I wrote this nine years ago. I thought it was important. I still think it is.
This time last week my wife and I were traveling to Maryland, with all but one of my brothers and sisters and our mom, to bury her brother, our Uncle Jim. He was a year and a day younger than Mom, which means she knew him his whole life.
Growing up we knew Uncle Jim, too. He and his wife, Aunt Dot, and their three children, Patsy, Michele and Dori spent their summers at Harvey's Lake, Pennsylvania and after a false start (of sorts) in the Poconos, we, too, ended up in a summer house on The Lake (as we called it). Uncle Jim and his family lived in Kingston, Pennsylvania, about twenty-five minutes from The Lake all year round and we arrived from Central New Jersey after the school year ended in early June.
My mom and Uncle Jim were city kids. They grew up in New York City. They had many brothers and sisters though not many grew old with them. Anne died years ago from cancer, John from the after effects of a stroke that left him a shell of man in his middle thirties and dead before he turned forty and their youngest brother, Paul, died from leukemia or cancer (I'm not sure I ever knew exactly) in California at home with his large and loving family surrounding him.
Mom's husband, my Dad, died of a heart attack in 1982 and left three of my brothers and sisters, the oldest nearly our of high school, to sort out a world turned upside down that Mom managed to put in order. Uncle Jim's wife, Aunt Dot, who always said 'mayan' when she meant 'mine', died suddenly in 2004. Their children and my parent's children each made their way in this world as best they could.
My wife and family used to see Mom and some of my brothers and sisters at least once a year at Christmas when Mom still lived in Princeton and we would drive down. That seemed to work out okay when our kids were smaller but as they got older (and more significantly, as I got older) the long drive, the house not your own, the people you were related to but didn't know very well, all combined to end that annual jaunt. Not that long afterward, Mom, having gone back to work after Dad died (since her charming smile didn't pay the mortgage) and now retired, decided that New Jersey in winter had lost its charm for her and she flew south, nesting in Florida.
I've seen my brothers and sisters sporadically in the years since. Assuming, as we all do, that there's plenty of time to say whatever needs to be said and to do whatever needs to be done. Uncle Jim's passing has persuaded me otherwise. Almost fifty years ago, I was thick as thieves with Patsy, Michele and Dori (Uncle Jim called them his 'Pat, Mike and Ike' and it echoed with me as our two children are named Patrick and Michelle and you can guess what I call them) but waiting at the funeral home this time last week, I realized how many decades it had been since we last saw one another.
Standing alongside my youngest brother Adam, whom my son, Patrick, strongly resembles, I watched as each of the three girls (in my eyes; all three are women, of course) crossed the threshold, saw Adam, and smiled, thinking it was me. And when we each realized what had happened, the pain of lost opportunities and the echoes of unspoken words were nearly as real as the sense of loss at the passing of Uncle Jim. When we attempted to console one another, for just the briefest of moments, we were back at the dock on The Lake when the most serious issue was who would water ski, who would spot and who would drive the boat.
There are so many incidents and accidents that shape our lives and make, and sometimes unmake, our paths to becoming who we are. Uncle Jim influenced family and friends by being who he was and where he was. He didn't make a difference in my life, he was a difference. I watched his sister, my mother, hurt like I'd not seen in many years and saw a look in the eyes of my cousins, his daughters, that I know well but had hoped I'd never see on another's face. Uncle Jim's passing left a hole in our hearts, but the good news in that pain is because we can feel it and do mourn him, we are still alive, especially for one another and for whatever tomorrow brings.