A few weeks ago, I delivered a eulogy for my late Uncle Chuck. He died on a snowy morning in December, just a week-and-a-half before Christmas. I was holding his hand under his blanket when he took his final breath.
Holiday grief is hard on the heart, and in the past month-and-a-half, I have occupied a space cluttered with conflicting emotions: joy and gratitude for a life well-lived, sadness for the soul I miss, guilt for the time I squandered. And then there is the anger — anger at myself for how infrequently I reached out to him when I lived so far away, anger at anyone who expected anything from me while I was embedded in my grief, and anger at our political atmosphere and the way it eclipses all other things.
Chuck was born with cerebral palsy in 1941, back before there were services available for the disabled offering anything more than custodial care. My grandparents, hoping to fill a void in the educational system that was supposed to prepare their son for the future, used a $3,000 G.I. loan to found a school in my uncle’s honor, and opened their doors to other families with children who were afflicted as he was. It was, and remains for me one of the most unselfish acts of love that I have ever seen.
If you didn’t know him well, you might think that Chuck’s handicap was the most important thing about him. He spoke with struggled speech that required considerable patience to understand. He was wheelchair-bound, though when he was younger, he could walk short distances with the aid of crutches. In fact, when I was a little girl, Chuck could dress and feed himself and get himself to work, where he would mow the lawns and collect the trash and manage the soda machines at the Matheny School. There was a time when Chuck could do most of the things that the rest of us do, only slower and with much more effort. Everything was exponentially harder for him, and yet he did it all without complaint.
When Chuck visited my family in Ohio, I learned that I could gauge the character of an acquaintance by how they responded to my uncle. I became protective of him in public, staring hard at others whose gaze lingered a little too long when we were seated at a restaurant, or at people who changed their seats to move away from him when we attended a community concert. I shot daggers at them with my eyes while Chuck just continued living proudly, continued singing with his quiet dignity.
I didn’t know it then, but in those moments while I stewed in my anger over other people’s actions, my Uncle Chuck was teaching me something about love.
In the days following Chuck’s death, as my family and I sorted through his belongings, I came across some old letters that my grandparents had written to him in those very first years of the Matheny School, when Chuck was just a boy. In them, my grandparents expressed their tender affection for him, their gratitude for his sweet, agreeable demeanor, and laid out their ambitions to open a school in his honor. They called it their “Tribute to Chuckie.”
I learned from those letters just how hard it was for them in the beginning — and then my mother told me how my grandfather had once used his car as collateral to borrow the money he needed for payroll. These were difficult times, the end of World War II, in fact, when food rationing was still in place. And yet my grandparents persisted, boldly asking their community to invest in the education of children who had previously been hidden away.
I’m sure they heard ‘No’ a lot.
I think about how that must have felt — living in what was supposedly the greatest and most morally righteous country in the world, and having to ask for private money again and again so that their son could receive an education.
In 1948, on the two-year anniversary of the opening of Matheny School, my grandmother wrote these words to my Uncle Chuck, who was seven years old at the time:
“Please don’t become intolerant when I try to explain why we may fail. You see, dear, there are some people who don’t understand little kids like you and [the other students]. Perhaps they had little boys & girls who could run and play, and had no physical handicap — they don’t know how much courage it takes to fight your battles. They cannot know, dear, that within that handicapped body, lies a mind so keen, so alert, so willing to contribute — and equally important, a courage and a determination to conquer no matter what the barrier.
“Do not be intolerant, Chuck. Accept this as something which you will always have to face — be tolerant of these people because they do not know. It is hard for them to realize that you and [the other students], just given the inherent chance, will help in a productive and practical manner to formulate our world of tomorrow.”
Be tolerant of these people because they do not know. In that letter, my grandmother was teaching my uncle something about love.
In all the times I’ve had to advocate —whether for environmental conservation, or protective regulations, or for accommodations for my own child to access her education— I have struggled with anger. It ignites in me upon my first whiff of indifference to the things that I hold dear. It roils under the sense that someone else places money or convenience or political popularity above right and wrong, or the health and security of my environment, my body, or my child — and it flares at things like vulgar tweets and internet trolls and unreturned calls and passive-aggressive emails because, my God are you not human? Where is your compassion and decency?
I often use my anger to protect what I love. But then, perhaps I’ve been doing it all wrong.
Advocacy can take you to dark places when you don’t come up for air. When you walk around with your muscles flexed, always poised for your defensive stance, the fatigue will eventually set in. You may begin to question the humanity of the people on the other side of the table, regardless of where that table is: in Washington, in your community, or even your own home. It’s exhausting to maintain this suspicion of one another, this belief that everything is a win-or-lose game. You may pride yourself on your vigilance, on the power of your love to keep fighting, fighting, fighting. But the truth is, it’s exhausting to be at war.
After the end of the war, my grandparents opened the doors of the Matheny School with a $3,000 G.I. Loan and three students, including my Uncle Chuck. In just one year, the school grew to 34 children with a staff of 21 — which means that somewhere in between all the No’s came an occasional Yes.
How did they get there?
I can tell you one thing for sure — they didn’t get there with anger. They didn’t get there with shame.
Be tolerant of these people because they do not know, she said. Be patient and be kind. Or in other words, lead with love. I think this is what my grandmother meant. I know this is how my Uncle Chuck lived. If there’s one true thing I can take away from his life, it’s how far love can carry a person, how far love can take a family, and how wealthy a community becomes when its currency is love.
I am an East-coaster and a West-coaster. I am an academic and a creative spirit. I am an environmental scientist who always wanted to write, and a writer with a nagging nostalgia for the complexities of environmental science. Above all, I am a mother — so whether I’m writing about the natural world, family, or place, I like to consider my work as environmental advocacy in the broadest sense.