I don’t know how to begin this.
I don’t know how to end it either.
If we’re being completely honest here, I have been dreading this post for approximately 11 days now. So I’m just going to type and see where it takes me…But first, let’s pick up where I left off with my last post real quick.
My boyfriend’s alarm goes off at 7AM. After he leaves for work, I take my time to quietly bond with our new space, much like I did this morning. You see, we moved into a new house at the end of February and I haven’t had much time here alone. The first night we officially slept in our new digs, we crashed on the couch because we hadn’t put the bed together yet. When I woke up 6 hours later, I drove 600 miles south to Nashville, where I stayed for over 2 weeks recording, writing, and taking meetings. My timing was impeccable, clearly. It’s where I wrote my last blog entry, “Burden or light”. I was so touched and inspired by all your love for that last post that I wanted nothing more than to keep the momentum going.
I came back to Detroit a couple weeks ago with a new energy surging through me. I was ready to kick that ass & take those names. And on top of that, while I was out of town, my boyfriend worked his tail off unpacking, arranging and rearranging, constructing/deconstructing/constructing again little surprises for me in the new house. So when I pulled into our driveway after weeks away, I was overflowing with gratitude in every which way. And the multiple recording sessions in Detroit I had set up for my first week back was just the cherry on top.
It was on my 4th session of the week, that Friday afternoon, that everything went to shit…
On Friday, March 24th, as I was standing inside the vocal booth in a recording studio, my phone started vibrating in my back pocket. It was my mom. I let it go to voicemail. Immediately, both of my sisters called, which I too let go to voicemail, with a rush of anxiety starting to pulse through me. More vibrations. While the engineer and producer were listening through one of my vocal passes, I looked at my phone…”Call Mom immediately. It’s Uncle Mike.” I didn’t call immediately because I feared the absolute worst. I was only one verse away from having this song completed and if I told them I needed a break to call my family, I’d lose it. And once it’s lost, I know I won’t be able to recompose myself. So with a shaky voice, that was nearly impossible to control due to the huge lump in my throat, I finished the song. Barely.
I called my family once I got to my car. My Godfather, Uncle Mike, was in the hospital with an infection that had spread too wildly to proceed treating him. Between the cancer and this infection, his body was shutting down and he didn’t have more than a few days. Straight from the studio, I drove, I sobbed, and I pleaded with God for 57 minutes until I reached my mother’s front door.
She cried when she saw me. Then she’d pull it together, then cry some more. I tried to speak hope into her, “He’s cleared ‘close call’ hurdles before. I’m not going to stop believing.” She needed to hear that. I needed to hear that.
Once my brother got home from work, we all packed inside my sister’s SUV and rode up to the hospital together. It was oddly comforting, all of us being sandwiched in the backseat like we used to ride as kids. We got off the elevator onto the 7th floor, only to see a huge clock straight ahead who’s hands had just turned to 7 o’clock on the dot. I’ll always remember that.
My parents went into the his hospital room first, while us kids waited in the lounge. I couldn’t stop crying. The brave face I had put on for my mom was clearly cracking. My siblings walked me down the halls as I tried to pull myself together. “You can’t cry like this in front of him and Aunt Susie…you can’t cry like this in front of Mom.” When it was our turn to enter Uncle Mike’s room, strangely enough, I was completely calm. He was asleep, so I talked (and attempted to make jokes) to Aunt Susie. He woke up right before we left. I walked up to him, squeezed his hand, kissed his forehead, and told my Uncle Mike I loved him and that I would see him in the morning.
When we got home, depleted, I trudged upstairs to change into pajamas. Five minutes later, the phone rang. I immediately ran to the stairs and before I could even get halfway down, I heard my mom cry out. He died less than an hour after we left the hospital.
My brother, my father, and I were on our knees in front of my mom on the couch. We all cried together. I slept sitting up on that same couch, with my mother’s head in my lap, playing with her hair until she eventually fell asleep. I cried as quietly as I could the rest of the night.
The last 11 days have been emotionally excruciating. Writing this right now, my hands are trembling. I cannot remember being this shaken, literally and figuratively, by a death since I was a child. And I know why…
Because in my mind, him and I never aged.
He was always “The Godfather”, larger and louder than life, someone you never wanted to cross or disrespect. He would ALWAYS be quicker than you at “Up high, down low, too slow” high-fives and then poke you in the side when you were a sore loser. With his long red hair, beard & mustache, he resembled a lion. Always wearing a hat with a feather sticking out of it, tall, boisterous with a round belly, with his aviator glasses, our ultimate “outlaw”.
Uncle Mike & Aunt Susie used to take my siblings and I to their cottage up north for a week or so in the summer. That’s where he had us do chores everyday AND made us entertain ourselves without television. (Gasp.) It’s where he’d chuckle as I cried dramatically because I didn’t want to put the worm through the hook the first time he took us fishing. (Funny enough, after that “scarring” experience, he bought our family a fish tank with multiple fish to collect, I proceeded to name every single one (and their replacements when they’d die) after Little Mermaid characters.) It’s where he woke us up at sunrise by bursting into the bedroom singing, “Oh what a beautiful morrrrning!” It was all his way of “toughening us up” because he thought our mother spoiled us, which was probably true, ha. And even still, from the time I was a kid to recently, I could never say anything bad/complain about my parents…”Hey now, that’s your mother.” (But the way he’d say it, ‘mother’ always sounded like ‘mudder’.)
My Uncle Mike was the middle child of 5, two older brothers and two younger sisters, with my mom being the youngest. Not sure of their dynamic growing up, but I can attest to the fact that Uncle Mike looked out for my mother my entire life. With her being the youngest, that meant that us Williams kids were at least a decade younger in the long line of cousins. My Aunt’s and Uncles’ kids were all roughly the same age and kind of grew up together, with many more memories (and photos) of being together with my grandparents than my siblings & I have. My Nana passed away when I was 8 years old of a blood clot during a simple hip replacement surgery. My Grandpa passed when I was a freshman in high school, Alzheimer’s and hospice being the last memories I have of him. After my grandparents passed, the family sort of dispersed. There wasn’t a reason for us all to get together for birthdays or holidays now. But Uncle Mike… he was always a phone call or 25 minute drive away.
I could hear him on my parent’s answering machine on a weekly basis, “Hey, it’s your brother.” My mom going over there after work for help with school stuff. Him singing “Sto Lat” on my birthday, signing every card ‘The Godfather’. I can see him in his chair, asking me if I’ve heard of a certain Blues artist and him saying, “I tell you what, you should sing the Blues.” (Little did we know back then…I would get there…eventually.)
After a few years down in Nashville, I didn’t see him as often. My 5 days in Michigan for the holidays always seemed consumed by my parents, siblings, and grandma. I’d talk to him on the phone and apologize for not squeezing in a visit to see him. He’d tease me and I’d say, “Next time, I swear.”
It wasn’t until I made the decision to split my time 50/50 between Detroit and Nashville in November of 2015 that I really started to make good on my “next times”. He got on Facebook and we’d message back and forth some. My baby sister moved just a few minutes away from Uncle Mike, so even if I wasn’t intentionally planning a visit, I’d swing by after my sister’s. When I started getting serious with my boyfriend in the winter of 2016, we met Uncle Mike and Aunt Susie for Polish food one weekend. I remember him giving shit (playfully, of course) to the waitress and to me, “Oh so you’re the boyfriend, eh? Rachel hides away her boyfriends from dear ol’ Uncle Mike! You gonna let this one stick around, Rach?” Jokes aside, Uncle Mike liked Jon and I know he was relieved that I had someone good to help take care of me. Also, Jon could talk the Detroit Lions with him…and Lawd, did Uncle Mike loooove the Lions… When my boyfriend and I went up to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan last fall to visit his family’s cottage, I showed Uncle Mike all the photos and videos I’d taken and all the stories of our random discoveries. He was proud and gave me suggestions of where to go and what to do next time we go up. I told him, “It only took me 20 years to appreciate the stillness of having a cottage in the middle of nowhere, Uncle Mike. Sorry I was too much of a shit when I was younger to see it then.”
His brother, my Uncle Corky, passed away a few months after that lunch, in July of 2016. I shed tears for my mother more than anything. I couldn’t imagine losing a sibling. Let alone, two of them. (My Uncle Joe, the oldest brother, died of leukemia when I was 10.)
After the funeral, there was a luncheon, and it was there that my 6 year old nephew was horsing around with Uncle Mike (typical) and hit him in the stomach. A few days later, when Uncle Mike still felt pain in his stomach, he went to the doctor to get it checked out. He was diagnosed with leukemia shortly after.
The hit to the family was brutal.
I lost my shit for a week straight. After Uncle Corky’s funeral, after this terrible diagnosis for Uncle Mike, I went to Nashville for work. I can vividly remember on my drive back, I was coming across a bridge along the skyline of Detroit at 6am. The sky just exploded with color and I was overcome with peace. Real peace. There was something in that sunrise that told me Heaven wasn’t ready to take Uncle Mike yet. Months later, I told Uncle Mike about that “feeling” in a card I mailed him after his 2nd round of chemo didn’t work. I clung to that peace. I clung to that peace everyday for 8 months, no matter how bad things got. And I clung to that peace 11 days ago.
But Heaven changed It’s mind.
When we left the hospital that night, I silently prayed that if he’s supposed to stay with us then God needed to show His healing quickly, and if not, then take him now. I didn’t want to see Uncle Mike in pain, not even for one more day with him. I am so completely grateful, with all of my heart, that I got to spend the last year and a half reconnecting with my Godfather while he was here. As much as I like to think, “I chose to come back”, I know without a doubt, God put me back here…if nothing else, than for this reason alone.
The visitation, the funeral, the luncheon…it was all surreal. And the entire family felt it. Weren’t we just here 8 months ago? It felt like a trick but sadly, it was reality. He didn’t look like my lion laying in that coffin. But I guess that’s because it wasn’t really him, he wasn’t in that body anymore.
As I sit here at this kitchen table, on my 3rd cup of coffee, looking out the window on a new street this very grey and rainy Tuesday, I don’t know what’s next.
I went to see my therapist yesterday for the first time since his death. I didn’t make it more than 5 minutes before I started crying again.
I told her how my protective instinct is in overdrive for my mother and my Aunt Susie both. I told her about how it would’ve been my Uncle’s 69th birthday on April 1st and how I drove 45minutes, unannounced, to see Aunt Susie and drop off a piece of cake with a Detroit Lions emblem in the middle, just to turn around and drive back home. How I start crying out of nowhere doing practically anything…kickboxing, reading, sitting in a restaurant with Jon, walking the dogs, trying to sleep… I told her how just a couple weeks ago, I felt so rejuvenated, on a mission, and now, it takes everything in me to get out of bed in the morning. I’m exhausted all day long. What do I do? And her response…?
Be sad if I’m sad.
Let the tears out if I feel them coming.
Pat myself on the back for anything I do accomplish in the day, big or small.
Don’t beat myself up.
Understand that there is no “right way” to grieve.
Trust whatever this process shows me.
So that’s what I’ll try to do. All the “I have to’s” and “I should’ve’s” need to be lifted for the time being. And even though it’s hurting, just stay present enough to keep my heart open to everything this loss is revealing to me. Lean into it, lean in like a lion.