'til Death Brings Us Together Again
For the most part, I have always been depressed at weddings. I'm uncertain why. I went to one wedding I had a great time at. Actually two. Though things tended to come up. A wedding is where my family broke apart and a funeral is where they came back together. Til death do you part became til death bring you together. Til the wedding separate you apart. it is an interesting thing to look at. To feel. To know and see. How many marriages cause people to finally start to separate and how many deaths or when people are dying people come together because we are able to bury all of our shit and see what really matters. Why does it take us until then to see those things? To come to to those places of vulnerability and honesty. Why do we even get married? I have wondered that a lot lately. I personally want to have a group of 5 of us dedicated to ourselves as a group. A love pentagon. A village that can support and love itself. We would always have a babysitter and it would never be boring that's for sure. I just see so many possibilities not to mention the biggest wedding ceremony ever. What does that look like? Oh the speeches. We would need to take two days. My family was broken up by weddings pretty consistently. My grandmother, my uncle, my mother, though they also created the family to begin with. Like they got to gather to create this family and were like okay. Done. My family is so strange and mysterious. I often forget where I came from and I can see how hard I am on myself as a consequence. I feel like we can all have more compassion for ourselves and would if we know where we had come from experientially.
My graduation in 1998 with my mother and sister
I realize I've always had an uncomfortable time with death when others pass. I’m not sure where it stems from. Perhaps I came into this world with it. It started when my dog Baron, a gorgeous German Shepherd, and then when my father passed. Though it came to light more clearly after giving CPR to a man who had a heart attack on the tennis court at the club where I was working. The Fire Department didn’t arrive for 40 minutes and there were no resources at the club. A doctor from the VA hospital next door came over to help yet for some reason couldn’t take him in and didn’t bring any supplies. I was confused and angry at the circumstances, yet they were what they were. All we could do is improvise and do the best that we could. For 40 minutes we gave CPR to a lifeless body. The sound of air traveling out of this man’s throat as our air passed through his blue body and over his vocal chords was something I never could have prepared for. It was haunting though at the same time gave me hope. I initially stopped. I thought he was alive. Regardless of the odds, I still felt like there was a chance. After the Fire Department arrived they hit him with a defibrillator. Nothing happened. He was pronounced dead five minutes later. I wasn’t aware how much it affected me until I went into the clubhouse and called a close friend to share what happened and couldn’t talk. I just fell apart. I was 27.
When my father passed I was 8. My parents had been divorced since I was three. Annually, we would visit my father about four times a year. Our time together was precious. I guess I knew my father as well as an 8-year-old who saw his father 4 times a year could. He was my dad who, like all parents, did the best that he could. He was especially great with holidays and various adventures from back country camping, snowmobiling, and skiing in Maine to a Red Sox game, catch and fishing trips on his boat off the shores of Gloucester. I heard he had a wicked serve in tennis and though I never got to see it, I feel like it was one of his gifts to me. Born in 1916 in Salem, he was a congenial, charismatic and caring soul who lit up any room he walked into. He was 31 years my mother’s senior. It was through other family members that I got to know him best. Since most of my father’s family had passed by the time I was born the only window I got to know my father was through my Uncles and Grandmother. One of the beauties of relatives is their stories and perspectives on life, family and love to help us understand ourselves more and perhaps have more compassion and celebration as well. Our ancestors are a part of us. They are in us though, at the same time we are not them.
Every time I saw my Uncle Tom he would speak of how caring and thoughtful my father was as he was always more concerned about others than himself. Uncle Tom, who passed away three years ago, had a well decorated career in the special forces as a Green Beret. When he was working abroad my father would send him letters expressing encouragement and his concern for him and his safety. During those exchanges, my father never mentioned a word about his own failing health. It wasn’t until a letter marked “return to sender / recipient deceased” that my Uncle Tom was even aware that something was wrong.
I arrived at the hospital shortly before Tom’s death where he was surrounded by his immediate family, my sister and Amy, my partner at the time. I tend to have a tremendous amount of presence during most times of chaos in controlled spaces. I’m used to holding in the space in the presence of extreme emotion. Though sometimes I wonder if it is me just being numb. I have experienced death several times though I have only attended one funeral of anyone I knew. It was my Grandmother, who, 22 years ago, also died on my birthday. I almost didn’t go. I can come up with all kinds of good reasons like I needed to get ready to leave to live in Japan, or it was too far away or I didn’t have enough money. Though in truth I think it is because I was uncomfortable. I was grateful that my sister picked me up. As my Uncle Tom would say, “If you wanted to be there you would make it happen”. You make it happen. He was a Green Beret. He made shit happen. No excuses. Ever. He was a unique force of nature and never got along with my mother. They got in a fight at Uncle Joe’s wedding pictured below in 1982 and never saw each other again. The youngest of three, he would be the first to pass. Given his lifestyle and the kind of missions he went on it was amazing that he retired from Special Forces. In 2019 it was my mother, the oldest of the three and then last year, my sweet and brilliant Uncle Dr. Joe.
After my father passed, my mother asked me if I wanted to go to the funeral. I said no. I thought it was too far (3.5 hour drive). That is what I consciously told myself anyway and completely believed it. At the time it didn’t feel like a big deal. I was later resentful at my mother for not seeing beyond my numbness and being more of an adult and taking us to the funeral. Though in truth I don’t think she wanted to go either. The remainder of my childhood I was unconsciously numb over the experience. It wasn’t until 13 years later that I saw my father’s grave, went to collect what he left for me at the lawyer’s office and went to visit the house I was born into. The moment I found his tombstone I fell into the deepest grief I had ever experienced as I wailed uncontrollably as my hands glided over my father’s name engraved in the rock alongside my grandfather and a niece I didn’t know had passed and hardly knew. Much of my family still remains a mystery to me. With clues thrown out over decades that have created as many questions as answers. It makes me wonder what my lineage is and who really was my family? Just before my mother’s passing my Uncle Joe gave me a lot of insight into my mother’s life and what she went through growing up into her twenties. Suddenly so much made sense and a wave of compassion, love, curiosity and grief awakened my mind and heart. It helped me see how much of her had been inside of me and in rejecting her I was also rejecting myself. It was beautiful to hear his reflections of a woman who was so confusing and mysterious to me. A woman I protected myself from who was, under all of her scars nothing but love. Uncle Joe really loved my mother and was still, after decades of silence, there for her. She was his big sister.
My uncle was a quiet, gentle, kind, professional, open-hearted, consistent and loving man. A doctor by trade who treated 1000's of people over the course of his career and consistently going far above and beyond to take care of others often to their homes, long after hours and donating a lot of his time. He even had an apartment above his office. Maximizing the time he could spend taking care of his patients. His generosity was genuine and, in my experience, his true passion. Though I didn't feel like I knew him well, I feel like I knew his heart. It is interesting to note that the only photos that we have of our entire family are at a wedding and two funerals. Death brings people together because I think we remember how insignificant our little or big dramas can be. Experiences that keep us from living or connecting to one another - especially family. The top photos were Uncle Tom's funeral and the wedding photograph below is from 1982 when Uncle Joe got married in Chester Vt. It was the last time our entire family was to be together. It was the day that my mother insulted her brother Tom, he slapped her and she paused before throwing herself down some shallow steps making a scene. Little did we know that would be the last time that Tom and my mother would ever see each other. My mother wouldn't see her other brother Joe until a few days before she went into a coma like state.
Uncle Joe's Wedding 1982 Mom, Uncle Joe, Uncle Joe's bride Donna, Grandma, Jackie, Uncle Tom; Front Row: my sister Kristin and myself The next time we came close to a family reunion one would be 16 years later in 1998 at my grandmother's funeral where I met family members I didn’t even know I had. Both receptions were at my Grandmother's home. The only thing my grandmother wanted more than anything else was for the family to reconnect and get back together again. To become a family again. I tried to do it for years quietly reconnecting with family I hadn’t seen in over a decade due to family discord. Over the course of a couple years I reconnected with everyone and I invited everyone to my college graduation. An estranged family that hadn’t seen one another for 16 years. Out of 23 invitations only two showed up. I thought they could put all this behind them to celebrate for just one day. To see each other again and remember what was underneath all those stories. I was wrong and then again I don’t know all the stories and for many of them perhaps they aren’t even theirs. I was particularly upset with my grandmother for not coming down. She said it was too difficult to fly by herself. I thought it was an excuse. I remember crying on the phone trying to figure out a way to make it happen and navigate any obstacle she put up. She asked me to send her photos of the graduation. I never did. She died a little over a month later. The last thing she did was begin to write me a birthday card that she would never send. Her writing was interrupted by a phone call with her adopted sister Gloria. I assume she thought she would finish it in the morning. After the call she went to bed never to awake again. Her birthday gift to me, to all of us, was to do what I couldn’t. She brought the family back together again. She did it. Almost. My mother still didn’t show up. I never understood that and used to judge her for it. Though I also don’t know what is inside of her and have to ask how much of that is inside of me. Joe did show up and in every way possible. He went all out to celebrate Grandma. It was a beautiful service and reception. I placed my graduation photos in her casket. It was strange to see her lifeless decorated body covered in make-up. Her passing was particularly hard on Uncle Joe. He always described my grandmother as a sweet, kind, loving woman who could never hurt a soul. He never understood why anyone in the family would distance themselves from her. Perhaps because she was all love. She too was a caretaker as she took care of the elderly, tended to her garden, went to church, baked with love and adored her precious cat. She was a simple woman with a generous patient heart. Uncle Joe and Grandma were close. He had lovingly supported her with extensions and renovations on her small Vermont home, additional medical care and made regular visits. It was how he showed his love. Joe lost his money at least a couple times helping out family and friends sometimes investing millions. He believed in people even if they failed. He believed in medicine even when it didn’t always work. He believed in what he did and did it masterfully with all of his heart. From what I understand his patients were like his family and got to see his heart every time he showed up.
Joe arranged everything at the funeral and kept himself together for the family until that night when he grieved deeply for her alone on the couch in the dark. It was the first time I had ever seen that part of him. He knew death. What saddens me most now is that in death, as much as he was there for others.
As much as he celebrated them, he died mostly alone.
With a two week mandatory quarantine for everyone that flies in. From what I understand no one except his wife Donna, was there when he passed at the Hospice after a week long battle with Pneumonia. He was there for Grandma, his brother, my mother, my sister, and his clients during celebration, during death, during financial, medical and emotional need and yet none of us were there for him when he passed. The poetic irony of life. Yet in truth I know they were all there for him in other ways perhaps not seen and perhaps more profound. It is the end of a generation. My mother, my two uncles, my father, my grandmother and everyone else I never met are finally together again celebrating one another and life. Thank you for being there for everyone Uncle Joe. Thank you for all that you are and were in your time here. Thank you for exemplifying compassion, forgiveness, and heart. Thank you for being there for my mother.
Thank you for being you.
You did it Uncle Joe.
You’re truly free now.
Rest in Peace and Love.
I love you.
Joe, Tom, Tom's wife Jackie and an unidentified friend in the back
Uncle Tom's Funeral