I’ve always thought of my uncle as a man’s man. He was a hard worker, principled, loved hunting and shooting, and had a jovial sense of humor. Some of my favorite memories of my childhood involve shooting guns with him.
Mom and Lewis, however, had a difficult relationship at various times throughout their lives. Fault can be laid on both sides at different times in their history. By the time mom was sick, they hadn’t communicated for many years. She and I had daily conversations and occasionally, her relationship with her brother was a subject of the calls.
I encouraged her to contact him to let him know that she was dying but she wouldn’t do it. She was scared of him and didn’t want the drama of an overt conflict. It was safer to have distance than to contact him and let him know of her cancer.
Mom made so many positive decisions that were focused on dying well that I couldn’t take issue with her position even though I disagreed with it. I wanted her to have an opportunity to reconcile with him but she was blocked from willingness by a lot of fear about being with him at the end of her life.
Two days before she died, I pressed mom a bit more insistently to let me make contact with her brother for her.
“No. He hates me and if he came over he might hurt me.”
“I don’t know if he hates you or not, mom. He might be very angry with you but it’s hard for me to imagine he is so angry with you that he wouldn’t come see you.”
“I’m tired, David. I need to get some sleep.”
“Okay, but I’m going to ask you about this tomorrow.”
She was dismissive but I could tell the idea was gaining traction. Her issue wasn’t with a lack of desire to see him and to have some kind of forgiveness. It was fear of what his reaction would be.
The first thing the next morning, she said, “Okay, give me a few reasons why I should meet with him.”
I explained to her that if she died without giving him an opportunity to meet, he would lose the chance to make things right before she died. She had little to lose because she would be dead but he would have no choice but to live with permanent silence between them.
“Okay, that’s one,” she said.
“You would lose the opportunity to pass into whatever comes next with a clear conscience.”
There was silence and I felt an implied prompt to come up with reason number three.
“You might actually work things out.”
“What if he hurts me?”
“Why do you think he might hurt you?”
“Because of that night in the winter when he sat in his truck.”
She had told me this story before. Grayling is a small town nestled in what is essentially a large forest. Especially during winter nights, her house can be an eerie place. It is located at the end of a dirt road that branches off a blacktop road. It’s a fairly isolated location and if there was any kind of violence, help would be at least 20 minutes away.
She said my uncle parked at the edge of her driveway with his headlights on and engine running. He didn’t come to the house but sat there for quite a while. She believed his motive was to intimidate her. Eventually, he turned around and drove off.
“Mom, what if it was something completely different from that? What if the reason why he sat there was because he was conflicted? What if he longed to see you and talk with you but was also very angry with you? What if he couldn’t decide what to do? What if he was torn between love and anger?”
She sat quietly for quite a while.
“I think he’ll hurt me.”
“Mom, here’s the deal. He’s in his 70’s. I’m pretty sure that if he threatened violence toward you, I could keep him from attacking you. And if that doesn’t work, I’ll try reason. I’ll say, ‘Lewie, you don’t need to kill her. If you just wait two days, she’ll be dead and you won’t have to go to prison.’”
She laughed and got quiet for a few moments.
“You can call him.”
Again, I was amazed by her courage as she faced her death. She had so much angst and anxiety in relation to her brother and yet I could tell it was deeply important to her that she see him before she died.
I called her brother to tell him of the situation.
“Hi Lewie, this is Dave Reynolds. How are you?”
“Hi David, I’m good. How are you?”
“Well, I’m okay but I’m calling you to tell you that my mom has lung cancer and will die within the next few days. She would really like to see you before she dies. Would you be willing to come visit her?”
It took a few moments for him to process what he had heard.
“I will come to see her.”
“She knows you’re mad at her and she’s worried you’ll hurt her.”
“There won’t be any trouble,” he said.
We agreed to a time that evening and hung up.
Mom heard the conversation but she didn’t quite believe it.
“So, he is coming over tonight?”
I confirmed the plan with her and assured her that he didn’t sound angry and that he promised there would be no trouble.
I think mom felt relief that one way or another, their relationship would have some kind of resolution before she died. Through the rest of the day, I tried to gauge how she was processing her reactions. She still had anxiety but there was also a loss of heaviness in her attitude. Their relationship would no longer be based on doubt, fear and shame but on whatever they managed to work out together.
I looked forward to seeing my uncle. Though I hadn’t seen him for many years, I still had a lot of affection for him.
He and his wife Kay arrived on time. He had aged well and looked not much different from when I last saw him. I was happy to see him and even in his 70’s, he was still a solidly-built, robust man. I was dreaming to think I could have stopped him if he decided to attack mom as she feared. My uncle could have easily kicked my ass.
Mom was wrapped in a blanket in her favorite chair. The sound of her oxygen machine made its assuring pumping and hissing sounds. I sat on the couch with Kay as Lewie drew a chair close to mom. I wanted to hear what they were saying, but this was a conversation between a brother and sister. It wasn’t at all important if I heard any of it. All that mattered was that they talked.
He sat with his body oriented intently toward her. There was no defensive body language from either of them and the tone of their conversation was easy and conciliatory. I admit that I was a little disappointed when I heard a few snippets of their conversation. Throughout the day, I had played a fantasy in my mind where each of them explicitly acknowledged their own part in their estrangement and asked each other for forgiveness. Those words were never spoken.
Instead, it was a simple reunion of siblings who, after all their conflict, still loved each other. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen two humans do. They set aside their disagreements at an important inflection point to accept and love each other with unstated forgiveness.
The two of them talked for ten or fifteen minutes before Lewie hugged her and stood up to leave. I walked with him and Kay to the door and hugged him again.
“It was really great to see you. Thank you for coming. I’ll call you as soon as she dies.”
I explained that there would be a memorial but no funeral and made sure he understood that mom wanted him and Kay to attend.
It was dark when they left and the woods were covered in a blanket of snow. As I watched them pull out of mom’s driveway, I was struck by how that night looked similar to how I imagined mom’s story of her brother sitting in his truck during a dark, snow-fallen night. I was thankful to have witnessed a reconciliation that was quite a bit different than a story of late-night intimidation. I was thankful to have been witness to my mom and my uncle embrace each other with love and forgiveness.
When I turned off the outside lights, I turned around to see my mom beaming happily. She opened her arms to me and I knelt down to hug her.
“Thank you,” she said.