Uncle Donnie’s Last Thanksgiving : Saying Goodbye and the Power of Touch

*This is the speech I read today at his funeral, written last night.

HERE is his obituary, if you’d please take a moment to read about his life.

Regrettably, I didn’t spend much time with Uncle Donnie. But I was happy when he moved to Illinois circa six weeks ago to Brookdale Assisted Living.

I never knew my grandfathers– both died before I could meet them. I visited his room three times, and twice in the ICU at Presence Medical Center in Joliet. I didn’t know exactly what to say– I felt a bit intimidated. But he made and effort to make me comfortable as if it were his own home. I found I liked him, though he was a bit gruff. He sat in his leather chair and I sat on the bed, and we shared a companionable silence. We watched TV.

Both of us had a hearing-loss, but he really struggled to hear me. I could see how much he struggled to communicate. Even speaking slowly and enunciating well, often I still failed to convey my words in a way he could understand. But he took an active role in our conversation and asked me questions when I was feeling shy.

In his mini-fridge, he had a few basics: green grapes, Cheesehead’s string cheese, Sprite and Hershey’s milk chocolate bars. Each time I visited, he would offer me anything available– he wanted to be hospitable. He ate the string cheese in bites, while I peeled it. Thought he possessed little, he was instinctively generous and wanted to share.

I regret that I waited till the tend of his life to cultivate a friendship with this gentle man. He wore a beautiful gold watch, and allowed me to clean it up for him. He trusted me so easily with what must have been a prized possession. He also wore two medals on a gold chain– St. Christopher, and St. Francis, I believe. He had a beautiful crucifix on his wall. Clearly, he was a devout Catholic man.

I never called him in Florida for the same reason I never reach out to many family members I wish I knew better- I don’t know what to say. But I learned while visiting that what we say does not matter-rather, it’s our gesture of reaching out that matters.

When my Dad told me he was in the ICU on Black Wednesday, I went to visit him. He had a breathing apparatus on, but recognized me when I touched his arm. A nurse came to draw blood and I held his opposite hand for support. I knew how much it can hurt. He didn’t fuss or complain as she did her job.

On Thanksgiving my parents and I went back, and I was able to see him one last time. He was less responsive, but still fighting. Breathing was hard for him. We watched TV.

Other family arrived. Uncle Donnie never spoke that day, but he responded immediately to touch. He would turn his face toward the person and it seemed to deeply relax him. I watched our family keep a vigil at his bedside- holding onto Uncle Donnie. Letting him known we were there, that he was loved. We took turns being alone and saying goodbye. We were sitting around his bed just talking normally, when I left for maybe 20 minutes. I came back and he had just been unhooked and passed. All of us cried. We prayed over him.

I’m grateful I was given this chance to know him. To have a few moments to experience what it must be like to have a grandfather. Our love for him brought us together on Thanksgiving and he made his peace with life, his beloved family, and departed.

Now I bet he’s up in Heaven, smoking his Pall Mall Menthol 100’s, eating a Hershey’s bar, and watching over us.

As my father said, our dear Uncle Donnie went home for Thanksgiving. Home to rest with our eternal Father.

A Sunset, A Wayward Journey North, and Grace

Just got home from visiting a family that has become my family, up in Evanston.

This husband and wife have the kind of marriage that I can only pray to enjoy myself someday– they are best friends, equals, and still smitten with each other after over 10 years together. I arrived around 10 p.m., and they were somehow shocked that I came anyway after work– but how could I not go? They have invited me into their hearts and their home consistently and always without qualms. No matter what I need, they are there.

It was her birthday, and most of the party was over by then. I was glad, because I enjoy more quiet, intimate parties better. We sat in lawn chairs in their new backyard in their brand new home and chatted, along with another couple they know. It was exactly what I needed.

I really felt the presence of God in my life today.

After work I was walking to my car, when I saw the most staggering sunset in the parking lot. There were distinct rays in a way I’d never before noticed. And I just felt the deepest calm– that one day, I will see everyone I love and ever loved again. That there are family and friends waiting for me in Heaven. That my loved ones who have passed on watch over me with care, guiding my choices and protecting me from grave harm. That my life has a plan, and God is in control– all I need to do just trust him and ask for insight to His will. That my best is exactly enough and even when I’m not enough– that’s okay, too.

And when I drove up to visit my family, I had scribbled directions. They had only moved a block away from their old home– and I had the route to that old home memorized. But I wasn’t sure exactly about this one, so I Googled directions. And that new route took me completely out of the way– really far. I had the direction written down, but I was curious how close I was getting, so I plugged in directions on my Google app– and it re-routed me again completely.

Then my phone’s battery died. And my car charger is broken.

I was alone, with no phone battery, past 9 p.m. in a strange area near Chicago– on the freeway.

I just pulled over, took a deep breath, and circled around back to where I had been familiar. I asked God for help.

Let me just clarify– I have NO SENSE of direction. None.

Part of me wanted to go home, but I’d already driven so far and honestly getting home would have been more difficult. I would have no idea how to to that. The only thing to do was keep going and trust myself. Trust Him.

I stopped at two gas stations.

And when I recognized the intersection a block away from their old home, I turned there, and recognized one of the streets on my original directions list. I just slowed down and — EUREKA! I found their street.

It was dark. I couldn’t see any of the house numbers. In fact, I had written the WRONG house number, because the only house with that number was dark.

I was stuck in this narrow cul-de-sac, and all the cars were parked facing the other direction. I had to drive backwards, but I decided, feck it! I’m going park here because it’s open– even if it’s the wrong way!

And I ventured across the street, drawn to this one house because it was bright inside and I saw a painting that I thought I recognized from their old home. My friend had painted it herself. Then in the kitchen I saw a dry erase board with their son’s name written on it.

And seconds later, my other friend– her husband– came outside from the backyard and saw me!

“You’re HERE!” he said, incredulous. He gave me a hug, and I went back and joined the party.

For 2.5 hours, I got to enjoy my friends, and then I made it home without incident . Even though they had been up since 6 a.m. and have two children– and had already endured a 10-hour party, they stayed up to talk with me. And they did it with joy.

THAT is family.

And all this happened despite my having terrible new directions, and my getting lost precisely at the moment my phone battery died and I didn’t have a car charger. I have no sense of direction, but I somehow found it on my own in remarkably short order– even though I had written down the wrong house number– and my friend magically appeared to confirm the correct house I had gravitated toward because I recognized a painting in their living room.

TELL me that’s not God.

What an incredible day.

A Funeral and a Reservation: a Day of Affirmation and Family

Today, I went to a family funeral for my Uncle Ken.

It was a day of affirmation.

Uncle Ken lived to be 80, and was a devoted family man– married for 56 years to his wife, Patricia. He was a Navy veteran  of the Korean War and also retired from Nicor after 30 years of service.

I drank three cups of coffee in his honor today. He is the reason I became a black coffee-drinker overnight! One Thanksgiving we were at their home, and the usual creamer I preferred was not on the table. Only nondescript powdered creamer was available, so I sucked it up and braved a cup of black coffee.

Uncle Ken was seated across from me, and for some reason was very attentive to my cup. Each time it emptied, he kept refilling it! And I’m not sure why I felt the need to drain each one, but I did. So I drank all SIX cups he poured me. I needed them to keep up with all the family chatter! The next day, I tried to return to my usual cup with Irish creme added in– and couldn’t.

I was both shocked and impressed with myself. I felt more like an adult! I was in my early 20’s then. I laughed, and reported it the next time I saw him. He was quite impressed with his feat as well!

I wish I could have done six cups today, but three was all I could manage.

But I digress.

Today our family was linked together as beads in a Rosary– encircling Uncle Ken in prayer, connected by our Catholic faith and the solidarity of grief. Being together was a healing salve that allowed us to celebrate his life and strengthen our bonds with each other.

His abundant white hair was not styled the usual way– he had incredible hair. But it was still there, and we had the privilege of being able to say goodbye to him with an open casket before the public arrived. When it was my turn I knelt down, whispered a prayer to him, and lightly touched his shoulder to say goodbye.

As the priest announced the wake would be ending, he asked us to join him in prayer. We said the Our Father and the Hail Mary, and it wasn’t as strong as you would hear in Mass– it sounded as if maybe not quite half of us were saying it. But it was comforting nonetheless.

I realized for the first time why faith is something I’m so glad to have especially when confronted with funerals. Regardless of whether you’re there to honor a close family member or support a friend, the structure of our faith provides some familiarity in a situation defined by the unknown. We don’t  know how life will change without the person, we wrestle with guilt and sadness for the failed connections and the times we didn’t reach out enough. But at least in following the simplicity of a funeral service, there is some comfort in routine.

Many of us know the prayers being recited, even if we don’t know each other. Even if we have no idea how to speak to each other about the deceased or make small talk about something neutral, we have an opportunity to bond in prayer. We can give each other a hug, or a quick smile. We can pass a box of tissues.

Today I was astonished by how much warmth I felt from everyone there. Especially since I’m only family by marriage. Uncle Ken was my step-mother’s brother-in-law. But Diane’s family has never treated me like a step-cousin, or a step-anything. They never use that prefix. They welcome me, tease me and hug me as one of their own.

After the funeral Mass, we went to lunch together at a local steakhouse.

On my way there, my Dad called me.

“We’re in the back room honey,” he said. “We saved you a seat.”

I smiled at his kindness.

And I wondered if that’s what it’s like when we pass on and go to Heaven.

If when we wake into eternal rest — with any luck– we arrive at the pearly gates and St. Peter tells us that yes, we have a reservation. Our name is right there in his book. And then someone that we loved comes to escort us, saying,

“We saved you a seat! We’re so glad you’re here.”