Four years ago today was one of the worst days of my life. I just didn’t know it at the time.
It was a Saturday night, the spring semester of my sophomore year of college. I had been looking forward to going to see a new favorite band, Pat McGee Band, in concert with my two suitemates for months. The whole day, I was antsy about it. I couldn’t wait to see them and to spend some quality time with Kirsten and Claire. On the drive to Raleigh, I vaguely recall looking out the window at the stars at one point and thinking, “Something’s not right.” But I quickly forgot that and went on to enjoy my night. I had an amazing time – Pat and the guys were phenomenal live, and I was riding high when we got home.
The next morning, sound asleep in my bed, I heard my phone ring. I bolted upright. Without even looking at the clock to see that it was barely 7 a.m. on a Sunday, I knew exactly what it was. My stomach started churning and the tears came immediately. As I hit the ‘silence’ button on the side of my phone so I wouldn’t wake up Claire, I quietly crept out to the hallway before looking down and confirming that it was indeed my mother calling. I flipped open my phone, choked back tears and said, “When?”
My Uncle Mike had passed away the night before after a long fight with cancer. I spent the next hour crouched down in the hallway of our suite, sobbing, with my mom on the other line. Thankfully, I had an amazing support system in place at Elon. My best friend Kim got me flowers and a very sweet card. My suitemates Alli and Kendal also got me flowers and a stuffed animal. I spent several hours that day just crying, unsure how to move on. But I knew I had to.
Uncle Mike had always instilled in me a true passion for education. We had so much in common – a love for writing, for journalism, for documenting our worlds through the written word, for sports, for language, for learning, for travel, for culture, for life. I wish we could’ve shared more of those interests in recent years.
So instead of wallowing, I took action. I got in touch with all my professors and rescheduled my midterm exams. I finished the last assignments I needed to get done. And I made all the arrangements I needed to make. Instead of sitting in the darkness, I chose to shine. When I went to take my midterms early, it was a beautiful North Carolina spring day. I wore a new sundress I had recently bought because I always feel better about myself when I look good. My professors tiptoed around me, giving me my space, my time to grieve.
The only one who gave me any hurdles to jump over was my astronomy professor. He allowed me to take my midterm after returning from the funeral, but insisted that I write a two-page paper explaining why I had to take it late. When I returned from spring break (which came at the tail end of the funeral proceedings), I went to take the midterm and handed the paper to him. He immediately folded it in half without reading a word from it and handed it back to me.
“This is for you. This was for you to reflect on why you needed to take this midterm late. For you to understand the influence your uncle had on you. I don’t need to read this. I could see it in your face the day you asked for an extension on the midterm. This is for you. Keep it, reread it when it gets tough, and find peace in it.”
I’ve kept it, along with the eulogy my mother gave at the funeral, saved on my computer for the past four years.
I know that my Uncle Mike is up there smiling down on me, along with my Grandpop, Pop-Pop and Mom-Mom. I know he is proud of me. Proud of me for continuing with my work after he passed. Proud of me for spending a semester abroad. Proud of me for graduating with a degree in journalism. Proud of me for the path I’m on now.
He and my Aunt Rie treated me and all of my cousins as if we were their own children. They didn’t have any kids of their own, so they spoiled us rotten and bragged about our accomplishments to everyone they knew. All their friends knew exactly who we were, what our latest celebrations had been, and how much Aunt Rie and Uncle Mike loved us. (And every bit of this still applies to Aunt Rie.)
Thank you for the love and the inspiration over the years, Uncle Mike. We love you and miss you, but appreciate all you did to encourage us to shine.
Guess I’ll have to see you on the other side
Now you walk among the famous ones
You’re the angels’ sun, but now you’re gone and you,
You chose to shine…
…I will live these days, no I won’t hide….
-Pat McGee Band, “Shine”