I have tried to make it a habit to take lots of photos. Photos of the big moments--graduation from kindergarten, babies being born, finishing a marathon. And photos of the little moments--kids playing, kids eating, kids sleeping. Photos of family swimming, family laughing, family hanging out at the kitchen table. I know my memory isn't perfect, and I want to remember the little--and big--moments that make up life.
And then sometimes a big moment comes along, and it turns out you don't need your camera to remember it.
I remember a warm summer day, late June 2009. I was sitting in the golf cart near the trampoline, my mom and Sarah standing near me. We were talking, and kids were playing. We were waiting to hear news from Aunt Jane about Uncle Don. Uncle Don had suffered what appeared to be a kind of stroke a week before, but after tests, doctors determined it wasn't a stroke. Today we would hear what the doctors thought it was. My mom said, "Oh, here comes Jane," and I turned to watch Aunt Jane walk across the field.
She was wearing shorts, looking down at the ground. She was talking on her cell phone, and from the bottom of her cell phone a little gem on a silver chain glinted in the sunlight. She looked up and saw us looking as her, shook her head, and finished her conversation (with my dad, as it turned out).
"It's not good," she said. And tears filled her eyes.
I remember my aunt talking, my mom gasping and crying, and the words "glioblastoma," "brain cancer," "left untreated, he has three months."
The four of us gathered around the golf cart and wept. I held my aunt's hand, and felt immense sadness for the future ahead.
I saw my brother round the corner of the garage, and Aunt Jane went over to him to tell him the news. I didn't hear what she said, but watched the anguish fill Tyler's face and he leaned his tall 6'4" frame against Aunt Jane's shoulder.
We were all devastated.
Aunt Jane and Uncle Don and my two cousins moved to the Family Farm in the mid-80's. They lived in the farmhouse that Ty and Sarah now live in. Even though an age difference of 6 years separated my cousin Donnelle and I, we were rather inseparable for years. I spent hours at her house, went on family vacations with her family, and all in all got to be rather close to all of them. My uncle Don was the one who convinced me that milk toast was good, and he would make it for me sometimes. He was always calm, even when he was teaching Donnelle how to drive. When Donnelle and I got into a car accident, Uncle Don came to get us and was simply relieved that we were okay. No scolding.
He was a good man, my Uncle Don.
For twenty months, Uncle Don fought against the cancer. The treatments kept the cancer at bay for awhile, but last fall they stopped working. There were no more treatments. The only thing we had left was prayer. Even though prayer didn't heal him, it did heal part of his family, which was no small thing considering the many years of separation that had gone on. In the face of tragedy, sometimes you figure out what matters the most.
One of the reasons I started Soup Night was for Uncle Don. Even though we all live near each other, when the nice weather fades we don't always see each other that often. Soup Night would make sure we would see each other. Soup Night would bring us together, allow us to see Uncle Don, and make sure we saw him, and talked with him, and hugged him.
Last week, we had our last Soup Night with Uncle Don. He had taken a turn for the worse, and could no longer move around or talk very easily. Because he couldn't move, we moved Soup Night to my aunt's house. We would all be together like usual, and we would have the chance to go in to tell Uncle Don we loved him while he was still awake.
I made sure the girls went in to see Uncle Don. It was not going to be comfortable for them, but it was important. Sydney's visit was brief; Julianne wanted to stay a little longer. She didn't know what to say, so I told her she could sing. My uncle Don had a beautiful voice and sang in the choir at church. Jules started singing "Away in the Manger," and those of us in the room joined in, though I admit my voice was broken with tears. From "Away in the Manger," Jules transitioned into "Amazing Grace." Her little voice sang out clear and strong, and my dad's voice soon joined her. I couldn't sing at all, but held Jules tightly to me. After she was done singing, I started carrying her out of the room.
"What about 'when we've been there'?" she whispered.
"What?" I asked.
"We didn't sing 'When we've been there.'" And so I carried her back to Uncle Don's bedside and Jules sang out the last verse.
When we've been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We've no less days to sing God's praise,
Than when we first begun.
After Jules left, I brought Addie in. My uncle loved babies, and I knew that he would enjoy seeing Addie.
Addie did was she does best: she smiled.
She didn't know to be uncomfortable or sad. She just knew a familiar face, and so she smiled. I handed Addie to Donnelle, who put her on the bed next to Uncle Don. He watched her, and then with some effort, he pulled his hand out from under the covers and grabbed Addie's hand. His hand trembled and shook, but Addie smiled.
While we all wept anguished tears, God used a little smiling baby to minister grace to a man soon to be sitting at the feet of Jesus.
We had twenty months to wrap our minds around the thought of losing my uncle, and when the time came we realized that it didn't make the loss any easier or less tragic. We might have had some time, but we didn't have enough time.
Time is exactly what we wanted most, and we didn't get it.
Cancer has taken from us a wonderful man who loved his wife, who loved his grandkids, loved his family. He was only 66, and we are heartbroken.
My uncle passed away Monday morning. His wife and two children were beside him.
(Photos by Sarah.)