The family tree’s heaviest branch

The family tree’s heaviest branch

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My Uncle Dan died several years ago while sitting on the toilet. I heard through the family grapevine that, in his last minutes on this earth, he begged his wife to hold his hand, seeking the comfort of a warm, loving hand.

She just couldn’t do it. It must have been terrifying – his pain, his desperation, and a small cramped bathroom where, with track pants at his ankles, he faced his Maker.

I wish I could say he didn’t deserve to die that way, but honestly, I can’t. Uncle Dan wasn’t exactly a shining star on the family tree.

I suspect most of us have one like him lurking somewhere on our tree branches. He’s the relative you don’t want to introduce to your friends, the scary one with unpredictable behaviour, totally lacking in decorum. Our Uncle Dan would show up at the Shabbat table in greasy and sweat-stained clothes, fall asleep on the couch before dinner and make snarky, unkind comments that left everyone shifting uncomfortably in their seats. We learned quickly that he was to be feared and mostly avoided, not respected or willingly engaged in conversation.

Uncle Dan had a sad childhood. His dad died months before his birth, and his mom was left to run the family business and raise three small kids alone. He fiercely believed he was an unloved child – and the chip on his shoulder grew bigger and nastier as he aged, until it hunkered over him, dominating him entirely.

READ: DEALING WITH FAMILY STRIFE

Despite the odds, Uncle Dan finished high school, graduated as a doctor and became a rich man who, at various points in his life, owned a Porsche, an airplane, a high-speed motorboat and a hobby farm. He married, fathered three children and presided over two practices before retiring early to plough his fields. Still, none of this brought him much happiness. The only time I ever saw him laugh or smile, it was with a sneer.

Over the years, stories about his poor choices in life drifted in and out of family lore. There was the time he siphoned gas out of a city-owned tractor parked near his home in the dead of night – not because he needed the gas, but for the thrill of getting away with it. He made it to the newspaper for swearing at his patients, once pulled a knife on his own brother, and cheated on his marriage.

Months after getting my driver’s licence I drove my new Toyota down the long driveway leading to Uncle Dan’s home. I’d come to pick up my cousins for a quick joyride when I accidentally drove over a small sapling and, as luck would have it, Uncle Dan was watching. With a beet-red face he berated me, shaking his fist and threatening that I would pay. I was 18, but it was my first one-on-one encounter with this man who wore the title of “uncle” without love, loyalty or affection. I gunned the accelerator and made it off the property laughing with false bravado.

After I grew up, moved far away and became a mother, I chose not to see him again. Though I loved his wife and children, I could not see the point of exposing myself to Uncle Dan’s bitter comments or nasty sarcasm. There was no relationship to salvage.

Do our deaths have anything to do with how we live our lives? Probably not. Whether we pass while squatting on the loo, while hooked up to a morphine-filled IV in the hospital, or in a dreamy sleep in our own beds, we all take that final journey. The only choice we have is in how we live our lives – whether we infuse it with love, warmth and precious moments, or, as in Uncle Dan’s case, if we allow the chip on our shoulder to fill us with fury and malice.