’s a strange thing to feel loss and grief over the death of a loved one at the same time you feel happiness and excitement over a soon-to-be birth, but then I suppose human lives and emotions are complicated wide-spectrum things. Being pregnant, the wonder of creating life is always at the forefront of my mind, but on the flipside, I have often thought of the opposite, of death, even before my uncle died. I suppose this is where I insert quotes about life’s tenuous line between life/death/happiness/sadness/the circle of life except that it feels somehow more simple — if that’s even the correct word — than that. In happiness there is sadness and in sadness, happiness. I don’t know what it is I feel, except that it seems as if I’m feeling every emotion on the planet at once. And my mom, who looked up to my uncle – her brother – as a father figure after her dad died at an early age, must be feeling the same way x a million.
Instead of approaching the circle from the darker side, I wanted to talk a little bit about my uncle. In his younger years, his life was unimaginably difficult. He fought in the Vietnam War. He didn’t want my mom and dad to get married. He was tortured at POW camps. Somehow he emerged from it all, more or less in one piece, and made a new life for himself in the States. The person I read about in my mom and dad’s letters to each other hardly matched the person I knew as my uncle.
A lot of emphases is placed on what one accomplishes early in life, but I tend to believe that it’s where you end up, who you end up being, that matters most. The uncle that I knew, in the second stage of his life, attended every family event he could, despite his failing health. He was a fixture at every engagement party, every wedding, every funeral, and every anniversary of death, a Viet custom where family gather to eat and celebrate the life of a loved one who has passed. After my dad died, he tearfully expressed thanks for all that my mom and dad had done to help his family start their new lives in Houston.
He loved dogs, hugs, and Shipley do-nuts.
That is how I’ll remember him.