My Uncle Ben died at sunrise on December 15th, at the age of 85. I had watched him fade away, ravaged by cancer, his features turn ashy and sunken. I fell asleep holding his hand, perched precariously between two uncomfortable chairs, my head balanced in the crook of my arm. I sat for hours, for days by his bedside, holding my own breath with each unnatural pause in his painfully slow, labored breathing, with nothing to say but everything.
Mostly I cried silently, because he had told me I wasn't allowed to weep for him. Four days before he died I started sobbing openly and apologized to him; by that time he was in a comatose state, eyes glassy and half-open. He squeezed my hand. Whether he was telling me it was OK, or to knock it the hell off, I'm not really sure. A little of both, probably. He had said repeatedly in the final few weeks, "just throw me in a trash bag and put me out". It was only half in jest. My Uncle Ben was the most humble man you could ever imagine. Given what he had done in life, his humility was just another amazing accomplishment.
If anyone in my home state of Delaware ever has to call 911, you can thank him for that. He set that up. If, after you call 911, the paramedics show up, you can thank him for that too. (At the viewing and his funeral, there was a paramedic color guard, and uniforms in white gloves manning the doors; it was too much for me) If your best friend is in a horrible car crash and rushed to the emergency room, you can thank my Uncle Ben for the care your friend receives. He created the ER as we know it today, a specialization all its own. You're welcome, George Clooney. He had vision and passion like no other. His passion was helping people. That sounds stupid and corny, but it really was. He believed in God, and that his God-given talents were on loan, so he sure as hell better use them wisely. He believed in people, and the goodness in people, and he did everything he could to help others realize their own potential for good. He built schools in third-world countries, drilled wells for those families to have fresh water. And he did all of this...because in college his cleats got stuck when some asshole base runner ran into him at home plate and blew out his knee. He would've been a catcher for the New York Yankees. So, Plan B? Doctor. And not just any doctor, a surgeon. Yeah, blows my mind, too.
We spent our entire Christmas break every year with my aunt and uncle; belly-sliding down the stairs, playing Chopsticks on the baby grand, running from the monsters in the basement.
I gave him manicures while my sister played dentist. We hid stealthily under the covers in my aunt & uncle's bed, shushing each other and giggling wildly, waiting to "surprise" Uncle Ben when he came back into the room. (We got him every time, by the way) Our ocean-front house at the beach every year, broadway trips and the corner suite at The Plaza Hotel, dinner at Le Cirque and cruises to the Caribbean; looking back I was so indescribably lucky to be showered with such love and attention, such incredible generosity from a man whose only tie to me was a piece of paper stamped by the county clerk. But I had no idea. I didn't know anything different. It was just the way things were. We were family, and I loved him so much. And I think that was what made him so spectacular. He truly loved me, regardless of what anyone's definition of "family" is. That was my reality. And I loved him, regardless of who he was to the rest of the world. Finding out 30 years later he was a real-life super hero, well, it doesn't surprise me in the least, because he was a hero to me already.
Every single event of my life, big and small, from my christening to my wedding, he was there. Both of them. They've always been there. And now they're both gone, and I have no idea how to mend this gaping hole in my life. The family was split in two after my aunt died, and one of his final acts on this good Earth was to bring us closer. The two separate branches that had thinned out and broken away over the years, made whole again during his final days. Laughter and lively conversation at a dining room table that had been unused for years. Surprises, revelations, hugs and tears, and even an "I love you".
I don't know what life without Uncle Ben looks like; I can't imagine it. I guess now I have to live it and find out; God help me I don't want to. But I know he'd be pissed if we stopped living our lives. I'm sure he'd make some wonderfully witty remark about us moping around, as was his specialty. Even in the final days when his mind was foggy, he was making us laugh. He always knew exactly what to say. I wish I had that gift. I don't know if I said everything that needed to be said, or if he even heard. I don't know if he knew how much I loved him, that he is a part of nearly every happy memory I have, or how the tapestry of my childhood was so vibrant in color because of him. I don't know if he knows I'm sorry. I let him down in a lot of ways; I disappointed him and angered him. I pray that he knows that I am so very sorry. Although I think he'd probably admonish me for that, "Katie, don't be ridiculous, there's nothing to be sorry for." But most of all, I hope he knows how important he was to me, the impact he had on me and my life. He helped shape who I am, and I am so very grateful to have been able to call him mine.
He was my Superman:
"In the end, the only satisfaction you will ever have is the knowledge that you accomplished what you set out to do. There will be no statues of me, my name won't be on any plaques or anything, but I'l be sitting back, sipping a vodka tonic, knowing that...I made a difference, the trip was worth it. There is nothing else in the end when it comes down to it but your own personal satisfaction. And if you can have that, that's what makes all this so much fun." - Ben Corballis, MD
We love you, Uncle Ben. Always.