Sunday, February 21, 2010

Uncle Claude's lessons to live by

Three years ago today my mother's brother passed away after a valiant battle with brain cancer. It would have been difficult to lose any member of my mother's tight-knit extended family, but by cause of geography and personality I had grown particularly close to my Uncle Claude. His illness and subsequent death were devastating, but his influence is as profound on my life today as it was when I would stop by his house on my way from work or school. We talked about everything – love, sex, marriage, work and money - and he never missed an opportunity to give me advice. I learned just as much from what he said, as from how he lived.

Uncle Claude preached and lived the importance of education. He encouraged and praised its pursuit among family, co-workers and friends, and that encouragement was often accompanied by financial support. A registered nurse himself for many years, his life circumstances had him take a circuitous route to graduate school. One of the biggest smiles I had ever seen on his face was on his graduation day. He was 56 years old.

Beyond the high-minded reasons for wanting to get an education, Uncle Claude believed that higher education was the gateway to financial independence and a comfortable life.  He had a practical approach to money: it is important and necessary to maintain a desirable quality of life, but it should not control your life. He discouraged incurring debt, but by word and example encouraged those around him to enjoy the fruits of their labor.  He emphasized responsibility and self reliance, but placed more value on family than things; more on living life richly than on accumulating wealth. He took pleasure in traveling across the state, across the country, or across the world to be with family and friends. He bought the cars he loved and electronics and gadgets that made his life easier. He was generous with his blessings. Yet he left no financial burden for his family.

There is a redeeming quality in every single person and Uncle Claude could always find it.  He saw potential where others could  not, and was always mentoring and encouraging someone to do more and go further. From friends and family who had strayed off the path to their goals to inmates at the South Florida Reception Center where he worked, he believed it was never too late to get your act together and do something positive with your life.  His faith in people was unshakeable even as he was often disappointed.

His tendency to give one more chance is no doubt tied to his realization and acceptance of his own flawed character. I admired that my uncle readily owned his mistakes and was arrant in using them as life lessons for others. I loved that he was imperfect and did not feel the need, like many of his generation, to hide his failings from the many young people he sought to influence. I have found myself passing on in word selection and straightforward attitude much of the advice he gave to me on to my sisters, my cousins and my godson. That this person who I so loved and admired was capable of making egregious errors in judgment, removed for me, all the excuses that come with pursuing perfection and experiencing the inevitable failures.

More than anything he taught me in life, it is in his passing that I learned his most invaluable lesson.  Death forfeits the fight. It eliminates your chances to give second chances. It takes away the ‘one day’ you plan to really start living your life. It deprives us of opportunities to change the outcome. Everything you want to do and everything you know you need to do is urgent today. That is my Uncle Claude’s greatest legacy and lesson.

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