On the same day that Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson died, my Uncle Lendward Griffin, Sr., also left this world for greener spiritual pastures. Once the news of his death sunk all the way in, I thought to myself, Wow, he left this world in some really fantastic company.
Uncle Len was not a public megastar like Fawcett and Jackson but in his own way he was as unique and worthy of celebration as either of them. What made him particularly unique within my extended family was the fact that he was the last of his generation on my mother’s side of the family, born July 18, 1927, the youngest male out of seven offspring born to one Elsie Bell Griffin and John Ernest Carpenter. I knew him while growing up the way many nephews know their uncles while growing up: as an older man who at times passed through town and stopped for a day or two to visit with his sister, WillieMae Griffin Lloyd and share love with her family. I rediscovered him as an adult during the years I served as a caregiver for my mother–and then again earlier this year when attending the funeral of his wife, Aunt Zolar Mae.
It was at Aunt Zolar’s funeral that I learned Uncle Len had been a deacon in his church and saw how highly regarded he was by members of his community. I sat there listening to friends and neighbors speak of how his agreeable demeanor and notable integrity was reflected in the character of his adult children, and of his reputation for being able and willing, “to do anything that needed to be done,” from repairing electrical wiring and installing plumbing to providing wise counsel, on behalf of his fellow church members and acquaintances. Ironically and painfully enough, Uncle Len himself was not at his wife’s funeral because he had suffered a medical setback and been hospitalized the night before due to the Alzheimer’s he’d been battling so determinedly for several years. We had, in fact, shared quite a few conversations about the modern scourge of Alzheimer’s: he spoke of keeping up with his exercises, taking his vitamin B faithfully, and doing everything he could to keep his dignity intact.
Somehow, although he was in a hospital while the rest of his family was at the funeral, I didn’t feel like he was missing this final public goodbye to this wife of 58 years. (No that is not a typo: 58 whole years!) Something told me their souls were in a deep communication beyond physical speech and that each was somehow keeping the other’s company during this time of the ultimate change in their shared life journey. I told myself I would not be surprised if he chose to say his own final good-bye before the day ended as well.
By trade, Uncle Len had been a truck driver for thirty-five years, so it was a little astounding to hear people speak at his wife’s funeral about the different talents that apparently had served so very well the lives of people unknown to me. Yet I had experienced similar revelations when attending the funerals of other loved ones and wondered why “strangers” so often seemed to know our kin better than many family members did. In this instance, I swelled with a bit of joyful pride and with the hope that some of what made this quietly gifted craftsman such a well-regarded wondrously versatile man might have found its way into my genetic design.
I had last seen him early in 2009 when his daughters Maxine and Joanne drove him and Aunt Zolar up from Florida on a “day trip.” I helped him remember several times who I was by pointing out that the last time he saw me had been at his grand-niece’s wedding. Each time, the memory returned just long enough to generate a joy-lit smile and a thrilled exclamation of, “Well how you doing?!” It was beautiful to see him smile past the pain of fading memories and reclaim his sense of self. Such an image stands among the most valuable legacies one could wish for because it is the kind that in personal dark hours shines a light of empowering inspiration to help one move forward. I was suddenly grateful that among their brood of adult offspring and grandchildren there were two strong daughters who thought it important to drive their father across a state line to visit his sister’s children while there was still a chance he might recognize the value of such a visit. And of course I thought of the years I had served as a caregiver for my mother as well as considered how all over the world people of my generation were adjusting their lives to accommodate the lives of the generation before ours.
We need to get this right, I thought, so the ones after us will know how it should be done or become inspired to do it better. We need to demonstrate all the compassion, forgiveness, mercy, intelligence, and love that we can because we likely will one day find ourselves in serious need of the same.
When the time came for them to return to Florida, we stood outside and took the obligatory pictures, which normally I grumpily resist but which in light of the special occasion I shared poses with everyone else. Embracing my uncle and my aunt while cameras clicked, I told myself we were saying good-bye not only to a beloved uncle and aunt but saying good-bye to one major era in our family’s history–and preparing to live through another. We stood for a moment marveling at how beautiful the late afternoon was, 72 degrees with a light breeze, sunshine resting easy against the springtime green of the trees, the rooftop caps of the houses, and the tears fluttering around our eyes.
Whose death I learned about first–Uncle Len’s, Michael Jackson’s, or Farrah Fawcett’s– on June 25, 2009, I don’t recall. I started, either that day or the next, to write an elegy for Uncle Len just as I had for any number of family members over the past decade, but I couldn’t finish it. I started writing this blog, but couldn’t finish it either. By contrast, I went into overdrive writing about Michael Jackson because I think, of his impact on my own creative efforts and my journalistic instincts. I tried to make myself go to Uncle Len’s funeral a week later but could not do that either. I more or less shut down and quietly protested the flying river of good-byes that had been flowing through my life for as long as I could remember. But that wasn’t going to stop his departure or erase the profound fact that he was the last of seven. So I found this blog again, started typing and deleting again, and with love this time I am saying Thank You Sir. And good-bye.