I remember a very special day when my 10 year old grandson—the son of my eldest boy—came by with his sister and he and I spend the day enjoying time together. I was a fifth grader all over again, something they call me at work because I can be a cutup. I cannot remember all we did that day but for me it was a day of absolute happiness. It was one of those rare occasions when one feels perfectly at peace. For one day, I escaped life and entered a world of pure joy. It was not describable in the ordinary terms of everyday events. Words fail to capture the intense affection I felt toward my grandson at the time. Abram Maslow would have called it a peak experience. I call it a peak’s peak experience! When he had to leave, I hugged him and held him close and didn’t want to let him go. I was weeping knowing how much I would miss him.
I was overcome with a frightening loneliness. It is a fear that wraps the soul in a death grip that threatens life itself. Loneliness knows no future. Loneliness has no friends, no plans, no tomorrows. In that moment, I no longer had a wife, sons, daughters-in-law or granddaughters—all of whom I love with my life. They were gone. There was only one grandson and he was leaving. And the meaning to life would go with him.
I awoke—my eyes wet, my heart still aching with the loss of a grandson I don’t even have, my thoughts reflective enough to grab the laptop and start typing out this story of broken hearts and the loved ones who unwittingly broke them when they said goodbye.
The feeling left over from the dream brought back memories of my Uncle Al, perhaps one of the loneliest persons I’ve ever known. And why mention him? He raised me, or so he maintained in a rather heated discussion with my mom, his sister. I did spend as many waking hours with him as with anyone else and more—perhaps, with the exception of school. He taught me many things which understates our relationship. He was a second dad to me, but I always saw him as Uncle Al.
Uncle Al never married. The girl of his dreams—if I understand the story as grandma remembered it— died of cancer. He spent his life caring for grandma in an upstairs apartment at the far end of a quiet street. Grandma passed on in 1962 leaving him all alone. He left me August of 1965. Old doc Quinn said it was diabetes, but I know he died of loneliness. He was 61.
Just 2 weeks earlier I had informed him I would be continuing my college education in eastern PA. He literally begged me to stay in Buffalo at the State University where I had spent 2 post high school years already. Word had it that mom was to blame for my leaving. That she was pushing me to quit the study of chemistry and go into the ministry. That she wanted me to do and be what she couldn’t since she married dad and he required her to stay home with ‘us kids.’ This was not my personal feelings or thoughts but rumor when it seems reasonable trumps reality.
I was the only remaining regular companion in uncle Al’s life for 3 years since grandma left. Family visited him, yes; and many cared for his well-being but—and I say this with loving memory—he had an Archie Bunker personality and was difficult to get along with. Except for me. We played board games by the hour together; we worked the garden together in his backyard; we listened to music; shopped together and ate nighttime snacks together talking about everything and anything he wanted to teach me. I spring cleaned his flat every Saturday morning—his request. In a word, in a most significant way, he was a dad to me and his influence and love played a major role in my upbringing. He was close to me in a way I never saw as a child or a teenager—something kids are prone not to see.
The day before I was scheduled to leave Buffalo—never to live there again, it turns out—unc was found fallen asleep on his living room couch. I know he fell asleep because he use to blow air with lips closed when he would exhale in his sleep. His lips, as he lay there, were in that small o shape. He exhaled his last breath. You say what you will but I think life had lost meaning in the absence of any one regular enough in his life to relieve the loneliness.
I was… in prison, and you did not visit Me.
We have begun as a society to address clinical depression. We have even increased prison ministries and visitation rights for inmates. All in the name—and rightly so—of a humanity that is learning to care. But the lonely are still on no one’s radar. They quietly sit in silence in chairs lining hallways and in front of TV sets airing meaningless programs or they are all alone in an otherwise uninhabited world. They long for, they hurt for, a visit from someone that has forgotten them.
Call your mother!
What a dream!