Several months ago I wrote about an acquaintance who, at 62, reached a point of such life desperation that he shot himself. I won’t ever truly know his story, as I have only heard some of the reasons he might have done it. It sounds as if it had a financial basis, and that he didn’t seem to have thought of any other options.
Yesterday I went to another funeral, this time a completely different kind of occasion, as we were celebrating the rich, full life of my Uncle Johnny, my mother’s oldest brother, who passed away at the vital age of 90 because his body just couldn’t function anymore. This was a man who clearly saw other options in life besides giving up.
My mother and I visited his wife before the service; we had driven early in the morning to Gilmer, a town a couple of hours east of Dallas. She handed us a stack of pictures that I had never seen–photos of Mom and her five brothers as children, images of her and my father newly married, and others of me and my sisters visiting my grandparents’ farm with our mother. All the shots were in black and white, but life seemed to breathe from them.
There was a picture of my mom and four of her brothers and I asked where Johnny was–she said he had left home by then, that is what farm boys did back then. He and his cousin had graduated high school at 15 or 16 and gone off to Texarkana to be able to drink, smoke and play cards–act out their dreams and work just enough to support their freedom. When World War II started, those same boys enlisted and did their duty. Fortunately Johnny was one who came back from the war.
He married a woman who he was crazy about–but the craziness turned out to be hers. I can remember visiting them, or their being around in family gatherings, and watching Aunt Corinne slowly change into someone not truly with us. Back then, mental problems were probably as common as now, but no one talked about them, and I doubt there was much help for them–especially as they were good Baptists and they just lived out their problems.
Johnny took care of Corinne for all those years. They never had children, as she was his child, but I never heard him complain about her or his life. I know he had colon cancer 18 years ago and had lived with a colostomy bag since. I never heard him say a word about that either. She died about 6 years ago, and Johnny was with her until the end.
What I did hear was how funny he was, and how, whenever we saw him he’d say things like, I’m a good lookin’ guy–it’s because I’m an Erwin–I just can’t help it! And it’s true. All the Erwins (including my mother–truly beautiful at 84) are good looking. And they have strong constitutions and strong characters. These are the salt of the earth people who work, take care of business take care of their families. Actually, a couple of the brothers didn’t do so well. Uncle Jack got killed in a fight when I was a child. My mother was crushed by that, but the family just went on. And my Uncle Tom left his first wife and didn’t do such a good job taking care of their children, but they all grew up anyway and now he and his second wife are missionaries in Mexico and build houses in a village with a lot of orphans. That redemption thing seems to be going on there.
And Johnny created a whole new life for himself a few years ago by getting involved with a delightful woman, Monte, who was a widow and a pillar of the community in Gilmer. They dated a while then got married–didn’t want people to talk if they stayed at each others’ houses. He sold his house in Longview and moved back to Gilmer to live with her. He was around 86 and she was 81 or so. And they had fun! They traveled all over the place, made all the family gatherings and included all of us in their enjoyment of life. They had a great love affair, obvious to all–not mushy and gooey or embarrassing to watch–but one of mutual respect and true appreciation of each other and the contributions they brought to the relationship.
Yesterday we looked at pictures of their traveling adventures and I started thinking about how different it could have been for both of them. They could have given up long ago, they could have been sufferers for their losses. But they made different kinds of choices and lived life fully. Monte is still young and vibrant, and I am certain she will continue to live well. She is so grateful to have had those few years with him and all the fun they had together.
Thank you Uncle Johnny for reminding me how well life can be lived. And thank you God for giving me a family that I can love, admire and appreciate–and be so proud to be a part of.