My earliest memory of Uncle Tom was as a very young girl- possibly six or seven years old. As a child, I was always amused by adults conversing amongst each other, especially my family. Being with family, to me, has always been so comforting- something that couldn’t be obtained around friends. This is why I stayed in-tune with their discussions; it brought light to many questions I had at the time. And, well, because my family was always right. Although, it were as if they had forgotten us children were even in the room- going on and on about subjects I wasn’t allowed (at the time) to understand. I knew this because if they were on a topic that was too ‘naughty’ for my virgin ears, they would literally spell the word out. It was then that the words turned into a foreign language I was unable to follow. When they weren’t consumed by their adult conversation, my family did a pretty decent job at baby talking us kids. There was only one person out of my entire family who I couldn’t quite figure out, and that was Uncle Tom.
Our typical conversations went something like this (every time):
“Hello …uh… Kayla!”
“HI UNCLE TOM!”- in my high pitched little girl voice of course
“Well………………….*long pause*………… how are you?”
…and if I remember correctly that’s usually where it ended because I felt some sort of discomfort from it. Not a bad discomfort, more like a “I don’t think he knows what to say” feeling.
So naturally, my inquisitive spirits soon began to ponder what it was about him that was different. It was a very basic question at that age, but has since evolved throughout my lifetime.
My cousin Christie and I played this game where we would sit underneath the dinner table and record every word we heard come out of people’s mouths. We could fill a notebook page in a matter of a few minutes. It never made sense and I was never able to get actual phrases on paper. It was more like: “I no she you is when it like music she dinner if the while how”… Etc.
Right, none of it made sense yet we did it for years. The thing with Uncle Tom was I was never able to write what he said. He used words that were so beyond me that I didn’t even know where to begin with spelling them. Not to mention, he was never typically a part of the larger group conversation. He usually had one to two people cornered in the far back of the room explaining something like the rise of the Roman Empire (I don’t remember specifically what he’d talk about but I wouldn’t be surprised if he did discuss this actual topic at family gatherings). To put it in short- he was and is the most religiously devoted man I know; one who likely never went a single day without thinking or talking about his faith. At any rate, you could always count on him to deliver the best pre-dinner blessing for us all.
At the time, I attended a Catholic grade school so I had a basic understanding of religion. I knew it was a complex subject, and wasn’t anything that I cared to talk about outside school or church- unless prompted by my parents.
As many children do, I eventually revolted and retreated away from my own faith. For many years, I did things that I thought would draw me as far away from the words of God as possible. I didn’t want to rely on any human or outer source for strength- I wanted to find this within myself. My independence and youthful teen years led me to many places that I had no answer for. I began to question my life, my situation, and those in my life. Some of which I chose to remove myself from, as I felt they were a toxin that held me back from gaining my full potential (whatever that may be).
I won’t deny I grew very prejudice towards those who spoke highly of religion in their lives, and tried to hide from Uncle Tom at family gatherings knowing that I’m not a believer.
It was until these last two to three years that the division I created between us began to slowly mend itself- I noticed more similarities in our beliefs than differences, and acknowledging that was a powerful turning point for me.
Maybe (despite our blood relation): we can align and converse on a level that I am able to take more from listening to him rather than judge the words that came out of his mouth?
It started when he came to my house for our weekly piano lessons. I was in high school during this time and a very busy body. Whether it was being in school, working, hanging with friends, going to parties- anything to distract my mind from the reality of right now.
He had this ability; able to quietly demanded attention without having to ask for it. He expected me to be aware of every keystroke, and every musical note on the page. Oftentimes, I thought I could fool him by skipping one or two notes if it was too difficult for me. And every single one of those times he made me aware of my mistake. It was quite difficult to focus in my home at the time because my parents were in the midst of a divorce- the mental noise from that was louder than the duos we cranked out on the piano. I was struggling, and so was everyone else in the house. This struggle seemed to lift itself when Uncle Tom arrived, as if he was a blessing in disguise. His essence is like those white, fluffy cumulus clouds in a blue summer sky. This might not make sense to you, especially if you don’t take the time to recognize those melancholy feelings attached to certain sights, sounds, and smells. But to me, he was the calm that reaffirmed the peace that I knew was deep within me. I love those comforting clouds, but I love him much more.
It pains me to see him go, I will miss everything he silently delivered to my family and I, and the true character of him. One of the wisest people that would never try to shut down naïve teens like me (back then)- he was far too noble for this.
Being present for much of this -long- dying process hurts- leaves me feeling emptier every time I walk away from his hospital bed. Last night (about 2 hours before his passing), I had a few minutes alone without anyone else in the room. I knelt down beside his bed, held his hand & prayed while we listened to a live stream of mass. This was the first time I’ve prayed in many, many years. Tears flowing like a raging river- it was a moment of total spiritual renewal. I looked up in his eyes as he gazed deeply back at mine while an indistinguishable energy was shifted from him to me. It was at this moment that I felt my humanism & concern for social justice become heightened through him. I feel a sense of comfort knowing all he has done for me, for our world, for our family and his laundry list of accomplishments through the years. I will love you forever, Uncle Tom. You will be greatly missed ✝💔 2/16/16