My great-uncle Don died yesterday at 9:05 p.m. Iowa time. I got the call in the morning that he had lost consciousness and continence; Mom had gone out to Hospice to be with him. My Uncle was manning the phone at their home in Iowa. I called the Hospice nurses and asked if they could hold the phone up to his ear.
I told him how much I loved him, that he was surrounded by love and going to a gentle place with Jesus. (My uncle is a very observant Baptist Christian, and had said that he wasn't afraid of dying, he had been a believing Christian and "when the Lord wants to take me He will")
As a bilingual German-English speaker, Uncle Don was a translator and a foot soldier in WWII. He survived D-Day landing on Normandy Beach. He translated for displaced people from the concentration camps. He negotiated a surrender of a village with General Eisenhower and helped film the atrocities of the camps. He had war trophies from Berchtesgaden (all of which he sent to the Eisenhower Museum last month to avoid falling into the hands of modern neo-Nazi nuts.)
This is a man who worked his whole life as a factory worker in an ammunition plant, battery plant, and a brief stint as a security guard. He never owned a car, but kept his driver's license current. He taught me how to drive and showed nerves of steel in doing so. He rode a bike to work every day, whether during -50 degree wind chill Iowa winters with ice and snow on the roads or 90 degree summers with 70 percent dewpoint.
He is directly responsible for my getting my college degree. When I had to go under the knife and into treatment for a second round of liver tumors in 1989, Bryn Mawr's financial aid department promised (verbally) that they would hold my scholarships for me. They lied, or at least went back on their word. I had one semester left to go.
I remember Uncle Don coming to my bedside in the hospital and patting my head. "It's a crime that this bright girl shouldn't finish college." he said. Then, he withdrew his entire life savings, $17,000 to pay for my last semester. He told me to pay him back as best I could, when I could.
I sent him $50 a month from then on in, and we wrote back and forth. Four years later, he inherited a windfall from my Great-Uncle Karl and was able to retire very comfortably. He immediately wrote off my debt to him. "I have enough to live on and I'm set for life," he said.
He was very artistic and used to create art objects from found things that other people discarded. He made sculptures of wood, refinished and refurbished old furniture to look new and interesting. He made mobiles from bike tires, restored and hung a large discarded chandelier in his living room. (The fact that it looked out of place made it so interesting.) He painted his bathroom with footprints coming in the door, then going up the walls and dancing (a la Murray Dance School diagrams) among the Mondrian-like colors he had used to paint the ceiling.
He was a devotee of yoga and would spend 20 minutes every day in a head stand in the corner of his living room. He was a very calm and kind man. He never married and had no kids.
He is donating his body to the University of Iowa and is leaving the family with the choice of having a memorial service, or not. "I won't be there." he said laughing. Last week he wrote his own obituary. He stayed compos mentis all the way until Saturday -- Sunday he died.
He died of cancer, which came from his one vanity -- he liked to lie outside, drink iced tea and get a tan every summer. Apparently the cancer was eating away his face.
I can't and couldn't afford to go home to Iowa to see him. We spoke on the phone and I wrote him a letter about a funny incident here in San Francisco.
One small life, well lived, is gone. I will tender my memories of him with care.
I want to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi Knight, the same as my Father.
STAR WARS (1977)