Saturday, June 5, 2010

#11 - A Big Slow-moving River and Clean White Sneakers - Recollections of My Uncle Ken

My Uncle Ken passed from this life at five o’clock on the morning of April 23rd, 2010. He was surrounded with love by his wife and three daughters in Elizabeth House, a wonderful Hospice facility in Hendersonville, North Carolina. The diagnosis of pulmonary fibrosis had come less than a year before, and several bouts of pneumonia had taken their toll quickly, faster than any of us had expected and certainly faster than any of us had hoped.

Uncle Ken was a good man – good-looking, good-thinking, good-working, good-providing, good-natured and good-humored – just a good guy, who in my opinion had the cleanest and whitest sneakers in the history of the universe. He simply wouldn’t allow dirt to stick to them – that was all there was to it. Uncle Ken was one of those “still waters run deep” men, although in terms of water metaphors, I’d peg him not as a lake but more as a big, clean, slow-moving and often times surprisingly deep river. The kind you can just sit by for hours on a warm, calm day, not in the water but at the edge of it, and catch a bunch of small fish and if you’re lucky, a big one now and then. And it makes you happy to be there, and gives you reason to appreciate life, and provides fodder for stories to tell in years to come.

My earliest recollection of Uncle Ken was with the entire nuclear Bradshaw family, that being comprised of Uncle Ken, my mother’s younger sister Aunt Gwen, and girl cousins Kim, Vicky and Nancy, sometime in the winter, maybe Christmas, when they were leaving to head home to Chicago from our house in Davenport, Iowa. It was cold and there was snow on the ground; I think there was a lot of it, and the whole Bradshaw clan piled, well not piled exactly, more like “got into in an orderly, well-thought-through fashion”, first the girls into the back seat, then Aunt Gwen into the passenger seat, and finally Uncle Ken into the driver’s seat of their, very fascinating to a little boy, Volkswagen Beetle. I remember wondering how Uncle Ken was going fit into that little car – he was so tall. But he did, and the door closed and they drove away, the little Beetle making that buzzing sort of sound that vintage Beetle mufflers made, its rear tires splayed out at the bottom from the weight of its human cargo in the passenger compartment, and of the engine in the rear, the two little tail lights glowing red through the small wisps of warm exhaust fumes swirling out of the two tiny, but very shiny tailpipes.

We lived what seemed like a long distance from Chicago so didn’t have occasion to spend lots of time with the Bradshaw’s except on holidays - Thanksgiving and Christmas mostly - and an occasional get-together at Grandma Dotty and Grandpa Dick’s place on the Rock River in Rock Falls, Illinois. The Bradshaw’s always seemed like such a cool family to me. I know my sisters felt the same way. Later in life I learned that the Bradshaw girls felt the same way about our family. It’s funny how that works. Uncle Ken was tall and handsome, and Aunt Gwen was much smaller, pretty in a cute sort of way and seemed to giggle a lot at what my Dad would say, the three girls were cute and sweet and polite, and they moved around a lot to really cool big cities like Chicago, Miami, Washington D.C., and New York. Uncle Ken worked for United Airlines and did something important there. I didn’t know what exactly but that didn’t matter. I knew he wasn’t a pilot because I had asked, but even if he’d been a janitor I would have been impressed because anything to do with airplanes and United Airlines sounded pretty cool to me. I recall that Aunt Gwen went to work in a laboratory doing something with blood. That sounded pretty cool to me too. The Bradshaw’s were just plain cool.

As I got a bit older their family had moved to Miami and we moved to the South, so our tradition of annual holiday gatherings had come to a close, and many years replaced several months between get-togethers. I’m pretty sure that if I’d seen Uncle Ken and Aunt Gwen on the street I would have recognized them, but I probably would have walked right past the girls without notice, and certainly couldn’t have described what was going on in their lives in any detail aside from a vague recollection of significant events that my mother had mentioned at some point, and which I seemed to confuse, one with the other. Who was married to John? I thought Kim had children. Didn’t Nancy live in Florida? The only thing I really remembered was that Vicky worked for Federal Express, and I suppose that’s because they fly airplanes to transport packages. I think it’s true that that distance can breed indifference – “out of sight, out of mind”, as it were. It’s not intentional, it just is, sometimes. And then once in awhile, if we’re lucky, proximity comes again and provides the opportunity for the kind of closeness that transcends the laws of physics, and any physical distance the future may bring.

When Uncle Ken and Aunt Gwen retired, they sold their home, put their large belongings into storage, bought a big 5th-wheel travel trailer and truck and set off on what was originally planned to be a year-long trip that ultimately spanned the better part of three years. By then my parents had been retired for a good while and they decided to buy a trailer and become occasional gypsies, and travel with my Aunt and Uncle for a bit. They’d previously traveled together to Alaska and New Zealand and from what I’d heard then and heard again more recently, they traveled well together.

Frankly this puzzled me to no end. Although I loved my father and over the years have grown to appreciate him greatly for his many good traits, he was, if not the least, then the 2nd least patient man ever placed onto this Earth. Oh, the number of times I heard him say, after rising far earlier than the rest of us on the day we were to leave on a family vacation, “God damn it Irene, what the hell are you doing now?!” to my mother, and to me, “Jesus Christ J-Bird, get the lead out!” We rarely stopped for anything other than refueling and those stops were very, very short and as far apart as the gas tank would allow. If we asked to stop to use the restroom, or stop to buy oranges at a road-side produce stand, or stop at virtually any other point of interest “along the way” to our destination, his response would typically be, “There’ll be another one”. And there usually was, and we almost never stopped. I recall once after my mother’s legs had been crossed tightly in a similar fashion to those of my younger sister’s and mine for many miles, and after she had pleaded “Hap, would you please stop at this exit?!”, my father said “Irene, you have a bladder the size of a lentil bean.” My mother calculated once that on European trips with my father, she spent a full third of her time sleeping, another third traveling, and the other third alone, walking in search of my father who had gone ahead to get to wherever he wanted to go and see whatever he wanted to see, and that he frequently was not particularly charming when she finally found him.

In contrast, Uncle Ken was a slow-moving river, getting to where he was headed, calmly, cleanly, well-considered, neatly-arranged, thoroughly-covered and completely secured, at his own speed, in his own time. Based on historical fact and simple logic, combining my father and my uncle would not have been a recipe for a pleasant traveling experience. I simply could not picture Aunt Gwen and Uncle Ken traveling well with my Dad; with my mother perhaps, but with my Dad, no. Yet by all accounts, they did.

According to my mother, when RV’ing with Aunt Gwen and Uncle Ken, my father would rise early, break down their camp site, hitch up the trailer, and then sit in a lawn chair reading a book or looking at a magazine like “Popular Mechanics”, waiting patiently for Uncle Ken to finish, whenever that was. Then the pairs would drive away to start their day’s journey, stopping when they’d planned to or when they wanted to, and enjoy their journey as it unfolded. I find that profoundly sweet, reassuring, and simply amazing. I think my father loved and appreciated Uncle Ken in a way that only they could truly understand; men of a certain age and generation who didn’t have a need to discuss emotional things, but who could enjoy simple good things in life and appreciate one another’s companionship. It was a kind of relationship only known to them, and that those of us fortunate enough to learn to recognize could only imagine, and accept as real and true.

By the time I moved from Atlanta to Charlotte, Uncle Ken and Aunt Gwen had been settled in Hendersonville for several years, just outside Asheville, North Carolina, and I began to visit them, and they me. I was struck by how easy it was to be with them. We shared a common view of what is right, non-religiously-based views on spirituality, decidedly liberal views on social issues, an appreciation for birds and squirrels and nature, and the five o’clock cocktail hour.

I could talk of my experience in the corporate world of banking, the frustrations of its politics and efficiency-improvement initiatives, and the good things that made working that hard for the many hours I did at least bearable, if not worthwhile. Sometimes we’d sit on their deck looking out at the many birds at their various feeders, the “whirligig” squirrel toy that held a small ear of corn that would give the squirrel quite a surprise when it spun around from its added weight, and we’d talk. Those experiences motivated me to create my own backyard sanctuary that I call “My Peaceful Place”. They came to visit me and admired what I’d done, I think for the same reason I admired theirs, and I found great joy in finding special little objects of “yard art” for their home. It all just seemed to make the world a better place.

On one particular visit in the fall of 2004 during the Hendersonville Apple Festival, we walked and admired the arts and crafts, and varieties of apple-based products from the year’s harvest. It was during that visit that I caught one of the biggest fish from that big, slow-moving river called my Uncle Ken. We had stopped at a grocery store to buy something Aunt Gwen needed, and Uncle Ken and I sat together in their car chatting. Seemingly out of the blue he asked me, “So what’s the deal with this gay marriage thing? Wouldn’t civil unions be enough?” Although the topic caught me off guard a little, I sensed that Uncle Ken really wanted to know what the deal was, to me, his gay nephew whose opinion he seemed to respect. I thought for a moment and then replied, “Well, honestly I never really gave a rat’s ass about gay marriage in the past. I had a commitment ceremony once and the family was there and that’s what seemed important. But when politicians and campaigns began to condemn gay people under the cover that ‘gay marriage will undermine traditional marriage’ and that it was a sin, it really pissed me off. First, I don’t understand how two men or two women who love each other and want to get married to have the same legal rights as a straight couple could possibly undermine ‘traditional marriage’. I mean, what healthy-minded straight couple is going to get divorced just because two gay people they may not even know happened to be married in the eyes of the law? Second and more importantly, not being able to get married just because I’m gay makes me feel like a second-class citizen. Sure a civil union would provide a lot of the same legal protections and benefits as marriage, but not tax filing status and social security benefits and quite a bit of other stuff. I think I’m a good person who does his best and if I choose someone I love to share my life with, that’s all that should matter. It’s as simple as that.”

Uncle Ken sat quietly looking at me throughout my short soapbox speech. When I finished there was a pause, and he said “Hmm, I never thought of it that way. Okay”, nodding his head. And that was it. We never needed to discuss it again. But I think if gay marriage were on a ballot today and my Uncle Ken were still alive, he would vote in favor of it. That was a big fish I caught that day – not because I was able to persuade him to change his mind, but because he, my then 76 year-old straight, happily married uncle asked me what I thought, because he was sincerely interested in hearing what I had to say, and willing to consider it. And that’s the kind of quality you look for and hope for in people you care about.

Uncle Ken showed that same interest in understanding the important but unknown and uncomfortable when I virtually dragged them kicking into the early 21st century by making them adopt my older computer and to begin to learn about pc’s and the internet. Despite their strong initial resistance and with my persistence, perhaps even pushiness, I got Uncle Ken interested in how the pc worked, what the various components were and what they did, and how they might use it to be helpful. I was so impressed at his eagerness to understand and diligence in actually using it, and soon I was receiving emails from their new email address. I felt that I’d served a purpose greater than myself and it felt good.

In 2008 when my 15-year career and job with the bank came to an end, I decided that I wanted to take some time off and go on a driving trip. I thought maybe six weeks would be good, and that I’d load up my SUV and hit the back roads and smaller highways with Petunia, my little Chihuahua, staying in old motor court motels and stopping at silly tourist sites in the South as in the movie “Michael” – places of unique and odd interest like “The World’s Largest Non-Stick Frying Pan”. I went up to visit Aunt Gwen and Uncle Ken and told them of my budding plan. Having had extensive experience with RV’ing and being what I felt were the consummate retirees, I thought they’d be able to offer very good advice, and I was right. Uncle Ken listened and said “Six weeks is ok but really it’ll take at least two months for you to feel like you’ve done and seen anything, and more than that would be even better.” When I got home I thought about what he’d said, and that, along with a short trip to the home of some friends who had a small travel trailer, planted the seed of an even grander idea that began to grow quickly. Within two weeks I had purchased a cute new travel trailer and a pick-up truck, the trip had grown from six weeks to “at least three months”, at least at that point, and I was going to head west.

Just before I officially began what I called my “Travels with Pooter and Petunia Tour”, I towed my cute little trailer with my big boy cat Pooter and tiny Petunia up to see my aunt and uncle. They were all smiles looking at my trailer and how I’d configured storage and little accessories to make life easier on the road. We went inside their house and were sitting in the living room and I was going on and on about my thought process about clothing storage in the tiny trailer, and Uncle Ken smiled and shook his head. I knew exactly what he was thinking, and said, “Yup, I do tend to make decisions quickly. I am my father’s son.” He laughed softly, nodded his head and said, “Yes, you do, and yes you are.” After a month on the road I decided that my tiny trailer was too tiny and ordered a bigger, shiny new Airstream trailer; the kind of trailer that I’m sure they felt was “over the top”, yet I think secretly appreciated. When I told Uncle Ken on the phone that I’d ordered it, his response was “Of course you did.” A real regret I have is that Uncle Ken was never able to see it. I know he wanted to.

On Tuesday the 20th of April when I got the teary-voiced call from my Aunt Gwen that Uncle Ken was “on his last legs” from his 4th bout of pneumonia related to pulmonary fibrosis, and that antibiotics were no longer working, I was very sad. I called my oldest sister Sandy in Anchorage and shared the news that she had already heard from my mother, and told her that Aunt Gwen had said there was nothing that I could do and that she’d call me in a day or two, and that I felt I needed and wanted to go see Uncle Ken to say good-bye. Sandy said “At times like this it doesn’t matter what other people think. If you need to go say good-bye, then just go and do that, and do me a favor and tell him that I love him and am really am glad to have had him in my life.” Then she laughed gently and said “And kiss him for me.” I called my Mom and told her that I was planning to go up regardless whether I could do anything, just to be there and say good-bye to Uncle Ken, and she asked me to tell him that she loved him “to pieces” and that she was so thankful to have known him. I sent an email out to the rest of my family with the news, and charged with the messages from my mother and my sister, I went to bed that night thinking about what I wanted to say to Uncle Ken, and fell asleep, bitter sweetly looking forward to the next day’s journey to Hendersonville, not to be in the way, but to be there in love and to say good-bye.

I awoke the next morning feeling surprisingly good. It was a wonderfully odd mix of what were familiar feelings of sadness and resolve and gratefulness and love, but now the latter seemed so much more real and present. On the drive to Hendersonville I noticed with the rise in elevation how the foliage along the highway was becoming that of early spring again, with the azaleas and dogwoods in full bloom and the leaves of the trees bright green. I was going to say good-bye to Uncle Ken and it was spring, again. Suddenly a poem I had written a while back came to my mind, and along with it the recollection that I had written it on April 22nd, 2007, and the realization that today was April 21st, 2010, virtually three years to the day after I’d written it. So I recited it aloud as I drove:

“Reassurance for the Aspiring and Exasperated Gardener”
When leaves are wilted and stems are dry,
Lest you have a tear in your eye,
Know that life and death are a part of growth
The former is joyous, but the journey brings both…

With tears in my eyes I couldn’t help but smile and shake my head in amazement. Man, if this was a sign of what was ahead of me in the days and years to come, then I’d be well-advised to keep my seatbelt fastened.

When I arrived at the hospital after meeting my cousin Kim and went into Uncle Ken’s ICU room, I could feel tension in the atmosphere. Aunt Gwen was seated next to Uncle Ken’s bed holding his hand and watching his face. My cousin Vicky looked very serious and sad. It was clear that Uncle Ken was agitated. Although he wasn’t awake, he turned his head from side to side and grimaced, the oxygen mask irritating him, his breathing labored, almost desperate. The oxygen vaporizer on the wall was emitting a horrible piercing whistle, and any conversation seemed to agitate him more. It was time for his hourly injection of sedatives, and the nurse was nowhere to be found. It was not an easy time for anyone because it was not an easy time for Uncle Ken. Fortunately the nurse arrived and adjusted the vaporizer then provided the needed doses of Atavan and Morphine, easing Uncle Ken’s discomfort somewhat. Aunt Gwen had learned of a Hospice facility in Hendersonville and Uncle Ken would be moved there in the next hour and a half. I don’t think any one of us felt it could possibly come a moment too soon.

Kim, Vicky and I left the hospital to pick up cousin Nancy at the airport and as we talked on the drive to the Hospice facility it suddenly dawned on me that there was even more significance to this particular April for me. It was twenty years earlier in this month that my first partner Mark had died of AIDS-related lymphoma. I said it aloud and I couldn’t say anything more. No one could. When we arrived at Elizabeth House I decided to wait in the truck rather than go in to see Uncle Ken then. It just felt right to me for Nancy and the others to have time with him as a family, and that I didn’t need to hurry to say my good-bye. Soon Kim and Vicky returned to the truck and we drove to Aunt Gwen and Uncle Ken’s house to fix something for everyone to eat and take back to the Hospice facility. Fortunately I had made one of the smartest decisions of my life and had prepared a pork roast that I’d brought with me, so fixing dinner was quick and easy. While I was browning the roast on the grill Aunt Gwen called to say that she’d been told that it was now only a matter of hours before Uncle Ken would likely die. We finished our dinner chores and drove back to Elizabeth House, with me leading the way in my truck, followed by Kim and Vicky in Uncle Ken’s shiny burgundy Ford Ranger XLT pickup truck that he’d purchased used just a few months before.

As soon as we opened the door to Elizabeth House I felt a profound sense of calm. It was beautiful inside, more like someone’s home than a care facility. As we walked past the front desk, two of the staff looked up from their work and smiled. Another walked calmly behind them and smiled as well. When we reached the closed door of Uncle Ken’s room, Kim knocked lightly on it and it opened. It was Aunt Gwen, with a relaxed smile on her face, and she said, “It’s about time, I’m STARVING!” and laughed a sort of laugh that felt to me like a blend of frustration, thanks and relief. We all laughed too. This time Nancy was seated next to Uncle Ken’s bed, holding his hand, smiling thoughtfully. Uncle Ken looked peaceful, not at all distressed as he had at the hospital, now resting easily, his breathing slow and unlabored.

We went to the facility’s kitchen and prepared dinner. When it was ready, Kim asked me if I’d like time alone with Uncle Ken and I said I would love that. So while the women ate dinner, I sat down next to Uncle Ken and took his hand in mine, and sat quietly looking at him for a few minutes, thinking about what I wanted to say to him, and the messages that my Mom and my sister Sandy had asked me to give him. Then I began to speak. I told him that I knew this whole lung thing really sucked the big one, but that he looked really, really good; appropriately clean, well-groomed and handsome. I thanked him for being in my life when I was older and for being so important to me; that whenever I sat in my backyard watching the birds and squirrels and chipmunks, I’d think of him and say thank you. And whenever I looked at my shiny Airstream trailer and stepped inside I’d think of him and say thank you. That I would watch out for Aunt Gwen and visit her often and I knew that he wouldn’t worry about her. And I thanked him for giving me a chance to get to know Kim, Vicky and Nancy in a much deeper and wonderful way, because he was their father, and that he’d done a wonderful job helping them to become who they are. Then I said that Mom had given me a very specific message to give him – that she loved him “to pieces”, and that she was so thankful to have known him. Then I told him what Sandy wanted him to know, and what I thought my sister Susan and niece Katie would want him to know as well, and that although I hadn’t been able to speak with my sister Sal, that it really didn’t matter because she’d probably see him right after he died because the spirits of people who were important to her always seemed to come visit her right after they died anyway. And finally, I thanked him for being my Dad’s pal, that I knew how special my Dad was to him and how special he was to my Dad, and that I would always try to keep my sneakers as clean and white as his always were. Then I leaned over the bed and kissed him on the forehead like my sister Sandy had asked me to, told him that I loved him and that I’d miss him a whole bunch, and that I knew he’d always be around me and all those whom he loved and who loved him. I couldn’t have wished for a more perfect way to say good-bye.

I sat with Uncle Ken for a few more minutes, looking at his face and the warmer coloring of his skin than I’d observed in the hospital. I looked at his fingernails and they were clean and clear, no hint of the blue-ish coloring that supposedly precedes imminent death. The door of the room opened quietly and a Hospice nurse entered, very calmly and slowly. She smiled at me and I said quietly, “Hi, I’m the nephew, John.” She smiled again and said, “Ah, you’re the nephew, John”, nodding as if to firmly commit my name and relationship to my Uncle Ken to her memory because it was very important that she know and remember that.

I told her that he was my favorite uncle and that I’d been so lucky to have had him in my life, and that I was so thankful to her and everyone at the facility for being so wonderful and respectful; that the difference between his demeanor now and earlier was simply amazing and wonderfully reassuring to my aunt and cousins and to me. I told her that I felt that people who worked in Hospice were truly saints - angels called to help people transition in love. She told me that although it certainly wasn’t the easiest job she’d ever had, it was by far the most rewarding. As she spoke she gently took Uncle Ken’s other hand in hers and placed a heart monitor on his finger, stroking the back of his hand. I asked her about his good coloring and she replied that it was probably because he was more peaceful now and not fighting his discomfort and better able to process what little oxygen his lungs could still absorb. Although her words clearly spoke to the reality of what was to come, I wondered whether it would take longer than we’d been told. And I silently hoped it wouldn’t.

When my aunt and cousins returned I told them that I’d said everything I needed and wanted to say and thanked and hugged each of them, and told them that I loved them. My cousin Vicky said they’d let us know when the time came, and I started my two hour and twenty-minute drive back to Charlotte, where I immediately climbed into bed, the French door of my bedroom opened to the screened porch with a cool breeze wafting over my bed, my little Chihuahua Petunia snuggled warmly in her wooly blanket under my arm, and my big boy cat Pooter making biscuits on my thighs, and drifted off to sleep.

When I awoke the next morning I immediately checked my phone for a text message, but there was none. “Uncle Ken must still be hanging on”, I thought. In the early afternoon when I still hadn’t received a message or a call, I sent a text message to my cousin Kim asking how things were going. Within a few minutes she replied that Uncle Ken was comfortable, that his respiration was slowing down and his color changing but that his heart was strong and his pulse steady. She praised the Hospice staff for shaving and bathing him and being very tender with him, so much so that my cousins and aunt all vowed to go home and volunteer at their local Hospice’s. I felt relieved and went about the rest of my day and evening, and went to bed early.

That night, for the first time in many years, I dreamed of my father, not as the fast-moving, impatient man I had experienced so many times, but of the caring, teaching father I knew as well from times in my early youth and early teens; times when he wasn’t drinking and times to which I’d not given due consideration; the times he’d been with me, first explaining the mechanics and workings of our HO gauge model railroad trains, tracks and transformers, and then later sharing my excitement for and love of racing go-karts where I learned that I could do well if worked at it, and that people sometimes bend the rules or cheat to win, but what was most important was to do my best and feel good about that, because he did.

Just before dawn something caused me to stir slightly and I opened my eyes to see the darkness outside giving way softly to dawn, then I fell back asleep. When I awoke again at around seven to NPR on my radio, I calmly reached for my phone and there was the text message I’d been expecting, but not dreading: “It is done. Dad passed away at 5:00 this morning.” I sighed and lay there peacefully for a few minutes, breathing calmly and letting the reality of the news sink in. Suddenly an image came to my mind. It was like the ending of a life-long short story. And it became completely clear to me that it was something that I knew I wanted to and would share with my Aunt Gwen, my cousins, family members and close friends very soon, and with important acquaintances in the years to come.

Two days later on Sunday I drove again to Hendersonville. It was a trip originally planned several weeks earlier to visit Aunt Gwen and Uncle Ken and attend a book-signing and reading by Lee Smith, a southern author and humorist whom I greatly admire. Now the trip had both shrunk and grown significantly in audience, and in meaning. My Uncle Ken would not be there. Instead, my visit would include my Aunt Gwen, my three cousins Kim, Vicky and Nancy, Uncle Ken’s sister Marian and his brother Jack, and Vicky’s two grown children, Kelly and Tom. When I reached Hendersonville, I was detoured at the exit from I-26 onto the road that passed the Asheville airport near my aunt and uncle’s home by Highway Patrol cars blocking the interstate’s entrance and exit ramps. They were standing guard for the departure of President Obama who’d spent the weekend with his family in the mountains of western North Carolina. I smiled and irreverently wondered if Uncle Ken had delayed his ultimate departure to be able to say “hi” to the President I knew he admired. Kim and Kelly met me at a nearby truck stop and we drove into Asheville to see Lee Smith. As we stood in line to have our copies of the books signed, I said to Kim, “So has your Mom decided about when she’ll have a memorial get-together?” Without hesitating Kim replied, “I think this is it, just us here and now.” Once again, as I had in needing and wanting to say good-bye to Uncle Ken, I knew immediately what I needed and wanted to do during this visit; this spontaneous and informal memorial get-together.

After we drove back from Asheville and arrived at Aunt Gwen and Uncle Ken’s house, everyone gathered on the rear deck, watching the birds and squirrels and chatting about what had transpired in the past few days. When the time seemed right to me, I asked if it would be okay for me to share a story of an image that had come to me the morning that Uncle Ken had died. Aunt Gwen said “Of course”, and so I began to share my story.

That Friday morning as I lay in bed after I’d read Kim’s text message, my field of vision was suddenly filled with a beautifully bright white light. It was the kind of light referred to by people who have had a near-death experience. The edges of the light began to fade, shrinking smaller and smaller, with the brightest spot remaining, until I realized that I was looking at a pair of clean, white sneakers, Uncle Ken’s sneakers. It was as though someone had placed a camera just behind his feet, and into view in the distance came the image of two large travel trailers sitting side-by-side, and in between them sat my father in his lawn chair, patiently reading his “Popular Mechanics” magazine. As Uncle Ken approached, my father looked up from his magazine, smiled and stood up, and placing the magazine on seat of the chair, he walked toward Uncle Ken. They shook hands, clearly glad to see each other again, and smiled a knowing, accepting smile at one another. As the image faded, I had a knowing sense that they had started their journey, and would stop when they’d planned to or when they wanted to, and enjoy their journey as it unfolded, as it always had, and as it always would.

And I smiled.

Dedicated to my uncle, John Kenneth “Ken” Bradshaw
John Lincoln
May 3, 2010