My Uncle Vaughn Burnside passed away on Monday, May 13, 2013 at the age of 70 of a rare and very aggressive form of cancer. He was diagnosed just five weeks before he died, and I am still somewhat in shock.
This Tuesday, my brother Pete and I were honored to speak at Uncle Vaughn’s memorial service, sharing memories of the man we remember growing up as part of a very close extended family in Northwest Indiana.
He gave us all so many gifts across his life. Pete recalled how Uncle Vaughn’s laugh filled a room and filled Pete with a sense of approval whenever he could coax a laugh out of the normally soft-spoken, somewhat reserved man. I remembered a time when I was maybe two or three, and Uncle Vaughn sat on the floor with my dad and played with me. One of the best gifts Vaughn gave his sister (my mom), Pat, was the gift of compassion and support in traveling from Iowa to Indiana to help transition their mother (my grandma) into an assisted living facility after she began showing signs of dementia.
For me, the last gift Uncle Vaughn gave me made a lasting impression. Two weeks ago, I flew from Virginia to Minnesota and drove down to Cedar Rapids, Iowa with Pete after receiving the news that Vaughn would only live another three days. He had been moved from the hospital to a beautiful hospice facility when Pete and I arrived with our parents. We were fortunate that he woke up and was lucid shortly after we arrived. We all went to his bedside, one-by-one, to touch him and talk to him.
I walked up and leaned over him. “Hi Uncle Vaughn. I love you,” I said. He spoke, but I couldn’t hear, so I bent close to him. He repeated his words: “You get more beautiful all the time.”
I was so moved I had to step away. Physically I knew I was anything but beautiful that day. I hadn’t showered, I wore no makeup, and my hair was a mess. And yet, I felt beautiful because of the love and respect I have for this man and his family. That’s what he saw and that’s what he spoke.
Hearing him say that, knowing that I needed to hear it, gave me the gift of clarity and perspective and served to underline something I have always known but sometimes forget in the rush and crush of everyday living. In the end, it doesn’t matter what we look like on the outside, as long as we show up – really show up – with an open heart, love and respect.
Uncle Vaughn did that with his family all the time. He showed up, he was beautiful and he was a gift to this world. His legacy of love will live on in all of us who knew him. In his memory, I plan to do my best to show up, open-hearted and loving every day, because that’s what makes life beautiful.