“Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.”
It has been almost 40 years since my Uncle Glyn died. I am now about the age he was then. My uncle dream me the other night (= I had a dream about him). And so I emailed my cousin to share the dream with her. She was around 16 when he died, the youngest of his five kids. She mentioned that the family hadn’t really talked much about his death. And that hit me. For I have talked about his death and his life many times over the past 40 years.
Like my father and his other brother, Uncle Glyn was a minister. But he was a rebel, often disagreeing with what his church’s leaders thought should happen. He was also absent-minded, a smoker, and had a quiet wit that would unexpectedly sneak into his noisy household. A few years before he died he resigned his lifelong vocation, which meant that he and his wife had to buy a house for the first time in their married life. It was a big upheaval. Most ministers are ill-prepared for a working life outside of preaching and ministering to their flock. But he found work, as a social worker in the English city of Blackburn.
In the summer shortly before he died he visited my family with his wife and two youngest kids. He told my father that he was scheduled to have stomach surgery; he had always been bothered with a ‘bad stomach’. This was in the days before endoscopy was as common as it is today. Before all of the acid controlling medications, and less invasive treatments. He also confided that his doctors were worried that he might have cancer. He mentioned another worrying problem. He couldn’t walk for more than 100 yards without getting severe pain. Like my father he was a former athlete, but years of smoking had done their damage. Later I would learn in nursing school that he was suffering from ‘intermittent claudication’, a sign of poor circulation.
He had told his doctor that he wanted to go on holiday with his family first. So his operation was scheduled for the end of the summer. After the surgery the doctors were surprised to find he didn’t have cancer. I think it turned out to be an ulcer. He seemed to do fairly well after the surgery and went home, but then began to feel unwell. He ended up being readmitted, and died of a heart attack.
We traveled up to Blackburn for the funeral. His wife was distraught; the children in shock. His youngest daughter went to stay with friends, unable to face the loss. But for me, his story moved me in many different ways. My aunt found that this disorganized man, a man who would be searching for his glasses only to find they were on top of his head; a man who would be muttering to himself as he turned over his messy desk looking for the notes for his sermon; a man who seemed to live a life with no thought of the future; this same man had left his affairs in order. She went to his desk and found it strangely tidy. His life insurance papers, the house papers, everything she needed were right there. As if he knew.
But then came the most powerful testament to his life. He had embarked upon his new career just as Idi Amin turned thousands Indians out of Uganda. Over 27,000 people arrived in England with no homes, no jobs, but with families to take care of. Uncle Glyn had to help them settle in; former business owners who needed employment; wives who often spoke no English. And on the day of his funeral, the grey skies opened up and poured down rain upon us, yet the church was filled with people. And easily half of the church was filled with East Indians, people whose lives he had touched.
We don’t always see the difference we make in people’s lives. We may not realize the purpose or meaning of our own lives. Some moments and incidents don’t seem important until much later, when we look back and see a turning point, a fork in the road. Often it is when a story is retold that we hear the significance of a particular decision, recognize the impact of a certain event. Funerals can sometimes present us with an opportunity to review a life, and appreciate things we may not have seen when the person was alive. But when a death is unexpected, the shock of the sudden absence may make it hard to have perspective. It is difficult for those closest to step back and appreciate the bigger picture.
When we are blessed to be around people whose lives have such meaning, such purpose, it is in the telling of their stories that we honor them. And maybe that is how we work through the pain of their loss. We make sense of our lives by retelling our stories, making sense of confusion, seeing patterns and learning lessons.
And so this week, thinking of a man who made a big impact in the lives of many strangers, I had to think about the most important task of our lives: making sure that we find purpose in our lives, that we make a difference, that we stand for something. Then, when we disappear one day, our families will be comforted by the tales of others, ways we touched others that our nearest and dearest may never have known. We live on in these stories, and in the lives we touch.
I can see Uncle Glyn’s face as if it was yesterday. He and my father resembled, and with their wicked sense of humor they understood each other. Their middle brother was the celebrity, the one who had made the news; he played an important role in the Ecumenical Movement in Wales. Papers he wrote are held in the National Library of Wales. But they were all very special, and have touched thousands of lives.
This Friday morning I hope you keep talking about those who have gone, and bring them back to life in their stories. I recently heard someone describe the dead as being ‘everywhere, and nowhere’. If they have lived a life of purpose and meaning, there will be many acts to keep them around.
Have a wonderful weekend family!
Live with purpose! Find your meaning!