Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Uncle Billy

( The Meaning of Wedding’s and Funeral’s)

Holding my niece during the few minutes we danced together at the conclusion of her wedding took my breath away only to return it fully mixed with images I thought were securely hidden in the past. In one deep breath of joy and tears this story surfaced as an incomplete way of remembering the many years that seem to come into complete focus during that dance intended for a father and a daughter on her wedding day.

Some experiences in life reach so far inside the fabric of who we are that they often entangle the present with the past so completely that decades of memories are relived in a single breath.


I don’t have very many memories of my brother Ray but the ones I do still persist in my mind as old black and white pictures. I see him folded over the hood of his car working on the engine of his 1965 impala. I only have one image of him doing that but I bend it from side to side in my imagination in an attempt to remember him in multiple episodes.

My understanding of my brother was based on those early pictures I took of him with the distracted mind of a kindergartner. My brother was a teenager during the first few years of my life and with that he found every reason to take his friends out for a drive. His understanding of the world was getting bigger and mine was still focused on playing cars with my neighborhood best friend. Sometimes when I look back at my life and think of things I would change I imagine finding a way to spend more time with him. However, those earlier years likely formed both us into the people we were to become and I cannot fault life’s hand for the choices we made.

I was only 6 when my oldest brother began traveling the world with the United States Navy. The world map on my grandmother’s wall had pins placed in every port of call we learned he had visited. Ray could have been a commercial for the Navy because one day he was working on his car in front of my six-year-old eyes and the very next moment he was serving as an airplane mechanic on board an Air Craft Carrier in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

Ray’s best friend growing up was his older sister Pam. I have another series of pictures of him that begin with Pam teasing Ray, followed by a chaotic chase through the house and ending with Ray’s arm breaking the glass of our front door. On rare occasions they fought like that but they were brother and sister before the rest of us came along. They experienced life at the beginning of my parents trying to make it together in this world. They learned to rely on each other in a way that did not occur in the larger family I was to be raised in a decade later. They were the first two born in our family and because of it; they shared a bond that was unbreakable, even in death. They were not twins but their lives and destiny followed parallel paths until the very end.

I believe it was this bond that drove the two of them to make a bet and a promise with each other that whoever decided to get married first would have to pay the other $20. So when I was 10 my whole family packed up into the station wagon and drove to Key West, Florida to celebrate my brother’s wedding. My parents never said it directly but since we had never been out the county, not to mention leaving Iowa, this trip was embedded with great meaning for all of us.

Wedding’s can be pivotal markers in life’s greater story because they are almost always the conclusion of one story crashing into the beginning of another. As I turn the pages of the album, I see another picture of Ray as if I took it just after he and his new wife, Debbie, stuffed cake into each other’s mouths. The camera of my mind snaps again and I see a blurred picture of my brother handing my sister a twenty-dollar bill, making good on the bet and in many ways moving all of us into the next chapter of our lives.

It is amazing how moments that pass so quickly in everyday life can serve as undeniable monuments of change when we reflect on them years later. It seems so clear now 30 years since that first wedding that I should have known that we would not likely leave Iowa again unless it was for a wedding or a funeral. Even the birth of a child could not draw our family together as a whole again. When Ray and Debbie had their second child, a daughter named Jennifer we exchanged pictures by mail and a few phone calls but it was not an event that could draw all of us together.

However, Jennifer would grow and in time would celebrate a wedding herself.

The First Funeral

In the year that Jennifer turned six, I turned 25 and the family, now spread across the country, gathered in Florida for Ray’s military funeral. The planes flew in a missing-man formation and I spoke a few words about a brother I barely knew. I was newly ordained to ministry and though I did not know it then this role as family spokesperson at funerals would become too much of a habit.

Ray had been first again to cross one of life’s all-important bridges. However, his bond with his Sister seemed unfairly complete. Though they never did and never would have bet on who would be the first to die it seemed some cosmic force held them together. The foreshadowing was thick as Pam wrote her words and memories of her brother from the bed of a cancer hospital room on a cloudy day in Iowa. It was mostly her words that I spoke that day and in doing so became a surrogate for telling the stories of the whole family.

I have no pictures of Ray on that day at all and actually the pictures really stopped for me years earlier at his wedding. I remember standing in the pulpit of the church and looking around at all the people with whom my brother had touched in his life. It was painfully obvious to me that all I really knew about my brother was held in those few aging pictures in my mind.


Nearly two decades have past since that first funeral and life has erased most of the details from my memory. However what I cant seem to ever forget is catching a glimpse of Ray’s youngest child walking across the church fellowship hall. As she walked around as if she was looking for something or someone she carried the smile of 6 year-old but reflected the pain of all who gathered in that room to say goodbye. As I stared at her I hoped that someone would be able to find the time to care for her as she grew up.

Then I remember feeling someone grab my hand. She looked up at me and asked, “Are you my Uncle Billy?” Billy, that’s a name I had not heard since the time when I watched her father work on his car. What she knew of me came through the images her father had formed of me when I was about her age. Her simple words formed by her father’s memories of me helped make sense of unimaginably nonsensical moment of life.

When things like that are etched into your heart during such tragic circumstances they are rarely erased no matter how much time goes by. For Jennifer, it seemed that her picture of me was forever to be Uncle Billy. Who was I to tell her that I was no longer the Billy that her father knew.

I’m fairly sure that there are no words to describe the deep entanglement of one’s emotions that can happen with the touch of a nieces’ hand nor a phrase that can easily express the bond a simple question can create in a 25-year-old uncle. Beyond the cold folding chairs in the church fellowship hall, I don’t remember anything else about that day. At the time I thought she was reaching out for me but I think it is more likely that in that moment I was reaching out to her.


Two years later it was my turn to get married. The family once again drove half way across the country in both directions to gather again, this time in a small town in Kentucky called Glasgow. Jennifer had grown by two years but the innocence of her childhood had not fully worn off.

The moment I saw her through the crowd of wedding guests my mind, in only a few seconds, flashed back to that moment among cold folding chairs when she first reached out for my hand and called me Uncle Billy. I felt myself reaching toward her even as the crowds prevented us from really saying hello. I don’t remember what I said to her that day but I do remember her first words to me. She smiled and jumped up and down with the excitement only an 8 year old can bring to a wedding. Then as if to foreshadow what she would become, she spoke with the poise of a young woman, “Uncle Billy this is a very beautiful wedding.”

Though I did not know it then my sister’s cancer had returned and it was only two years later when the family came together for my sister’s funeral. Jennifer was 11 now and though it was a more subdued occasion she still greeted me with a smile and the words “Its good to see you Uncle Billy.” I remember being surprised to see Jennifer and her family that day. It’s a long and hard 2-day drive to get from their home in Florida to Iowa. Though I refused to cry that day I remember thinking deep within the grief that was building inside of me that their presence signified some sort of tragic cosmic ending to our family story. I was wrong but I would have to wait 7 years for the next chapter to be written!


For seven years our family experienced a few births and a few graduations but no funerals and no weddings so the complete family gatherings were put on hold. In those years I became a father myself, moved back to Iowa and tried to forget the tragedies that had become our family. Jennifer had become a teenager and neared her high school graduation. Without weddings or funerals the conversations stopped and the images of the past began to fade away.


As I was headed somewhere that seemed, in that moment, so important, and was attempting to answer 3 questions from people who just had to know the answer that very micro-second my cell phone rang. Now it was one of those moments that if I had recognized the number then the logic in my brain would have prevented me from answering it. However, the area code was not among my normal anticipation so I flipped it open and said, “Hello.” The voice on the other end asked with out any introduction, “What church did my father grow up in?” They say that every 7 years every cell that can regenerate does. As I listened to the voice on the other end and attempted to understand whom I was talking to my heart began to remember. It seems that the heart cells are not replaced so easily by time, well at least that part we use for remembering.

With a deep breath of relief I shouted, “Jennifer!” She replied, “Hi Uncle Billy.” Her voice had changed but her smile could still be seen through the phone. The place I was headed and decisions I was making seemed less important as a “Re-Membering” of our story began to happen. She had called two other people to get my phone number so she could ask her Uncle Billy about her father and reach for my hand one more time.


In time she asked me if I would walk her down the isle on her wedding day. So I flew on a plane, walked her around the edge of a pond and offered my blessing on her wedding day. Then, as the music played for the “Father and Daughter” dance I thanked her for letting me be her Uncle Billy.

Holding my niece during the few minutes we danced together took my breath away only to return it fully mixed with images I thought were securely hidden in the past. In one deep breath of joy and tears this story surfaced as an incomplete way of remembering the many years that seemed to come into complete focus during that dance intended for a father and a daughter on her wedding day.

I know its not a perfect circle and all the edges don’t line up but still I believe that Jennifer helped bring a sense of meaning and purpose to my family on her wedding day. Nothing was perfect in those moments as it was clear that human beings were still acting as they do when families gather together. Too often we are consumed by the details of life that rarely mean anything at all beyond the first sunset. However, for me, Uncle Billy, as the tears formed in my eyes and my heart shuttered with uncontrollable joy, I experienced the completion of this story!

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Chuck E Cheese and humanity

We decided to go to Chuck E. Cheese today. It was a rainy Saturday and I had promised to take Tristan there for weeks so off we went. As expected the parking lot was full and although the sign said that they could hold 418 people in the building I seriously thought there might be more than that inside. We first stood in a line that started outside in the rain, then finally moved inside a small entrance area that seemed 20 degrees warmer than it should have been because of the extra bodies now crowed in that small area. The heat and close proximity (Propinquity) allow for a clear identification of each of our unique smells we humans are capable of producing. Following this experience we stood in line waiting for enough people to leave the building so we could enter. It was a very long time. Finally passing through the turnstyle and authority of the Teenager running the gate we recieved our invisable security stamps on the back of our hands. We were in!

Well ok then we stood in another line to order our pizza with a side of tokens and then sent to another line to wait on a table. Then we waited 20 more minutes for the pizza while we squeezed in and out of people and stood in other lines to play video games. I can assure you that this kind of experience would drive most people crazy and yet we chose this time together.

What I want to talk about in my blog tonight is what I observed in the behaviors of all the human beings crowded in Chuck E. Cheese. In short I noticed two basic kinds of people.

The first is best understood in the action of the woman who was just coming in as we were leaving. She acted all self important and shouted at the teenager calmly running the gate, "Go get someone else to help you so we can get in this *$*^*&#" place!" The teenager did her best to act professionally and not let it bother her but we all know those kinds of words and attitudes often pentrate deep into our souls. Even worse they often change who we are if those voices are the ones we hear over and over. Sadly I fear that many of the parents there that day may have already had their souls altered years ago and now are passing it on through their words of parenting madness.

However, there is goodnews in my story tonight. In the midst of that chaos and potential riot producing situation there existed the other kind of person who brings out the best in peoples souls. It started by a simple gesture of rearranging the way we were all stuffed into the entryway. By all of us shifting just a little we were able to let an additional family of 4 come in out of the rain. Then we said our polite hellos. Then out of the blue the mother offered us an extra coupon to save us some money. We smiled and said thank you! You know it does not take much to nurture the soul. However, what we learn we pass on to the next generation and in times like this, even on to the next person in line. I am glad to see that when I experience that much propinquity with human beings there are still people in this world who have the God I learned as a child from my parents deep in their soul. As for the rest, I guess thats why I do what I do. Perhaps I will not be able affect every person on earth but if I go to many more Chuch E Cheese's I will have good start at it. . .

Friday, February 6, 2009

Tears of Laughter

Somedays her memory will not let me go till I think of her and remember that she is the inspiration for the way I do ministry. So tonight her story must live on my blog for all to share in the memory of my sister.

Holding my newly born son, she looked up at me and whispered, “Promise me that when he is old enough to understand everything that has happened that you will tell him about me.” Then she reached out for my hand and pulled me closer and asked, “Do you think I have fought long enough? I had a dream about angels who were inviting me to follow them. Do you think it would be ok to go with them now?”

I don’t know for sure when my sister decided that she would become my second mother, but what I do remember is a brief memory of her as a teenager teasing my oldest brother Ray. Only a few glimpses of those days of my young childhood still exist and those that do rest delicately on the synapses of my mind. In fact, most of what I remember seems to come from deeper in my soul. Perhaps it is my heart, a less perfect thing for remembering, that preserves these memories for me? Wherever they are stored I write this story of my Sister with great thanksgiving that they do still rise to the surface now and then.

On that day, while I sat comfortably on the couch eating a butter and sugar sandwich and watching cartoons, my sister came flying through the living room with a blur, followed close behind by my brother Ray. Screaming all the way, my brother and sister headed for the front door of the house. My sister opened the inside door and then the outside storm door which was made almost totally of glass. My brother’s shouts of anger could be heard through out the house and I imagine across the neighborhood too. Then, as quickly as the shouts came, they stopped abruptly with the shattering sound of glass. As the door was being pulled closed by tightly stretched springs, my brother reached out to push it open and as life has often taught me since, when two strong forces come together something or someone is going to break..

My memory ends there. Its curious to me why we remember the things we do and don’t remember the things we don’t. I don’t remember seeing the blood running down my brother’s cut up arm though I know from the stories of others that it was there. I don’t remember what they did to heal his arm. I know that they went to the hospital but I have no real memory of that and for all I know I simply went back to eating my sandwich and watching “Popeye the Sailor Man.” As hard as I squint my eyes to remember, those moments are not there and part of me wishes they were.

Most of my memories of my sister are of her as an adult though I am sure she was not much more than 22 at the time. She was the first to go to Junior College and then on to the University of Northern Iowa and become a real college graduate. This may not sound like much but in my family that was a “Tears of great Joy” moment. She had made my parents extremely proud of their first-born child. This accomplishment was not lost on her little brother who would one day follow her in the pursuit of that dream and so many others.

Although she had dated enough to find a husband she had been so focused on graduating from college that she had passed up many opportunities to settle down and have children of her own. Secretly, she had always hoped to do both, have a family and be an independent woman ready to take on the world. However, she told me later in life that sometimes, you just have to compromise and take what you can get. I think perhaps it was then, with no real chance of having a family or child of her own for awhile that she decided that she would take care of me, her little brother.

I loved her so for those years when I would spend hours listening to her tell jokes and laugh at my completely absurd and obvious riddles. My insides are tied up in laughter even now as I reflect on those times.

Those joyous bits of time have inspired most of my life and still bring me comfort when life becomes too difficult or I loose my way in this world. She was like that for me for her whole life long. She was the person I would come to and ask the deep questions of life. We did not always agree on the answer but she was always there to make me laugh and listen to those things that lie deeper than questions – the part of us that is most visible in a 7-year-old child laughing with no understanding of the world’s problems.

Though when I allow the more complete memory to surface I remember moments when my childhood unfiltered-honesty must have caused her pain. In the midst of the tears of laughter, she would say, “You are as silly as a monkey.” I would then respond by crying out at the top of my voice, “You are as big as an elephant!” Her facial expression would drop and the whole world seemed to stop. However, before I could fully understand how devastating those words were to a young woman struggling with weight issues, my sister would regain her smile, reach out and tickle me and start the laughter up again.

I think this was the pattern of her life or at least the part of my sister that I would like to remember the most. Even as the unforgiving evil of Cancer had begun to chew up her insides for the second time in her short life she got on a plane to see me, her young and still naïve brother. She was there at my wedding, though I know now that the Cancer had returned yet again. So when I received a call from my mother telling me that Pam was not doing well at all, I dropped everything, got in my car and drove the 15 hours to her house. When I walked into her room and sat beside my sister’s now emaciated body I first thought deep in my mind with tears of laughter, “She is not an elephant any more!”

I could not hold back the tears for her as I looked into her eyes. She whispered, “Why did you come to see me?” I knew what she was really asking me for all people who are near death are wise enough to know that when relatives start showing up as I did from miles away it can only mean that death is near. I smiled and said, “Because you would have done the same for me.” She reached out, touched my hand lightly and simply said, “of course, of course.” Then like the sister I had known in my childhood she turned the discussion away from her and said, “I hear you are now a father. I hope you will bring your son to see me soon.”

My sister had defended her soul long and hard against the relentless destruction of cancer most of her life. Not once but three times it attacked her body and twice she fought it with drugs and love and a desire to get from life everything she had dreamed for herself when she was so young. In time, she met a man named Rick who loved her and chose to struggle with her in the pursuit of happiness. He stood by her each time the cells attacked her body and though part of him would be lost in that sacrifice he stayed the course. Together, during a rare remission of the cancer, they were able to have one child. His name was Brian and he was the completion of my sister’s dreams for her life.

On the last day of her life, my wife and I stepped into the elevator with our now 4-month-old son, Tristan Michael Spangler-Dunning. We smiled at each other as we looked at this life wrapped in swaddling clothes. I had fulfilled my sister’s request to bring him to see her soon. We walked into her room and she reached out in her weakened state, smiled and asked to hold him next to her body.

Holding my newly born son, she looked up at me and whispered, “Promise me that when he is old enough to understand everything that has happened that you will tell him about me.” Then she reached out for my hand and pulled me closer and asked, “Do you think I have fought long enough? I had a dream about angels who were inviting me to follow them. Do you think it would be ok to go with them now?”

My sister who had always been strong was asking me, (Me! Her not-so-little, not-so-naïve anymore, brother) for permission to say goodbye. Unable to speak or understand her request of me in that moment, my wife replied for me, “Yes, you can follow the angels.” I simply smiled and put my hand on my son, as he lay on top of my sister. We said our goodbyes and as we were leaving she said to me again, “Remember, tell him about his Aunt Pam.” “I will, I will,” I said as we slowly and reluctantly backed out of the room.

There is much more to tell about my sister but some memories I choose to keep to myself and never put them on the page. Perhaps that is selfish but in another way it is my way of honoring her life by never trying to fully explain whom my sister was to me or everyone else she met. We shared in many other arguments, discussions, and even laughter sessions but those are mine to contemplate now and then. I share this story so that my sister, Pamela May Dunning Bishop, will live beyond my memories in the hope that other’s who struggle against all the cancers of life, will seek in the midst of their tears a little laughter.