I had already decided that I wasn't going to say very much more, but when my heart is so full, it kinda squishes out onto my keyboard. If I deem it "good enough" you get to read it.
These past 7 weeks have been a marathon of trying to hurry and squeeze every last memory out of a man that we knew we were about to lose. The guy that for the most part was quiet. The things I learned about this man, my uncle Norval broke my heart for him and his family.
It started with a discussion about just how many siblings he had. He always declared it to be 16, making the total 17 in his family. I'll go with that number. I mean after 15 what's one or two more? That part isn't even the amazing blow your mind part.
This man started life out with obstacle after obstacle. First, I thought that I'd get on Ancestry.com and see if we could locate some of the family in a race against time. Over the years, the kids had been shipped off to relatives, some were adopted out and there is only a handful that we knew were still around. Some of course have probably passed away, but in our desire to have all 17 accounted for, we failed to find them all.
Unfortunately, the search brought other things to light. Even in their 80s now, these memories didn't sit well with the kids. As a result, several of the children stayed with grandparents, aunts and uncles. Others were "given away" to friends, some were adopted. Today, several of the siblings can't be found, so there will always be a missing part in the hearts of the ones I shared several hours with, and I'll always be a bit sad that we couldn't find them.
The resiliency of these "kids," including my uncle, is something to respect. The only one of the 17 that I know well, has ALWAYS been a family man. He took care of his wife and son, working hard since he was married to provide and protect them. And he did it well. They never wanted for anything. As I was privileged to sit with one of his brothers and sisters, I observed nothing but sweetness and the generosity that I'd seen in my uncle. The two siblings that I was honored to sit with, also showed their love for their families. One is caring for a grandchild with several physical difficulties, the other continues to take care of her children and makes sure that they have everything they need. The three I'd guess are close in age, so they were probably close growing up. There was nothing more heartbreaking than to see the grief envelop them and knew that it was much greater than my own.
Now I had been away from Vinton for 20 years when I returned, but when my uncle heard that my family was moving back to town, I think he was more excited about it than we were. Sure I was glad to come home, but he had a grin that you couldn't wipe off his face. He drove 100 miles to help us load the u-haul, then followed us home to unload it. And honestly, we didn't "need" the help, but I think it was his way of making sure we were really here. Learning about his childhood, makes me realize now what I didn't know then. As soon as we "landed" he was again a huge part of my family.
See growing up, until I was about 15, his family and my family were inseparable. Before I was born, my parents and aunt and uncle were constant companions. We were at their house, they were at ours. My cousin keeps saying we're like brother and sister, and I just grin. It's taken me 56 years to agree with him. I realized these last few weeks, that yes, his dad had moved from "uncle" status to an uncle-dad.
This man poured hours and hours into my kids. Most of the time it was with my boys. When he was dying he called for them before me, and that makes me smile. And when he called, they came. They were there before that, but when he made a special request for another visit, they came. On the last day that he was able to sit and talk, one son and his family were there. The barely 99 lbs. of uncle was sitting up straight in his bed and engaged in my son's stories and I just sat nearby and smiled. THIS is what life is about. I might have gotten a glance from him, but my son was who he zeroed in on. And I was fine with that. For hours before and after this, my son sat next to his bed and just held his hand. When the other son was able to drive back, he did the same thing. Both reminiscing of the time they spent with this man.
Had I known 20 years ago when I moved home, the story of this man, he would have been at more family dinners. I didn't know that at 12 he was shipped off to a school for troubled kids, because of a learning disability and then rescued from there by grandparents who no doubt saw a good kid and knew that it was wrong for him to be there.
I didn't know about his tattoos. As a child, I assumed at first that he had been in the military. My boys know their stories and it was something they talked about.
I also didn't know that when he was a teenager he took matters into his own hand to create something special for "the kids." He wanted to make them a "swimming hole." So like any normal kid, he found a stick of dynamite in his grandpa's shed and placed it in the middle of the creek somehow and lit the fuse. After blowing the ground to smithereens there is now a "swimming hole" on the family farm. You have to know that there was a very angry grandpa that gave instructions NOT to play with the dynamite again!
But, again, he did it for "the kids" and I have a feeling that might be why he was willing to risk getting into trouble for it. He helped at home to prepare food for his siblings, probably out of necessity. He dropped out of school so that he could work and bring in money for "the kids." His whole life has been about "the kids."
His 36 years of driving "the kids" to Sunday School, and visiting them every Saturday proved that. He bought endless gallons of Mt. Dew for my boys while they worked alongside him and he never complained. He'd pick them up to help him with some big jobs, either helping to haul some wood away from trees that he had cut down, or cleaning out someone's house and taking all of the junk to the landfill. Sometimes he'd come and pick them up for tiny jobs, I think so that he had an excuse to be with them. He always arrived with a grin and brought them home with a grin. He always paid them, but I think my boys would have helped him for nothing, well, maybe for a Mt. Dew.
If you've raised boys, and raised them in town, you know that if you don't keep them busy, they are going to be in trouble. I figured that out quickly when the two reached preschool age. So being able to have someone willing to keep them busy, teach them something of value, and show them how to work, was a blessing to this mom. He gave them a taste of what hard work is, and how it can be fun. At the same time, it guaranteed that they would be for him as he passed away. He really was an awesome man.
My take away from sitting next to his bed was not only what an awesome man he was, nor how important family was to him, it was the people that wanted to be near him. The ones that took care of him 24/7, my utmost respect, and thank you to Darrell and Charlie. I know you had to do what you had to do. But you did it with love and tenderness that brought tears to my eyes. You two are amazing.
The family that came to just be there, to sit and reminisce, what a sweet time. The family that was called in for their expertise, and then patiently explained what was happening and how to make my uncle more comfortable, calmed a lot of fears and brought a sense of relief with each visit.
The meals that were brought in, the kind visits that broke up the monotony of the waiting part of loss were all so thoughtful. The kind neighbors who showed up with food as we processed what had just happened, made me know that the family was in good hands after we left. The nephew who ran home to make a meal and return with it and banana splits, brought a smile to a weary old man's face who minutes before was at his lowest point. To all of you who stormed heaven for us, thank you.
If anything I've learned these past few weeks, that life can be put on hold when you are losing someone, but death can't be. You learn how decisions you make now really will affect your children until their final breath. You learn that family really is all that you have when the end comes. I also learned that it's best to just live life right, even when you think it doesn't matter anymore, it really does. Oh, and when you do that, it makes it much easier to write your obituary.
So farewell dear uncle-dad. Finally, you can rest and relax a bit. "The kids" will all be fine, you showed us how to do life. We'll see you later, and I have a feeling if anything can be done to get things ready for us, well, you're probably already on it. Rest in Peace.