My uncle Joel is dying.
Joel is my mother’s only sibling. He’s only seven or eight years older than me, and I always basically considered him and my cousin John, who’s about a year and a half older than me, to essentially be my two older brothers. He’s been battling cancer for some time now, and he was recently told that his treatments hadn’t been successful. Last night, he started home hospice care.
This really hurts.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about our relationship over the years. When we were younger, Joel and John were just close enough in age that they did a lot of things together – camping, hunting, fishing, going to ball games. The age difference between Joel and me was just over the threshold where doing things like that could be difficult, with the younger one being just a little too young and a drag on the activities. Sometimes, I think that my youngest actual brother thinks I didn’t get how he felt when I didn’t want him tagging along; I actually got it completely.
We did do some things together, though. In the summers of my high school years, I worked for the family coal mining company alongside my father, and Joel, and my grandfather – Joel’s father. Even though it was just a summer job, it gave me some of my greatest memories. In fact, just last night I was just telling a small group of parishioners about those times. It was hard work, but what I did, and most importantly, who I was doing it with, will be with me forever.
The other thing that Joel and I did together was to reenact Civil War battles. He’d gotten into Knap’s Battery, a local reenacting group, probably when I was a senior in high school. It intrigued me, and I joined the same group about the time I was completing my first year of college. For probably eight years or so, Joel and I were part of a group that dragged full-scale, authentic Civil War cannons around the eastern half of the country, reenacting battles, doing living history encampments, and being part of the occasional movie or television commercial. There were an awful lot of great memories to come out of those years and all those events. I stuck around in the group for a couple of years after Joel lost interest and left, but it was never really the same without him. Again, the fact that I was doing these reenactments with my “older brother” was more important than the actual events themselves.
If he wasn’t the “hanging out together” older brother when I was little, he was the cool older brother, and the advice-giving older brother. He said something once to me during the only time we ever got into an argument while at a Civil War reenactment that I won’t share here; it was almost a throwaway comment in the moment but it’s been a critical piece of wisdom that’s stuck with me all these years since. And during the time in my teens when I first sensed a call to the ministry, and in the struggle over whether to do that or to proceed with the original plan to study architecture, his words were cool-headed wisdom at a time when both cool heads and wisdom seemed to be in short supply.
Joel was the very next family member that I came out to after my parents. I didn’t really expect him to care, but it was important to me to be able to tell him in person – something that I was upset about not having the opportunity to do with my cousin John or even my own actual brothers. When I came out to him, I mentioned I was in a relationship with George. Joel and George had met back in January at my ordination, where George had played the violin as part of the service.
As we spoke on the phone the other day, he was talking about putting together a get-together, a celebration of his life with family and close friends, while he was still here. He said he wanted music to be a part of the event. “You know my guitar instructor George; I want him to play the guitar. And I know another George, who’s probably the best violinist I’ve ever heard. It would mean a lot to me if he’d be a part of our team here; do you think he’d be willing to do that?”
Beyond the fact that George was honored to be asked to play, this was a major sign of approval and acceptance, from someone whose acceptance is very important to me. And I thought that in his own way, maybe Joel’s invitation to George was his way of signalling to anyone else in the family who may have an issue with George or our relationship, they’d just have to suck it up and deal with it. George was OK in Joel’s book. He was part of the team.
I’m traveling back to Pennsylvania tomorrow to visit with Joel. I don’t know how much time he has left, but whatever it is, it’s way too damned little.