Monday, August 8, 2011

Learning to Fly

While on vacation recently, I got to read some definite literary gems. And this was one of them:
American Nightingale by Bob Welch
 American Nightingale is the story of the first American nurse killed in action after landing at Normandy. It's an amazing book and one I highly recommend.

Her name was Frances Slanger, a Jewish Polish immigrant who became a nurse despite some nearly insurmountable odds. She was short, not that attractive, slightly plump and wore huge coke-bottle glasses. Her older sister was the family favorite, sort of like the sisters in the film "My Big Fat Greek Wedding."

Frances was no pageant queen. She was a writer and poet, though one with imperfect grammar and mediocre grades. She dreamed....of love, of traveling, of giving back to America what it had given to her. Of serving overseas on the front lines of the war.

But most of all, Frances wanted to matter. You'll have to read the book to find out how she does. But what stuck with me days after I shut the cover was that she did it. She mattered, and now thousands of people know what a true heroine she was.

I was reading this book while mulling over the words I needed to put on paper. About this man.

Only 2 months ago, my Uncle Mark was diagnosed with lymphoma. Six weeks ago, he lost two of his fingers in a work accident. I wrote him some notes, trying to encourage him and letting him know I was praying for him.

One month ago, he went skydiving. But he was worsening fast, so I wrote him another letter...this time, to say goodbye. I'm not sure exactly what I said, but I did tell him how I've always loved his giant, room-filling laugh, and the way his eyes crinkle when he thinks something is clever or funny, and how I've always admired the way he loves everyone simply, honestly and with his whole heart.

I told him I was proud to be his niece. I told him that I loved him and that he mattered to me.

In my goodbye letter to Uncle Mark, I mentioned another book I read at Clear Lake:

Heaven is for Real by Todd Burpo is about a little Nebraskan boy's experience with going to heaven temporarily during a near-death experience and coming back. The first person you see when you die, the little boy says, is Jesus. That thought comforts me greatly, and I said so to my uncle. I sent the letter up to Washington with my parents just last week, where my mother read it to him at his bedside.

Uncle Mark died this morning, after a long and violently bloody night. He was only 52, the youngest of 8 children, and grandpa to 6.

I don't know everything about my Uncle Mark. I'm not sure how he met my Aunt Traci, nor how long they've been married. I'm not sure of his favorite color, or what he sport he'd prefer to watch. I do know that he couldn't send an e-mail if his life depended on it, that he knew everything about most any kind of "man" equipment like tractors and tools, and that he would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it.

Those random thoughts filled my brain all day today. Rocking Jude, dressing Jack, feeding Klaus, the pictures of the old home movies flittered through my mind: Uncle Mark jumping his motorcycle as a young man....Unlce Mark as a towheaded, curly-haired toddler cherub....Uncle Mark at Jack's last birthday, giving a hearty, "Right on!" to every present Jack showed him.

Three years ago, my grandma Betty died on her baby's birthday. My mother called Uncle Mark. He thought she was calling to sing Happy Birthday. Instead, she called with the news of his mother's passing.

Driving in the car today, the radio featured Chris Rice's song, "Come to Jesus." I haven't heard it in probably a year. They played it at my Grandma Betty's funeral.

Weak and wounded sinner
Lost and left to die
O, raise your head, for love is passing by
Come to Jesus
Come to Jesus
Come to Jesus and live!

Now your burden's lifted
And carried far away
And precious blood has washed away the stain, so
Sing to Jesus
Sing to Jesus
Sing to Jesus and live!

And like a newborn baby
Don't be afraid to crawl
And remember when you walk
Sometimes we
Fall on Jesus
Fall on Jesus
Fall on Jesus and live!

Sometimes the way is lonely
And steep and filled with pain
So if your sky is dark and pours the rain, then
Cry to Jesus
Cry to Jesus
Cry to Jesus and live!

O, and when the love spills over
And music fills the night
And when you can't contain your joy inside, then
Dance for Jesus
Dance for Jesus
Dance for Jesus and live!

And with your final heartbeat
Kiss the world goodbye
Then go in peace, and laugh on Glory's side, and
Fly to Jesus
Fly to Jesus
Fly to Jesus and live!
I had told Jack a few hours earlier that Uncle Mark had died. Instead of being sad, Jack gave a little jump and cried out, "Yay! Now Uncle Mark is with Jesus, and Jesus is teaching him how to fly!"

Yes, he is. Uncle Mark is no longer sick or in pain. He's with his mother and his baby boy Darian. And he's flying.

Uncle Mark lived, loved, made mistakes, grieved, learned.....and mattered. And now he's flying. And truly, really living.