Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Long Goodbye

Yesterday we laid to rest my Uncle Bruce.  He had suffered from dementia for the last few years, but his passing was rather sudden, caused by a brain bleed.  On one hand, the suddenness was shocking and sad.  On the other, if this wouldn't have happened, he could have hung in there for a long time and the dementia only would have progressed.  His quality of life was pretty limited at this point so in many ways it is a blessing, but clearly it's heartbreaking no matter what. 

I hadn't seen him in probably at least three years, if not four.  I know he came to Jacob's 4th birthday party, when some of the memory issues were just starting.  I'm guessing we might have had some sort of Christmas gathering later that year, but that might have been it.  I had been warned later on that kids could agitate him, and then past a certain point he probably wouldn't have known me anyway.  So I just never went.  And now, of course, I feel guilty about that.  But I suppose that's more my issue, and chances are he never noticed my absence.  But it makes me sad anyway.  He was actually supposed to come to Thanksgiving dinner at my parents' this past year, but he ended up not wanting to get out of bed that day, so it never happened.  And now, less than a year later, he's gone. 

I've thought a lot over the past few days about his absence from family gatherings over the past few years.  I probably missed him less than I should have, and I tried to figure out why.  But then I realized we haven't had many family gatherings over the last few years.  Things started winding down when my grandma died five years ago.  Suddenly Christmas gatherings were a little less urgent, and her birthday was no longer an excuse to get together.  At the same time, families had grown and everyone had their respective groups to eat holiday meals with.  Getting us all together for a Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner would have made for too big a group.  Our family reunions died out a year or two prior to my grandma's passing, too, and if you add in my being out of town to begin with, the get-togethers on that side of the family were just too few and far between to get a real feel for how they should be after she died, let alone once my uncle was no longer able to attend. 

I guess the first time his absence struck me was when we went to my cousin's funeral in April and he was the only sibling in that generation not there.  It felt strange to know that he was probably oblivious to everything going on halfway across the country.  Ironically, one of the moments that made us smile during this funeral was my aunt's realization that her daughter Kristi and Uncle Bruce probably ran into each other in heaven and both said, "Wait, what are YOU doing here?"  My aunt and uncle's bereavement since Kristi's death has been a very painful process, and that little thought at least made them smile for a minute.  But his absence was felt again earlier this summer when my Great-Aunt Lois passed away, and again, he was the only one from that generation (cousins included) not there.  It just felt like something was off, like the balance of the universe had shifted somehow. 

But it wasn't until I started seeing pictures of the "old" him that made the rest of the memories start flooding back more clearly.  When I saw pictures of him in his prime, I could picture his smile and laugh and larger-than-life presence.  I remembered spending long summer days on his boat, coasting through the Niagara River and Lake Erie.  I remembered going to the last Sabres game at the Aud in Buffalo with him, which was my beloved high school graduation gift from him.  I remembered his love of Christmas, how he would decorate his house like crazy, wrap his gifts in ancient wrapping paper bought at an after-Christmas sale twenty years earlier, and have us over to his house on Christmas Eve for cheese, crackers, pepperoni, and shrimp cocktail.  I remember how there were times where he was on duty as a firefighter during holidays, meaning he was sadly absent for one get-together or another.  I remember the smile on his face when he would unwrap the chocolate covered cherries and the pin-up calendar he'd get for Christmas every year--and how that calendar would end up in his garage workshop where he fixed lawn mowers and snowblowers.  I remember how he became a doggy daddy to the dog he bought for his daughter, and how Sherlock became his constant companion.  I will always remember his love of food, how he always got the biggest piece of cake, was famous for ordering double lobster on cruises with my parents, and pretended to steal the entire dish of "white salad" (a creamy jello salad that was a family staple) at every family dinner.  His belly could have gone up against any pregnant woman's, but despite terrible family heart history, his cholesterol was fine.  Based on what everyone used to say, he also seemed to be the best insight into what my grandpa was like.  He died before I turned two, so I don't really remember him, but there were times my grandma or others would call my uncle by his father's name because of a certain familiar behavior or two.  I'm sure there are more memories that I haven't even thought of yet, and I haven't looked through my photo albums either, though I know there are a few pics of him scattered here and there from his role as my godfather. 

As I drove into town for the funeral, I decided that this situation was sort of like watching a show on DVD or the DVR.  When he started to go downhill, it was like someone pressed the pause button.  He was still there, just like the picture on screen, but from my perspective the action was on hold as I never saw him in person.  But his death was like the stop button.  Not only was the action gone, but the picture disappeared as well, and that finality was what made it all so sad.  It's probably sadder that dementia got him in the first place, but knowing his soul had left this earth was so final.  I suppose there was a degree of mourning that was or should have been happening these past few years, knowing that he was no longer the same man I remembered, but his death brought it all forth at once over these past few days.  The delayed goodbye feel to this one was a strange sensation after one tragic funeral and one best-case-scenario funeral over the past six months.  This one was definitely in an odd spot in between.

Still, it was nice to see family.  Some were ones I've only seen at one or both of those other two funerals, and some I haven't seen in many years.  That's not the reason you want to reconnect, but you might as well make the most of it.  We've started saying that we need to resurrect some sort of family gathering so we can meet up at something that isn't a funeral.  Times like this remind you how important those connections are, but when we get back to reality it's hard to make it a priority.  I also got to chat with my mom's cousin and his wife who had a difficult child of their own (and that's putting it lightly), and it was nice to talk with people who know what it's like to feel the lack of control, the helplessness, the panic, and the complete sense of dread that we go through when Jacob is at his worst.  Their issues were quite different from ours, but there are parallels and it was strangely comforting to talk with someone who's "been there", even though their story did not end well.  That connection was a vivid reminder of how isolating this experience can be.

My uncle's sudden passing has definitely left a lot of things up in the air, so the journey definitely isn't over for my family.  The folks closest to the situation can definitely use your prayers.  It hasn't really sunk in for my aunt, and she is not in great health to begin with.  There are still some tough decisions that will need to be made, and the mourning process has just begun.  It's hard to believe that Uncle Bruce is gone, but I'm glad to know he's healthy, whole, and happy up in heaven.     

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