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!