There are certain people in your life that you respect, love, look up to more than others. For me, my own father is number one, just based on what he accomplished considering where he came from, what he provided for me and my family, etc. But my uncle was a close second. Especially when I was young, my father and my uncle (they were in-laws, not brothers) provided a great yin and yang for me to combine the best qualities of both and get a pretty good model for respectable manhood. As I have grown older, I have come to recognize weaknesses in both men (just as I have recognized weaknesses in myself), but when you are younger you don’t see the weaknesses as much. You just see the greatness, the model of what kind of man you want to become. And that is probably as it should be, because when you are young you want/need clear, uncomplicated models to aspire to. There is plenty of time for complexity and nuance later in life.
My father and my uncle were very different men in many respects, which is why together they provided me with such a complete picture to pull from. Whereas my Dad was an athlete (even played minor league baseball), my uncle was an outdoorsman. There is a difference. (I chuckle at the prospect of handing my father a tent and camping supplies and sending him off into the woods). I was never an athlete, so my father and I never bonded over sports as he did with my older siblings, but I do enjoy the outdoors a great deal. Some of my more vivid childhood memories are of a couple of weekends where I stayed with my uncle and aunt up at Lake Conroe, and he’d wake me up before the sun was up and take me fishing out on the lake (well, usually just the marina, but it was still cool). Or the time he took me for a ride around the Woodlands area north of Houston on the back of his motorcycle. (Again, my Dad on a motorcycle? Ha!) So, it was cool growing up getting experiences with my uncle that I otherwise would not have gotten.
About a decade ago or more, I decided to conduct, record and transcribe some family interviews. I did my mother, father and uncle (I regret not interviewing my mother’s sister before her death, that would have been a fascinating interview. I remember I asked her, and she tentatively agreed, but then we never got to it). My uncle’s interview was especially fun, as he had a tendency to ramble off on tangents and alleyways of memory, or he’d be telling a story of his youth and then if the weather was a factor in the story he would veer off and give you theories of weather patterns in Southeast Texas and never return to the original story. Anyway, it is a fun read and really does preserve what a conversation with my uncle was like. All of the interviews were great, but where my mother was a bit guarded, my dad was conversational on many topics but also didn’t really want to delve too much into some areas, my uncle’s interview was wide open. I remember when we started, he told me the only topic he did not want to discuss was the death of his oldest son. My cousin died in his teens from leukemia. Of course, once he got talking he spoke of my cousin at length, including his death. Reading it now, I think that out of all of the interviews I conducted, his is the most authentic. The most like really just sitting down with him and shooting the sh*t, but also getting his story down.
Two recent memories I will keep with me. Back in the fall of last year, a family member died and so I drove into Houston to attend her funeral. I went to my uncle’s house and we went to the service together. Fortunately, I came in early, so we had some time to hang out at his place. In hindsight, this was only a couple months before he got sick. What a great afternoon. He warmed some bar-b-q in the oven, and we sat down and talked. He showed me his guitars and let me play an especially nice Gibson for which he had rebuilt the neck (he left me that guitar, by the way, which makes me happy beyond words). We left his house early, so he drove me around parts of Houston I’ve never explored, even though I grew up there. He drove me by the house where he, my mother, and my aunt grew up. He told me stories of growing up on that street, who had lived in other houses on that same street. It was a perfect time capsule moment, Houston of another era.
And then there was about a month ago. The extended family was informed by our cousins that my uncle was in pretty bad shape. Cancer and other complications. He was in a “recovery center.” I discussed with my cousin visiting him, and my cousin thought that would be good. I showed up and he was dozing off, but woke up and asked who was there. He was quite shocked to see me, apparently my cousin had not told him I was coming. At the time I was a little irritated that my cousin hadn’t mentioned me coming, I felt uncomfortable surprising him like that, but in hindsight I think it was on purpose. Later, my mother and sister were planning a visit, and my uncle talked them out of coming. My cousin probably knew he’d do the same with me, which is probably why he gave me all of the info I needed to see him, yet did not tell him I was coming. Thanks, Sam, I will be forever grateful.
We spent one hour together. He was indeed in terrible shape. My uncle had smoked heavily most of his life. He had quit smoking five or six years ago, but the damage was already done. One of the first things he said was “well, the smoking finally got me.” He had lost a lot of weight (my cousin said he weighed less than 100 pounds when he died). His cough sounded horrible. But, we talked, we visited, we were just together for an hour. He, of course, reminisced about the old days, like he always did. We talked about family, both gone and still around.
While I was there a Catholic deacon (layperson) came by to give my uncle communion. Having recently come to serious faith myself, I was pleased to see that after many decades, my uncle’s lapsed, dormant Catholicism was again active. I guess nearing your end does that. There was a funny exchange, where I was asked if I wanted to also take communion, but once I revealed that I was Lutheran, both the deacon and I agreed I should sit on the sidelines and pray with them, but not take communion. Catholics and Lutherans don’t do sacraments together (after all, we were the original rebels in the Reformation). Typically, right in the middle of this solemn sacrament, my uncle’s curiosity was piqued and he started asking me about Lutheranism, and how it differs from Catholicism, and then he talked about how he recently did confession for the first time in about 40 years and how it took a long time to discuss all of his sins…but anyway, it was a beautiful thing to watch him take some comfort in God’s Grace and the sacraments of his youth so ingrained into his being. After the actual sacrament, I did come over, hold hands with my uncle, and the three of us recited the Lord’s Prayer together. That was special, it was an emotional moment for us both, I actually saw him tear up. I had never prayed with him before.
One other thing struck me. When I first walked in, he was asleep but he had headphones on and a portable DVD player in his lap. My uncle loved movies, he would always talk about recent films he had seen. There was something, I can’t put my finger on it and I don’t know how to describe it. But something incredibly sad about the condition he was in at this point (and let’s be honest, this could be my or your end as well), to where the smallest things become life preservers. He was holding tightly to his DVD player and this little bin filled with DVDs like these were saving his life, like they were the last sustenance on earth. It was not unlike a frightened child clinging to a stuffed animal or blankie in the dark night. I mean, he was clutching them tightly. And at that point, they probably were his most important possession. A way to be transported away from his pain and, well, dying. He talked excitedly about a particular movie he was watching before I had walked in and before he had dozed off. Gave me the plot points, the actors. It made such an impression on me, just how important that little thing, a DVD player and some movies, were to him at that point.
I could tell he was getting tired, so we said goodbye. I knew that was probably the last time I would ever see him. We embraced for a long while, told each other that we loved one another. And that was it.
So, godspeed Uncle Joe on your new journey. We will miss you.
RIP Uncle Joe