The Quest to remember Uncle Mike

Me driving, clearly not a Civic 😉

 

There are trips and there are vacations and there are journeys. My recent trek to Iowa for my Uncle Mike’s funeral services was none of these. It was a quest.

On Wednesday afternoon, my parents, my sister and her family of four, and my family of four, set off in the rented RV pictured below. Within the RV was a mixed bag of emotions. Excitement over something new (we’ve never taken this trip with our girls before), anxiety over the actual driving (the RV is 36 feet long and sways like a boat cresting a wave), and the very obvious grief and sadness that is part and parcel when attending the services for a loved one.

So, with that, we drove into the night, and through the next day, for a total of 26 hours. It was difficult, and an RV does not handle like a car, as much as I psyched myself up to believe it would be no more difficult to drive than my Civic. But with no more than a few bumps and bruises, we prevailed, hitting the one side trip we had scheduled before our final destination of Knoxville, Iowa.

Field of Dreams is a family favorite of ours because, Iowa. Also, that movie has a bit of magic interspersed, which makes you believe in a better world than this. Therefore, visiting the location where the movie was filmed, on a quest such as this, only made sense. Out there in the fields of Dyserville, Iowa, sits the field and home from the movie. We walked on the field and pretended to get swallowed up by the corn, and reveled in the beautiful breeze and patchwork sky, after so many hours on the road.

However, if you know the movie—or even better, the novel, Shoeless Joe—then you understand the import of the question within it that has become a bit of a tagline for the movie: “Is this heaven? No. It’s Iowa.” As my mother stood behind a wrought iron sign, twisted into this quote, with her granddaughters beside her, it was clear that this destination was not truly one of coincidence, but of necessity. She would be saying goodbye to her brother the next day, and the notion of him being in the afterlife, was soothed a bit by the rustling corn and the whispers on the wind.

We then drove the RV to our final destination, the Marion County Park in Knoxville, Iowa. Fortunately for my parents, they were met by my mother’s sister and husband and escorted to dinner and then to their hotel, while my brother-in-law and I tried to figure out the ins and outs of RV park living. Neither of us had ever done this before, but it worked out, and even though our New York license plate stuck out like a sore thumb amid the much more prevalent and local RVs, the people in the park were kind and considerate. We then settled in for the night, in preparation for the most difficult part of everything, the services the following day.

Now, through a bit of misunderstanding on my part, I did not know until the day we left on our quest that I would be delivering my uncle’s eulogy. Not a problem, except that when I write, I like the ability to be in an office, and to have coffee and white noise, and most importantly, time to write and revise. I had none of these available to me, except for coffee. Therefore, on Friday morning, I woke up early and got on my phone and started writing. I had the good fortune of my mother’s correspondence with my uncle’s colleagues and friends, and could then insert a bit of context and flavor of my uncle’s life in Iowa. I knew him as my uncle, but I also knew he was so much more than that. And if a eulogy is to meet any criteria, it is this: tell the story of the person’s life.

With Death Wish Coffee pumping through my veins, I secluded myself in the passenger seat at the front of the RV, while my daughters and nieces slept, and wrote for an hour. I then sent the draft to my wife for review and got on with the day. Because we had errands to run, my cousin’s son to entertain, and pieces of the services and after party to put together.

So, we went our separate ways, and then came back together for lunch at my Aunt’s house in Knoxville, and then all ten of us got ready for the services in my parents’ hotel room, which as you can imagine is no small feat. I found myself ironing my clothes in the hallway because the women needed their space.

Sadly, I’ve attended many wakes and funerals, all of them traditional Catholic events. However, my Uncle Mike was not a religious person. He was raised Catholic, but ultimately walked away from that faith. Therefore, the celebration of life service was a beautifully simple affair, with flowers and a slideshow and my uncle’s urn (not filled—I get to that in the eulogy). Family, friends, and community members all came and milled around and gave their condolences to my Aunt Deb and Mike’s children, Morgan and Troy, and then sat and told stories about Mike, or simply caught up with one another. There was no receiving line, no clergy, no prayers, just good music that Mike would have enjoyed playing in the background, hand-picked by my parents.

Cousins at the services

Then, it was time for the eulogy, and the funeral director gathered the room’s attention and I stood behind a podium at the front of the room, with the slideshow playing over my shoulders. And I read what I had written and hoped it was good enough for the people in attendance and for my uncle’s memory (the eulogy is at the end of this post). I feel like it went well, but after, people were invited to tell their own stories about Mike, and that was wonderful. People stood and told funny and poignant stories about my uncle, and it was how a remembrance should be—wrought with sadness, but underpinned with the joy of having known the person being celebrated.

While my uncle was in the hospital, and unable to breathe without direct flow oxygen, he entertained the people at his bedside, and sang songs that he loved, one of them being the Beatles’ classic “In My Life.” Therefore, at the very end of the services, the song was played and people were asked to sing along, and as chilling as it was to hear, it was also a beautiful way to end the celebration. There weren’t many dry eyes after, but that was the point.

From there, we all ventured to one of my uncle’s favorite local breweries, Peace Tree Brewery, for great beer and more stories and jokes and a couple hours of merriment, which my uncle would have adored.

Unfortunately, we left the brewery and went back to the RV park, and prepared for our departure the next day. We had achieved what we came to do; our quest was fulfilled. And now the journey home lay ahead.

We drove with a purpose and arrived home at 4:30 the next morning, for a total time of 20 hours of driving. We were exhausted, especially my brother-in-law, who took the last leg, and my sister, who was his co-pilot and in charge of keeping him awake. At some point, they must have turned on the radio. I don’t know when, because I didn’t hear it until I was fully awake, but when we turned the last bend into my sister’s neighborhood, one last song began on the radio. It was one of my uncle’s favorites, and in that moment, with our journey complete, the song made so much sense: “It Ain’t Me Babe”

Because we were no longer searching for anyone or for anything. We had achieved it, and I think my uncle gave us a tip of his hat with that song, thanking us for making the quest, for honoring his life. That’s what family does, and what we will continue to do.

Rest in Peace, Uncle Mike.

Mike’s Eulogy:

You’re lucky if in your life you know a handful of great men. Mike Gaffney was one of those great men. He was kind and empathetic and compassionate, and always punctual. Which is so ironic, considering he’s late to his own funeral (indeed, his cremains have not arrived yet)

Mike was a man comprised of grit and resilience. When he was 17, his father died, presenting a situation that often topples many. But you already know that’s not what happened. Thanks in large part to his mother, Gene, the support of his sisters, and later, his drinking buddy, who became his brother-in-law, my father, Tim, Mike forged on, and pursued academics to feed his brilliant mind. He found Psychology to be his calling. And wonderful for all of us, amid his academic pursuits, he also pursued Deb.

He created a wonderful life out here in Iowa, with Deb and the Rankin family, treating his patients, and then raising his children, Morgan and Troy, all while being “relentlessly accepting.” Because with grit comes a certain wisdom: regardless of how strong we are, we must also be malleable, so that we do not break. Mike had an ability to be humble, yet strong, kind, yet unrelenting. He was basically a superhero.

Because, with this beautiful life of his fully intact, he should have lost it after his biking accident, 15 years ago. And yet, he did not. Mike transformed himself all over again, relying on family and friends in ways he never wanted, but later came to appreciate in deep and meaningful ways.

And the accident changed him, altering how he saw life and those around him, and those he treated. Fortunately, he also got to become Papa Mike, and bask in the glow of a grandchild’s perception of him. If he didn’t wear a superhero cape before, he certainly did now.

Then, as we all know, Mike was besieged with another critical challenge, leukemia. He received the best medical care available and unbelievable support from his family. Mike came out of the other side of this care with an opportunity to be with his family once again. It was all worth it, if only for the brief time he was allowed to see his family and to assert his will one last time.

Mike lived by the adage “Never let common sense get in the way of opportunity.” He lived it, and if you consider it, we are all following in his footsteps. Our lives are all non-sensical aspirations of hope, bolstered by our grit and resilience. In this we are all like Mike.

There’s a lesson here and I think Mike would appreciate that we are using his life to teach us how to better our own. It’s this: we are stronger than we think, capable of more love and empathy than we think, and that we already possess the tools we need to forge our lives into something epic. We just need to believe in each other and especially in ourselves.

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Godspeed, Mike Gaffney

Last Thursday my mother sent me a writing prompt like no other: If you have anything at all you want to say to Mike you can send a text. He has decided to start Hospice this afternoon.

The Mike in this situation is her brother, my Uncle Mike, and he died in Chicago on Friday evening from complications attributed to his battle with leukemia.

I’ve often heard that writers are people for whom words are more difficult, because we care so much about them. This couldn’t have been more spot on for me in that moment. I was working on a novel, and that project suddenly did not matter. Responding articulately to Mom’s text through my tears, did.

Here’s what I wrote:

Life’s purpose is to achieve the absolute most you can with the time you have. To love, to work, to hope, to believe. To live fully is to feel as if you’ve never done enough. Uncle Mike, you’ve lived so fully that others will follow in your footsteps of loving, of working, of hoping, and of believing. Thank you for forging the way.

My mother read that text to him and he smiled, and I am so happy to have had that last moment, because Mike Gaffney was a figure in my life, who was more than Mom’s brother. He was a whip-smart intellectual, but also one of the kindest and bravest men I’ve ever met.

He lived in Iowa with his wife, daughter, and son, and every summer, growing up, his family would either make the trek in a van, driving non-stop for 24-hours (coffee cans have multiple uses) to us in Upstate, NY, or, my family would make the trek in their direction, driving in our own van, filled with my parents, my aunt, my sister, me, and one or two of our friends.

These were not luxurious trips. Our van didn’t have AC, and when driving through farm county in July, you really want AC, or at least a gas mask. But luxury isn’t the point of a family trip, it’s the experience. And as a child, heading to Iowa, and while there, I had plenty of experiences:

I learned that the word “pop” meant soda and that breakfast burritos are a thing.

I once saw my mother and uncle remove a tick from my cousin Morgan’s head with the end of a burnt match.

Corn can, indeed, stretch for miles, and in the morning, it emits a fine mist, like a pond or swimming pool.

There are creations known as pig condos, and they are as adorable as they sound, but equally rancid smelling.

The experience that is RAGBRAI, and how biking, not racing, is a thing in Iowa. As is “scooping the loop.”

Because of my uncle and Iowa, I also had some of the best Catfish in my entire life (and I’ve been to New Orleans). It was served up in a run-down looking shack of an establishment, complete with a snapping turtle that had a cigar in its mouth, adorning the wall. Because, why not.

And in the years when they came to us, the main element that stands out is how real he made all the stories of their youth, how having him in that space he and my mother and my aunt shared, made it more tangible, and yet, larger-than-life. I believe much of that is due to his gregarious personality. To me, Mike was epic.

When I became a teen, my time on those trips became limited, especially when I went to college. But Mike kept correspondence, sending me obscure books of fiction and philosophy, and introducing me to Coltrane. Listen to “All Blues”, below, if you’ve never had any Coltrane in your life.

Mike was a psychologist, and he didn’t so much talk me out of psych—a field I was heading toward—as he brought the reality of his field into light. It helped inform my decision to go into teaching and not psych, which I believe is one of the best decisions I’ve made.

In later years, when my sister and I had children of our own, and family vacations shifted to going to the shore, the Iowa family would join, and Mike was always so thrilled to see our daughters and hear about our lives and their lives, and simply enjoy the family he got to see, sporadically.

In his own life, Mike accomplished more than I will ever know. By all accounts he was an acclaimed psychologist, helping countless veterans, but he was also a phenomenal husband, father, and grandfather. In spite of being a man who pushed his body to the end of its limits through biking and hiking (he made it up Kilimanjaro), he was, foremost, a man who put family first and wore his heart on his sleeve.

The last time I saw him was when we moved into our home, two years ago. He helped transport our backyard items, including a hammock, which he promptly laid on, looked around and said, “Wow, your home is like a resort. How much a night?”

Mike was definitely onto something 🙂

 

And so, on Wednesday of this week, my family of four and my sister’s family of four, and our parents, will get in an RV and head back to Iowa for Mike’s services. The RV might be a bit more luxurious than the minivans of my youth, but I hope the experience will be the same for my daughters and nieces. At some point, I am certain, someone will ask, “Is this heaven?” And we will all get to reply, “No, it’s Iowa.”

And to that end, I will offer my uncle’s last request: complete acts of kindness. Especially amid the backdrop that is our country today, I cannot think of a better way to focus your time, here on earth. The afterlife is something my uncle grappled with, and I think this final request seems a perfect way to make peace with the uncertainty, because following in Mike’s path means creating experiences for others that are like little slices of heaven.

I can’t ever know if the words I sent in that text or the words I have now written here can fully convey all that I mean, but I know that my uncle would be proud of me for giving it my best. That is all we can ever truly strive for.

Godspeed, Mike Gaffney.