Friday, March 24, 2006

Uncle Irv

So instead of writing my usual TGIF email, I’m sending this out to explain where I was earlier this week.

Irving Edward Lester
February 13, 1949 – March 19, 2006

I’ve been putting off writing this because I’m afraid of the emotions it will bring to the surface. Just call me a chicken.

Uncle Irv passed Sunday morning from a short but intense battle with cancer. It had spread through his torso and into his brain and left a lot of people wondering why. He was such a great man. And to me, he was a great uncle.

The reasons behind this article are numerous. For me, I’m trying to cope and heal with the loses. For Irv, I want to show him that I can still tell a story that gives people goose bumps. Yes, goose bumps. That’s the last memory I have of him being alive. My Dad and I were visiting Grandma Dorothy (Irv’s mother) in California for some reason. I was in college at the time and remember telling him about the school shooting they had down the road from us (this was when school shootings were something of an oddity). I told him how I remember hearing the sirens at night going down the road and not realizing what they were for. The next morning I heard a student shot and killed a teacher and wounded another student before killing himself. Uncle Irv said something to the effect of “Wow, now that was a good story. See? It gave me goose bumps.”

I have several other memories of Irv when he was alive of course. The many family reunions, Christmas parties, and Lester Olympics when I was a kid are always going to be with me. He was always great at coming up with silly and wacky games for the Lester Olympics. He never hesitated when it came to dressing in crazy clothes (probably because some of them were his). And when you sat down to talk to him (even as a child), he cared about what you said and treated you like somebody important.

Uncle Irv was my “hippie” uncle. That’s how I always tried to explain him to others. He had long hair, a beard, and often wore flip flops or sandals. Tie-dye shirts were common as were cut-off shorts. With a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, he came across as this deeply caring man. And he was.

During his memorial services, I learned even more about him. Since I lived in Virginia and he lived in Chicago or California, we didn’t visit much. So hearing how others saw him was enlightening. I learned he loved art. I learned he taught for over 20 years. I even learned he taught English as a Second Language. I knew he was a teacher, but never knew he taught outside of high school. And I never knew he taught for so long. Hearing (via my mother) that his ESL students could speak nearly perfect English shows to me that he was a good teacher. Seeing his students at the memorial crying showed me he was a great teacher.

After finding out that Uncle Irv was sick, my Mom asked if I wanted to go out and see him before he passed (whenever that may be, they were still unsure then). Over the following weeks, I continually said no. I didn’t want to see my uncle die. I wanted to remember him as he was. Happy, alive, and shaking his shaggy, dark-brown hair. After hearing about his passing, I was glad I didn’t go see him. And I was glad (as morbid as it may sound) that he passed quickly and didn’t suffer very much. I know that was also important to his family (that he didn’t suffer).

I had been preparing myself for his death for several weeks, but it still came as a shock. Sunday morning, I was making some toast for breakfast when Mom called. We had been talking about every day or so for the last week, so I wasn’t too surprised when she called. She asked if she woke me up, and after hearing I was already awake, told me that Irv had died. Despite all the mental preparations, I could barely keep it together long enough to talk to her. I told her Dad was probably awake and to call him regardless. She said a lot of my cousins didn’t know yet because she was one of the first ones there. She said she felt better after seeing him lying in bed and looking at peace. After I hung up, I hugged Yvonne (my wife) and cried. I was happy to have somebody there to lean on.

The next day Dad and I drove to Chicago (a 16 hour trip) getting in at about 8 at night. We decided not to fly due to the short notice and high cost. The trip out was fine, nothing too exciting. Once at Downers Grove, we stopped at Uncle Phil and Aunt Laurie’s house (where we stayed the next two nights). After saying hello to everyone (Mom was staying there too), we were “expected” at Uncle Gary and Aunt Shelley’s house for pie. After the short trip there (about 2 blocks), we said hello to Danielle (Irv’s daughter) and Uncle Dan and Aunt Gail. Then we stepped in to visit with Grandma Dorothy for a little bit. She looked so much older and so much more frail than the last time I saw her (about 2 years ago). But Dad and I had a good visit. She was still as smart and sharp as ever. After eating some pie and looking at some old pictures, we went back to Phil and Laurie’s to crash.

The next day (and the day of the service), Phil, Dad, Mom, and I went to Northside High School where Irv taught for many years. They had the flags at half mast (and at Southside where he also taught). We took some pictures then headed to eat some breakfast. I tried the spinach and feta cheese omelet. Not as good as Dan’s at Old Town, but it was okay.

We went back to the house to get ready for the service that afternoon. I wrote a little, worked on my taxes, and watched an episode of MacGyver. Then we all headed to the services at Toon Funeral Home in downtown Downers Grove. I met Wendy for the first time (his current wife) and saw Eric (his son). From 2:00 to 3:00 there was family viewing (they had an open casket) and from 3:00 to 8:00 was public viewing. The services started at 7:00 and probably lasted until 8:30. I saw a lot of people I knew and didn’t know. Some of both were family and family friends. Probably the most exciting people to talk to while I was there (and afterward) were Henri (my cousin Cinda’s husband), Paula (one of Irv’s previous wives), and Jackie (Grandpa Ted’s daughter – Grandpa Ted was married to Grandma Dorothy).

Eric and a friend, Bob Cox, played guitar during the service (just two songs). My uncles, aunts, cousins, and many of Irv’s friends and students spoke about their many memories of Irv. The two with the most impact on me where Cinda’s story about how Irv gave her a “special” hairbrush that would work on her long and curly “Lester” hair (which was just like his hair) and the story (which was more like poetry) from Irv’s friend, Jim Brask, about their many road trips and concerts over the years.

For those that went, I’m sure many wondered who I was and why I was just standing in the little waiting area outside the room with Irv. Well, I have this thing about seeing dead bodies, especially those I know. I’m not scared of them (I’ve even moved a few back when I was a security guard in the hospital). They don’t give me nightmares. Nothing like that. I just want to remember them as they were when they were alive. Back when my other grandmother passed away (my Dad’s mother, Bertha), everyone was going into the room to see her in the casket. My Uncle Randy was about to take me in, when my Dad stopped him and asked me if I wanted to go see her. He said he wasn’t because he wanted to remember her the way she was, alive and happy. I’ve stuck to that ever since. I’ve made my wife mad (at her uncle’s funeral). I’ve gotten odd looks (at Irv’s funeral). But that’s how I cope with death.

During the wake (but not during the services), Dad and I went down the street to take a break. We had a quick bite to eat at Berto’s (a great little Italian shop to eat at) and hit the toy store and book store. We got to see a commuter train (Metra to you locals) go by (that’s big for us tourists). After the services, we (most of the people at least) went down the street to the local Irish bar and had some dinner (and many had a few drinks in Irv’s name). The food was good and the atmosphere was great. Mom didn’t enjoy the guy doing useless trivia, but it didn’t bother me. The time for being sad was over, it was time to be happy. It was time to celebrate life again. After eating and visiting, we headed back to catch some sleep before heading out the next day.

It was a long trip, but well worth it. I got to see many relatives I hadn’t in some time. And I got to spend some time with Mom and Dad.

But for me, the saddest part was Irv’s funeral.

It was saying good-bye to Grandma.

As we were getting ready to leave the funeral home, Cinda, Uncle Gary, and others were helping to dress Grandma for the cold to get her back home. I gave her a (very gentle) hug and kiss and said something about being glad to see her again. I was getting ready to tell her I’d try to write more letters when she said “No matter what happens, I’ll always love you.”

I couldn’t take it anymore. I gave her another kiss, barely got out an “I love you too,” and had to walk off crying. I just said good-bye to my Grandmother for what would likely be the last time.

That was the saddest part of my trip.

The happiest part of the trip? Actually thinking about what I want for my services when I die. I know, quite morbid, but seeing your uncle die from cancer makes you think about your own mortality. Your Mom, Dad, Grandmother, In-Laws, they’re all getting older. So why not think about how you want to go out. So that’s my goal sometime in the near future. Think about, talk about, and start planning my own death. Well, not my death, my funeral.

Apologies for any spelling or relationship errors.
© 2006 Productions


Anonymous said...

Thank you SO much for this entry in your blog. I always learn new things about you and what you think when I read what you write.

Thank you (and Dad too) for coming to the funeral. I can't begin to tell you how meaningful it was to know that you were just a few steps away when I needed you the most.

I hope the next few days will be a time to reflect and remember. I know they will be for me.

I love you, now and forever.

Love, Mom

Anonymous said...

awesome. and crying again. thank you.

Anonymous said...


Perhaps we all have something to learn from you about our own feelings and emotions. We are so very sorry for your loss.


Dave & Clara

Anonymous said...

SO sorry about your loss but glad you and your dad went together...FYI, Uncle Randy didnt see Grandma B in the casket, I did but he and the kids didnt...its a sad time for all and please give your mom our sympathies, too...glad you were able to see your grandma and to give her a hug..
Aunt Kathy

Anonymous said...

Hi Neil,

At this moment Aunt Gail and I are sitting in the Downers Grove Starbucks this cloudy and windy Saturday morning. I've been reading email and blog entries, and just was talking to your mom on the phone. Can you add me to your Friday Letter mailing list, at, please?

It was good to see you on this sad occasion, as it had been forever since we'd been together. And, if you and/or your dad do get out to Boise, I promise that each of you can drive the Corvette.

You and Andy have both expressed your feelings so well, and I'm glad you did. Uncle Irv was a private person, but I know how honored he was when about a week before he died, but after he'd resigned over their spring break, one of his students called to ask him about an assignment, and that student just could not and would not accept that he wouldn't be back. Irv didn't say exactly why, he just said "I'm sorry I can't come back, but I'm VERY, VERY, VERY sick."

I've not yet written up all of my feelings, and probably won't for a while....I'm just not ready to do it yet, but I'm sure glad some of the rest of you have.

Oh, and on not wanting to see Irv's lifeless body....I understand and respect your feelings on it. I do want to tell you that he looked like he did a year ago when I'd seen him and NOT how he looked a week before he died and was very sick. That was good, as I'd feared that he'd either look like a very sick person or else like a plastic mannequin, but neither was the case.

love to you
Uncle Dan and Aunt Gail