E Burton Lightner

The Rocket Scientist

Last week I said goodbye to my dear uncle. He was a man of science but also deep faith and my memories of him are full of joy and humor. As a kid, I thought of him as a rocket scientist, the man who taught me that we can travel to Mars. He taught me other lessons over my lifetime like:

  • Packing the trunk (boot) of a car is like playing a game Tetris. With a little patience and spatial awareness, it WILL all fit in there.
  • Organization is subjective. What might seem like chaos to those around you is a system that works.
  • Never feel guilty about savoring good food. And remember that life is too short to skip dessert.
  • Map reading is an art and an important life skill. Know that while some routes may be better or faster than others, there is no shortage of paths to your destination. Always trust your inner compass.
  • Trying to recreate Laota’s Sour Cream Rice is a waste of time. No one knows her secret.
  • Sometimes life’s rewards mean pushing boundaries and limitations. If you’re not tall enough to ride on that rollercoaster, stand on your tip toes.

During one of my last visits with him, I could tell that he was thinking deeply about what his last sage words of wisdom to me would be. These would be important words and he didn’t expect to see me again. He said “remember that there only three things that matter in life:  family, faith, and friends. Nothing else matters.” Words of wisdom indeed. I cried, kissed him on the forehead and said “well, I’ll see you tomorrow then OK?” And we both laughed. He’d have another chance for his last words.

Toward the end I think that his perception of time became malleable, he was no longer constrained by the same space-time continuum in which we find ourselves.  “The amount of time we spend here in this time and place is insignificant” he said, pinching his thumb and index finger together to demonstrate. “We are never gone. People are never gone, they’ve just moved on to the next place.” He’d clearly seen what lay beyond the horizon of time as we know it. He asked for his watch, with its thick leather band and metal clip on calendar, it was a tangible artifact that tethered him like a life raft to the time he was passing through. I’m grateful for the moments I got to spend with him on that life raft before it was time for him to let go.

“Now scoot” he said with a wink, giving me permission to let go as well.


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  • Reply Shauna June 16, 2015 at 3:16 pm

    That was just beautiful. He sounded like a lovely man. I’m so with him on the car boot Tetris!
    My condolences to you.

    • Reply Katherine Lightner June 16, 2015 at 10:28 pm

      Thank you for the kind words Shauna. He was notorious for his mastery of packing the boot!

  • Reply Penny Burkhardt June 16, 2015 at 6:07 pm

    In January I lost my ex-husband and lifelong friend, Ray. This letter for Burt was written a few months after Ray’s passing when I understood that Burt too was nearing the end. I wanted to post it here as a tribute to him and a companion piece for your lovely essay about your uncle.

    Dear Burt,

    My heart was heavy when I read the words palliative care, having just recently heard them in reference to Ray. I was lying in bed this morning and reflecting on the beauty of the qualities of the people in my life.
    Carol wrote expressing amazement at the impressive academic achievements listed in a tribute to Ray. Each person contributes in his or her own unique way. I could not help but think that for every book or article that Ray wrote, you wrapped your arms around another human being and gave them the love and support that carried them through whatever challenges they were facing. You, my friend, have a body of work that amazes me.
    From the time that I first heard about you from my mother it was of the man who stepped up and loved and cared for a mother and her two children who needed your mantle of protection. On through the years all that I know about you is that you and Carol, wonderful Carol, are there to do whatever is needed for all of the people with whom you come in contact. I love you both for that.
    One can’t ask for much more in a friend, but you also are filled with intelligence and humor and a zest for life that spills out around you and makes knowing you a joy.
    You always said that you hated the title stepbrother, so let me thank you for being my brother. I feel fortunate to be one of the many whom you have touched with your generosity and love.

    • Reply Katherine Lightner June 16, 2015 at 10:27 pm

      Penny – Thank you for sharing those lovely words. Such a perfect way to remember him. Love Katherine

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