This is obviously hardest on my Aunt Lynne, who has spent pretty much all of her adult life with him, and my cousin Lori, who adored him. And while they may not show it as much, I'm sure my cousins Todd and Chris are dealing with this in their own way. Like their dad, they can both be a bit on the stoic side. Suffice it to say that Lori seemed to get the vast majority of the "open expression" genes in that bunch. But in an extended family as close-knit as ours, a loss like this is so hard to take. Everyone has their piece of the puzzle, and when one is missing, things just aren't the same.
Like I alluded to, he was a pretty stoic guy much of the time, a man of few words. But rest assured, he could certainly get going, and his laugh in particular sticks in my mind. He had a very interesting position in my life, as he was not only my uncle, but also my principal when I was in grade school. Being the principal's niece is sort of a weird thing, as people assume you get special treatment. It also didn't help that one aunt was the music teacher, another was the librarian and the first-choice substitute teacher, and yet another was the secretary in later years. But the fact of the matter was that I was a good student and rarely got in trouble anyway. In fact, I think I may have only ended up in his office once for a behavior-related issue--not that I can even remember what it might have been--but clearly it wasn't a big deal even then. Maybe it wasn't even directly related to something I did. But what people didn't understand was that when you have a direct link (or many) to your parents wandering the halls, it's a good motivator to behave! I admit that for a good chunk of my early life, I probably had a hard time separating the roles. At school I always felt a little funny calling him Uncle Cliff, and out of school I never entirely lost that hint of fear/respect he commanded at school. It was OK, really. I had it easy, after all--I still can't quite imagine how his sons (or my brother) felt about having him as a teacher, too!
He was an imposing figure--sturdy is the word that comes to mind--but he was really a very good-hearted, thoughtful guy who dedicated his entire career to God's work. He probably could have made a lot more money working in public schools, but he focused on Lutheran schools--including one here in Rochester after he parted ways with my old school. He was a great church servant as well, even into retirement. He had a great public speaking ability, though if I had to guess I'm not sure it was a role he relished. But it was usually part of his position and he did it well. When he spoke, everyone listened. As such, he was also the designated pray-er in our family. If he was around, he was the one doing the pre-meal prayer, and man, he did it well. The last one he did was on Christmas, and it was particularly meaningful given the state of his health. He even got choked up. I will miss his prayers terribly at every family gathering from now on, and his voice will forever remain etched in my memory. I miss it already.
Christmas definitely had some added meaning this year, with not knowing what the future held for him. Ironically, despite his recent illness and the treatments he'd been receiving, you'd never have known that day that he was sick. Whether it was the miracle of modern medicine or another testament to his toughness, I don't really know, but it makes it all the more shocking that he's no longer with us just a few short weeks later. I feel blessed to have been the last recipient of a family exchange gift from him. He gave me two books I'd had on my list, both with what he termed "interesting" titles. One is "Slow Down" by Nichole Nordeman, and the other is "Present Over Perfect" by Shauna Niequist. Both are about finding joy and peace in the less-than-perfect moments of life and parenting. I regret that I'll never be able to tell him what I learned from those books, as he seemed intrigued by my choices. He was also proud of a garage sale find that ended up being part of my dad's gift, a giant martini glass. He was a great garage saler, often finding things he could fix up and resell or integrate into his woodworking projects. He also enjoyed sports. He was an avid golfer, and he had a stint as a basketball coach back in my school days. He passed those loves down to his sons and grandson in particular, and it's a shame he won't be around to see just how far his very talented grandson will go. Watching him as a grandfather over the past 15+ years showed a different side of him, one I even saw come out a bit when he was around my kids. The night he and Aunt Lynne babysat Carter last year when I went to a concert with Mary, I remember seeing that fun, grandfatherly gleam in his eye when Carter was shooting Matchbox cars down a giant track in their living room.
A year and a day before he died, we were celebrating his and my aunt's joint 70th birthday party, a surprise to both of them. Her 71st birthday is today. It's beyond comprehension that she'll be celebrating it without him. I still adore this picture that I took last year that captures them to a tee.
As I think about the days ahead where we will celebrate his memory and say our goodbyes, it's still hard to believe we're here. When you're a kid and your family is this constant in your life, it's hard to imagine a time where the older generation won't be presiding over the family. First it's the loss of your grandparents, and then slowly your parents' generation starts to pass away. I know we have a lot of these moments ahead, and the increasing frequency of stuff like this is one of those cues that we're at a new stage of adulthood.
My last time seeing Uncle Cliff was as he was leaving on Christmas night. We had a nice goodbye. I never would have thought it would be the final goodbye, and it breaks my heart that it had to be. I miss him already. I'm so thankful that he's in heaven, finally healed and pain-free, hopefully getting reacquainted with loved ones and enjoying all his eternal home has to offer. But he will be so, so missed here on earth.