In 2016, when I first attended an All Saint’s Day service (Baptists don’t really do “saints”), I lit a candle to remember Mama Grace. In 2017, I lit a candle in remembrance of Preacher Carl (Preacher Jackson in the linked story). Last year, in 2018, I lit a candle for Mr. Clay. For all of these people, I’d grown up respecting them, knowing them, and having some sort of love for them.
This year, as I sat in my pew worrying about getting this year ‘right’, I tried to come up with someone else I’d known who was certainly dead. I struggled; all four of my grandparents still live. Most of my great aunts and uncles still live.
And that reminded me, of course, about the few that have passed. One in particular sticks out: my great uncle from my dad’s mother’s side – Uncle Jake. I barely talked with the man, only knew with confidence that the hospital had “burned him up” with chemo and that he’d died because the poison was too strong. Others argued that he’d waited too long to tell the doctor (it’s not honorable or masculine to get testicular cancer). Or at least that’s how the stories go.
Uncle Jake died when I was in third grade.
And I still hold that against him.
As I sat there in my pew, I thought about how that grudge was a strange sensation. I’d not really known him, and yet his death is one of the single most influential events in my life. I still hated him for dying at exactly the wrong time.
In Southern traditions, the body of the deceased goes to the funeral home and is in the ground by the next day – perhaps two or three days tops, if the weather’s bad or a plot is hard to come by. You don’t faff around with keeping the body topside, no matter the arguments about money or property. So Uncle Jake died on a Monday, the word got around the community, and my parents found out about the viewing (what they often do now instead of a wake, since it’s illegal to bury without embalming) on Tuesday morning.
That Tuesday afternoon, I was scheduled to be at the County Science Fair. All the winners of the school level fairs were put on a bus, carried to the mall (where the fair was held), and directed to set up their science project boards for the judges to come see. The judges came by mine, and I realized as I talked that I was definitely going to win. My teachers agreed, and they encouraged my mother to stay with me for the ribbon ceremony.
My mom, who was already in her Sunday best in preparation for Uncle Jake, said I could stay only if it ended by 5:30, otherwise we’d be late for the viewing.
I swore it would be over by then.
At about 6, I collected my ribbon and, instead of waiting for the rest of the ceremony, my mom dragged me out of the mall.
So we booked it home. My dad, already dressed in his suit and with my brother held tightly in his hand, growled at us. “Where have you been!?”
“I won the science fair!” I said. I showed him the prize I’d won.
“Your Uncle Jake died – we have to get to his viewing, and it’s your fault we’re late!” He tossed me back into the house, locked me in, and told my mom to get in the car. If science was so much more important to me than family, he’d let me find out how comforting science could be without them.
It’s ridiculous. I could have gotten my ribbon the next day at school, but stupid little me wanted to hear my name called so badly. Stupid little me wanted to feel good about an accomplishment. Stupid me didn’t think about how important this was to my dad, who had just lost his favorite (and only) blood Uncle. Uncle Jake was the father of my dad’s cousin and (sometimes) best friend, Kyle.
But I hated that day. I hated that feeling of being blamed entirely for that debacle, for having been forced to suffer, for having that accomplishment entirely forgotten.
It was then that I decided science was more important, because family abandons you anyway.
This year, those feelings resonated more than usual. I’ve recently defended my PhD, and in some ways this scratched at those painful reasons I started the science journey in the first place. This brought up those feelings of dread, that my mom would see my defense, neither care nor understand, and make me feel bad after.
So I didn’t invite her.
I didn’t invite anyone and, instead, told everyone to stay away from what is effectively a celebratory presentation. Whether I failed or passed, no one would see. No one could hurt me after. No one would tell me I should have gone to Uncle Jake’s viewing instead.
And that’s just it. When Uncle Jake died, my solution wasn’t to be more compassionate in the future. My solution wasn’t to talk with my parents about how I felt. My solution was to never let anyone know anything about me. They couldn’t weaponize something they didn’t have. Though Uncle Jake’s viewing is a stand-out example of the earliest memories regarding these types of mental patterning, there’s other, many other (and much more terrible) things that have convinced me that telling secrets can only hurt me.
And so, as I sat in my pew as an adult with an advanced degree in the sciences, I thought about how much I hated Uncle Jake for dying.
For making life harder.
For making me a distrustful, miserable asshole.
And how he meant none of that, how there’s no reason for me to think so poorly of a man I didn’t even really know.
So I lit that candle for Uncle Jake. I lit that candle not for remembrance, not for celebration, but for forgiveness, for peace, for mediation between my soul and his.