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Uncle’s Letter Leaves Indelible Mark

He called me “doll.” He took me to see the Empire State Building when I was 16. He introduced me to art at the Peabody Museum at Yale. Years later, lying in a hospital bed at a rehab hospital, he told me I was like a daughter to him. But I was his niece. He was my last surviving uncle.

I wailed when I learned he’d died. It wasn’t just that he was dead. It was that I’d missed seeing him once more. Missed helping him into eternity. Missed saying goodbye.

UncleToni16

My Uncle Karl and me at age 16 during my first visit to his and Dad’s hometown in Connecticut.

The first anniversary of his death is Friday the 7th. He lived to be 85. Society doesn’t make much of the loss of uncles and aunts. They don’t typically live in the same home with us. They aren’t in that tight family circle. Not a spouse. Not a child. Not a parent.

But like a parent. That gets overlooked sometimes. After we lose our mothers and fathers, they stand in the gap. They know all the good stories about our parents. They remember our early childhoods, too. They’re like mini-parents, especially after we lose mom and dad.

I was called to Uncle Karl’s side by Anita, his neighbor and our distant relative. I bought a plane ticket that afternoon, and the next morning set out.

Anita met me at New Haven airport at 10 that night. I’d hurried all day to get to Connecticut from Memphis. I climbed into the passenger seat of her car.

Her smile dissolved. We stared at each other speechless for a moment.

“Karl didn’t make it,” she said.

He had died the night before at his home. Anita waited to tell me in person.

Uncle Karl died 10 years after my dad. He was eight years older than my dad, but they resembled each other so closely that people had asked if they were twins.

My tears filtered the passing street lights into starbursts. We headed to nearby Milford, where the Lepeska brothers grew up. I’d been there many times. It felt like a second home until that night.

I wanted to run away. My daddy wasn’t there, and my uncle wasn’t there. I wanted to go home. Crawl into a hole and mourn.

My Aunt Lore (pronounced Lori) met me at their door. We embraced. I was in the right place.

My uncle and aunt never had children. I had been Uncle Karl’s closest living relative.

At the graveside service, I sang a hymn. In the design engineering field by profession, my uncle loved music and studied under a master. He’d been a church soloist. We had to have music.

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My uncle in later years, near Charles Island in the back.

In 2010, my uncle had written me after I’d left my longtime job as a newspaper reporter. I’d jumped off a cliff, sort of speak, to work for myself. To be a freelance writer.

“That you’ve done so (with your Better Half’s blessing) has taken a lot of courage,” he wrote. “No matter how it develops, it will be worth it … This … I truly believe.”

After he fell and broke his leg in three places, I visited him. Always the host, he suggested I go by a park in Bridgeport to take in the sights. And for the first time, we talked about us losing Dad.

I updated him on the book I was writing. I didn’t mention the letter he wrote until a couple of months before he died. I wrote him and told him the letter “is now and will forever be an encouragement to me.”

I keep it on my desk. I will always keep it on my desk.

My uncle stood in the gap. Now he is gone. His letter remains. The memories remain. His indelible mark on my life will never die.

Do you have an uncle, aunt or other relative that’s helped you manage loss? Have you spoken about your mutual loss, and does that help ease the grief?

 

Copyright © 2017 by Toni Lepeska. All rights reserved. http://www.tonilepeska.com

 

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