My Uncle John died last night. He was 79 years old and lived a full, wonderful life.
He and my Aunt Naomi got married when they were both 18 years old. That's right, they were married for 61 years. That's a lifetime for some people.
My Aunt Naomi was 13 years old when my dad was born, a surprise baby that wasn't supposed to be possible. So my dad was just five when John became his brother-in-law. I don't think there's a time in his life that my dad can remember when John wasn't a part of it. I imagine John's role in his life morphed from that of a big brother/uncle figure, to brother, to something akin to friend and brother all rolled into one.
And they did see each other regularly over the years, despite their age differences and the busyness of raising families and the years they lived in different states: my aunt and uncle moving from Nebraska to Colorado; my parents moving from Nebraska to Colorado, with a brief stop in Indiana before finally settling in Kansas.
Aunt Naomi and Uncle John raised four children, now grown of course, and all with grown children of their own. By the time my dad met my mom and they got around to the business of making a family of their own, the oldest of Aunt Naomi and Uncle John's kids were becoming adults: their oldest granddaughter and I were actually born two months apart -- she the elder, as I remember her bossily reminding me whenever we'd argue about who should get their way when we would play during our annual get togethers. Being the youngest of three sisters, though, I was accustomed to such domineering tactics and had mastered the art of either acquiescing or knowing how to tattle when I didn't feel like giving in.
I have vague memories of visiting my Aunt and Uncle in their home in Denver when I was a very young child. While the outline of their home there is rather fuzzy, the image of the cliff divers inside the Casa Bonita Mexican restaurant we visited as a treat is quite distinct.
Their dream was to build a home in the mountains, which they finished sometime during my grade school years. My memory is completely fuzzy on this detail. I seem to recall that they did much of the work themselves, putting their heart and soul and sweated brow into what must have been the culmination of years of dreaming and planning. I am certain that I did not understand or appreciate the significance of any of this at the time.
And this home in the mountains was incredible. I wish I had a photo to post for you, but picture a narrow road disappearing up a mountain in the Rockies, winding its way around for a few miles, and just when you think you really shouldn't have had that second helping at breakfast you finally crest a hill and rather abruptly arrive at the driveway to a beautiful A-frame home nestled on a slope with a wrap-around porch overlooking the river below.
The sound of that river rushing acted as a constant backdrop to their mountain home, much the same way beach dwellers experience the constant roar of the ocean. When the rains fell and the snows melted the river would swell and rage with such ferocity I remember the adults shutting all the windows and doors so they could hear each other well enough to carry on a conversation.
But mostly I don't remember spending a whole lot of time inside at all. We usually visited for about a week or 10 days in the summertime when school was out and our working parents were ready for a vacation -- this was America, after all, the most developed Western country with the least amount of leisure time. Mom and Dad would hang out with Aunt Naomi, and Uncle John if he wasn't working, often on the porch, reading and soaking in the sun. My mother every year would get a sunburn and exclaim, "Oh, I always forget how much stronger the sun is up this high, the air is so dry and cool compared to the heat and humidity in Kansas!" And I would wonder for the umpteenth time why they had ever left Colorado.
We kids became quite familiar with that mountain, left to our own devices to wander freely, coming back when we got hungry. There was an island in the river that you could get to by crawling over a log, often slick from the splashing current. So daring to traverse, but the island was always crawling with ants which dimmed the adventure and we didn't visit it often.
In the other direction was a fairly sturdy bridge where you could cross the river with much less bravado. I loved crossing that bridge, feeling my weight bounce the general ricketiness a homemade bridge affords. But my cousin hated it and always had to be coaxed. She had fallen in that river once and had been swept away, before the bridge was built and there were only logs to get you across. She was very young at the time and the memory left an indelible print on her brain, understandably so. But at the time I always thought she was being overly dramatic.
After crossing the river we would head up the mountain on the other side. If you went far enough you would get to an old mining railroad track. Farther still and you would come to an old abandoned mining shack. At least I think that's what these things were. I seem to recall one time disturbing an old bum there, a homeless man probably, just looking for a roof to rest his head under.
In the very early days I remember pausing to drink straight from a mountain stream. But by the time I was in high school we were warned that may no longer be safe, so we were left with what water we carried with us, which was often none, forcing us to cut our expedition short. Mostly we just stayed close on that mountain, though. There was plenty to do and explore.
Uncle John usually tried to take time off work during these visits, but he did continue to work in Denver even during those years living up in the mountains, commuting at least an hour each way. He did shift work, for an auto plant, sometimes leaving the house basically in the middle of the night. Very rarely did he ever miss a day of work, even for the weather. He always shoveled to get his car out and make it down that mountain. On the rare occasion he did miss a day they never doubted him when he called in: If John said he was snowed in then he must good and stuck.
Uncle John also chopped all the wood they needed to heat their home, which in the Colorado Rockies can be a lot, as you can imagine. He is still one of the hardest workers I have ever known.
After many, wonderful years in their mountain home my Uncle John was told by his employer that they needed to transfer him to Kansas City. He was not ready to retire and so they had to make the decision to leave their home they had worked so hard to build. At the time I heard about this I was aghast. How could they leave? Was there any way they could keep it? But my dad told me that they had come to terms with it, that John wasn't getting any younger and it was hard, back-breaking work to keep the house warm all winter and it was probably just as well. I didn't really understand this at all at the time, but I do now. It was simply time.
As they were preparing to move, my Aunt Naomi was diagnosed with breast cancer. Leaving her home, leaving her doctors -- it all seemed like so much. But they ended up loving their home in Kansas City, living near the conveniences of a city living and especially the medical care that she needed.
Aunt Naomi conquered her cancer, but she continues to cope with complications that remain with her even today. At one point I remember learning that she had taken a bad turn and she had to be admitted to the hospital. About this same time, John had hurt himself in his workshop, cutting off the tip of this finger. And their beloved dog died.
Aunt Naomi gave everyone a good scare but did recover, and Uncle John, ever positive, joked that his life was a country song, "I lost my finger, and my dog, and almost lost my wife!"*
Moving forward several years, they eventually moved back to Denver, to be near their children, selling their home and leaving the responsibility of home ownership. For years they had loved to travel with their camper trailer, visiting friends and family and just seeing the country, but eventually even this tapered off.
The last time we were able to see them was two years ago last summer, they came to Kansas to visit the same time we were visiting from Italy. Our first trip to the States in two years. Uncle John wasn't feeling too well then -- turned out he had acquired whooping cough, not an easy malady for a man in his 70s to endure. (I should know: my daughter came down with the same thing.) It was a usual, busy time with family -- kids everywhere, gatherings with lots of people talking at the same time. Aunt Naomi and Uncle John were a comfortable presence, something you don't want to take for granted, but nevertheless you do.
My John -- my husband, John -- was supposed to go on a TDY to Colorado Springs a couple of months ago. He was planning on making a trip up to Denver one weekend, to visit Aunt Naomi and Uncle John, at least to pop in and say hello, chat about the kids and life and who cares what. His TDY was canceled at the last minute, and even though it was him and not me -- and not all of us -- I feel regret. Like we missed out on an opportunity.
The memorial service for my uncle is this Saturday, in Denver. That is the same day of my Great Aunt Tiny's 100th Birthday Celebration in San Diego that my parents have been planning to attend for months. What would you do? As it is, my dad thinks they are keeping their plans, and will go to see Aunt Naomi soon after. It is still so soon, and yes, even though he had not been well -- he was 79, and his heart was weakening -- it was still a bit unexpected. You tell yourself you know it will happen someday, but...
My Aunt Naomi is surrounded by her children now, and soon more family will gather. It is as it should be. I really can't imagine her life without Uncle John, but I can imagine them together again one day. He is in heaven right now, and Aunt Naomi knows she will be there one day, too. And that is what matters and is I'm sure what she is holding onto right now.
*I am paraphrasing here, but maybe if someone in the family is reading this and remembers a different version, they can share it below.
March 30, 2012
5 years ago