By Maile Sundquist
My heart is both heavy and full tonight. I recently lost two uncles – the last of my father’s four siblings – making it the end of a generation on that side of my family. My father passed in 1990 of cancer and having the last of his siblings pass has brought up emotions I haven’t felt in a long while.
My father and his siblings were raised under the hard hand of a severely abusive, alcoholic father and the meek love of a devoted mother. They had a reputation in their neighborhood as the bullies and the family you don’t mess with, trained up “right” by my grandfather who would force them at gunpoint to fight one another – or so the story goes. My father, no doubt desperate to escape this unbearable existence, lied about his age and joined the Army at 15, fighting in the Korean War. He unfortunately followed in his father’s footsteps and became an abusive alcoholic himself, although not to the extent of his father. Thankfully I was old enough prior to his death to understand that he was more than just an angry drunk. He was a complicated man of many sorrows with a desire to manifest beauty and joy, but without the emotional tools to make it happen. At his best he was a loving and protective parent, gallant and loving husband, jovial and hospitable friend, sensitive artist, and passionate inventor, visionary, and songwriter. Unfortunately, he left this world regretful, never able to conquer his inner demons, heal from his past, or overcome his addiction.
In the ten short years that I knew my father he taught me many things that have made me who I am today. He taught me to love music, how to dream and create. He taught me how to entertain and make people laugh. He taught me perseverance and confidence and to never let anyone or anything hold me back from my dreams. He taught me ingenuity and entrepreneurial prowess. Even his struggles showed me that adults don’t have everything figured out, and challenged me to seek the good in others despite their shortcomings. I loved and still love my father deeply and forgive the wrongs he did to me, my siblings, and our mother. I believe he did try to do his best with the meager tools his father left for him.
My firstborn son is four and a half months old and my heart aches that he will not only not know his grandpa, but now that my mother has Alzheimer’s he will not know the vibrant, fun-loving, easily amused, sweet, sweet, supportive, artistic and profoundly loving mother I knew growing up. She was my rock, my friend and confidant, and my idol when it came to creating art and loving people. He will also not know his many great aunts, uncles, and grandparents on my side. All of those amazing, unique souls who weaved a portion of our family tapestry and left us the tools to add to it. They will, however, forever remain alive in our memories, and it’s those memories that I will share with my son.
The younger of the two uncles I recently lost was the uncle I was closest to. I had the privilege of staying with him for two weeks when I was eighteen where I got to know him as a person – as a man and individual, not just as my uncle. He, not unlike my father, was a complicated man who carried his share of woes from his upbringing and his time in Vietnam. He had a beautifully resonant speaking and singing voice, a gentle manner, and a sweet smile. He was always encouraging me in and praising me for my music and art and was always supportive, open, and loving towards me and my family.
After he passed, his children began to reach out to the extended family. One of them I had never met or talked to prior to about a month ago. She is an artist who will often post edifying and encouraging sentiments inspired by the visual arts. Her husband, who is an accomplished jazz musician and drummer, was playing at Jazz Alley here in Seattle the other night, and one of my sisters and I were able to meet him and catch his show. He was filled with exuberance and a joyful energy that was contagious. His excitement for family, music, and God was evident even after just ten minutes of conversation. Although my uncle has passed and will be greatly missed, in a way his passing has brought about new life by way of connecting family members to one another.
The older I get, the more I value family and the role it plays in forming our beliefs, worldview, and personality. Due to our strained upbringing, the tools for healthy, thriving, positive relationships and personal care habits have not come easily to my family. There are hurts and broken and strained relationships that I continue to pray over and that I believe, in time, will be healed and restored. But until then, there are healthy, vibrant family relations, both new and familiar, that I am so grateful for and that fill my heart with song, and I thank God for these precious relationships and strive to nurture and protect them.
Life is short, and what we do and say and how we live our lives leaves a mark whether we want it to or not. Our lives produce ripples that, if we’re lucky, extend out from us to the ends of the earth and into eternity, so I want those ripples to be filled with love, joy, zeal, gratefulness, and as much positive living as I can squeeze into them. I plan to live as big and love as wide as I can before God takes me home so that those who I leave behind can say, “She lived right. She lived BRIGHT!”