My dear old Uncle — Dad’s older brother — died this week. He was 79 and infirm. It was sad though not entirely unexpected after his long illness… Still, one never quite expects such things even when we know it’s coming. Despite living in a neighboring state, I knew him well as he is the father and patriarch of a beautiful, fun-loving and very large family… my 10 cousins — with whom I’ve maintained a close relationship throughout my life. The third Saturday of July every year, my family and I pilgrimage to Deep River, CT to attend the colonial Muster and to break bread afterward and swim in Cedar Lake (a favorite swim hole of ours… and Uncle Pete’s) with my aunt, uncle and cousins. Then we gather again each August to camp with his extended family including children, spouses and grand children… a group of 40+ (not years, but numbers) for anywhere from a few days to a week to play, eat, swim, pray, ride bicycles and otherwise bask in the sunshine of each other’s good company. As a result of these twice annual vacations, my boys — (here it comes again, in case you’re new here) almost 5-year-old identical twins with Down syndrome — and my 8-year-old daughter know well and loved Uncle Pete too!
As a matter of fact, my last living image of Uncle Pete, is one of him scurrying down the campground road in his wheelchair — using his feet instead of his hands to speed his pace. He was on his way to come visit my beautiful children at our campsite and to see first hand the “new” used pop-up we’d purchased specifically for this annual trip.
So we made the 2 hour trek up to Connecticut to attend Uncle Pete’s wake and funeral to honor him and support his family. And, since we had no other options — which is fine because I believe that death is part of life and a great teaching moment to instill greater faith in God and the concept of heaven — we brought our 3 children with us to the wake (not their first). The anteroom was crowded with people and the walls were bejeweled with enlarged photographs of Pete as he had been in life. As we made our way into the main room to give our condolences to his wife and children — my aunt and cousins — the boys stopped 20 feet short of the casket and stared at Uncle Pete… quietly saying, “No!”.
Me: It’s OK. You see Uncle Pete? Uncle Pete died and went up to heaven.
The Boys (simultaneously): No… Peeping! (sleeping)
Me: Yes, Uncle Pete’s body went to sleep but he got sick and he can’t get up anymore. So his soul went up to heaven to play with God.
Brian: No… Pete up!
With that, Michael walked around the room looking at some of the photos and said, pointing to each, “Pete… Pete… Pete….” and then he came back towards the coffin, and said quietly, pointing again “Pete”. Several of my cousins were listening to the exchange when my Aunt Josephine came over to see us and collect her usual hello hugs from the boys and my daughter. With a voice of authority only an almost-5-year-old boy can pull off, Brian said to her (as though she didn’t hadn’t heard what happened):
“Yes” Aunt Josephine said, “that’s exactly what happened!”
The boys were well-behaved and appropriately solemn throughout our visit to the funeral home — except for the moment when they picked their Grandpa out of a huge crowd in a family photograph. And towards the end, Brian sat quietly on my cousin Mary’s lap, through a decade of the rosary, hugging and comforting her. As we prepared to depart, he came back to me and said, “Oh Mommy, [Mary] crying. [her] Dada peeping.” signing the word crying as he spoke it, with such sympathy.
My children understood perfectly — without delay or impairment — why we were there and what had happened to Uncle Pete.