I’m the queen of multitasking. Long before that term became popular, I’d honed the skill to a science. After all, one doesn’t choose to be a stay-at-home mom of five children and survive unless she learns to do many things at once. However, after years of multitasking, an undesirable trait formed in me—the habit of non-presence.
For instance, when my children were young I planned the evening’s meal and made a mental grocery list while playing with them. My kids would ask me something and I wouldn't hear them. I was off in la la land. They learned that by calling me by my first name I would snap out of it and answer them. Sad.
When my husband told me about his day, I looked him in the eye and feigned interest while planning my “to do” list for the next day. My husband is a scientist, meaning, he is incredibly intelligent and works with intelligent people. In my years as his wife, I’ve learned the art of nodding at the right times without really understanding what was said. Unfortunately, I could also do that with him and my friends—nodding at the right time without really hearing what is being said, as my mind wandered to deadlines and appointments.
Non-presence is frustrating. I’m a writer. So, I felt guilty while cleaning the house because I needed to be writing. But, while writing I felt guilty because I needed to be weeding the garden. No matter where I was or what I was doing, I felt guilty that I wasn’t somewhere else doing something else.
All of that changed when one phone call put me on the path back to the present. The call came late evening in November, 2002.
“You don’t know me, but I’m your Uncle’s pastor. I’m sorry to tell you this, but he’s very ill. He may not even live through the night. Is there any way you come to Seattle? As soon as possible?”
“I’ll be there tomorrow.”
Nothing could have prepared me for the sight of my uncle when I walked into his hospital room. A mere shadow of the man I knew lay in a hospital bed, his frail body crisscrossed with wires and tubes. He held up his hand.
“Hi Honey,” he said barely above a whisper.
I held his hand close to me. He told me his diagnosis was terminal and he was at peace. After a while it became obvious he couldn’t live alone. As far as he was concerned, I was the only family he had left.
For a week I tried to muster the courage and suggest he leave his home, the church where he was an elder, the town where his beloved wife, Bernice, lay buried, and move across the country to live with us. However one evening our discussion lent itself for me to broach the subject.
“Uncle James, what do you think about moving in with us?”
He contemplated my suggestion, finally saying, “Yes, Honey, I think I’d better.”
Back in Arkansas, I turned our office into a bedroom and helped him settle in. I made it my goal to treat him as a king for the last few months of his life. With the best intentions, I barraged him with questions like: are you hungry? Thirsty? Bored? Cold? Hot? Do you want to go somewhere? Watch television? What channel? Do you need anything? Want anything? He patiently answered, with his cute, little crooked smile.
For the most part, he spent his days on the couch watching golf, fishing, and boxing programs—things that bored me to tears—while I zipped by him while cleaning, cooking, or leaving to run errands. I only slowed down long enough to ask if he needed anything.
One Sunday afternoon, however, for no particular reason, I plopped on the chair next to him while he watched the Buick Invitational.
“My pastime used to be golf,” he said. The corner of his mouth turned up and his blue eyes held a mischievous look. “But throwing those irons in the pond got expensive so I took up fishing.”
I laughed, delighted to discover this humorous side of my uncle.
“Watch Tiger,” he said. “If he makes this shot, he’ll win a million dollars.” Tiger sunk it. “Way to go, son.” He looked at me. “Got time to watch another with me?”
“Sure.” My mental time clock started ticking. But soon I forgot it as my uncle filled me in on the players’ lives, golfing rules and interesting tidbits like how the grass follows the sun, sometimes causing the ball to miss the cup by a millimeter. One player’s ball rolled toward the cup then went to a right angle.
“Hit a beetle in the grass,” he said. I’d never thought of that happening. We chatted for a couple of hours, but it only seemed like minutes. Then Uncle James reached for his walker and pulled himself up.
“You’ll have to excuse me, but I’ve needed to go to the bathroom for quite some time, but didn’t want go because I knew you’d leave and I’ve so enjoyed your company. But I can’t wait any longer.”
He shuffled down the hall. But his statement held me by the throat, bewildered by what he had said. It was also a revelation—my doing for him wasn’t as important as my being there with him. Not just my presence, but with my mind as well—all of me.
From that moment on, I began practicing “being.” One evening while watching an old war movie I gave him a bowl of his favorite ice cream, Bordeaux Chocolate Cherry. He took it and casually remarked,
“I was a gunner for the Air corps in World War II.”
I had no idea! It dawned on me that I didn’t really know anything about him except that he and my father were brothers. He was also the only link I had to my father who died when I was twelve. This man was a part of my heritage, and soon, he would be gone. The grave would make all he knew a secret. There wasn’t any time to lose in our relationship.
“What’s a gunner?”
He stared off, as if mentally returning to Wurzburg, Germany. “We flew a Douglas A26 attack bomber. She had three fifty-caliber machine guns and a 25 mm cannon.”
My interest grew. “Being” was getting easier.
“I remember one time after landing from a mission. I got out and inspected the fuselage for bullet holes. One in particular got my attention. It went in one side and out the other.” He held his thumb and forefinger slightly apart. “It was half an inch from where I sat. It’s a good thing I got religion before I went to Germany.” He winked and ate a spoonful of ice cream.
He told more war stories and about his years working for Boeing, in particular about a special order jet for a king in the Middle-East. I learned about his childhood, my great-grandparents and, most special of all, about my dad, who long ago faded in my memory. I loved “being” with my uncle.
All too soon, the cancer began its claim. One Tuesday night he called to me and once again held up his hand. I came to his side and held it.
“I feel that tonight is the night, Honey.”
A thousand words jammed my mind, all of which cried, No, It’s too soon, I want more time with you. But all I could say was, “I’m here.”
And I was. All of me.
Fifty-five days after moving in with us, he peacefully left this world and went home to the Lord and to his wife, Bernice.
After his funeral many came to me and said what a gift I was to him. I thanked them, but I knew who truly benefited from his time in our home—me. I’d changed. When my husband spoke, I listened. When my grandson wanted to dig in the dirt, I dug. While having coffee with my friend, I heard every word and never felt the tyranny of the things that needed to be done.
Sometimes when I pass the couch where my uncle spent so much time, I sit down and recall our times together. My life is a more pleasant journey.
He truly gave the greater gift.
This holiday season, remember, the best gift you give to others is the "gift of being."