Today I learned that my uncle Lawrence Gallagher of Youngstown, Ohio, passed away peacefully. My father called to tell me the news. My wife and I shed a few tears, but that has given way to that calm lonely satisfaction of knowing someone good has left your life. There is no replacement; no spare part to make the machine whole again. He is gone and that is that.
People die all the time. Death is the most human of all events; it is life’s only guarantee. I hear countless times the notion that I will meet death well, to die well, to die with dignity or some other variation. Dying is an act; dying well is a matter of perspective, I suppose. Death does not matter as it is simply an action, so the notion of dying well, placing some value judgment on the act seems a futile exercise. It is the life we need be concerned with. And my Uncle Larry’s was a life worth celebrating. He will most surely be missed as his presence made everyone around him better. His words brought calm, wisdom, investigation. He piqued your curiosity and corrected your vision; you began to see the world differently, as he did, so ripe with possibility, promise. With love.
I can only speak to my connection to him; death is profoundly personal that way. We remember loss as loss, as the severing of a connection of sorts, one that has been built over time with a thousand shared experiences, failures, glory and banality. But rather than try to be clever with words, to let art sweep meaning, I will rely on others to convey my feelings.
“Death ends a life, not a relationship.”
Death is not the severing of a relationship; those bonds are too sturdy to succumb to an ephemeral event such as death. My relationship with Uncle Larry will continue well through this life and onto the next. My actions, thoughts, and character are all in some way predicated on his guidance and wisdom through the years. My character in itself is my commune with him, my communication channel with his soul. I will talk with him for the rest of my years in one way or another. We were all ennobled by him and to think we will not continue to be seems illogical to me. I see him everywhere and in everything, I hear his wisdom pervade my spirit like sunlight through the window. The panging beats of my heart are my Morse Code, my sonar reaching out to him. Those signals are being received still; we just are not able to see the immediate feedback we so desire. He will murmur back and it will feel like an autumn wind rustling the leaves, a whisper in our ear and we will hear him.
“You are at the end of your life. You are going to meet Death. There is no resting place on your way, and you have no provision for the journey. Make therefore an island for yourself. Hasten and strive. Be wise. With the dust of impurities blown off, and free from sinful passions, you will be free from birth that must die, you will be free from old age that ends in death.”
Uncle Larry is dead, but he is not. He is free from that cycle of birth and death; he is now one with all that surrounds him. He is in the embrace of all that came before him; he has taken his place in that beautiful sunrise that never sets. We miss him because we love him; none of that love evaporates as if triggered by the act of death itself. It remains in our relationship with him, it carries on. We miss him because our lives seem a little lonelier, a little less charismatic, a little more fragile. We possessed him in some way and now we don’t. But we never really did and we know it. We were just fortunate to have our paths cross for so many shining years. We can feel his presence lingering; that is his gift to us.
I now turn to Pablo Neruda, who captured moments of such emotional complexity with such simple verse. In this poem, he is referring to a woman he loved that is no longer his one, but the object of love does not matter. It is the loss we feel.
“Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
To think that I do not have her. To feel that I have lost her.
To hear the immense night, still more immense without her.
And the verse falls to the soul like dew to the pasture.
What does it matter that my love could not keep her.
The night is shattered and she is not with me.”
And yes, that immense night is more immense without Uncle Larry. Those anxieties of life are not as easily assuaged; they seem all the less logical, these happenings, occurrences. They seem random and abstract and at times vicious, the working of this world. But Uncle Larry strengthened us, our resolve to face these on our own. I am more powerful standing on the shoulders of my forebears, letting them brace me against the thousand natural shocks the flesh is heir to.
From the same poem, the following line:
“Love is so short, forgetting is so long.”
Truer words were never spoken. Luckily, the only factor that will curb this feeling of loss, of sadness is time. And time is what we have in no short supply. But one should never equate mourning with inactivity; sadness with sedentary. Now is the time for motion; for understanding, for an unflagging energy seizing the cosmic moments of experience. Uncle Larry demands that of us. To experience what he cannot; to push farther than the circumstances of his life would allow. I owe it to him to see this world, to learn all that I can, to be humbled, to make mistakes, to learn, to tear wisdom from rough strife.
“Somebody should tell us, right at the start of our lives, that we are dying. Then we might live life to the limit, every minute of every day. Do it! I say. Whatever you want to do, do it now! There are only so many tomorrows.”
-Pope Paul VI
Only so many tomorrows. Regret is not something I like to embrace; it is merely possession masquerading as sorrow. But rather than say, I wish I could have gotten my Uncle Larry to Dublin, to Trinity College, I will refrain. Instead, I will say that the next time I am there, I will think of him. The next time I am in some far off place, in some far off country staring at the opposite end of an ocean than my own, I will reach into my deep heart’s core and think of him. I will be there in no small part because of him.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I have not lived.”
-Henry David Thoreau
I don’t know what Uncle Larry thought. But I heed Thoreau’s advice not out of fear of regret, but as a testament to all those loved and lost. And it is a loss for us, that there is no doubt. But it is not pain, but rather a resignation to what has carried on to something better. It is the knowledge of an empty bird cage and an open window. Better for the bird, but less so for those left behind.
But I have shed some tears and will cry no more. My Uncle Larry would have demanded we all move on and carry those memories, that knowledge of him with us. So we mourn now for him to push forward later with him. I will never be without him. Wordsworth said it best (and my Uncle Larry would most definitely appreciate me quoting Wordsworth by the way) in his poem Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood. I highly recommend you read the whole poem as it it is a beautiful summation of life and death, of our fleetingness, of love and life.
“The Clouds that gather round the setting sun
Do take a sober colouring from an eye
That hath kept watch o’er man’s mortality;
Another race hath been, and other palms are won.
Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”
The thoughts of my Uncle, those wonderful memories, lie too deep for tears. And so the Gallagher Family will mourn and move forward and we will call forth Uncle Larry with every barbaric yawp we utter across the rooftops of the world, every whisper, every sigh, every morning when we rub our eyes, see the sun and spring forth into the day with possibility. And so I will leave my thoughts on Uncle Larry for the time being and go about my day with him nearby. I will leave you, patient reader, with parting thoughts from that iconic character who simply could not wait to be parted. And yes, Uncle Larry would have appreciated me quoting Hamlet as well.
“To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil”
What dreams indeed. Thank you Uncle Larry. Good luck on your journey.