Thursday, December 07, 2006

Family Matters

I'm writing this post at 4:30 AM at my Mother's house in Florida. I'm here because my uncle died Tuesday. There was no question but that I needed to be here with my family, though my husband was unable to join me. His presence always calms me, because he is always looking out for me, and I know that he's always on my siding, understanding me in ways my family can't begin to, mostly because I don't spend every day with my family. Also because I'm just different.

Funerals are very strange occasions, at least in my family. You see cousins and aunts and uncles you only see at such things, but when you do get together, it's fun and happy and poignant and depressing and crazy and loving and ridiculous. Does everyone have the weird side of the family -- the one group that's different from all of the rest of you, whom you can't figure out and continue to be shocked by and amazed at? Well, my family has that. I hadn't known how profound the differences were until today.

First of all, the uncle who died was an uncle by marriage, but I am pretty sure that we all took him as our blood when we first met him. I remember that day. My Aunt Betty had been widowed the year before, and I had spent a lot of that summer with her. This Aunt is everyone's favorite -- she was my Dad's favorite sister, and they were best friends. I couldn't appreciate what that meant until recently when I began to experience an increased closeness to my own precious brother. I can't imagine how she's missed my Dad all of these years, but I would imagine that her husband, Uncle Fred, had a lot to do with helping her heal.

She brought Fred to meet my Dad just 2 1/2 months before he died. She wanted his approval, and she more than got it. No one could not love Fred. My Dad whole-heartedly agreed that this was a quality man and that he would be very happy if they married as soon as possible, and in our home, if they would. They did. :) We were all thrilled.

These 27 years have seen lots of events in our family -- births, deaths, and assorted other joys and tragedies. Aunt Betty and Uncle Fred were there for them all. And it wasn't just for our family -- they were there for everyone. Very active in their Baptist church, they ministered to any and everyone who crossed their path, and not in a preachy way, either. They were real, and they knew how to do real things, and most especially they knew how to make each of us kids feel special by making a point to come see us when we came from all over to visit Mom here at her home. Mind you, they live 40 miles away, so this wasn't just going around the block for them, but they never missed us. They were with us every Thanksgiving and Christmas and anytime in between that any of us could get together. A visit to Aunt Betty's always garners something to take home, usually vegetables she'd put up in the freezer for later. Just this Thanksgiving I made collard greens that were sent home with me blessed with Aunt Betty's love.

You never saw Betty without Fred. They did everything together, happily. He loved her to distraction, and she loved him right back. Fred had several medical problems through the years -- heart problems, back injury, circulatory issues, etc. But somehow he always came through. My brother called him "The Bionic Man", and I can't say that it's an inaccurate description.

At the end of October, out of the blue, we all learned that Uncle Fred was diagnosed with lung cancer. I think he used to smoke a long time ago, but if he did, he'd given it up at least 20 years ago or more, so that wasn't an immediate factor. However, my guess now is that Fred knew something was up a while back, but didn't choose to address it. Several choices he made now seem as though he knew he had little time left on this earth. How does that seem to happen so often when people have terminal illnesses?

With the diagnosis and description of what was done to him in the ER and hospital stay, it was pretty obvious that his cancer was pretty far gone. My husband and I made the decision to come down here, right away that weekend, to visit him, and I'm so very very glad we did. We picked up my sister on the way and all went to see Uncle Fred. There was already a hospital bed my Aunt had arranged in the living room to look out the glass doors onto the lake, which was such a perfect thing to do. The weekend we visited he was able to be up and to eat meals at the table if he chose to. He chose to. This is the first and only time I can remember when Fred wasn't dressed very nicely and when he didn't smile at all. It was heartbreaking.

When he returned back to his bed after the meal, I joined him, followed by my husband and sister. I wanted to spend time with just Uncle Fred, without Aunt Betty within earshot, because I knew I wanted to say some things that I was pretty sure I couldn't get through without crying. I was right. He started out by telling us that when he was in the hospital and they learned his diagnosis/prognosis, he made the decision to have his implanted defibrillator disabled. I was stunned, but glad to hear that they were being realistic, and I told him that I thought that was a very courageous and wise decision, and that I couldn't imagine how hard it must have been. There were tears in his eyes now, but he was under control. He proceeded to talk about dying, and told us that he wasn't afraid of death, but he was worried about what would happen to Aunt Betty when he was gone. This was something I could address with absolute certainty! I told him that, first of all, we loved him so very much, all of us, and that he had been the best Uncle and role model anyone could ask for. I then told him that he didn't need to worry about Betty -- that rather than people fighting over who *had* to take care of Aunt Betty, we'd be fighting over who *GETS* to take care of Aunt Betty, and that's the honest-to-God truth. He said he was very grateful to hear that. Both my husband and my sister chimed in to support my statements, and I know we all felt better knowing we'd said all that we needed to say to him while he could still converse with us and (hopefully) derive some peace.

That was during the second weekend in November. We're coming up on the second weekend in December, so you can appreciate the speed with which we lost our beloved Patriarch. Since that weekend, family members and friends have been constant companions to my Aunt. My mother, step-father and brother were taking turns spending the night there when my cousin wasn't there himself. In fact, it was my brother who was awoken at 4:30AM on Tuesday morning because Aunt Betty could tell the end was near. They called our parents, who came immediately. They were all at his bedside when he passed away at almost 8:00AM. My sweet brother called me almost immediately afterwards, moved beyond words, but filled with love and appreciation of the great privilege he'd just been given. He'd had that heart to heart talk with Fred, too, which is a new thing for my bro. Folks, I'm here to tell you, that boy has turned into a fine, fine man.

So tomorrow I will go to my Aunt's house and sit there while the rest of the family is at the visitation. On Friday, the day he'll be interred in our former hometown, about 80 miles away, and I will attend those events with my siblings, other family members, and the bajillions of friends they had. I have not done a good job not crying so far, but I hope I can keep it together Friday. I want to do Uncle Fred proud.

Sitting here writing, I have a few tears in my eyes, thinking of how much I love this wonderful, sweet man, who joined our family wholeheartedly, never thinking of us as separate from them. He told us directly at our last visit that we had meant as much to him as his own grandkids, and that he loved us all so very much. He also told us that he'd recently been asked about his advice for someone about to be married. He said he told them that marriage is not a 50/50 proposition -- it's a 100/100 thing. Each person has to give 100%, regardless of what the other person was doing. I thought that was a very wise statement, and one I have believed in my own life for a very long time. I think his description of a good marriage is the same as that for a good family, or a good friendship -- if each person gives 100%, everybody wins. And really, isn't it your family and friends that you WANT to treat better than anyone else?

Oh, my sweet Uncle Fred. There is a big hole where you were, but the recollection of the love you always showed us -- constant, abiding, and true -- will remain in our hearts and color our lives for ever. May you rest with the angels -- they must be rejoicing to have one of their own back home.


guinness girl said...

Oh, honey. I'm so very sorry for your loss. You and your family will be in my thoughts and prayers. xoxoxo

Anonymous said...

I'm thinking of you and hoping all goes well with your visit and your trip home. It's not a happy time, I know, but it's good that you can be there with your family. God bless!