Almost Heaven

My Uncle Eddie was a fighter pilot in WWII and his final flight was a doozy

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When my boyfriend's 82-year-old mother came waltzing into her living room during our daily visit and blurted out, "What is that strange potpourri you have in that cardboard box on the shelf in the garage, Mary? It doesn't smell very good!" I knew it was time.

I placed a call to my brother. "When can you come up? It's time for the ceremony; it can't be put off any longer."

"When do you want to go and have you selected a place?" he asked.

"Yes, it's perfect. It's hauntingly beautiful and boasts an incredible panoramic view from atop a stone bridge," I said. "You can see the entire state of West Virginia."

My paternal Uncle Eddie was the youngest of two boys born to my Southern grandmother. At 22, he was a fighter pilot in WWII with plans to marry. Those plans ended tragically in a car accident which left him permanently disabled, two passengers badly hurt and his fiancée dead. After years struggling to live independently, he moved home to Virginia with his mother, my grandmother.

I remember watching his morning ritual when I was a little girl. Now in his early 40s, he sat at the end of the couch by the window. A wooden tray table in front of him was always set the same way: two plastic gloves left of the plate next to silverware; a small, porcelain cup placed top right next to a folded newspaper; a 6-oz. glass of prune juice above the gloves; and, in the center of the tray, a white china plate boasting 2 sunny-side-up eggs, white buttered toast, 3 strips of crispy bacon and a few berries. Most importantly was the scalding, dark-roast coffee in an elegant china cup, placed strategically above the plate. And always a white linen napkin across his lap.

The porcelain cup was for crumbs. He'd press his index finger on fallen bits of food and rub his thumb and finger together over the cup to remove them. The plastic gloves were for reading the newspaper because: "The ink is full of chemicals and turns my fingers black, mother, it gets everywhere!"

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Once he took his first bite, Nanny and I always quietly giggled and exhaled a deep sigh of relief at his sign of approval. It was edible. And this was just breakfast! I witnessed this folly of codependency all day—mother caring for disabled son; demanding son giving purpose and need to what would be an otherwise lonely life for my grandmother. It worked for decades.

In May of 1990, when Nanny died at 91, Eddie's mental and physical health declined rapidly. Unable to care for himself, and needing more supervision than I could manage, I found him a home in Winchester, VA, with a lovely couple that cared for only one patient at a time. My brother and I visited frequently. He was happy and well taken care of. He died 11 years later.

His cremated remains and sparse personal mementos accompanied me to two other homes. Eddie was placed on shelves, mantels, wherever he would fit, and now in the storage garage along with my good intention of releasing his ashes one day.

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My boyfriend Dave's mother's discovery of the "potpourri" was, to me, a scream from my Uncle to free him. He understood life and family kept me busy and preoccupied, but he'd sat idle long enough.

My brother James arrived a few days later and we drove to Coopers Rock State Forest in West Virginia for Uncle Eddie's ceremonial release. It was, as John Denver so eloquently sang, "almost Heaven." A more spectacular day could not have been summoned: the sun was shining, hawks soared overhead while graceful hemlock boughs swayed in the breeze.

James and I stood together soaking it all in from atop the bridge. We opened the cardboard flaps and removed the plastic bag which held Eddie's ashes and bone. We both felt his presence surrounding us, as if he was saying, "It's about damn time!" We opened the bag and turned it upside down, allowing the universe to usher him home.

At that very moment, a great gust of wind swept up from the valley and instead of his remains floating off gently with the breeze, they enveloped my brother and I like a gray-ash tornado, swirling about us for a few seconds until finally coming to rest upon our shoulders, hair and shoes.

We had to laugh. It was Uncle Eddie's last hurrah to the world.

As we walked back to the car, I tossed the cardboard box into the trashcan while my brother stood stoically, gazing at the bridge. He snapped a firm salute, paused for a moment and then gently waved goodbye.

It was a perfect day for flight.

Tags: family

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