Just over a week ago, my uncle John Jordan passed away at 81 years of age. Just under a week ago, at his funeral, my father and I spoke for the first time in almost eight months.
Uncle John, from the facts and by his own admission, lived a full and happy life.
"The son of the late John and Mable Northcutt Jordan, he was a US Army veteran of the Korean War and graduated and received his Bacherlors and Masters degrees from Tennessee State University. A member of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, he was also a member of Cumberland Lodge #90 in South Pittsburg and the American Legion. He worked for many years as the Southeast Regional Program Director for the Health and Human Services Division of the US Government."
Not to mention, the guy had seven kids. It didn't hurt that he was tall and handsome (especially when he was young), had a rich and booming voice, and was always--always--smiling, with something hilarious and slightly inappropriate to say about anything that happened to be happening. Just one of those great guys, you know?
Uncle John's graduation photo.
Uncle John sent at least one greeting card to me every year. Birthday cards became less-frequent the older I became, but I always received a Christmas card. And no matter what, whether the card had a hilariously inappropriate joke, or just a generally jolly wish for a happy holiday season, it always had $20 cash. And at the bottom of the card, there was always the same hand-written note: "Have one on me :)"
Like a good nephew, I always did just that, and I loved that I had no other obligation with his yearly donation other than to go somewhere and have a drink. Get a buzz. Enjoy life, because life is hard, but life is also good, especially when you have your family.
[L to R] Dad, Aunt Anne, and Uncle John.
He was the kind of uncle that not only saw you sneaking a beer at the family reunion and wouldn't snitch, but the kind of uncle that would ask why you don't have a beer, and would walk you into the garage, past the card table and BBQ buffet, right over to the bar setup. "We have Heineken and Natural Light, like always. Which one do you want?" Never mind that I was probably 16 at the time. I had to have a beer; I would be a Jordan man sooner than I thought, and that shit requires beer.
I always wondered why the hell we only had Heineken and Natural Light at Jordan family get-togethers. In the black community, Heineken is generally the top-tier beer that everyone is going to agree on, and you don't want to be that guy who brings the craft brew and gets laughed and joked out of the barbecue. On the other hand, Natural Light is just amazingly horrible. According to Wikipedia, in 2001 it was ranked by Consumer Reports as the number two light beer and additionally characterized as one of the "best buys." It also got a Bronze Medal in the World Beer Cup in the American Style Light-Lager category. This is crazy, because while it's selling like hotcakes (made of piss batter), it currently maintains "an aggregate score of D- on notable beer-rating site BeerAdvocate.com while being listed as the worst beer in the world by RateBeer.com." Because it sucks. But there it always was, at our family holiday functions, waiting for me to choose it over Heineken, which just never happened.
Uncle John was sitting right there, with a beer in hand, when my dad and I the first of several major incidents that would cause us to not speak for periods of six months or more. It was either a July 4th or Memorial Day BBQ, back in my hometown of Huntsville, Ala., where my Aunt Charmin and Uncle Lloyd lived. We were playing cards, and dad had obviously sipped one beer too many, because completely out of nowhere, with no argument leading up to the moment, he said something that I won't repeat, but was one of the most inappropriate things I've ever had anyone say to me, and not in the hilarious way.
I remember feeling completely numb to the statement at the moment, and not really reacting at the time. I also remember one by one, most of the family there at the card table walked away, except one person--Uncle John. Besides him sitting right there, not allowing any feelings he had about what Dad said to show, I can't remember anything after the moment the words were put in the air. Perhaps it was the effect of the few Heinekens I'd had, or perhaps it was just so random and unexpected and unprovoked. But I remember Uncle John not running away. He just sat there, sipping his Natural Light, with his head titled slightly down and a look that was neither happy nor sad.
After a couple of days processing what he'd said at the BBQ, I determined that I was mad as hell at Dad, and that we needed to get some things straight. I called him, cursed him out with as much muster as I could gather, hung up on him, and we had a chilled relationship for more than a year. He apologized and we eventually reconciled. Even though I knew all his siblings that were either present or heard about the incident at the card table told him he needed to apologize, especially Aunt Anne, I didn't mind the crowd-influenced mea culpa. Regardless of why he apologized or who put him up to it or never said a word, Dad said he was sorry, and that was enough for me. We all moved on.
Two other times since then, Dad and I have cut communication. This includes our most recent fallout, which lasted from May 14, 2013, until Jan. 13, 2014, almost exactly eight months. Without discussing the reason, I will say that this last time seemed like it could be just that--the last time. While I'd spoken to my aunt many times, I also hadn't spoken to Uncle John, although I sent him a hilariously inappropriate card when I found out he'd been hospitalized before Thanksgiving. I knew he wasn't doing so well, but I was hoping that he'd be around for my wedding this summer, or at least long enough for me to hang with him and have a light conversation in which I could tell him he's one of my favorite people in the world. I wouldn't even tell on him if he had a Natural Light (or hopefully a Heineken) while we talked, out of respect for the fact that at one point he'd paid me the same courtesy. Who cares if I'm not supposed to do something--we do what we want. We're Jordan men, and that shit requires beer.
Before Christmas, I'd received confidential word from Aunt Anne that Uncle John had been given six months to live, and he was in the "bucket list" phase, sending letters and emails to lifelong friends saying he'd miss them.
I didn't receive one of those emails, but I did receive a Christmas card from him, with a handwritten note that said to buy my daughter a gift for him. It didn't say what I always expected a card from Uncle John to say, but that's OK. As a full-grown adult, with a house, a beautiful fiance' and a wonderful little daughter, it was time for me to buy my own beer, and to spend any money he sent to me on the next generation of the family, just as he once did for me. Little girls, however, don't require beer (especially at two years old). They require love, attention, educational tools, toys, clothes, jewelry, 529 college saving accounts, piggy banks... money.
I was at work last Friday afternoon when I got the call from Uncle John's only other surviving sibling, my aunt Anne, that he died that morning. From eight brothers and sisters that grew up together in a tiny Tennessee town called South Pittsburg, there were now just two left. Mostly from cancer, the rest of them had passed within a few years of each other over the last 15 years. Uncle John was no different; he'd beaten prostate cancer once, but it had doubled back furiously.
They say when one door closes, another one opens. If the door is now shut on the wonderful life of my uncle John, the one that figuratively stood between my father and I is now cracked open, just enough for one or both of us to walk through.
Somewhere beyond the stars, I bet Uncle John is perfectly happy. His passing may heal the rift between his baby brother and his loving nephew. That's definitely not a price I wanted to pay, but knowing the kind of guy he was he'd probably tell me, "Well Mike, the good news is that neither you or I have f*cking choice!," with his infectious smile and laugh. And although Uncle John can no longer sponsor my well-deserved buzz or break for liquid relaxation, he has given Dad and I another chance at having a relationship. That's "one" that's certainly worth more than a Heineken or a Natural Light.
Uncle John's 2012 Christmas card.
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