A Letter to Uncle Joe

Last week I lost someone very dear to me.  There are people who touch your life when you’re young, leaving an imprint on your heart forever.   From his hearty laugh to his unmistakable Brooklyn accent, from his warm heart to his nearly-impossible-to-meet standards, my Uncle Joe was one of those people.  Strong, fit and sure, Uncle Joe was a driver.  Later in life he suffered a stroke and became wheelchair bound.  Frustrating, I’m sure.  I had to chuckle when we visited him almost two years ago – he still managed to direct everything from that chair, even in his state of limited physicality.  Uncle Joe became gravely ill, and I began to compose a letter to him in my mind.  Sadly, he was gone before I had the chance to put it to pen and paper for him.

Those who know me know I’m pretty reserved.  I’m open to a point, but I keep so much inside.  Today my guard is down.  I’m writing the letter I wasn’t able to send in time to Uncle Joe.  I share it now for my Aunt Margie, my cousins Mike, Sharon and Steve, but mostly for Uncle Joe, who I hope in some way still has the chance to read it.

Dear Uncle Joe,

Time flies so quickly it’s hard to fathom.  It’s almost two years since our visit and I’m so sorry I didn’t get the chance to see you again last June as we’d planned.  A new job, things going on with the kids and grandkids, life in general – I know you understand.  Since our last visit I’ve started a new tradition based on your idea.  We had a mini “Camp Cousins” for the grandkids last summer  and we had so much fun!  As they get older I’m excited to expand it with fun games and activities, similar to the recurring week you organized so well.  I am hoping we build a tradition of wonderful memories for our grandchildren like you’ve done.

I’ve been thinking a lot of the times we’ve shared and the many ways you and Aunt Margie have expressed your love to us, from your coast to ours.  The fun times we cousins had together are some of my fondest.  While you, Aunt Margie, Mom and Dad visited and watched football upstairs, we kids were in the basement or outside exploring and getting into our fair share of trouble.  Were we as sneaky as we thought?  Or did you all know and turn a blind eye, letting us kids be kids?  How many times were we going to dip our toes into some pond or get our feet wet at some beach, yet came back completely soaked?  Or the five cousins riding in the “way back” of your Bonneville station wagon, not a seat belt in site, climbing around like it was a playground on wheels.  Those were such happy, carefree times for the five of us, punctuated by the occasional brushes with your temper when we took our fun a bit too far.

Mom and Dad’s 25th anniversary party would not have been complete without you.  They were surprised to see stretch limos picking them up in front of the house, more so finding you and Aunt Margie hiding inside, having flown out incognito to be part of the celebration.  I was especially thankful when you covered the large bar bill. 🙂

After we had to move Dad into assisted living, you and Aunt Margie were there again, a special gift for Mom’s surprise 60th birthday.  It had been an amazingly tough year for her, and there you were, giving her the love and support he needed.  You cannot imagine how grateful I am for that.  It meant so much to have you there.  I was making a 9-hour round trip every weekend to visit Mom and just be with Dad.  In your gruff and loving way you had your finger poking me in the chest, telling me to stop making that drive every week.  You were so concerned about what that travel was doing to me and what it would do to Mom if I were in a car accident on one of those trips.  I listened and backed off (to every other week.  Oops).

It was no surprise to have you make the cross-country trip once again when we lost Dad.  You gave us your characteristic love, strength and support and we needed it more than ever.  It had been the summer from hell.  Andy had gone through nine weeks of brutal chemotherapy and was still trying to recover.  Hugh was going through his own trauma.  Through all of those difficulties we added the heartache of watching Dad slip away.  Even at the funeral, when someone took our daughters’ seats with the family, you and Aunt Margie swooped them up and sat them in your laps.  How can I ever express my gratitude for that?  I was so absorbed in my own grief I couldn’t react, but you knew exactly what to do.

Before you attach your angel wings, can we talk a minute about the family Y2K Reunion ski trip to Tahoe?  We were having such a great time, and then you took 10-year-old Charyssa to a black diamond run on her third day of skiing.  What were you thinking?  But that was classic Uncle Joe: pushing, driving, setting that bar high and fully expecting it to be hurdled.  She and I spent awhile getting her down the mountain, and I remember telling you later you were perilously close to losing Most Favored Uncle status.  In the end she was safe and so was your status.  As if I could have ever felt otherwise.

You’ve been a part of so many pivotal points in my life.  I remember them with a smile even though I’m crying as I write this over our little paradise lost.  Thank you so much for the treasured memories, the encouragement, and your presence when it was most needed.  I love you so much,

Helen Greenwell

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