My sweet Uncle Chuck passed away last month, and it broke my heart. It broke a lot of hearts. I don’t know many former school teachers who could still draw more than 300 people to a memorial service at age 89.
He was a touchstone to me. Our relationship was special when I was growing up, but it became deep and profound in the last couple of years, when Uncle Chuck extended support and kindness in a moment of family difficulty.
I wondered how to thank him and asked my friend Pam what kind of gift I could get him.
She said, “Why not start calling him?”
I thought that would seem awkward, as I hadn’t called much over the years.
“I think he’ll like it,” she said.
And, he did like it. I did, too. It was the sweetest, most unexpected late relationship between an uncle and niece, but what an incredible gift. I hope it will serve as a lesson for others who may be missing out on a powerful connection. I felt so cherished by this man, and I would have missed it if I hadn’t picked up the phone.
He taught me so many things, one of which was the lesson, “You can travel easy, or you can travel hard.” He told me that line when I first started working as a professional speaker and traveling all over the place. He learned that lesson so many years ago when he was a travelling salesman for a hat company. If he pushed it real hard, he might get where he needed to go in less time, but the stress toll would be great.
If I am being literal about what he taught me — which I often am — I take direct flights whenever possible, I don’t over-schedule myself, and I give myself time to get where I need to go.
But, it became clear over time that the lesson he was trying to impart had a lot more to do with our pace of living than our scheduled layovers in airports. We make choices in life that will either force us to live under pressure — or not. What if we only accomplish 90 percent of what we set out to do? What if it’s only 75 percent?
There will come a time when you realize that none of that will matter.
In his final years, my sweet uncle had real trouble getting around. He had multiple surgeries, a recurrence of cancer and many, many setbacks. When he went to an assisted living center, he put a couple dozen photos of all his loved ones on his wall.
“Whenever I feel down,” he said, “I look at these pictures and remember all the wonderful people I have loved in my life.” He would mention each person individually, counting them much like one would count blessings.
He’d mention all the different people in the pictures every time. It was inspiring that he was able to find hope and joy from those photos. The relationships behind the images defined his world with meaning and purpose. At this man’s core was a sense of gratitude that kept him going, even as his body failed him.
There comes a point in life when all that matters is the relationships that we have built. It’s not a title or a paycheck or a big house or exquisite wardrobe that will matter. It’s connection.
You can travel hard — and continue to chase the things that don’t really matter — or you can travel easy. Slow down, look around, and realize how rich you really are.
God bless you, my Sweet Uncle.