When I was just a little kid, I found out some people were coming to see us. I was a little scared because no one had ever come to visit us before and the concept was too alien; why didn't they just stay home? It didn't make any sense at that age that grown-ups could have brothers, just like I did.
I found out gradually that I had a whole 'nother family that we got to see twice a year. I remember a Christmas when my uncle played Santa and helped us set up the electric trains. I had cousins that were just like brothers and sisters you didn't have to fight with.
When I was a teenager, I went hunting with my uncle and learned that he had been a championship marksman when he had been a teenager. I remember him hitting birds that all of us had missed. And I remember his way of knowing where the birds would be. We never hunted with dogs, we didn't need to.
I remember playing chess with him as a young man fresh out of college. I was scratching my chin and he told me to play more aggressively, that I had already beaten him and just needed to finish it. He was proud of me in a way that didn't need to be said.
I remember hearing stories about my own dad and understanding him better; resenting him less. My dad had once been a cocky young pup who drove too fast and made actual mistakes. Who knew?
And it wasn't until I was much, much older that I found out not everybody has such a wonderful thing.
My cousin called a couple of hours ago to let me know he had passed. He was a Viet Nam vet and had been exposed to Agent Orange. He had worked in industrial environments for years before it occurred to anybody that certain kinds of dust could kill you. And he was a smoker. The last few months of his life were spent gasping for air. I will never understand why they didn't get him on oxygen sooner; there was no need for him to suffer that much. When they finally got him on oxygen, he developed pneumonia almost immediately, his lungs just wouldn't function anymore.
He was a man in world full of "guys" and "dudes." He worked hard all his life and would have cut off his own arm before he broke a promise or his word. He had more patience in the tip of his little finger than anyone else I've ever known. He went from bouncing me on his knee as a baby to accepting me as a grown man without a moment's awkwardness.
We have all lost a brother.
All of you be well, and take a moment to appreciate your uncles today.