In July, my Uncle Len died. He was my mother's "brother" but he was never formally adopted into the Sullivan family. With Indigenous foster children in the 1950s and 1960s, you didn't worry about things like that. The family that had begun to foster him didn't want him anymore, so my Nana just loved him into the family; and so, he was Uncle Lennie.
He married Ann who was from a large Irish Catholic family and—though he resisted for years—he was baptized, confirmed and became a very devout Catholic. And as I sat in St. John's Church in Perth, surrounded by unfamiliar symbols (I'm not Catholic) and family, I mourned my Uncle Lennie. There was a time when all of my family was together on the West Island of Montreal—like Hyndmans, or Milnes, or Boyds or Holmes are all together here. And it was my dad, Uncle Lennie, Randy, Ricky, Mark and Uncle Dave, all laughing, sporting sideburns and 70s moustaches, eating Nana's pickled eggs and drinking whiskey. I couldn't wait to be one of these loud, loving men.
This month, in fact just the other day, my Uncle Bruce died. He was my dad's oldest brother and my "big uncle": Big laugh, big belly, big everything. I was the youngest boy cousin (thankfully not the smallest, that was Geoff) and we cousins stomped around Grammie and Grampa's back yard, throwing pinecones at each other, tobogganing down the Sunnyside Hill, exploring the creek and forest together, while all the adults sat in lawn chairs, drank beer and talked about Trudeau or the upcoming Olympics. Bruce and Barbara divorced in the 70s when people didn't divorce, and it caused all sorts of problems for the Patersons. Then Grammie died, and then everybody left: Uncle Dick went to California, Patty to Aylmer, Jane to Ottawa, and we went to Calgary. This left Grampa and Uncle Bruce in Quebec, and they didn't speak to each other.
In many Native cultures, uncles sometimes play a more important role than fathers. I can't say that, because my dad has always been a major part of my life. The best of him I can only hope to become; the not so best, I try to avoid (ha ha, sorry Dad!). However, these men—Lennie, Bruce, Dick, Randy, Ricky, Dave, Danny, Mark, and David—have given me much more than I ever imagined. In some cases, they provided me with a cautionary tale such as, "Don't be like Uncle ____." Mind you, that's the all too "human condition." But more often, they have been examples of manhood and not the toxic masculinity that some fearmonger today, but rather good partners to my aunts, hardworking, loving parents, and all round "swell guys."
As I remarked to my sister recently, these deaths make me realize that we are just now beginning to enter "that time," the time when we will be attending more funerals than baptisms. But that's life. What else "is life" is regret. I wish I had spent more time with Uncle Lennie and Uncle Bruce. I wish that dumb stupid pride or benign neglect hadn't taken all the years between us. I wish that the glass of Jamieson whiskey Bruce and I shared the last time I saw him wasn't the only time we ever toasted one another. Regret is such a useless thing, but do you know what is useful? Responsibility. Yes, good, old fashioned responsibility: Taking ownership of my actions and my past so that my future is how I wish it to be, or rather, in line with how I discern God would wish it to be.
So, no regrets Uncles. I will raise a glass to you: Slainte Mhath! And here's the toast I shared with Uncle Bruce:
May those who love us, love us.
And if they don't love us, may God turn their hearts.
And if he can't turn their hearts
May he turn their ankles
So we may know them by their limp.
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