During our Shaped by Suffering series in this Lent season Derek Johnson shares a personal story from earlier this year:
David Eagleman, writer and neuroscientist, once stated, “There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name (and I would add, your stories) are spoken for the last time.”
My Uncle Larry died of lung cancer the first week of January, the first Friday after the holiday season. It was the second lung cancer death in my family.
The last time I saw my Uncle alive was Christmas Day. My Dad and two brothers had brought him a Christmas meal, what would turn out to be his last. We stood outside the door of his trailer, sandwiched between his pick-up and front door, bundled for warmth against a Minnesota winter. My Father banged on his brother’s front door, shouting his name. My brothers stood quiet, staring at the snow, each other, and listening to that empty quiet that comes on a cold day in a small, rural town. I prayed we wouldn’t find his lifeless body inside.
I’d seen this first death before, working night security in the casino of a small Indian reservation. I stood watch over a set of doors in an empty casino wing. A man sat alone. I had been watching him, sitting at one of the slots, pulling the lever, over and over and over. Alone in a maze of machines, blinking lights, and casino sounds, I saw him slump in his chair. He slipped from seat. His own weight toppled him over. And, just as he began to free fall, I caught him in my arms. I eased his body to the ground. Again and again I tried to wake him. “Sir, are you okay? Can you hear me.” With no response, I reached for my radio, calling the on-site medical team. They sprinted to me and went to work. I stepped back from the huddle of people trying to save his life. An EMT pulled out a pair of scissors, cutting away his shirt, but he was already gone.
Larry’s terminal cancer diagnosis had arrived almost four years before the cancer took him, and for four years he had refused all treatment. He then proceeded to live twice as long as the most optimistic doctor predicted.
Twelve days after standing in the snow outside of my Uncle’s trailer, I was back in a Los Angeles office when I found out he had been moved into a hospice bed for what was expected to be his last day.
And, despite having seen death before, despite four years of expectations, inevitability, and mental preparation, I was rocked.
Tears streamed down my face. I took refuge in an empty conference room, and despite the ingrained family trait of hiding the fact that I felt anything, a co-worker found me, shuddering and feeling not a little broken. I turned away. Damn if he’d see my face. Between stuttered breaths – the kind that makes each word a mountain to climb – I didn’t get out much more than “uncle,” before he put his hand on my shoulder and told me to go home.
My Dad shed tears once in his adult life. It was when our family dog died, a stout Norwegian Elkhound, who had a howl that made it sound like she was singing. I was living out of state. I never saw it, and so this moment exists as a myth in my own mind.
Years ago my Mom told me a story about how my Dad had once confessed to her the moment he had realized one of his mistakes in raising my brothers and me. It was when he had tried to hug one of us…and we had recoiled from our Father’s touch.
Two hours after I found out about hospice, I was on a flight, racing to make it back before my Uncle was gone.
Looking at the calendar in my apartment, you can flip back and find where I wrote, “Flew home.” I didn’t write, “Uncle Larry died.”
My Uncle died that first death before I made it to LAX.
On Christmas Day, the door did open. My Uncle answered. He was pissed. He shouted at us, yelling that he had been trying to f—ing sleep. But, his language was tempered by his image. He was the frailest man I had ever seen, gaunt, hollowed out, and living in a body worn down from fighting.
This was Larry. Piss and vinegar. A great heart, if you knew how to see it, but a heart now distracted, waging a fight against his own flesh. The constant fight had left him tired and angry, but he was a good man. You could see the gratefulness for the meal. You could see the kindness behind his eyes as my Dad, the man who would always be his little brother, walked him through the food we’d brought. What you couldn’t see was my Uncle’s constant, immense pain. (Sometimes, my thoughts still linger on the fact that we brought him rice pudding, an old favorite his mom used to make him.)
My Dad is the youngest of three brothers, (a fourth having died at birth). Doug, the middle. Larry, the oldest, and also the exemplary example of the emotional stubbornness my family possesses, which I found myself terrible at representing when the news hit. It’s the down side of becoming too old for displays of emotion. When family emotions do break through, they break through like a revelation.
My Grandfather, after a dispute gone south, once threw a man out the window of a local bar. My dad – in his admitted wild youth – once asked a man to step out the back door of a bar, where he then drove a fist into the man’s face. (He hadn’t liked the way he had been flirting with my mom.) My Uncle Larry once flipped the bird to a passing cop car and held it there so the officer could see, following the car with it as the officer drove past. As far as I know, just because he could.
Family emotions have appeared in surprising, dramatic ways for many years. If not a revelation to ourselves, than certainly to those around us.
I never told my family I was coming home. Late Friday night I arrived to my parents drinking whiskey and listening to Elvis. Reminiscing. In seeing one of his son’s return, I think I saw relief spread across my Dad’s face. Growing up in a small, rural, blue collar town, people would have understood not wanting to spend the money needed to make this trip. California is a long way. No one would have been surprised if I had never returned.
It would take a week for Larry’s body to be cremated. At home, that week became a lesson in the second death.
I was there with my Dad and his last remaining brother. I was there to help clean out his trailer. I was at the funeral home when they confirmed the details of his service. I was at the bank when his accounts were closed. I was at the flower shop as the flowers were selected, which represented the tribute from his younger brothers. I was there to go through the family photos – and drink more whiskey – while we put together photo collages, which attempted to capture the sum of a human life on two pieces of black poster board. Huddled at my brother’s kitchen table, I went through each and every 45 Larry had collected as teenager, and put together a playlist for his service that would best represent who he was when he was most alive, which was a greaser, a wanderer, an Elvis lover, a father, a brother, and a bad ass who bordered on the mythical to this nephew, though his Uncle never knew it. I was there when we all found out that Larry had wanted his final resting place to be next to his Mom.
It had always been the three of them. Three brothers. Larry, Doug, and my Dad, huddled together at the family events that would always bring them back together one more time. Without realizing it, I suppose I had somehow come back to make sure that there were three brothers again that week, for one last family gathering.
As I stood at my parent’s front door, bags in hand, ready to fly back to Los Angeles, my Dad turned away and walked into his bedroom. He returned with a simple, gold ring with a hematite face, a Spartan carved into its surface. It was my Grandfather’s ring, a ring that had gone into Larry’s possession after their Father died.
All he said was, “You should have this.”
On my own, the most I could discover about the ring was that Spartan rings had become popular in the 1940s, which made sense of the image when placed alongside our history of a nation going to war. My Father knew only that his Father had worn it for as long as he could remember.
Still, the practical history of the ring doesn’t matter. The act of my Father passing it to me was “thank you,” and it is because there were so few words, that the act became the thing which held meaning, the act and the stories the ring represents. The ring carries the story of a father, my Grandfather. The ring carries the story of his sons, and that is the story of three brothers.
Though often not thought out, and expressed without words, I’ve found the emotions of my family to be no less real. Theirs are shown through acts. Larry showed his spirit when he fought death for four years.
It is in remembering the family tales passed down, which now includes the epic of my Uncle’s final fight, that I’ve found comfort in that the Christian faith – though filled with teachings – is also only fully encapsulated by an act. It has been in seeking to understand this final act, and viewing it from within the context of family, where our final actions have always held more meaning than our final words, that I have been led to both a greater understanding of what Christ’s final act has meant to me, and also what it might just feel like to return home to that family where actions speak loudest, whether that be Minnesota, or the home beyond that.
The third death. Sometime in the future, when your name and stories are spoken for the last time, I refuse it. If we do our job as family, as sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, uncles, storytellers, and believers, then our families and their stories, my Uncle Larry’s stories, they escape death. A final death doesn’t exist for me. My Uncle Larry didn’t die January 5th. I flew home January 5th, to make sure I’d be able to tell his story, so that he would never die, because there will always be three brothers.
Thank you Derek for your vulnerability as you honor your uncle’s life. As we look forward to Good Friday and Easter Sunday later this week, this is an excellent reminder that indeed our stories never die, thanks to the act of Jesus Christ’s resurrection.