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Cheryl Hughes: Lesson in Happiness

My Uncle Phillip passed away in June.  I’ve mentioned him before in a couple of my columns.  He was happy.  I know that sounds like a simplistic description of a person’s character, but there are depths to that word—happy—that many of us will never reach.


               Sometimes, happy people are viewed as people who don’t really know what’s going on around them.  Ignorance is bliss, so they say.  Uncle Phillip knew.  His life was hard, so he worked harder.  He fed four children on a laborer’s salary.  My brother, Mark, said Uncle Phillip could actually “operate” a shovel.  It was a skill he developed on many a construction site.  Phillip’s idea of retirement was to go to work at my dad’s sawmill, which he did.

               The thing about happy people is they allow those around them to be happy.  As a child, I lived with people who seemed to be upset about something all the time.  Uncle Phillip was a breath of fresh air.  I can still see him walking into our house on Ashes Creek, asking my stepmom—his sister—“Whatcha cookin, Roberta?”  Not waiting for an answer, Phillip would begin lifting the lids from the pans to see for himself.  Once, he grabbed what he assumed was a knob on one of the pans and blew the lid off a pressure cooker.  Green beans went everywhere.  He laughed at his mistake as he cleaned up the mess.  He was a bit more cautious after that.

               Uncle Phillip knew how to play.  He would come home after his construction job in the afternoon and stop by the high school gym, where his oldest daughter and her teammates were practicing for the next game.  He was there to watch, but inevitably the girls would coax him onto the floor.  He was tall and lanky, his energy boundless, and it delighted the girls to watch him play.

               Uncle Phillip loved to fish more than anybody I ever knew, except maybe my friend, Greg Hampton.  He would fish with anybody who would fish with him.  Co-workers, friends, sons, daughters, brothers-in-law, nieces, nephews, and as the years ticked by, even great nieces and nephews. 

               He always treated my sisters and me the same way he treated his biological nieces and nephews.  Do you know what that means to a little kid?  To this day, that lesson in respect and inclusion resonates with me.  When my children were small, I would tell them, “Don’t leave anybody out.”  Even with my animals, when I pet one of them, I make it a point to pet the others, so that all of them know they are equally important to me.

               My Uncle Phillip died of cancer.  He was aware of what was going on up until his last days.  Mark went to see him near the end.  Phillip asked, “How long is this gonna take, Mark?”  He meant the process of dying. 

               “I don’t know, Phillip,” Mark said.

               Phillip looked around the room where his family had gathered and noticed his oldest son wasn’t there.  “Where did Phillip Wayne go?” he asked.

               “He went to get a fish sandwich,” his wife told him.

               “Well, at this rate, he’ll be back before I’m gone,” he said.  The family laughed.  That was my uncle, finding the “happy” even while dying.

               You know the Maya Angelou quote, “You might not remember what someone said to you, but you will always remember how they made you feel.”  Uncle Phillip made me feel happy.  It is one of the greatest gifts anyone has ever given me.


               (In memory of Phillip Andrew Lawson.  June 8, 1941 to June 15 2022.)


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