They say you can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your family, however that hasn’t been my experience. When you don’t meet your first relative (other than your mother and brother) until you’re 22 years-old, having family is very much a choice. With complete honesty, I can say that finding and getting to know my family has been without exception the most personally gratifying and fulfilling decision I have ever made. I think that’s why I’m so devastated by the loss of my uncle, the man I’ll always think of as the burgermeister
From the very first time we met, me an undergraduate student and the daughter of one of his oldest sisters kicking around Europe, he, in his midthirties and a father to two young children, he always made me know I was family. There was never an instant that wasn’t apparent in the subsequent years and the times we shared.
Between that initial introduction and his recent death we probably were together on a dozen different occasions. He and his wife visited Albany, we met in NYC on the very day my own cancer was determined to require additional treatment, we traveled together in Europe. Three of my last four trips to Europe involved spending time with him and those are some memories that I’ll take out and shine until they gleam gold.
We stayed in the town where he lived twice in recent years and it was truly wonderful to witness the affection with which he was greeted everywhere we went. It was so obvious that he was a beloved member of his community – from the bakery to the Italian restaurant where he still occasionally worked when they needed a hand, he was met with humor and warmth and I was honored to claim him as my uncle. I always felt safe with him and I’m convinced there was nothing in this world with which he couldn’t contend. Except cancer.
As I was proud of him, he was proud of the life he had created. He had been a competitive athlete representing his country in the biathlon. Since learning that part of his history, I’ve loved cross country skiing even more, like it’s our family’s sport. During our visit in April he shared the medals he had won and his unabating love for winter sports was apparent. His home actually overlooks a ski jump used in international competitions, (which he helped with, of course) and we toured a local museum dedicated to the history of Nordic skiing.
My uncle, the unofficial burgermeister, was a great man and the loss of him, despite the thousands of miles between us, feels almost unbearable. How incredibly lucky was I to have seen him so recently? How kind of the universe to have cooperated by putting so much of my family in one place to celebrate Easter just two months ago. I know the ache in my heart will dull and the tears will dry but I don’t think I’ll ever stop missing him. As the marker on his final resting place states, he was a gift from Heaven.
Hug your dads, uncles, husbands and sons and know how fortunate you are.