Uncle Sam: He did it his way

By D.J. Vanas © 2008
News From Indian Country 12-08

It was 1966 in New York City and the young couple sat huddled together in the rain on the seat of the motorcycle. It was cold and wet but they had each other. The newlyweds, married only months before, had just left church and visiting with family but were now headed home.

Though the weather was miserable, the two were full of love for each other and hope for the future. Also on the Major Deegan Expressway that stormy night was a driver speeding headlong into the darkness through his alcohol-induced stupor and the rainstorm. He caught the pair on the motorcycle in his headlights for an instant, like a camera flash, followed by a frenzy of screeching tires, breaking glass and a solid impact.

On the ground laid the young man, forever paralyzed from the waist down. Next to him lay his beautiful bride, Rosita, lying still and lifeless as raindrops caressed her face. The driver, fearful of his role, resumed his journey and rumbled back out into the inky night leaving lives in ruin behind him. The young man was my wife’s uncle, Sam.

Afterward, Sam slowly pieced together the remnants of his shattered life. He went back to school and learned a new trade, learned to live independently, had friends, a job and even was able to drive a car which had been outfitted to be controlled with his hands. Then, eleven years ago, Sam suffered a massive stroke which took away use of half of his upper body and sight in one eye. He lived in a nursing home from that time since, enduring infections, painful surgeries, and occasional seizures. He struggled with all this until we laid him to rest last week.

Through all these challenges, losses and tragedies, Uncle Sam was a shining example of what people can be and represented a better angel of our nature. Through it all, he remained an eternal optimist, a man who always smiled so he would bring out yours, who laughed, sang in Spanish, English (and his favorite) Sinatra, was quick to tell you his latest joke and always was more concerned about those around him than himself. He always commented to the ladies in his life, whether they were nurses or my own girls, how beautiful they looked so they would smile and feel beautiful. He had faith – not hope – but faith that God would one day allow him to walk again. Sam always told those around him that he loved them and was always on a constant quest to make others around him happy. He enjoyed life immensely and through his example made us enjoy ours more as well.

At the funeral, one of Sam’s brothers stood and shared a memory. He said that he remembered telling Sam that they should get revenge on the guy who caused the terrible accident. The police had arrested the man shortly after the accident. Sam told his brother he should forgive the man for his actions. His brother asked with expected anger and frustration, “Why should I forgive that man for what he did?” Sam replied, “Because I already have.” Quintessential Sam. The story touched the core of everyone in attendance as we collectively exhaled in awe.   

We live in a time of worry with a constant stream of headlines about everything from the economy to avian flu, from the war to the election. We worry so much about things that never happen or are so blown out of proportion by media or others around us (or us). Sam didn’t worry about dealing with pain, loss and struggles – he lived them everyday for the past forty years. Yet still he maintained a smile through the pain, a sense of hope through loss and an unselfish love for others despite living each day as an invalid in a nursing home. Sam’s the kind of person I want my daughters to be when they grow up. In fact, I want that for me too.

We live in a time where a blessing needs to be grandiose to be considered a blessing at all – a new house, car or vacation to Europe is worthy of joy. But what happened to being grateful for a piece of cake for desert, someone to love who loves you back, a sunny day or a happy moment of listening to a favorite song? Aren’t these little gifts worthy of our thankfulness? Sam sure thought they were. So often, the blessings we do have get overlooked but yet we still want and expect more of them to keep coming anyway.

Uncle Sam was not a saint or savior; on the contrary, he was a simple man which makes his example all the more powerful. He never had much after so much had been taken away – his wife, his ability to walk, his job, his home and independence. It inspired me to see someone with so little who was grateful for so much. His attitude of always being kind, grateful and joyous ran counter to the way many would have acted in his place. Actually I’ve seen people come unraveled after experiencing so much less – like missing a flight, not getting the newest iPhone or getting a bad haircut.

I heard it said that if you leave a fingerprint on a wooden table, you leave an imprint. But if you scratch a mark in the wood, you leave an impression. Sam is gone, but his impression will forever remain. At the final viewing Frank Sinatra sang “I did it my way” and I thought what fitting tribute to the man we all loved and admired. I pictured Sam singing those words as he had in the past and thought, “You sure did, Sam.” 

D.J.’s upcoming schedule:

9-11 Grand Ronde Tribe (Grand Ronde, OR)

17-31 Christmas Break

D.J. Eagle Bear Vanas (Odawa) is a nationally acclaimed motivational storyteller, success coach and the author of the celebrated book, The Tiny Warrior: A Path to Personal Discovery & Achievement and audio CD series The Warrior Within. D.J. uses traditional warrior concepts and wisdom to inspire people to achieve their best in life, school and career and owns Native Discovery Inc., a company dedicated to “building the warriors of tomorrow… today.” He can be reached at (719) 282-7747 or at www.nativediscovery.com .