(photo: Ross Caimano) My Uncle Bill died of pancreatic cancer in May. This past weekend the family gathered to bury him - with full military honors - at Arlington National Cemetery. When I say gathered, I mean streamed in from every direction, from as far away as Myanmar, in planes and trains and automobiles, in vans full of grown siblings and parents and cousins, to pay tribute to Bill's amazing life and to support his wife Jo and his kids and their families.
I counted at least 40 of us from Bill's extended family - his siblings: my mom and her remaining sisters and one brother; 10 of the 15 of us first cousins, some of our spouses and children and even parents. Plus Jo's siblings and their families. And some friends who feel like family. It was an amazing few days of eating, drinking, laughing and reminiscing. And the military service, in which I was honored to take a small part, was extraordinarily moving and precise, with horses and a band and a 21-gun salute. I have never seen anything like it, even though I have been part of scores of funerals in my time as a priest.
In truth, I probably saw Bill only a handful of times from my childhood on. We both spent most of our adult lives moving around to where our vocations have taken us. His youngest son - my cousin, Pat - is an adult with a wife and two kids, but the last time I saw him he was in pre-school (and I was in high school). We are not a close family, in the sense that most of our time is spent in different states, or countries. We came together last weekend from Missouri and Colorado, Florida and North Carolina, Maryland and New York and Kentucky and Tennessee and West Virginia and Washington state.
But I was reminded that time and distance are nothing compared with familial bond. We all laugh at the same things. We all tend to talk at once. There are stories. We get each other.
It's perfectly possible that the regular distance of miles and years helps us all be able to focus on each other's gifts rather than our challenges. A few more days of that level of togetherness and I am sure we would have found some faults with one another! But in the spirit of the moment, in remembering my very well-loved uncle, the glue of family filled the fissures that the years may have worn into that foundation. It was a gift and a healing, all at once.
Family gatherings are a well-worn path to both the joys and challenges of the holidays. This year my family gathered for a far more solemn occasion than most, and it reminded me that love really is the thing that endures, through life and death and distance and difference and time. It is not a cliche to say that it is the only thing that matters. It is a recognition.