My great-uncle never liked having his picture taken.
Whenever anyone brought out a camera, he would scowl, duck and run, hide his face behind a house plant or the palm of his hand — anything to keep his image from being stored on film. Growing up, I always thought this was just one more quirk in a list of quirks that made my Uncle Larry into the funny, charming man so many loved.
However, this week, I wish more than anything that I had been able to convince him to take a photo or two, as I will never be able to see him in person again.
Early Sunday morning, my uncle — one of my favorite people in the entire world — was stolen from us after becoming hospitalized with the COVID-19 virus.
My grandfather’s brother was always a strange sort of man. A life-long bachelor, he was set in his ways by the time I came around. He would rather have walked a mile than settle for a subpar cup of coffee. His water had to have “no lumps,” or he wouldn’t drink it. He lived his life minimally, hardly ever replacing anything. His TV was one of those bulky, heavy relics of the past that barely worked. The same chairs, with their worn seats and cracked leather, sat in his apartment my entire life. He lived by the adage “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” even though many times things were broke, and he still didn’t fix them.
Despite his many quirks, he was one of the best, most generous and most interesting people I’ve ever known.
He traveled the world, adventuring and chasing his favorite animal, the whales. When his age got the better of him, and he could no longer hop on planes or keep his standing on a boat rocked by waves, he continued to explore the world through the pages of his favorite books.
He shared all this with me. In my teen years, we would meet every week for lunch or a cup of coffee, and we would talk about books, his adventures, and he would encourage me to have experiences of my own. With his generosity, he not only helped put me through college, but he also helped me travel the world and collect my own stories.
Traveling was likely his second favorite thing in the world. His number one was making others smile. He loved to crack jokes with waitresses and shop owners — many of whom loved him just as much as I did (it likely helped that he was an excellent tipper). In the winter, he would grow his white beard long and allowed young children to believe he was Santa Claus in disguise. Seeing the smiles of those kids would make his entire day.
His kindnesses were not forgotten. Following his passing, my family was inundated with messages from community members sharing their condolences and memories of how Uncle Larry helped make his community a brighter place.
Despite all the happy memories of my uncle, I’ve found it hard to take comfort in them. I can’t stop wondering what would have happened if he hadn’t gotten sick with COVID.
People love to talk about preexisting conditions and how that had to have caused the COVID deaths. It’s true. My uncle had preexisting conditions — several even. He was elderly, with a bad heart. He didn’t have decades left. He had a year, maybe two. However, he would not have died this Sunday had he not become sick with COVID. What COVID took from us was time — one more chat over a cup of coffee, smiles and laughs over silly jokes; maybe I even would have been able to snap his photo when he wasn’t looking so I could remember his face. One thing I know, deep in my soul, is that if he had not contracted COVID, he would have lived long enough not to die alone. He would not have had to die away from the people and places he loved, not allowed even a single visitor.
Though restrictions are lifting, the fight against COVID-19 is not over yet. We all still need to follow precautions such as mask-wearing and social distancing to prevent the virus’s spread and unnecessary loss of life. It can be easy to look at the COVID-19 death count as just a number, but each of the more than 16,000 people who have lost their lives in the state of Michigan was a person. They had a story and left behind family who just wished they had more time. It’s up to us to do everything we can to ensure they get it.