When I met my nephew Jack he was 5, the older of Ken’s two nephews via his brother and sister-in-law. This past weekend he graduated from high school–an emotional event on its own. But packed an added punch knowing Ken wasn’t watching next to me, beaming as I know he would have been. I’d prepared as I much for it as I could. I knew he was there in all of our hearts and minds. When all else failed, I reminded myself what a gift it was to come together as a family to celebrate such a happy milestone in spite of the incumbent–albeit, intermittent–sadness that accompanied it for me.
Ken loved both of these now-young-men without distinction, but Jack, the older, was born in Chicago before the family moved to California, allowing them to spend a good deal of time together when he was very young. I can remember hearing about Jack (then called Jack Henry) from almost the first moment I met Ken. He was always full of stories and photos to share of that bright face with sparkling blue eyes.
As his only nephews, Ken was a loving and involved uncle–particularly when we lived in LA, and he had access to them. He loved helping them with their homework or with a puzzle and most memorably with building whatever Lego monstrosity they got for Christmas. I feel such pangs of nostalgia as I think about Jack graduating from high school, and how I–all of us–so wish Ken were here, delighting in his pride and love for Jack.
In addition to his graduation, Jack participated in a bridging ceremony, a marking of his transition from youth into young adulthood in the Universalist Unitarian church. The grandparents and I (the only living uncle) were asked to speak, sharing a lesson, a wish or a memory for Jack.
Public speaking terrifies me. I guess it terrifies most people. It’s a fear I clearly have no interest in conquering. On top of that, Ken was a cool-headed, satin-voiced performer who would have relished the opportunity to wax lyrical about Jack, his love for him and how proud he was of his accomplishment. I struggled with serious vs. humorous deliveries–starting and scrapping draft after draft. I knew I couldn’t say what Ken would have said. Or what I thought Ken would have said. Like it or not, I had to speak for me, knowing Ken would have supported it. And trust that the message I shared was somehow shared–from both Ken and me.
I put a great deal of pressure on myself to try to come through with something that would speak to something Ken would have said, but I knew I could never deliver it like he could. Where Ken relished an audience, I reviled one. Luckily, I was able to look at Jack, who was seated away from the audience, during my address.
I didn’t have to think long about it before knowing what I wanted to share with him. (It reads better here than my quivering voice recited it in front of the small audience of family and friends.)
Hello. I’m Jack’s uncle Ron.
I just have a couple of lessons to share with you, Jack.
The MAIN message I really want to give you is “Enjoy the Journey.”
I know it’s a really exciting time–and possibly overwhelming at times. Like life itself, it can be–and I think is supposed to be–fraught with challenges, both large and small. But a lesson your uncle Ken taught me OVER AND OVER AND OVER AGAIN was to “enjoy the journey”. For its own sake. Not for where it leads. It’s not always about getting there. It’s about the joys and challenges you face along the way, and how you face them.
I hope you can always take the time in your life–no matter how busy, exciting or challenging–to be present in the moment–both extraordinary and seemingly mundane. There is something of value to be learned within each of them.
The second lesson I want to share is: beer bongs are not as much fun as they sound.
(Pause for laughter.)
I love you and I am so proud you.
I don’t think I knocked it out of the park. But I did step up and swing. And for that I’m proud of the effort and coming through for such an important event. I’ll never stop wishing Ken could be a physical part of all of our family’s milestones–particularly the ones involving Jack and Nathan. Our family’s future. But in my heart, he’s so effortlessly involved. He’s a part of me, and so ingrained in me, and I’m sure, in all of us. And in the fabric of the family.
To add insult to injury, my younger nephew Nathan had the nerve to graduate from eighth grade the day before his brother graduated from high school.