As I sit down to write this, it’s 10:40 a.m. on a Sunday. Normally I’d be at Mass right now, sitting in the same pew as my wife’s uncle Neil, and his wife Gayle. They were with us on vacation in Florida July 1-8, along with a bunch of Neil’s relatives, and everyone rolled back into town late last Saturday night. After every Sunday Mass, all the family members in attendance always gather and talk for a bit, with Neil at the center of the conversation.
A week ago, it was just Neil, Gayle and me. We chatted for a bit, and said our “see you next week” goodbyes… Neil had a heart attack later that day, and passed away on Thursday. Yes, he was 78, and overweight, and had already had a heart attack and heart valve replacement several years ago… but I still feel like he was stolen away from us way too soon. That’s the way it always is with great folks, and he was a fantastic human being.
There are so many stories I could tell about “Real Deal Uncle Neil” as I called him, but to me the one that best epitomizes his character and caring is this: for nearly 40 years, Neil would dress up as Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, and spend several hours visiting the homes of dozens of relatives, friends and co-workers, spending a few minutes at each house talking to the kids that lived there, having them sing a Christmas song, reminding them to go to bed early, asking them to leave a snack for his reindeer… totally getting into playing the part of Santa Claus. Our house was one of the stops when our kids were younger, and I’ll never forget the look on our kids’ faces when “Santa” showed up and spoke with them. Pure magic.
Think about that for a bit. For 40 years, Neil sacrificed his Christmas Eve to make others happy. It was no fun riding around dressed up in a sweat-inducing Santa suit, with heavy boots and an itchy beard… but bringing some magic into the lives of others superseded that.
Here’s the thing – the Santa suit was just a prop. Honestly, Neil was the type of person that brought magic into the lives of others every day – kids and adults alike. He had the Irish “gift of gab” and never let the facts get in the way of a good story. He was comfortable talking to anyone and everyone, and always left you with a smile on your face.
In hindsight, as we look back at a few things Neil did on vacation that were a bit more sentimental than usual, we think he knew his time on earth was drawing to a close. We’ll miss him dearly. But I’ll also take solace in the words of Ray Bradbury, from his beautiful story about dying called “The Leave-Taking“:
Important thing is not the me that’s lying here, but the me that’s sitting on the edge of the bed looking back at me, and the me that’s downstairs cooking supper, or out in the garage under the car, or in the library reading. All the new parts, they count. I’m not really dying today. No person ever died that had a family.