I just came back from a 36-hour car trip to Florida. My Uncle Nick died this week—complications from Alzheimer’s. His funeral was yesterday morning. I had been expecting the call from Mom for a while, steeling myself for it emotionally. I grieved Uncle Nick’s loss four or five years ago, after his disease took the first of many turns for the worse. And when the call finally came on Sunday afternoon, my first thought was, “I can’t go! It’s Christmas week! I’m a pastor! I’m even presiding over a wedding on Wednesday! Is there a worse time for a funeral?”
Never mind, of course, that my dad died 15 years ago this same inconvenient week, and Uncle Nick and Aunt Bert were there—at my parents’ house, by his bedside when he died. Much more than that: as I’ve reflected on Uncle Nick’s influence on my life, he was nothing less than the second most important male figure in my life next to my father. So of course I had to go.
He wasn’t technically my uncle—only a close family friend. Not “only.” In my experience, aunts and uncles you choose are the best kind. But he was much more than an uncle. A friend of mine said, “He sounds like a grandfather.” Maybe that’s right. Both my grandfathers were dead by the time I came along. Uncle Nick wasn’t old enough to be my grandfather, but he retired at an incredibly young 55 after a long career with one company (something that never happens now). I was probably 10 years old.
So for most of my life he was the man who had nothing he had to do each day except read the paper and work the crossword. And talk. He was a great talker—a true raconteur. There was no subject you could raise about which he didn’t have some interesting anecdote or story to share. People like that would often make great preachers. I’m sure I learned a thing or two from him about weaving together stories, which has helped me in my vocation. I could listen to him all day—and often I did.
When it came to me, however, he didn’t just talk; he listened. And he did so in a non-judgmental way. This quality was especially important as I struggled in my adolescence and teenage years with self-acceptance—especially related to insecurities concerning girls, a lack of athletic prowess, and other perceived deficiencies. I walked around with a sense that I disappointed people, that I constantly failed to measure up to their expectations. I’m not saying I should have felt this way, but I did.
The point is that Uncle Nick always made me feel better about myself. He would do so by sharing a story contrasting his two sons’ personalities—one was like this, the other like that. Neither was better than the other. Both are happy and successful people—that sort of thing.
God gave that gift to me through him. I’m incredibly grateful.
When someone dies, words about their being “in a better place” often ring hollow to me. Poems about God’s “taking the very best,” or whatever, make me want to gag. In Uncle Nick’s case, however, his death, when it finally came, was an unqualified blessing.
But I’m not budging on the fact of death. I’m with St. Paul, who calls death the great enemy of life in 1 Corinthians 15. The prospect of Uncle Nick’s life being lost forever is an unqualified wrong, as far as I’m concerned. Fortunately, this is where Christian hope comes in, and it doesn’t ring hollow. The promise of resurrection is that God wants to save this beautiful life, too—along with his unique personality, his laugh, his smile.
And God will do that. Amen.