My Uncle died last weekend.
This past Friday, I, my wife and my cousin drove to Holden Massachusetts to attend his funeral at the Episcopal church he attended. It was a nice service. The most meaningful part, the part that brought a tear to my eyes, was the military honors given him at the end. He had served in the Air Force as a young man, rising to the rank of Master Sergeant before he retired from active duty. A two man honor guard was sent by the Air Force. One played the most beautiful rendition of Taps I have ever heard. So smooth, silky and continuous. Continuous, that was the thing. How did he manage to play the whole thing through as if he did it on one breath? I have heard that horn players can do something called circular breathing to make such feats possible. Maybe that was it. Then, in slow and deliberate fashion, with precise and articulated movements, they unfolded an American Flag, presented it for those in attendance to see, refolded it and presented it to my Aunt. It was a secular moment. It was very moving. I hadn’t realized that service in the armed forces was membership in a tradition of honor and service for life.
This past Christmas I sent my uncle a card on which I wrote that I wanted to come visit. He was so excited that he called immediately and wanted to set up a date for the visit. I told him we had to wait because I was helping my wife take care of her mother after a heart procedure and didn’t know how that would play out and when I could free myself. Towards the end of January my wife finally felt she could leave her mother and came home. I was literally about to pick up the phone and arrange the visit when my aunt called and left a message asking me to contact my mother to let her know her brother was in the hospital and it didn’t look good. He died the next day.
My aunt asked me to be a pallbearer, which was an honor I wasn’t sure I deserved but accepted. We didn’t have to carry the casket, it was on a trolley. We only had to push-guide-follow it in and then back out to the hearse where we lifted it on to the rollers in the bed of the hearse and slid it in. The wind blew hard as the temperature plunged towards the -2 degrees F it would arrive at over night. My fellow pallbearers and I hustled back into the church for warmth and our coats. There was no graveside ceremony. I assume that was because of the cold and the wind. Can they even dig a grave in such cold temperatures? If not, where is the casket kept until they can dig it?
I learned during his funeral and at the wake afterwards that my uncle had been deteriorating for some months before his death. I might have known this if I had kept in better touch, but I’ve only recently begun to hit that place where the importance of family is heightened again. You start to feel that increase in importance as you arrive at what I call the front lines life, as you become the generation whose expiration date is next up.
A number of years ago I had a photograph accepted to a group show at a gallery in Vermont. I announced it on my Facebook page. My uncle saw the announcement and called me to find out when the opening was. I explained there wouldn’t really be a proper opening and that it was only one photograph in a crowd of them. He wanted to come anyway. He and my Aunt drove several hours to be there. I am glad they did. It is probably my fondest memory of him. I learned during the service and at the wake that he was like that. Always supporting the efforts and achievements of his children, grandchildren nieces and nephews.
I regret waiting too long to return the favor. To let him know he meant something to me. I don’t believe in life after death, only a new role for your atoms in the universe, but if I am wrong about that, I hope he knows I finally came to visit.