This past Spring I received a phone call from my cousin, Joseph. He told me his father, my Uncle Joe, was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. The news was especially distressing for me since Uncle Joe has always been my favorite uncle. Although Uncle Joe is 86 years old I can’t imagine being without him.
Uncle Joe had remained a bachelor until his mid-thirties. As a boy, and being the oldest of his nephews, I greatly benefitted from his single status in life. Having time and a few extra dollars, he planned events that often included me. He took me to the beach, the movies, the zoo, the circus and we went deep sea fishing. He also took me to an old neighborhood watering hole, Jackson’s Bar and Grill, where he had a cool one and I had a coke. Just meeting the guys at the bar made me feel so important. These outings integrated me into the world of men.
One other treat that stands out in my mind: I ate hot dogs with him on a street corner in Brooklyn. The vendor’s name was Willie. He was an old Italian man who Uncle Joe had known since he was a boy. Nothing since has ever tasted so good.
With Uncle Joe there was for me adventure, community, and family. There were also connections with the past and present. And, best of all, I had a trusted friend.
Eventually, Uncle Joe did marry. Yet he remained involved in my life and in the lives of his many other nieces and nephews. No occasion was complete without him. He never missed a family event. For him, his family was his greatest passion. He acted as an advisor and peacemaker for all of us.
In 1980, General Motors, the company he had worked for moved his division to Detroit, Michigan. He had no choice but to leave, being too young to retire and too old to start on a new career. We were all devastated. He did, however, come for a visit on a yearly basis. His migration back to Brooklyn inaugurated an annual family reunion which in time became known as the Uncle Joe Invitational.
In the year, 2000, when I began my current assignment with Ave Maria School of Law in Ann Arbor, Michigan, we were once again united. We visited each other on a regular basis. I even had the privilege of treating him to dinner on occasion. Just a token of my gratitude for all he did for me.
In 2009 the law school moved to Naples, Florida. I left a lot of wonderful people behind, but Uncle Joe was my greatest loss. Of course we kept in touch by phone, but it’s not the same.
When family members from New York and New Jersey heard of Uncle Joe’s illness, they began to call him, and some even on Skype. He firmly reiterated to everyone that they should not visit him. He wasn’t up to it. The family abided by his wishes–that is, until I couldn’t bear not seeing him before he died.
The clincher was another phone call from my cousin. He said he didn’t think his father would live out another month. He asked if, because of my special relationship with my uncle, I would consider celebrating his funeral Mass.
I said, “I want to see him while he is alive not dead.” I got the impression that Uncle Joe’s immediate family was not exactly thrilled by this. They wanted his wishes of no visitors respected. I think they also felt that they would have to entertain me.
Immediate family need to understand that a sick or dying person’s extended family has a need and even a right to visit a loved one during this time. Brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews need time to express their love, say thank you and say goodbye.
Be that as it may, I immediately made plans to go to Michigan. On short notice I booked a flight that cost me nearly $500.00. It turned out to be the best money I have ever spent.
In telling my youngest brother Paul about my plans, he said he wanted to see Uncle Joe, too! I was delighted but Uncle Joe’s family apparently wasn’t enthusiastic about having both of us. Nevertheless, as the Italian expression goes, we made “the hard face” and went together. Paul paid over $900.00 for his flight from New York.
I have learned over my many years as a priest that often times sick people, being depressed, request no company. And, if family is at a distance they don’t want to put anyone out. However, when a visit is paid they are most appreciative. Of course, the visit shouldn’t be a long one. So, we planned on staying only two or three hours.
As a priest I can administer the sacraments. This was the gift I wanted to bring to Uncle Joe. I packed the holy oil with me to administer to him the Sacrament of the Sick. I also brought the Eucharist (or Viaticum as it is called when administered to the dying) to help him on his journey to eternal life.
When we arrived at Uncle Joe’s house, after many tears, hugs and kisses I went through the ritual of the sacraments. He sat at the edge of his bed. The rest of the family gathered around and joined in the prayers. When we finished, it was obvious that he was consoled.
Much to my surprise my brother brought along some photos and a DVD he made from old 8mm clips of family events that my father had taken. The first exhibit was a picture of Uncle Joe with his army battalion in Germany. Amazingly after more than 60 years, he remembered all the names of his old Army buddies and even where they came from. We verified his recollections because all of the information about them was on the back of the picture. A glitter returned to his eyes and for a few moments he was young again.
Later, we began to watch the video. It was filled with family events; baptisms, weddings and birthdays. He began to reminisce about his mother and father, his aunts and uncles and sisters who had passed on. It turned out to be a walk down memory lane. There were so many good memories and laughs at the characters that had been part of his life. It was obvious that Uncle Joe felt blessed.
He also had the opportunity, to review the lives of his son and his nieces and nephews growing up. It was obvious that he loved them. And, for sure, they loved him! He was an important part of all of our lives. And, we got a chance to tell him so.
We did not intend to stay for dinner, but he insisted on sending out for food. This was surprising since we were told he sleeps a lot and doesn’t eat very much. But, he was wide awake and very animated during our entire visit. He ate well, too!
We only stayed three hours but my brother and I agreed the time with him was precious.
I relate this story to make some important points about visiting the sick:
1. Don’t believe them when they say not to visit.
2. Try to visit with no more than 2 guests at a time.
3. Take some time to pray with the sick person.
4. If they did not yet have a priest visit, suggest that they do.
5. Put the family at ease. Let them know the visit will be short.
6. Stay for a meal only if it is offered and the family insists.
7. Bring along some family photos or videos.
8. Let them talk about the past.
9. Remind them of how important they were in your life.
10. And, to use an old Uncle Joe-ism, “tell the sick person that you hope to see them again on the other side (his term for heaven).
Visiting the sick is a Corporal Work of Mercy. It is the right opportunity for love to be expressed and for graces to be received.
As Christians we have the consolation that the last goodbye is only temporal – we will meet again in the Resurrection on the Last Day.