August 11, 2008 at 5:40 PM
Uncle Harry is my dad's cousin, twice removed. (That is to say, he is a cousin through marriage to a cousin.) Uncle Harry is 98 years old, has a girlfriend, drives at night, lives independently, and enjoys his life. He has not been to a doctor in ten years. ("What I don't know won't kill me!") But the best thing about Uncle Harry is that he writes to my dad every two weeks, without fail. He has been sending these handwritten letters and "showing up" for more than six years, ever since my dad had a severe stroke and we moved him to Seattle from New York, where the two "cousins" had rooted for their beloved Yankees for decades.
My dad's face still lights up when my husband Frank or I, or our son Peter and his family, visit at the nursing home and we have a letter from Uncle Harry. Hearing these newsy and humorous letters (he often ends with a joke) brings back memories and makes my dad feel he's involved in the lives of others. At the age of 91, my frail father rarely hears from old friends, family members, or business associates. One by one, just about everyone has disappeared into the fabric of their own busy lives—except for Uncle Harry.
A few years ago a well-meaning aide was cleaning out my father's drawer and she tossed all of Uncle Harry's letters, some of which included irreplaceable family photos. At the time, I could barely contain my anger and sadness at that thoughtless act. But Uncle Harry kept writing, and today I have a large stash of his precious letters safe at home, a legacy to my father's past and a testimony to steadfast love and friendship.
Here's what I've learned from Uncle Harry. He shows up because he cares and because he's lived long enough to know how much it matters. He shows up because he knows it brings joy and humor to me and to my father. He shows up because he loves my dad and wants my dad to know it. And, he shows up because life is about caring for the disabled and troubled, the gifted and the needy, even when no one is looking. It's the same for us as teachers, isn't it? We give our all to our students—even when we're exhausted and burdened, even when we're not getting the recognition we think we deserve, even when we don't want to—because we know we can make a difference in their lives and because, plain and simple, it's the right thing to do. Uncle Harry would be proud.
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