The Sadness of Losing Someone Who’s Still Alive

It was a bitterly cold late-December morning, 1999, a day nestled in between Christmas and New Year‘s in upstate New York.  I was a newlywed, only married a little over seven months, and my husband and I had gone up north to visit his family.  His grandparents were getting ready to move to Florida and were giving us his grandpa’s recliner – leather with both heat and massage – and his Mimi’s hutch, a beautifully handcrafted piece made of cherry and mahogany.  We’d arrived late the night before at the home of Peter’s Uncle Jim and his wife at the time, with whom we were staying.

Peter, flat-out exhausted from having driven most of the entire way, was still in bed, and Jim and I were sitting at the kitchen table over coffee, just talking.  I was so new to the family that he felt it helpful to enlighten me about some parts of it.  One of those parts is that his brother, Fred, is gay.  I’d suspected that perhaps that was the case, but I didn’t want to assume, and I wasn’t comfortable enough at that point just to come out and ask.  (If I’d known at the wedding, I would have included Uncle Dan, Fred’s partner, in the family pictures since he is, after all, family.)  It was important to Uncle Jim that I understand and accept Fred, which even then I couldn’t imagine not doing.

To further my understanding, Jim gifted me with two books:  The Good Book by Peter Gomes and Love, Ellen by Betty DeGeneres.  The former, written by an Anglican bishop (if memory serves me correctly) takes a broad-minded view of interpreting the Bible, in particular, those parts dealing with homosexuality.  The latter, written by Ellen’s mom, tackles the subject of acceptance of those in the LGBT community, especially family members.  I read The Good Book almost immediately after receiving it, but I did not start reading Love, Ellen until this morning.  Tucked inside between two pages was a note from Uncle Jim, written oh so long ago.

Jim, unfortunately, joined a cult several years back and has nothing to do with anyone in the family except for Fred, and that includes his own children from what I’ve heard.  At Christmas, we hang the snowflake ornaments with which he gifted us in our early years of marriage, and we remember and miss him.  We miss the emails and the easy exchanges.  This note scratched on a piece of yellow lined paper in a book that, before last night, I’d touched only to move it twice from apartment to townhouse to home reminded me of that long-ago morning at a kitchen table.  It reminded me of a brother’s protective love for his brother and an uncle’s welcome  of a beloved nephew’s wife into a new family.

Given my Baptist background, perhaps Jim wasn’t far off in believing I needed to increase in my understanding.  It was a great experience for both of us.  We still enjoy the occasional contact with Fred and Dan, and they’ve both come to our home to visit and spend time with our family.  I was talking about our relationship with them in a study group at church one night a few years ago, and a well-meaning lady in the group looked at me with pity and said, “Oh.  So your children have already had to be exposed to gays.”  I casually replied, “Well, yeah.  Why wouldn’t we want our girls to be around kind, loving uncles who we love?”  She had nothing to say to that.  Truthfully, I find Uncle Jim’s cult involvement far more bothersome than Uncle Fred’s sexual orientation.  At least one of those allows open-mindedness and inclusivity.  (Hint:  Not the religious cult.)

Maybe one day the cult will release its hold on Jim, and hopefully one day soon we will get to see Uncles Fred and Dan again.  In the meantime, I’m going to treasure this little slip of yellow paper and mourn the loss of an uncle I barely got to know.


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