Yesterday, I had two uncles still alive. Today, I only have one. My Uncle Jim went out for a walk this morning, and had a heart attack. He was 81 years old. I just spoke to him yesterday. My Mom was on the phone with him, and she put me on the phone with him. He sounded great. Uncle Jim always sounded great. “I just wanted to hear my niece’s voice”, he said. He also said that I should keep smiling and keep putting one foot in front of the other. He said that was the advice he gave his own kids.
Uncle Jim knew something about overcoming adversity. He knew how to keep a smile even when things were tough. Technically, Uncle Jim wasn’t really my uncle: he was my mother’s first cousin. He went to live with her family when he was 13. His father had died, and his mother couldn’t cope. He came to live with my mother’s family around Christmas-the same Christmas her father died. Her mother had died some years before. My aunt told me that they had very little money that year, and they weren’t expecting Uncle Jim. All they could give him was a pair of shoelaces. They felt horrible about this, but he really needed the shoelaces.
My mother was 21 at the time, and from that time on, she raised Uncle Jim and her younger brother Danny, who was also 13. Neither of them ever gave her a bit of trouble.
Uncle Jim was a good student and a good kid. He met Aunt Colleen in high school, and they were an item-so much so that the parish priest tried to break them up. He sat them down and gave them a lecture about how they shouldn’t be going steady at such a young age. He encouraged them both to date other people. They got mad at him. They totally rejected his advice. They had the last laugh when he married them a few years later.
Uncle Jim attended a local college and earned a degree in business. Aunt Colleen earned a teaching degree, but it would be many years before she would use it. They had their first of six children by the time they were married a year. She stayed home with the kids while they were young. Uncle Jim worked as a business administrator for the city, and he also served in the National Guard for many years.
I can never think of Uncle Jim and Aunt Colleen without thinking of Christmas. We spent every Christmas Eve and every Christmas Day with them and their kids. It was magical.
Uncle Jim experienced so much tragedy in his childhood. I wish that his adulthood could have been relatively free of tragedy. It wasn’t. One of Aunt Colleen’s nephews, Todd, with whom Uncle Jim was very close, was killed in a car crash when he was only 19 or 20. Aunt Colleen died of cancer when she was only in her mid fifties. Their daughter, Tara, was murdered in 9/11. She was 30.
Despite all of this, Uncle Jim was possibly the happiest person I have ever known. But he didn’t mince words, either. He told me something once that I am pretty sure saved my life. During one of my many stays in the psych ward, he came to visit me. He looked me straight in the eye and he told me that he didn’t want to go on living either. By this point, he had lost a nephew, his wife and one of his daughters. He told me point blank that he 100% understood how I felt, but he said that he continued on every day for his family. He strongly encouraged me to do the same, and so I do. Not nearly as well as he did. No one will ever do it as well as Uncle Jim did it.
Uncle Jim liked his drink, and he liked to raise a toast, so I would like to raise a virtual toast to Uncle Jim. He was a very tough guy who had a very tough life and he somehow managed to smile and laugh and bring comfort and joy to others all the way through it, until the very end. Uncle Jim was the rock and the salvation of our family. He showed all of us how it was done.
“Well done, thou good and faithful servant…enter thou into the joy of The Lord.”