Today, we buried my uncle.

I’ve been writing this blog’s first post in my head for months. Now, almost six months after Uncle Richard’s passing, seems like an appropriate time to finally tell his story.

The Beginning

I don’t remember what my first memory of my uncle is. I’m sure it has its place in one of our many family reunions, a tradition we started when I was very young. All I remember is that he used to intimidate me. He was rather stern, rarely smiled, and would always insist on us going to bed earlier than we wanted to. This is how I knew him for the first half of my life.

As I got older, my perception of him started to shift. He became a little less scary and a little more fun to be around.

Me and Uncle Richard in Taiwan, July 2008

At some point, I found out he was very fond of dancing, a discovery that was surprising to me because I always thought he was so serious and couldn’t possibly lighten up enough to be able to dance. But, dance he did and always with so much enthusiasm. 

Uncle Richard dancing with Aunt M at our 2006 family reunion

In July of 2007, I watched him dance at my cousin’s wedding, first with my cousin, then with my aunt, then with me and the rest of my cousins. He was smiling and very clearly having a good time and I remember thinking about how much fun it was going to be when it came time for him to dance at my wedding.

Uncle Richard and A dancing at her wedding

I never thought anything would change that would prevent that from happening. And so, life went on as usual for the next few years.

The Diagnosis

“Uncle Richard went in for surgery and they found out he has cancer. They caught it early and the doctors said they got it all. He will also undergo chemotherapy and radiation, so it looks like he’ll be okay.” This is how my mother broke the news to me in March 2010. I was surprised, but had no reason to believe I needed to worry. Uncle Richard underwent chemo and radiation for a few months and afterwards, he seemed to be recovering really well. His energy returned and he was back playing tennis and golfing in no time. Everyone was impressed with how well he was doing. My mom described his post-treatment state as “almost back to normal” and “very promising”. We believed that the worst of it had passed and that he really would be okay. And for a little while, he was.

The Decline

In August of 2010, things took a turn for the worse. Uncle Richard said he wasn’t feeling right and a visit to the doctor confirmed that the cancer had spread. He was operated on again and started a second, more intensive round of radiation and chemotherapy, but his body was too weak to handle it, so they decided to stop the treatment. His doctors gave him six months to live.

I didn’t know any of this at the time, but I could sense that something wasn’t going as planned, as he decided to travel back to Taiwan in October, despite being very ill. It was to be his last trip back to Taiwan, a trip he wanted to take to see my grandmother one last time before he passed away.

I found out about his prognosis in November. Everything else that happened after that happened quickly- too quickly. Our entire family made plans to travel to Pennsylvania to throw him a surprise party for his birthday. I had heard reports of how ill he looked from other family members who had already seen him, but his transformation during his last few months of life was truly shocking. He carried on as usual, but he had a marked decline in energy. He could no longer sit and talk with the family for hours like he used to. Even though he was tired and in an unimaginable amount of pain, he still seemed a little bit like himself. He still ordered people around and was cranky (but that might just have been the pain talking). Despite his physical appearance, it was hard to reconcile his behavior with the fact that he was terminally ill and this would be the last time most of us would ever see him again.

We gathered friends and family together for his surprise birthday party and when he entered the restaurant to see a room filled with people who loved and supported him, a genuine smile lit up his face, he clapped his hands together, and his eyes filled with tears. In this moment, I stopped trying to come to terms with the finality of this visit, and just be happy that we were all able to get together to help my uncle celebrate his birthday and bring him happiness.

The family with Uncle Richard on the night of his surprise birthday party

After seeing him over Thanksgiving, another month passed with no significant changes, good or bad. Then, on December 30, we heard from my aunt’s brother that Uncle Richard’s condition appeared to be worsening, and he suggested that his family get back to Pennsylvania as soon as possible. My mother traveled back to Pennsylvania to be with him on January 2. She never expected that this would be her time to say goodbye to him. Uncle Richard took his last breath on January 7, surrounded by by his family.

At his burial service today, his neighbor described him as a man who “lived life, loved life, and gave of himself” and that we should continue to live our lives through the example he set for us. To honor his memory and to make a contribution to the organization that fights against the disease that took his life, I’ve decided to run the Chicago Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon benefiting the American Cancer Society in August, followed by my first marathon, the Chicago Marathon, in October 2012 with the American Cancer Society’s DetermiNation fundraising team. This blog will chronicle my preparations for the half and full marathon and when the time comes, I hope it will also help me in my fundraising efforts. On a final note, and in keeping with the American Cancer Society’s motto of “Less Cancer, More Birthdays”, I leave you with this video I took of Uncle Richard at his birthday party in November. I miss you, Uncle Richard. I hope I make you proud.

All photos are personal unless otherwise noted.

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