In 2002 Uncle Willis passed away. He was a good man, a fine man, a man who helped raise three equally fine children.
He fought in a world war but never became bitter. He was raised in depression but lacked for nothing. He was brought up tough but loved his children fiercely.
I last saw him just months before his passing. He knew he was dying. No-one escapes the cruel claws of Motor Neurone disease. Death usually comes quickly, a relentless eventuality from a relentless, unforgiving disease.
But even facing death Uncle Will smiled.
He smiled at my eager, misguided efforts to help a cow that could no longer stand. He smiled at tales from my younger years. And he smiled at the laughter that rippled through the family around the kitchen table at night.
His smile came despite what loomed ominously ahead. It came despite his inability to work. And it came despite the inability of his lips to form words.
Instead he wrote. With what little strength remained he wrote, a scrawling shorthand in a tiny spiral-bound notebook that was as hard to read as his words were to comprehend.
And still he smiled. Despite the frustration of being unable to talk and laugh as he had just a few months before.
Motor Neurone disease strips away dignity. It traps perfect minds inside bodies that no longer work, inside bodies that ignore the mind’s will.
Where once the mind thought and tongue and lips responded with words and sounds, now, nothing. Where once food was enjoyed with pleasant conversation, now just dribbling and spitting. It’s a disease no-one wants and no-one escapes.
But through all of his body’s failings Uncle Will never lost his dignity. Despite the wasting muscles and the unformed words he kept smiling. There would be no feeling sorry or regretting, and no sulking. Instead he smiled and smiled, and smiled some more.
And when I’m down and suffering I think of Uncle Will. I think of that immense act of will that manifested as a smile. And I thank him for his leadership and his courage. I thank him for his dignity.
But most of all I thank him for his smile.