My Uncle Mark died a few weeks ago.  He was 59, never married, and childless.   A woman brought a 5×7 photo to his funeral. Surprisingly, the photo was of her and Mark at a prom in the 1960’s. Surprising because I wouldn’t have believed Mark ever attended a prom, but also because the woman looked old.   Though I had seen Mark aging over the years, and this year of illness especially, in my heart he was not as old as the lady with the photo.

He was my dad’s youngest brother, so he was the young, “cool” one when I was growing up. We lived across the  road from my grandmother and him. He served in the Army during the Vietnam War,  in Germany. The photos of him before he left for service are so handsome; clean cut and piercing blue eyes. In his hippie days, which ended up lasting decades, he had long hair, a beard, and dressed to match. But you could still see he was handsome under all that hair.

When he got out of the Army, I was in elementary school. So my personal memories of him start with him as a young man of the early 70’s. In our conservative family, he was the black sheep. He lived upstairs in my grandmother’s century-old home and when we kids would go upstairs to see the attic, we were always cautioned to stay away from his room. I remember he had a painting of a beautiful woman – who was tastefully topless, her wrap falling low in the front. I thought she was beautiful, but I knew my dad probably did NOT appreciate the art upstairs.

Over the years, Mark worked as a truck driver. He got in trouble here and there, lost his driver’s license, had at least a couple of wrecks. He drank too much. He worried and frustrated his older siblings. I grew up thinking that one day Mark would probably die in a car wreck or by setting his bed on fire with a cigarette. In my family, he was used as the example on my father’s side of why alcohol was evil. It is no wonder I couldn’t enjoy an occasional drink until I was well into my 30’s. My parents were early subscribers to the adage, if you can’t be a good example, at least serve as a terrible warning. In some ways, he was that.

But when I think of Mark, the family worry and problems don’t come to mind first. Instead, I think about all of his paradoxes: He never had children, but he loved children, and was very attentive and loving to his nieces and nephews. He didn’t like crowds, but he loved to sit on the porch and talk with family and would do so for hours on end. He served in the Army during a very volatile period, but he loved peace as much as anyone I ever knew. He didn’t keep a relationship with a woman, but he was one of the most committed dog owners I’ve ever known. He lived in a way that sometimes hurt his family, but he was also perhaps the kindest man I’ve ever known. 

The greatest paradox of Mark’s life is also the most beautiful: he was not always the brother, son, or uncle that his family wanted him to be, but he was loved.  I am proud of  my dad and his siblings. Despite all the potholes, they made the journey with Mark to the end of the road and escorted him Home. They remind me what family is about – loving unconditionally, caring beyond reason, doing the right thing instead of saying I told you so when it would be so appropriate. This is how God loves us. This is how I want to love.