It was just a phrase that children used to say in a wrestling match when one child would get the upper hand; the beaten child would have to say “uncle” in order to be released from the debilitating grasp of the superior fighter. The origin of the phrase is uncertain, but it may have come from a 19th century British joke about a talking parrot. No one knows.
Stating the word uncle indicated a spirit of acquiescence, concession, admission that one was in submission to a greater force, a higher power (at least for the moment). I never liked using expressions of this sort when I was a boy; I thought they sounded silly, made no sense to me, and so I refrained. Well . . . I refrained unless the bigger boy who had me down on the ground demanded it of me; in that case I offered it quickly, albeit reluctantly in my mind.
As an adult I have had to say “uncle” on a number of occasions. Not typically while I was in a headlock, of course; rather, in moments so oppressive and so inescapable that acquiescence was my only choice. Dashed dreams. Relationship failures. Disappointments of various kinds.
Each situation was one from which I could not escape, a devastating loss that stared in my face and would not turn away. I could choose to try to ignore it (which was impossible), deny it, move away from it, or disregard it. Of course, these choices were a tactic doomed to failure. Ultimately, I had to face the dilemma, embrace the wreckage, and acknowledge the devastating event, before I could move on with my life.
In other words I had to say “uncle.”
Until I did so, I remained in a prison of denial, a fantasy land which offered no real joy, but a land where the light grew more and more dim as the time of denial persisted, until it approximated the dingy, gloomy, and cheerless atmosphere I used to see in soap operas on our small RCA black and white television in the 1950s and early 60s.
I lost two important men in my life this past week. They both died on the same day, hours apart, in adjoining states. They were the husbands of my mother’s two sisters. One was 92, the other 86.
And I said, “Uncle.”
I said uncle because they were both uncles to me. And I said uncle because the loss was such that I could hardly bear the pain, but could not turn away. I had to relinquish them to the grip of death. I had to acquiesce and submit to a higher power. I could offer my love and condolences to my cousins and their families, but . . . I had no power to alter the reality of the loss.
When I said uncle as a boy I was released from the vice grip of my adversary, and the wrestling match came to an end. But as an adult – the relief that comes is not instantaneous; the wrestling and struggling do not cease quickly; I submit, I give up, I surrender – but the pain is still there. It does not let go so easily.
Both of these men had an impact on my life. And they were true and faithful spouses to my aunts. They leave behind children with the highest ideals, and aging mates – both challenged with Alzheimer’s. But the legacy of these two men will live on; their values will outlive them in the generations to follow. Such was the influence of their character.
So . . . I will say, “uncle.”
Life (and death) will demand it of me.
In truth, I said “uncle” when I lost my father, then once again when I lost my mother. I said it when my niece suddenly passed away, and one of my friends lost his battle with cancer. I said it thirteen times last year. And I’ve already said it several times this year.
But my wrestling match with life continues. Acceptance eventually brings some relief, a brief reprieve, a welcome lull, an intermission. Then once again I will be brought to my knees, right-sized, remade, reshaped. And I will say, “uncle.”
I am learning (as the years go by) more and more to be a man of faith. And although many readers of The Lost Story do not share my faith, I would be remiss if I did not tell you that my two departed uncles were both men of faith, too.
You see, when I say uncle I am admitting pain, acknowledging loss, admitting powerlessness, and grieving; but I am not undone. I am not beside myself. Not without hope.
And so . . . when I am forced to the ground, when I have been bested, when my strength is not adequate to the task . . . you may watch as my lips form the word uncle, but rest assured . . .
I am far from vanquished.
I hold a sword at my side.