I just got my genealogy database back online. I’d been putting it off for ages. There’s always so many other more important things to do. But yesterday was the day. My uncle, Allen Lovelace, died on Sunday. In some abstract way, I felt like I owed it to him to mark his passing in a way more permanent than a statement on Facebook or a tweet.
The dynamics surrounding a death astonish me. You receive an outpouring of emotion and empathy from people you hardly know. And then there are people who are intimately an integral part of your life who don’t even notice these milestones in your existence. I often wonder about that. Why do our relatives and “friends” seem to care so little for us, while people we’ve never physically met, such as on Facebook and Twitter, go out of their way to at least show their respect?
Mostly, I’ve been thinking of what a shit nephew I was to Allen Lovelace. I didn’t know Allen at all, really. He was my father’s half-brother, and neither of them knew of the other when they were young. In fact, Allen had only learned of my father shortly before my father’s death in 1984. By the time Allen managed to get in touch with some of our family in South Carolina, my father was already gone. So they never met. My father never knew about Allen. I won’t bore you with details about the years that followed, but let it suffice to say that Allen never knew about me, or my brother, Justin. It wasn’t until I got interested in genealogy in the early 2000’s that I managed to find a phone number for him. I’d heard his name most of my life, but I’d always looked for “Alan”, not “Allen”. Correcting that spelling mistake made the difference
Long story short, I found Allen Lovelace. He was a sweet, gentle man. The kind of man for whom the label “Christian” was not just one he claimed, but one which he lived. He reached out to me. We tried to establish bonds. Well, he tried, anyway. I was always busy. We met while I was a truck driver. Always gone. There was never any time. I attended a few Lovelace reunions. Allen and I stayed in touch for awhile. He called more often than I did. Wrote more often than I did. In time, I guess he stopped trying. That seems to be a recurring theme in my life. People stop trying.
I told my disinterested brother-in-law about Allen yesterday. I was supposed to go over to his house to do some work, but I was in a weird place emotionally. I told him about my uncle, and that I wouldn’t be coming over. In response, I got a letter. All he said was, “K” in a text message. Nothing about my uncle. Nothing about loss or empathy. But I understood. He didn’t know Allen. Hell, after all the years I’ve been in Florida, he hardly knows me. That’s as much my fault as his. I’m not bashing him. Mostly, I’m using this to ponder how screwed up our priorities are. Human beings, I mean. You see the patterns repeat over and over again. Why is it always the people who’ve contracted cancer who always wind up as champions of cancer awareness? Why weren’t they champions before? Cancer was no less pervasive prior to their involvement. But that’s humanity in a nutshell. Until the proverbial stench of something bad is wriggling under our noses such that we can’t ignore it, it’s not even on our radar, is it?
This started out as something else. I’d intended to write something about how we always wait until it’s too late to try being decent human beings.
Another example: I had an uncle (another uncle) who laid in bed for the better part of a year in chronic pain. Because of the pain he had become ill-tempered and hard to get along with. As a result, his children and grandchildren stopped coming around him. People who were almost constantly underfoot while this uncle was healthy all but disappeared once he was ill. Until, that is, he was lying on his death bed. Then suddenly they all showed up en masse. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. It was so over-the-top that I referred to it as “the grief competition”. These people who had had so little to do with my uncle in the year leading up to his death were suddenly showing up to get those points as human beings at the end, like people showing up in the last 20 yards of a 30 mile marathon to cheer on their favorite runner and get a participation sticker.
It sounds like I’m being harsh on those relatives. Maybe I am. But I only mention this story because this, to me, is a good metaphor for humanity as a whole. I’m as guilty of it as anyone else. I didn’t know if what I felt yesterday over Allen’s death was grief, or simply a deep, anguished guilt. But the guilt doesn’t mean much after the fact, does it?
After my brother-in-law’s response of “K”, I followed up with a prompt (which got no response). I asked him, “Why is it that we always wait until it’s too late to do anything about it, and then lament that we weren’t better nephews, brothers, and sons?”
Well… why is that?
Allen’s death made me think about the people I’ve lost touch with. My mother was one of eleven children. I grew up with four uncles and six aunts, on my mother’s side alone (we won’t even try to count the cousins). Of those eleven siblings, there are now three left. My uncle Jack, and my aunts, Martha Sue and Sherry. I haven’t spoken to any of them in years. I sent out some Christmas cards in December. But other than that, nothing. Not that they’ve been clamoring to stay in touch with me, either. But I don’t doubt their love for me. They’re part of my DNA. But still… there’s always tomorrow. We’re going to call. We’re going to write. But we never do. And years go by.
Most heart-breaking of all is my cousin, Teresa. After my mother died in 2011, Teresa tried to stay in touch. But like everyone else, she eventually gave up. I’m just not that good at returning calls. I’m not good at writing. I mean to. I plan to. But I never do. After Allen’s death, I was determined to sit down and write Teresa yesterday. Yet somehow I never got around to it. It’s still on the agenda, but in an abstract way. Like “some day I’m going to Barbados”. It’s easy to say it. But the patterns repeat. The patterns repeat.
On the other side of that coin are my step-daughters. While I posted a few things about Allen on my Facebook page, I doubt either of them know my uncle just died. They’re that disinterested in my life, or their mother’s for that matter. And I will never say a word about it to them. Not I, who wonders sometimes if I’m a terrible human being. Not I, who looks back upon an uncle who has died, and can literally say it had been years since I had spoken to him.
I’d hoped to encourage people to stay in touch with those they love. Something warm and fuzzy. Don’t wait until they’re dead or dying to show up and put on a maudlin display of emotion to make up for the years you couldn’t be bothered to be there. But we all know we’ll just jot down those phrases and stick them on our fridges with magnets, and it won’t ever mean anything more than that. We’ll just walk past them on our way to the ice cream.
So in closing, all I’ll say is that I know how full of shit you are. I know because I know how full of shit I am. All I would really say is that we know we’re going to fail. But let’s keep trying anyway, shall we? Maybe one day we’ll get it right. Maybe one day we’ll be there before someone is on their way out and we’re just trying to get our emotional parking validated.
I won’t hold my breath.
Maybe I’ll make a magnet, though.