Stories are an intricate part of the fabric of our lives. Narratives tell us who we are, where we belong, and what kind of people we are and hope to be. Family gatherings are filled with the “same ‘ol stories” again and again. Sometimes we roll our eyes as a member of the family tells the same story we’ve all heard a thousand times until we have it memorized verbatim. Yet, we let them tell the story again. It tells us something about ourselves, reminds us of our roots, and invites us to enter into that story again as faithful representatives of that world. Of course, not all stories are equal and not all are worth our time to recount. But, those that have staying power, the ones we recall in our heart of memory, beckon us to look again with fresh eyes at the road underfoot.
My own life can hardly be told without mentioning Uncle Denny. If anything, I could be called a difficult child (I prefer “blessing” over “difficult,” but mom won’t listen). I was headstrong and not always quick to obey. I’m still not sure how my mom managed to not be committed for going insane trying to raise such an obstinate child. Denny probably had something to do with it. My mom would drive five hours through Texas and Oklahoma to drop me off with Denny, turn right around, and drive five hours home. Mom wouldn’t return for a couple of weeks at times. I was probably 3-5 years old. I didn’t mind; I enjoyed my time on the farm. It was a magical place (which had nothing to do with the animals). Denny made it a fun place to be. He let me do many wholesome activities with him. I’d ride shotgun in the truck (no seat belt) as we fed the cattle, or play arcade games at Lil Country Express, or watch Johnny Carson on late night television. I’m not sure mom ever knew about that one.
My memory recalls feeling like I was the most important person in the world to him. Denny always had a nickname for me. My handle was “hot rod” or “biggin’.” I had no idea what that meant, but it seemed to fit. Even after his boys were born, I had the opportunity to live with them for the better part of my first two years of high school. I’m not sure why he and Aunt Teri let me stay as much as they did, but it was always an adventure: hide-and-go-seek in the dark, pallets on the trampoline, fishing in the pond, dinner with Uncle Dan, and Uncle Denny’s occasional serenade in only his socks and underwear. Disturbing, yes. Forgettable, no. I’m still not sure a Michael Jackson rendition quite like that will ever be matched.
Family gatherings were always an event we enjoyed. Family was important. Inevitably, we would gather for Christmas Eve or Christmas day at one of the grandparents’ houses. The cousins would be waiting in eager anticipation to open the presents. We would wait. And, we would wait. And, we would wait. No matter how much we pleaded, Christmas could not begin until Uncle Denny would show up. Without fail, he consistently showed up very, VERY late. My mom, ever the punctual one, decided to try and work around this problem. As a result, she started telling Dennis that the events were starting one to two hours earlier than she told everyone else. Surprisingly, it kind of worked… until he discovered my mom’s diabolical scheming against him. He failed to see the humor in her antics.
But, you never had a doubt, despite his late comings, that he would arrive… eventually. When it really mattered most, you could count on him to be there. He cared deeply for his family, friends, and community. Sure, his love usually took the form of teasing, sarcasm, and humor, but you knew that was simply a way to beat you to the punch for the barrage of playful insults you had concocted for him. His good humor and quick wit kept you smiling when around him.
Denny loved sports as well. I had the misfortune of sitting by him at one of the boys’ basketball games. He yelled so loud that everyone would turn and look at him. The next game I attended with him, I sat on the bleachers across the court from him. Yes, it was the opponents’ stands, but I sure wasn’t planning on being embarrassed like that again. Denny thought it was funny… I’m still embarrassed. But, for one thing, you’d never lose him in a crowd. He was sure proud of Dylan and Cale. He had always walked a little bit like a peacock, but never more than when he was around them. He was one proud dad.
Tonight, after we witnessed Denny breath his last, we gathered as a family around a table. We ate, we reminisced, and we embraced. It could be for the very reason that we share genetic material… but, if you knew our family, you probably wouldn’t blame it on that. Instead, I think it was for the very simple pleasure of sharing the story… one we had rehearsed a hundred times. We recounted a life that had added value to our own stories and one that we couldn’t disentangle from our own journeys.
We remember that life, if ever so brief, is a gift from God. I am grateful for that gift. It truly was a blessing to have such a wonderful person to share the road! May God grant you peace, Uncle Denny.
In Deepest Gratitude,