As I sit typing at 30,000 feet with a box of my favorite Uncles ashes at my hip a lot of emotions whirl through my mind. My husband has his head back with eyes closed gently as he sleeps with what appears like a smile on his face. Uncle Jack met Sean twice. Once prior to being diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer, and again after a massive surgery to remove cancerous tumors, several chemo treatments, and many pounds of weight loss.
Looking out the window of the airplane I allow myself to be transported back to childhood. When I was little we would take the plane from our home outside of Phoenix, AZ to Harrisburg, PA where my parents were born. My grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, and everyone apart from Uncle Jack and Aunt Wanda stayed in Pennsylvania. Uncle Jack was my father’s eldest brother. He was the adventure seeker, the entrepreneur, the successful businessman, and the one that ventured outside of the Pennsylvania homeland to set his stake in the west. When the plane began ascending out of the Phoenix International Airport into the clouds I would loudly exclaim to my father “LOOK, A DUCK! LOOK, A TRAIN!, LOOK, a HEART!”, it seemed every cloud took on the shape of some incredible object. My mother would always want to give us Dramamine to get us to sleep and keep us from being airsick (which I had done my fair share of in those awesome little puke bags), I had learned to become clever and stick the pill to the roof of my mouth then take a drink. I would then proceed to wipe it out with a sneeze or a cough and crinkle it in a Kleenex or gum wrapper. I decided puking would be better than sleeping through the entire flight and missing out on all those puffy animal clouds.
My Uncle Jack was an adventurer, much like my dad. I think I happened to inherit the gene for adventure, and an entrepreneurial life from them. I found the need to explore, create, and share at a very young age. When I was waist high I went hiking with Uncle Jack on the desert mountains of Arizona. The hike on the White Tank Mountains was my first hiking memory I can recall. I have glimpses of mental photographs and short video clips engrained in my mind. I have certain smells from the desert air, the bloom of the desert cactus, the beads of sweat under the bangs on my brow. The feeling of worn denim upon my skin shifting up and down as I carefully took each step. The memory of his big smile, white teeth, black perfectly groomed hair, and mustache. He wore Big sunglasses and was standing a few steps above me. My left foot was placed rather unconfidently on the gravely mountain surface as my right foot hovered to step upward onto the rock a few inches further up the mountain. I hesitated. “Come on Leenie, you got this, here, take my hand”, he said with his confident and suave smile. I reached out with a hand half his size and placed it in his as he gently pulled my body upward and I released the fear of my hovering foot and stretched it upward, placed it upon the earth and pushed off my other foot so I could join him. Step after step my small and sweaty hand stayed engulfed in his hand as he led me to the vista. My lungs filled and I saw the clouds full of hearts, and ducks, and trains, and rabbits. “Beautiful, isn’t is Leeny? I am proud of you” he said. “Thank you Uncle Jack”, I said.
I don’t know if we shared a sandwich next or some amazing culinary creation he had created and brought for us to picnic with on that mountain vista, but I do remember the climb up into those heavenly clouds full of hearts. Years later I would return to Arizona as an adult to visit with my aunt and uncle and My uncle Jack would take me hiking once again.
This time, I was in my well into my adult years. He stopped intermittently to take a few drinks and catch his breath. We would stand atop the vista and look out, however I failed to see the hearts, and bunnies. I had recently gone through a divorce. “Leeny, look over there, do you see any ducks in those clouds?” he said, “No, Uncle Jack, I do not”, I said. He smiled. “Never stop looking and exploring for those cool clouds, ok?”.
I would later find out he had a mini heart attack that day while we climbed that mountain top. He would recover, and I would start trying to find the hearts and ducks in the clouds again.
When he reached his mid-seventies and I was in my late thirties he fell stricken with pancreatic cancer. The same cancer had taken his mother, my yaya and it was a horrid and ugly way to transition out of this life.
When I learned of his cancer, I had already been through massive rehabilitation after a severe trauma which almost took my life. I needed to learn to walk again, and thankfully I also regained the ability to hike again. On my anniversary of my trauma my husband took me hiking in Vermont. When we summited, I looked out at the clouds and saw hearts, and birds, and a cloud that even resembled a Phoenix. I had reconnected with joy. I called Uncle Jack and Aunt Wanda that weekend to tell them about the hike, and the clouds, and that I loved them and to thank them for being in my life.
Three years post trauma, I was given the opportunity to receive an ICU heroes award out in Phoenix for not only my survival but also the work I had done from a giving back standpoint and how I had used the trauma as a catalyst to do greater work, part of that genetic make-up I was blessed with from my dad and Uncle Jack. I sat beside Uncle Jack as he lay in a bed and handed him the plaque thanking him. His face was thin, his hair was gone, his eyes had narrowed, and his skin was bruised and pale. He did smile, and tell me how much he loved me and how proud he was, and thankful. I hugged him and I wept. I told him I would be back soon and that I wish we could hike again together, tears rolled down his cheeks and he said, “me too leeny, and see clouds full of life”.
Uncle Jack passed on Valentine’s Day, with my father at his side. He held on for days with no food or water completely without voice and just occasionally letting out sounds or groans. Dad sat at his side for days and nights on end, reminiscing, telling him how much he loved him, and doing what family does. I will always have such high respect to my dad for those days, he was a man of his word. His love for his family flows deeper than I have words to express or bigger than the biggest puffy cloud (even the one that looks like an elephant).
Prior to Uncle Jack passing and while he could still speak he said he wanted his ashes to be spread in various places he loved, I knew then and there we needed to take him hiking to as many places as we could and let his ashes float up into the air like a phoenix into the clouds.
As I sit here in First Class (because that is the only way to fly with Uncle Jack), I contemplated getting a martini. I don’t drink martinis but I know he would like one. I thought about just sitting the drink on top of his ashes by the window.
Instead, I just ordered a coffee and took if black like he liked it. I decided not to be sad but to type away and reminisce, to look out the window with passion, energy, love, and the heart of that little girl who took her Uncles hand and stepped upward.
We love you Uncle Jack. T-1 hour till touch down in Denver, let’s do some hiking and see clouds, this time I’ll hold you up. Thank you for teaching me the love of hiking as it is such a metaphor for this life. Always looking up, always looking forward, always ready to take that next step towards the vista.