Wednesday, July 13, 2011

All My Heroes

To use one of his favorite expressions, my Uncle Bill was made of stern stuff. He certainly wasn’t one for doctor visits. When he was processed out of the Navy at the end of World War II, he received a physical exam. In all the years following, eyeglasses were his one concession to medical care. At 84, he was hale, hearty, and the very essence of senior independence.

So when he suffered a serious stroke last month that rendered him disabled and bedridden in a hospital, I knew my uncle would not want to remain in that condition.

He is entwined in my earliest memories, a secure and steady force throughout my life. A member of “The Greatest Generation,” Uncle Bill is part of our national history as well as my family. As a 17-year-old boy just out of high school, Bill needed his father’s signature to join the Navy and go off to war. Raised with strong faith and solid principles, he knew right from wrong and never had trouble articulating either. Such strength of character is rare today and growing ever more precious.

For many years, each time I visited my mother on the East Coast, Uncle Bill made the long drive to pick us up and treat us to lunch. We always thoroughly enjoyed our special day, laughing and trading stories about old times.

Uncle Bill had served as a radio operator in the Navy. During one overnight visit at my grandmother’s house, my breakfast cereal box contained a toy Morse code clicker. My uncle seized it happily and called me from the table. “Come on, you need to learn the code!” We both flopped down on my grandmother’s living room floor, Uncle Bill’s tall, lanky form stretched out opposite me, with the little plastic clicker between us. I can still hear him calling the signals as his long fingers tapped expertly, “Dit-dah-dit-dit-dit-dit-dah...” Then he would spin the clicker around to face me and say, “Your turn,” briskly coaching me on whether to tap a “dit” or a “dah” as I spelled out my name. I was perhaps six years old, but I was completely enthralled. Through the bright prism of remembrance, I can see our two heads close together, hovering over that tiny toy on my grandmother’s carpet, as though it were yesterday's adventure and not a memory half a century old.

It’s always so surprising, the fond memories that nestle deep within us and spring up like geysers of light when we least expect them—sometimes painfully, often with joy, but always with gratitude for those special moments that once were but never will be again.

My Uncle Bill died this morning. I know that was his wish, but it is so difficult to let him go. Another pillar in the architecture of my life is gone. Another of my heroes has left me behind. Today I realize again that all my life’s heroes have by their actions so clearly defined for me the virtues of integrity, courage, kindness, faith, loyalty, and love. And none of them more so than my dear Uncle Bill.

For the rest of my days, I shall remember.