Crying “Uncle”

This one is hard. Hard to write. Hard to read. On the morning of my Christmas birthday breakfast I wrote on Facebook, “I’m thinking 61 is the new 19; this will be the year I add ‘invincibility’ back into my skill set.” I mean that this year I want to double my commitment to write truth, even when it takes me into pain. You have to believe you’re invincible to do that. Maybe I’m finally ready.

Crying “Uncle”
December 28, 2020 – David R. Weiss

Let me tell you about my uncle. He loves Christmas music. Lives for it, almost. For twenty years he’s made an annual CD mix of Christmas music to share with his family and closest friends. Sure, a few of his choices don’t quite match my tastes, but overall his CD delivers Christmas joy year after year. This year, as a sort of spiritual discipline, I listened to each of his CDs in order—over twenty hours of Christmas music. While writing out cards, wrapping presents, baking. It was a bittersweet experience.

Now let me tell you about my brother. At a New Year’s Eve party in December 1974—a church youth group party, no less—my brother, 17 at the time, got wasted and passed out. I’m not sure if it was the first time that had happened or not. But it was the first time I’d seen him—or anyone—that drunk.

The irony—the tragic irony—is that he was treasurer for the youth group: he was the one who supplied youth group money to buy “refreshments” for the party. And he’d given some of it to an older kid who made a run across the border into Michigan, where the drinking age was 18. That kid (whom I know but see no reason to name 46 years later) came back with plenty of alcohol. Including a bottle of Mad Dog 20/20 that my brother nursed until it knocked him out. I’m sure I had a few swigs of something, too, but I was just 15 and pretty leery of alcohol. Now my brother made me nervous. He looked … dead. A few other kids at the party told me, “Don’t worry, he’ll just sleep it off.” He didn’t.

We were listening to WLS, AM-89, a Chicago radio station, as they counted down the top 89 hits of the year. It was just a few minutes before midnight. Terry Jacks’ Seasons in the Sun was playing. It was the number 1 song that year. And smack in the middle of it, somewhere around the words, “But the wine and the song, like the seasons have all gone,” my brother sat bolt upright in his chair, vomited all over the carpet, and somehow looked even more dead now that he was awake.

A couple kids helped him outside where he sat on the back steps, eyes glazed over, mouth drooling. I called my dad on the phone and told him my brother had gotten sick, and I asked him to come pick us up. Which he did. As I waited for him to arrive, my uncle—much younger than my dad, in fact, just 20 years old and also at the party—came outside to see how my brother was doing. As my dad pulled up in the car, I looked to my uncle and asked, “What should I tell him?” His words counted as wisdom that night: “Tell your dad the truth. That’s what’s best.” And so I did.

Sometimes in writing family history you use “creative license” to fill in what you don’t remember. But these things—the Mad Dog, Seasons in the Sun, the glazed eyes and the drool, the question and my uncle’s reply—they’re all seared into my memory, still stinging in moist eyes as I type.

Fast-forward twenty years: 1994. My brother became a successful accountant. And a full-blown alcoholic. He switched from Mad Dog to bourbon. He no longer went to parties; he drank at home. Alone. All the time. Alone.

Fast-forward another decade. September 2004 my brother died, not directly of alcoholism, but of COPD. Although that’s not quite right either. He died of unemployment. Alcoholism cost him his job, but after a couple failed attempts at sobriety through outpatient and inpatient treatment, he finally moved back in with our parents—and found sobriety for almost two years. His regular attendance at AA meetings was instrumental in that, but breaking the loneliness of life by himself was just as important. Still, he never found work. Eventually his COBRA insurance ran out and his savings did, too. So he never got his worsening cough checked out. Assuming it was due to smoking, he quit. The cough didn’t.

When our parents finally took him to the doctor on their dime, it was too late. He died within about a week of being seen by a doctor. He was only 46. His lungs were so badly destroyed that the doctor said he’d become severely malnourished—that he was physically unable to eat enough to sustain his lungs and the rest of his body. The doctor speculated that over the summer months it was likely that he’d begun to lose the capacity to think clearly because his electrolyte levels would’ve dropped so low. Truly “the wine and the song, like the seasons had all gone.”

But—and this “but” could circle the globe several times—if we’d had a universal/national health plan—my brother would quite possibly be alive today. He did not simply die of COPD. He died due to months without insurance, without access to medical care. He died due to a health industry and political interests more committed to preserving profits than delivering care. That’s what killed him. (That and me waiting until he’d passed out and vomited to call our dad.)

So, back to my uncle and those bittersweet Christmas CDs.

The ACA (the Affordable Care Act, sometimes called Obamacare) is really a poor imitation of universal health care. It closed some gaps, but didn’t really even try to be universal. Still, odds are that under the ACA my brother would’ve gotten coverage in time to save his life. Crafting it was contentious in Congress—and on social media. For reasons I still don’t fully understand my uncle was vehemently—venomously—opposed to almost anything Obama (or Nancy Pelosi) proposed. He targeted them mercilessly on Facebook while the ACA was wending its way through Congress.  I couldn’t fathom his bitter opposition to a program that would’ve saved my brother’s life. But I rarely commented. Until I did.

I can’t tell you the details of that post. But I can tell you enough. It involved Nancy Pelosi giving Barack Obama a blowjob in the Oval Office as their way of “working together” to get the ACA passed. I was aghast at the misogyny and racism. I told him so. I spoke the truth. And I invoked the memory of his dad, my grandpa. He unfriended me that night. And we haven’t spoken since.

I still get a copy of his Christmas CD mix every year. I don’t try to reconcile the views that still occasionally show up on his Facebook page with the happy, holiday, sometimes outright holy words on the CD. And I can’t say I wait eagerly for the new Christmas CD each year. As a child I adored my twin uncles. Not quite six years older than me, they were more like older brothers growing up in a different home. Held in affectionate, familial awe. Which is why when my uncle told me: “Tell your dad the truth. That’s what’s best.”—it was the gospel truth delivered to me in a moment of crisis. But these days it’s like we’ve grown up on different planets.

We still have mutual friends on Facebook—after all, we share extended family. So even without speaking, our social media comments sometimes bump into each other. Never in a conciliatory spirit. The last bump happened on May 31, right after the murder of George Floyd. I was in the middle of a long exchange with a cousin, when my uncle joined the thread long enough to dismiss my words with a several-sentence post that concluded in all caps “SO SHUT THE FUCK UP.” I sidestepped that one. But an hour later, when he attacked me again, I replied, “The gap between our worldviews is insurmountable (at least right now), but the personal venom in your posts is beyond the pale for what ought to be acceptable within a family.” He responded, “Our worldviews will always be insurmountable and we have not been family for years.” That was seven months ago.

And that’s why, over these present holy days, it counts as a spiritual discipline, to pull out all of my uncle’s Christmas CDs and invite his playlists to be the conduit through which Christmas becomes music in my ears. To hear the cheery holiday songs and the sacred carols about “peace on earth, good will to all” … soar across the chasm of our lives. Which, in a certain sense, is the Christmas story writ small: God crossing uncrossable chasms in ways that defy understanding.

Christmas music is the only place we “meet” these days. And while I’m sad beyond tears at the rupture between us, I’m quietly grateful to play all the music he chose—for family. Especially this year—even if that choice no longer includes me. Because maybe some year, by some other Christmas miracle, the music will outlast whatever has infected his heart. For now, I’ll take bittersweet. And hope it’s not the last word. It is Christmas, after all, and I’m not ready to cry “uncle” quite yet.

ADDENDUM: this post sparked a lot of conversation on Facebook, which led me to add this further comment in the Facebook thread:

Regarding the divided worldviews in my family (and I imagine in many others) – I suspect MOST of that is due to environment. Despite sharing a common religious tradition, we grew up across different historical eras, in different places (even within the same city), with differing investments in church, and eventually with very different life experiences—some of those life differences determined by circumstance, others by choice. Our worldviews are a dialogue between genes-family-religion-culture-history-experience, and that leaves plenty of room for diversity to emerge.

But I am wrestling these days with what it means to claim kinship uncritically with persons who seem to question (even if only indirectly by insinuation, or by tone of comment, or by support for dehumanizing policy) the very humanity of others. And as someone with a multitude of Black, Brown, and LGBTQ friends—shall we say, kin?—this is a big deal.

Historically “kinship” provided legal rights of relationship to persons raced as white—and defined by property rights of ownership those raced as black. The same white man could “father” sons, daughters, and property (slaves). So it no longer works for me to say, “despite our differences, at least we’re family.” In a world where “identity” can be a matter of life and death, MY notion of family has changed.

And while that doesn’t mean I automatically disown any one in my blood relations who feels differently, it does mean that I have redefined my kinship loyalty in a way that no longer gives priority to blood. I want my Black, Brown, and LGBTQ kin (whether by blood or friendship) to know that in every moment of their vulnerable lives I unconditionally have their back. And making allowance for blood relatives whose attitudes and behaviors actively imperil these persons does not convey that level of loyalty.

* * *

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.”
Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

One thought on “Crying “Uncle”

  1. This is the year I lost my younger brother to alcoholism.
    This is a year when so many of us have lost family members to Trump.

    To borrow from HRH, this is a year I shall not look back upon with undiluted pleasure. That said, I appreciate your sharing YOUR journey.

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