There is a singular image that I have in my mind when I think of my uncle Mitchell.
Years ago, a friend and I decided to take a beach day the summer before we were leaving for college. It was a strange moment for me in my life -- I felt very lost and unsure of what I was doing and the worst part was that I didn't know how to put words to that feeling and take action as a result. Perhaps that's why this particular moment is etched into my memory -- for its calm, its clarity and its beauty amidst the chaos of that moment of my life.
My friend and I had been on the beach and in the water for a couple of hours and both of us decided to spread out our towels and take a break. I remember the Florida sun beating down on us that day and how good it felt to lie down and dry out after being in the salt water for a while. Suddenly, as I was lying there with my eyes closed and daydreaming without a care in the world, I remember that the sun got blocked out -- something was in the way. I opened my eyes and, after taking a minute to focus, realized that it wasn't some thing, but rather someONE who was standing between us and the sun.
Momentarily, all I saw was the outline of a shirtless man set against a cloudless deep blue sky, wearing only a pair of swim trunks, standing with a surfboard at his side. His shadow stretched far out in front of him as he stared out over the ocean, a seeming master of his domain. This was a very striking image -- almost something out of a film, the way that nothing else seemed to matter to this man in that moment. There was a serenity about him, an ownership of his place, no doubt having stood there countless times before -- this was familiar, this was home. It took me a few moments more to realize this was not just any surfer preparing to mount his board and test himself against the ocean waves. This was my Uncle Mitchell.
In that moment of recognition, I remember saying, "Uncle Mitchell?" After a few moments, his response is also seared into my memory. Even though we saw each other rather infrequently -- he and his wife lived very close to the beach, while we lived in the suburbs, about a thirty-minute drive inland -- he didn't depart from the serene vibe that he'd cultivated in the moments before I spoke up. He gave me a, "hey man," as if we'd just seen each other a day before. He flashed his inimitable smile, took hold of his board and sauntered off toward the ocean to do what he most loved and to be where we most loved to be.
Mitchell (who, as a child of the sixties, also answered to his nickname, "Sky") took after his father, my Papa Archie, and loved to work with his hands and to work outdoors. He was always on-the-go and always brought a high-energy approach to whatever it was he was doing. I can still hear his voice so distinctly in his go-to phrases, like the way he called me "buddy" and in his distinct, unique approach to storytelling that came with a lot of infectious laughter from him and had me laughing all along the way. He was so supportive of what my brother and I did as kids and as adults -- I could count on his being there at all our family events and I am hard-pressed to recall a time when he didn't bring a positive energy into any room he entered.
In recent years, Mitchell's health deteriorated and he was no longer able to work at the pace he was accustomed to. I suspect that the thing he missed most -- apart from his beloved wife Jeanette who passed away a few years ago -- was taking his place in the ocean and communing with the waves. As a function of the pandemic and my move abroad, I hadn't seen my uncle since I was last in Jacksonville in November 2019. I am so grateful that we made time to talk together that day & night. As it turns out, that would be the last time I'd see him. He passed away two days ago.
It's still hard for me to process this. To be so far away from family, to not have been able to say goodbye, to know that I won't ever be able to hear his voice again uttering those phrases that were so much his own. There is a memorial service this evening and I will be in attendance (virtually, of course). While I know that attending the service will help to ease this sadness and sense of loss that I feel, I know I won't be able to say a real goodbye to my uncle until I'm back on that beach again, standing where he stood that day, admiring his place, his love, his waves.