Within the last five minutes of my uncle’s life, I spoke with him on the phone.
I suppose it’s more accurate to say I spoke at him. I was with my mother at the time, and my father, who was at his brother’s side, called us when it seemed as though he might finally die. It was to give us one final chance to say our last words to him, whether he heard them or not. I had been prepared for his death for a long time, but on the phone, I was dumbstruck. I could only squeak out, “Bye, Uncle Bob,” and I said this over and over. I could say nothing else. I’m not sure I could’ve counted to ten if asked.
My mother, who, bless her heart, is a apparently more eloquent, managed to say, “Say ‘hi’ to Dad for me when you get there. You say ‘hi’ to my father for me.”
And that was that. As far as I know, other than those at his side when he died (his siblings, his wife, his children, and probably a doctor or nurse), my mother and I were the last two people to speak to Bob. On the phone, of all things.
Consider the journey a man makes: When he is born, he is surrounded by a cast of characters – a mother, a father, a doctor… moments later: brothers, sisters, and grandparents. Those are the most important people in his life. As he grows up, the circle of important people expands to include friends and teachers. But with time, teachers come and go, as do friends, and in spite of whatever lasting influence they might have, they leave the narrative of his life.
The cast of characters shifts. With age comes tragedy, but with tragedy is joy. Grandparents leave, but children arrive. Teachers leave, professors arrive. Coworkers come and go, lovers come and go. Nieces and nephews replace aunts and uncles. Colleagues replace colleagues. Except for a few friends and my family, everyone who is important to me today I didn’t even know a mere three years ago. God willing, those friends and family will be with me for a long time to come. But everyone else? Who knows.
My uncle was born and lived a life, and that life included parents and grandparents, teachers, friends, siblings, and colleagues. I didn’t join his life until he was more than halfway done with it, and when I did, I was one nephew out of many. I saw him most summers and occasionally other times of year, but on the whole, in the great novel of his life, I am a footnote.
And yet, the sands of faces were sifted through the filters of time, and somehow my mother and I were left privileged at his book’s end. Truth be told, my mother was a very important part of his life, but myself? It’s as if I popped out of the eternal cosmos at the last second to wish him a good passing. How did I get there? How did I, of all people, deserve to be there on the phone with my uncle at his final moment? Out of the hundreds of people that were more important to him throughout his life than I, how did the right find me and not someone else? Chance? Coincidence?
I am thankful for this, but the fortune of being among the few called upon to end his final page is a privilege I accept with confusion and humility.
I know who is important to me in my life, and I can pinpoint the main characters of my life’s story looking back. But, looking forward, I have absolutely no idea who will be talking to me on the phone as I breathe my final breaths. As far as I know, they haven’t even been born yet.
It kind of makes this… whatever this is… absurd. On of the many Grand Absurdities of Existence, I suppose.