Everyone has something to teach us

When I was seven, my uncle taught me how to play solitaire.

I remember this distinctly because he was living with my family at the time, and in the mornings I always liked to go hang out with him in his room and talk. Not long afterward he left. You see, he was an alcoholic and my parents had to ask him to leave because he started drinking again.

In the following years my uncle would visit from time to time. Sometimes it would be two or three weeks between visits but he always came eventually. Whenever he came, he always came dirty. In fact, the first place he went was the downstairs shower to get clean and change—my mother always kept clean clothes for him—before he was allowed to come up and eat with us.

I never knew where he lived except that he would come from the city and would go back there after his time with us. I suspect now that he didn’t have a regular place to live and moved around a lot. He probably looked kind of scary to people as he came walking, in his blue down coat (that he wore all year around), down our clean suburban street. I smile when I think how he probably shocked the small children he passed who had never seen a Chicago street man before.

My uncle was a pleasant man and liked to laugh. My parents told me that my uncle was once an accountant and I know he had a family, but that was all lost to him by the time I knew him. He destroyed his life through his alcoholism and he paid the price. But he knew this and would tell me never to forget what happened to him and always work hard and be someone special.

When I was old enough to imagine what my uncle’s life was like, I used to get angry at my father for being stern with him about how he used the money we gave him and for not trying harder to keep my uncle around. It took time for me to realize how hard it must have been on my father to have to see his older brother the way he was and to not be able to help him. (People have to want to be helped before they can get help.)

When I was 18 and about to enter Northern, my uncle died in the VA hospital near our house. I was the one who received the call and the one who had to tell my father his brother had died. Since then, I carry his memorial card with me always and I pull it out whenever I have to remember what he taught me.

Through knowing a person like my uncle I learned to look beyond the person on the outside. People are built in layers and if you want to know anything about them you have to look deep. When you look at people you have to try to see them as more than just what may be standing before you. That person in front of you could be a brother, sister, or uncle and not just a homeless, or a rich, or a black, or a white person.

I also learned how precarious success can be in life. You can reach heights never seen before, but once there, you can’t count on not falling off. You not only must work to get where you’re going, you also must work to stay where you’re at. And never, never take anything for granted.

Finally I learned about unconditional love. My parents could have forbade him from coming around the house on account of what the neighbors might think or how he might influence my sister and I, but they didn’t. Instead they simply loved and helped my uncle in the best way they knew how and let him touch our lives. They let my sister and I develop our own relationship with him and in turn we came to know, love and respect him. I came to understand through our relationship that unconditional love is blind to outer appearances and dignity comes within many containers.

I wish you all a very pleasant weekend. Right now I’m going to play some good hands of solitaire.