“Isn’t this place beautiful, Mike would have loved it,” my aunt said as my brothers and I entered the church that held his remains. “Yep,” we ignorantly replied because the truth was no one knew if Uncle Mike was religious, let alone what constituted beauty to him. Uncle Mike was my dad’s half-brother since they shared the same father; however he was old enough to be his father. I thought at first that the man was merely a mystery to my brothers and me because he lived eight hours away in Virginia our whole lives. However, in his biannual visits, in which he stayed for no more than a couple of nights, I had learned more about the man than my dad knew in as many years when he was my age. I at least was aware of my relation to the man; whereas my father, on the other hand, grew up knowing him as the strange man that lived upstairs who wore his deceased father’s clothes.
My grandfather died at the age of fifty-six when my father was four years old and my Uncle Mike was in his mid-twenties. The Athenian, Pericles, in his famous funeral oration declared that we grieve not for things which we do not know, but for things to which we have long been accustomed. Being so young, my father was unable to understand what he had lost. The presence of a father was a foreign concept to him. Uncle Mike, however, had long been accustomed to the presence of his father and his grief only further increased his reclusiveness. This grieving son ultimately turned into the person that my father knew only as the strange man that lived upstairs.
The only things people knew about Uncle Mike were also true of my grandfather. This debilitating grief that he suffered led him to pursue not his own life, but to relive that of his father. Uncle Mike attended the same law school as my grandfather, graduated in the top ten percent of his class, passed the bar on his first attempt, but never practiced law a day in his life. He had no style of his own, brandishing my grandfather’s archaic suits and driving the same Cadillac El Dorado my grandfather had half a century prior. He relived the life of my grandfather, but without the joy of personal relationships. There was never a woman in his life. There was never a friend. His adult days were spent being the most over-educated employee to ever reside in a cubical. His weekends revolved around Michigan football because his father’s weekends once revolved around Michigan football. My uncle failed to make known any opinion or any personal preference in his seventy-two years on earth, departing without leaving even the slightest latent legacy.
The pastor finally called upon any of the ten people present to approach the altar and make a few statements about my uncle. Everyone stared straight down and avoided eye contact with one another, hoping that someone else would have something to say about the man, but no one could come up with anything. Finally, the pastor intervened and began to talk about my uncle like he knew the man who he had never seen nor interacted with in his life. He began to talk about how Mike would have liked the beautiful weather and how he would have loved to see the baby my cousin was holding. The troubling realization was that the pastor’s blind guesses as to what my uncle would have liked were no worse than what my entire family could have come up with collectively. I learned more about life in those revealing minutes than I had from any other single moment in my previous twenty-one years. I found it unfathomable that a person could inhabit Earth for so long and not leave an impression other than six feet in the ground. I do not entirely condemn my uncle for this; he obviously had some sort of undiagnosed social disorder that greatly debilitated him personally. However, it was eye opening nonetheless and makes me strive to develop intimate personal relationships and to be animated and opinionated.
The procession then moved to the burial site, and of the ten original people in attendance approximately six made the fifteen-minute drive to the cemetery. En route, there were no humorous stories being told about the adventures of Uncle Mike. The somber attitude that accompanies such ceremonies usually prompts such stories; however, there were none to be told. As I stared at the headstone there were two large musical notes on either side of his name. I inquired of my father whether or not Uncle Mike played an instrument or had any musical talent to which he replied “Not that I know of.” Being absolutely convinced that this man had to have some connection to music I pressed my father further by asking if he even liked music to which my father hesitantly replied “I’m not so sure he did.” Bewildered, I promised myself that I would leave a large enough impact on people to be sure that my headstone did not forever display something that didn’t represent me at all like my uncle’s.
I cannot even describe the attitude at the cemetery as one of grief, for the death of Uncle Mike did not take away anything that his family had been used to. Rather, his new involuntary silence was no different from the voluntary silence he kept his whole life. My father approached the urn to say goodbye to the stranger who lived upstairs and who wore his father’s clothes. My brothers and I approached the urn to say farewell to the man who shared our last name. The pastor approached the urn to say a prayer for the man he knew as well as anyone. Throughout the goodbyes I noticed that the bouquet of red roses atop the urn was repeatedly blown to the ground. Time after time everyone took turns picking up the bouquet and placing it gently atop the urn; I meanwhile remained still, thinking that maybe Uncle Mike didn’t like flowers.
Maxwell Hiltner is a senior from Wadsworth, Ohio, majoring in History and Political Science.