Uncle Barry and Gram made the trip up to Cullman a few Saturdays ago. We ate at my sister’s house and just visited. It was good to see both of them. Uncle Barry was having open heart surgery the next week. He had had a heart attack earlier this year. After they amputated his big toe, they told him that he needed to have open heart surgery, but he wasn’t strong enough to handle it just yet.
I had to struggle to reconcile those words “not strong enough” relating to Uncle Barry. When I was a kid I didn’t think there was anyone stronger in the world. He once picked up a headache ball with one hand. I wasn’t exactly sure what a headache ball was, or how much one weighed. So I imagined it as a wrecking ball used to tear down old buildings, and I gave it the satisfyingly immense weight of 300lbs. A real headache ball weighs at most around 100lbs, and is used to keep the cable on a crane from flying around in the wind.
I watched Uncle Barry lift up Jacob Wray onto the roof the church so Jacob could fetch the keys that he had thrown on the roof. I can still see the panicking women and the grinning men watching the spectacle through the clear church windows.
Before I was born, Uncle Barry and Uncle Tony came over to Dad’s house to help level an ancient building in the back yard. An old neighbor came over to watch the men work because that is what old men do. Uncle Tony, ever the prankster, told the old man that Uncle Barry’s name was Charles Ray. Uncle Barry single handedly lifted up the building so Uncle Tony and Dad could sure up the foundation with cinder blocks.
“Y’all killing Charles Ray!” The old man protested not knowing Uncle Barry’s herculean strength. This saying has survived in our family and is used whenever one person seems to be doing all the work.
Every Christmas Uncle Barry gave me a pocket knife. Even after I was grown he wanted to know what I was carrying. Or maybe he just asked that because he really wanted to show me what he was carrying.
The last thing I did with Uncle Barry was pray with him.
He came through his surgery fine the following Wednesday. I was glad to hear that. I am always amazed at how quickly heart surgery patients bounce back.
But then Friday came. My sister told me early Friday Morning that Uncle Barry didn’t make it. That was July 1st. It is one thing to know that death is imminent and another when death comes suddenly. I am still trying to sort out having seen him laughing and carrying on less than a week before his death.
My Nonna died on July 4th. It took me by surprise, but it shouldn’t have. The last time I went to see her I felt like the little boy that Dad was taking to visit a bedridden relative that I really didn’t know. I was always amazed at how he could carry on a conversation and laugh with someone who was barely awake and incoherent. Now I realize that he was probably saying goodbye to a shell of a person who used to be so full of life. That was Nonna, full of life. And laughter.
She was always laughing. Or rather cackling. I love laughter. I wish I had a laugh track from her house circa 1995. Starring Aunt Shelby, Uncle Ferman, Cindy, Dad, and Nonna. I would listen to often. Who am I kidding? I can hear it right now.
We used to go to Pop & Nonna’s every Monday night and party. They’d be enough food to feed half of Sterrett. We ate everything from chicken and dressing-a dish normal people may only get at Thanksgiving but we might get in August-to humble kraut and weenies. I don’t remember ever really running out of food. My brother said the Lord must’ve helped her. She made some of the best cakes. Twinkie Cake was my favorite.
Nonna had two refrigerators and two freezers. I believe that her and Pop might’ve been hungry as kids and they didn’t want that to ever happen again. Not to them, nor their children or grandchildren.
Nonna was also a card shark. For the first part of my life they, the adults that is, played Hand & Foot, a variation of Canasta. I never played that. But I did play Rook. We played a lot of cards, but there was no gambling. There was never any alcohol either. Nonna sure new how to party.
Nonna died of congestive heart failure. Similar to Uncle Barry, her heart just quit.
“I’m just so tired. I don’t want to take any more medicine.”
So we had two funerals in one week. I have to confess, that I much prefer weddings to funerals. There is never any punch at funerals. And there is a lot of crying at funerals. But there is also a lot of comfort at funerals.
After Uncle Barry’s funeral we rode in funeral procession from Sylacauga to the Vincent City Cemetery, just a kudzu patch and a magnolia tree away from the house I where I was raised. Funeral processions passing right in front of the house was a regular occurrence when I was kid. Just like the passing trailers packed with cotton on their way to the Cotton Gin were normal. Mom and Dad had taught me that it was rude to keep playing when the funeral procession passed.
“You need to stop what you are doing out of respect for the dead.”
This came as a surprise to me when I moved away as an adult: not everywhere allows funeral processions. Even some places in Alabama have given up on this tradition.
I got off my bike and stood at attention in my dirty jeans and sweaty glasses and watched countless funeral processions to that cemetery. Even then I could feel the heaviness of this custom. Uncle Barry’s was the first one to that cemetery I remember riding in. It was really moving to see old men pulled over on the side of the road, standing out in the heat with their hats over their hearts, and shirtless young men who stopped in the middle of weed-eating a fence to show respect for the dead. It made me proud to be from Alabama.
Two deaths in the family in such a short time has caused me to do quite a bit of thinking in last few days. Both of these relatives died of heart disease. Heart disease runs in my family on both sides. I am not a cardiologist, but it also seems like heart disease and good cooking run in the same families.
“Uncle Barry, what did the doctor say you need to do about your heart?” I asked him the last time I saw him.
“Don’t get up over 300lbs. Eat regular.”
“I’ve been eating pretty regular all my life! I should be fine.”
“Naw!” He laughed, “You got to eat right.”
I am earnestly trying to reverse the trend of heart disease and diabetes in my family. It is a noble endeavor, but ultimately it doesn’t matter how healthy you are physically if you are not healthy spiritually when you ride in your final funeral procession.
For bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come. I Timothy 4:8