If your e-mail inbox is anything like mine, it overflows with too many messages to read, let alone answer.
As you scan your day's To Do list, you probably figure the ones from your friends and family can wait until you've got some free time.
With that in mind, I smiled when I received a message from my uncle, my mother's brother, a couple of weeks back. As he had done so often since I started to write for a living, he was taking me to task for a recent column I wrote. An avid writer and historian who extensively chronicled his experiences flying for Canada in the Second World War and for the nascent Israel Air Force in the 1948 War of Independence, he took every opportunity to push my journalistic buttons, always with a wry smile in his prose.
I was privileged during journalism school to help edit a book manuscript he had written. That was my first experience editing a real-world piece of work, and it taught me much about how to deliver a constructive editorial critique. My uncle, as opinionated and focused an individual as I have ever encountered, reviewed all of my edits and responded to each one in great detail. The end result was a thrill for me: a published piece of work within which I could practically touch the parts I had massaged with my pen.
It set the stage for my life as a writer. He followed my work and used e-mail to maintain a years-long dialog with me: no easy feat given a forty-year age difference, and the fact that he lived so far away and saw us so rarely. Still, a message from Uncle Eddy meant I was still in his writer's cross-hairs; it was a good sign.
As much as I enjoyed tossing messages back and forth with him about some obscure aspect of my writing, I just didn't have any time that morning to compose a thoughtful response. I made a mental note to get back to him when things slowed down. I thought he, of all people, understood just how busy I was, and would understand why I was – again – a little slow in getting back to him.
Now, this message will remain forever unanswered. Our phone rang at an insanely early hour this morning; my father calling to let us know my uncle had died suddenly the previous day.
I never did manage to find the few minutes that it would have taken to respond to that message. His words now sit in my inbox, mocking me for being so myopically self-centered.
Oddly, Superman's ability to reverse the earth's rotation and turn back time so that he could rescue Lois Lane came to mind. I wish I could somehow go back to the morning when I first read the note. I wish I had dashed off a half-baked answer, just to close the loop, to let him know I got his message and, as always, he got me thinking. I wish I knew then what I know now.
Instead, that morning I rushed out of the house so that I could get to the office early in time for a meeting that is now forgotten.
We called my mother later in the day to see how she was doing. She was the youngest of three, and I shuddered as it sank in that both her big brothers were now gone. Her voice sounded suddenly small, as though it had shed the last bit of omniscience I remembered it having all those years ago.
I didn't tell her about the unanswered message. Instead, she told me about the last time she spoke to him about a month ago. She regretted that she hadn't spoken to him afterward.
Donning the role of dutiful son, I tried to reassure her that she had no way of knowing. I tried to explain how we simply have no way of knowing what life will throw at us next. I told her despite being separated by a couple of oceans and a bunch of time zones, he still knew how his baby sister felt about him.
Maybe I was trying to comfort myself as well. That day, my uncle was once again trying to get my goat from thousands of kilometers away. I didn't bite, and now there's no one left on the other end to read my answer.
I'll hold onto that message from him, if only to remind myself that the large and growing workload of a writing career that's just now starting to snowball is no excuse to ignore messages from the people who matter.
Somehow, my traditional sense of priority-setting – namely, I'll get to it when I have time – needs to be replaced by something that attaches a little more urgency to the things I used to dismiss in the name of career-focused expediency.
In other words, the work will always be there. The people may not.
Looking ahead, I am left with the challenge of finding comfort in a loss that seemingly offers none. All I can come up with is that he had a voice that, through a life of seemingly endless achievement, he was always willing and able to project far and wide. His voice always resonated. My goal is to ensure that, like the voice of his late father – my grandfather, from whom I inherited my love of the written word and the storyteller's tradition – his voice continues to resonate in my own writing.
I only wish there were some way for me to more concretely let him know.