I buried my uncle recently in Galena, Kansas, a depressing place located in the extreme southeast corner of the state. A few miles east is Missouri, and a few miles southwest is Oklahoma.
He lies in Hillcrest Cemetery, next to my mother, who is next to my father, who is one row away from grandparents and other uncles — all on my mom’s side of the family.
Galena used to be a mining town of 4,000. Now, it looks like only 400 residents remain. My mom and dad grew up there. My father was an only child, and I’m an only child, so all the relatives were my mom’s. She had four brothers and one sister. They graduated from Galena High School, then left the area to earn a living.
My parents took me to Galena often while we lived in St. Louis. We celebrated every major holiday by driving the 300 miles southwest on old Route 66. Galena was the first town in Kansas as you headed west on that famous highway. Today, Interstate 44 is five miles away, but travelers following the old highway still stop to take pictures of what’s left of small-town middle America.
I remember one day in St. Louis my mom got a phone call and started crying.
My grandfather, her dad, had died in Galena. That seemed to initiate a succession of deaths I’ve had to deal with: another grandfather, both grandmothers, my father (just before my 20th birthday), two uncles, my mother, an aunt and now my uncle Lester.
I never really thought about uncle Les dying. For 32 years, he served the role of my dad. He came to my graduations, my daughter’s high school graduation, and was planning on attending her college graduation. We talked by phone almost every Friday night.
The tragic thing is my uncle Les had been married only three weeks when he died in the intensive care recovery room following triple-by-pass surgery. He was 79 and had just married his longtime girl friend, also 79. It was the first marriage for both, and after dating 43 years, their wedding was front page news in the Colorado Springs Gazette, accompanied by a color photo.
Since they had no children, I was the closest relative available to make all the final arrangements for two services; a memorial in Colorado Springs for his friends, and the final service in Galena.
Here’s what this is all about. The services became a celebration of Lester’s life rather than an event of sadness over his death.
I was able to remember all the good times because I was free of any guilt from things I hadn’t done. I conversed with him frequently, sent him copies of the Keene Star, and had just visited him on New Year’s Day.
I was able to make economically sound business decisions regarding the final arrangements because I was not motivated by guilt to purchase unnecessary and expensive items as some sort of restitution for things I didn’t do. I had done the most important thing that a close relative or friend could desire, I had taken the time to visit him in person.
And, Uncle Les did something for me.
Many questions were answered because he had a will. Just three weeks before his marriage, he wrote a new will, explaining exactly what he wanted done with the assets and which charities got what gifts.
And that’s the real point. Rethink whatever it is you think is so important and demanding of your time, and go visit in person your grandmother, aunt, uncle, or whoever it is that you have been avoiding.
And if you really love your children, prepare a legally written will. Your death will not come one day sooner if you do, and your death could be a celebration of your life because you did.
Paul Gnadt is the editor of the Keene Star. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org