As an only child, I understood sibling relationships vicariously through the way my parents each related to their brothers and sisters.
When my dad passed away suddenly at age 65 back in 1992, I was particularly empathetic and curious about how this shocking loss might be experienced by his younger brother, my Uncle Jack (shown here with me and his wife, my Aunt Mary Nelle).
I was reminded of this when, recently, a close friend lost her older sister, age 64 when she died. My concern for my friend has caused me once again to be struck by the contemplation of a sibling loss.
Some of the books I’ve read on grief since losing my mom in 2012 suggest that the loss of one’s brother or sister can be more difficult to deal with than that of a parent. There are many reasons for this, one of which is that society doesn’t expect it to be so tough and therefore peer support is not as strong. Another reason is the light a sibling death can shed on one’s own mortality. A huge reason is all the memories that only a sibling shares. I’m glad that my friend has two brothers to provide her with “genetic” reminders of the sister who is now gone.
When I was a kid, my parents did a lot of special things to “make up” for the fact that I didn’t have a sibling playmate. On winter weekends, they let me “camp out” on the living room couch near the fireplace. I loved this arrangement because I knew my dad would get up and put logs on the fire a couple of times a night. While half asleep, it was comforting to hear him tending the fire, and I’d often wake completely up just to watch him shifting the logs with the fire poker. When morning rolled around, Dad was the first one up, and I’d hear him in the adjoining kitchen, quietly and methodically pacing about, opening first the fridge, then the drawers and cabinets, taking out a bowl and utensils, and cutting up fruit as he prepared his cereal.
Some years after my dad died, I visited his little brother Jack and wife Mary Nelle at their home in the beautiful pine forest of Bastrop, Texas, near Austin. I had always loved hanging out with them as a child, so being there was a treat. I spent the night on the living room couch just off the kitchen. When morning rolled around, I slowly became aware of an eerily familiar and somehow immensely comforting sound: the quiet pacing, the opening and closing of drawers, cabinets and fridge, the same methodical dicing… a morning ritual performed as it could only be done by someone who had some of the same genetic makeup as my father.
Because he was like my dad in some small ways, my uncle represented a healing presence.
Just last month I visited my home state of Kentucky over a four-day weekend, stopping in to see many of my closest friends there. I also called on a few friends of my late mother’s, not so much because they wanted to see me, but because they longed to be with her again, and I could bring them some small and comforting piece of her – almost like the genetic code could allow my mother to visit them through me.
In early September of 2011, more than 1,500 homes were lost in Bastrop’s pinewood forests due to wildfires spread by a “perfect storm” of weather conditions. Jack and Mary Nelle lost their home, most of their possessions and all their trees. They moved forward in the face of adversity and, as a testament to their inner strength and good sense of humor, their attitude was invariably, “Well, it was easier than having a yard sale.”
Although it was a tough decision, Jack and Mary Nelle decided to rebuild on their decimated land. When my uncle came to Kentucky for my mom’s funeral in August of 2012, the construction was already under way. Now they are in the new house and volunteers have just this month reforested the property with seedlings to begin the long process of nurturing it back to health. The healing has begun.
I haven’t seen Jack’s new home yet. And so, on Wednesday, I’m leaving for the Lone Star State with my new friend John, who grew up in East Texas and lived in Austin for many years. I’m hoping to enjoy a bit more of that “healing genetic comfort” that comes from being with my uncle, and I’m hoping I can provide him some small reminders of my parents as well this Valentine’s Day.………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….
“Hooray!!! We now live in a pine forest again! Volunteers with treefolks.org planted over 1000 pine seedlings on our property this week! Check back in about 30 years to see how they’ve grown and matured!” ~ Jack Figart, Feb. 2, 2014
My Aunt Mary Nelle has designed and made elaborate quilts for many years. I have at least four of them. She lost dozens in the fire. When I moved into my new home in September 2013, she sent me this handmade Mola, my first house-warming gift.
My Uncle Jack with me at my parents’ grave in Kentucky in August 2012. Most of my mother’s ashes were scattered in the Kinniconnick Creek in Lewis County, Kentucky. Some were mixed into the dirt here.