A FEW WORDS FOR UNCLE JOE
I'm posting this essay again to mark the fifth anniversary of the death of my uncle, Deacon Joseph Walsh. I wrote this while he was near the end of his earthly life in 2015. May God keep him close.
IN PONDERING HOW I MIGHT offer effective encourage-
ment to a great uncle and mentor during his last days,
what strikes me is how disproportionate it would seem to
an outside observer - how long this man’s reach has been
in my own life, measured against the amount of time I have
actually spent in his company. I rarely get to see him. And
when I do, there is never much time for substantive
engagement, to the degree that we can dig our fingers
into the “nitty gritty” of what’s going on in our lives. I saw
more of him when I was a young kid. But at 45 now, those
times are not so easy to conjure up as they once were.
Yet I can say with a clear conscience and a healthy dollop
of pride that the man in question, Deacon Joseph Anthony
Walsh, is a true giant to me – a towering presence spiritually,
morally, and even paternally. Like his own father, Joseph
(my namesake), and my father, both of whom have preceded us to their Eternal Reward, Uncle Joe stands like a lion in my vision. In this brief offering I extend to him and his family my solace and my deepest gratitude.
But how does this even work: that someone you’ve been around a relatively small number of times can still establish such a definitive presence in your life, and in such a positive way? It’s impossible, the skeptics would say. The skeptics have never met my Uncle Joe.
* * *
Uncle Joe has spent his entire life in the Chicago area. I was born there, and I lived somewhere within reach of him in my first five years. Then my family moved to the eastern United States. I saw him, at best, a few times a year after that. But over many summers when I was growing up, between the ages of six and fifteen, we’ll say, my whole family would pile into one of our dreadful, hulking station wagons and drive eighteen hours to Chicago again, where we would spend a week or two visiting my grandparents and various other relatives from my mother’s large Irish Catholic clan. Uncle Joe and his own family always figured heavily into these occasions.
I suppose these were the times when my uncle’s lasting influence made its mark upon me. It was something about his overall aspect, his placid demeanor. He affected a fascinating composite of gentleness and unflappable authority at the same time, ALL the time. If this was not a Marvel Comics-like superpower, it sure looked like one from my youthful perspective. Because of this, Uncle Joe could get away with things I never would have tolerated from other adults – especially my own parents.
I remember his language and mannerisms around kids – his own, or others’. I remember him kissing our heads, hugging us, or using endearments like “sweetheart” or “honeybunch” or “dear”. Verily, I say unto you, that if anyone else had had the impertinence to call me such things when I was twelve or thirteen, they would have received the cold shoulder as a bare minimum. If not worse. But Uncle Joe had the moral authority, somehow, to drive the essence of such gestures, arrow-like, through the thickening exoskeleton of an adolescent boy who was in to heavy metal. I know he could, because here I sit remembering those moments as a middle-aged man, far softer on the inside and the outside.
We knew he loved us. That is my point. You couldn’t escape it if you tried. I just didn’t grasp at the time that you’d never wish to. Uncle Joe’s whole family was like this, and they still are. But he himself had this soft-spoken yet deeply reassuring way of making it clear to us at any age.
Later, as the decades piled up, as they tend to do, it has been my loss to see less of Uncle Joe and his family. But the lion stood high upon that plateau within my mind’s eye all along. It is true that I haven’t observed him much at more vulnerable moments, or in less admirable circumstances of the sort that no human is immune to. We all have imperfections and bad days.
But maybe the fact that I’ve only seen Uncle Joe at certain points along the way speaks to what it really means to be an uncle or aunt to someone coming up behind us. The essence of the calling is not to be the primary source of love, warmth, or sustenance – but rather to wheel through a younger person’s orbit everyone once in a while, one might argue, and shine down the very best of ourselves upon them. The part that bears the image and likeness of the Creator of the universe, the ultimate Source of all that is good and right and holy.
All I know is this: in each of those times when the stars aligned and Uncle Joe revolved through my skies, I have come away feeling more secure and often spiritually re-invigorated. That may be the best compliment I can pay the man. For Uncle Joe understands love – how it teaches us, sustains us, and saves us – and he knows how to put it into practice.
He proved this when he movingly eulogized my grandfather in 1985, enduring his own grief and tears. He proved it in his distinguished career as a social worker and administrator, marked by his signature caring and compassion. He proved it later, when he donned his deacon’s stole and baptized my son, Cavan, in 2012, and then invited every single person in attendance to bless my child’s forehead, one by one. He proved it when he honored my father in 2014 by delivering a stunning homily at his funeral that drew wisdom from William Shakespeare and from Scripture, in a manner my Dad would have deeply appreciated.
Speaking of my father, two years before he was called home to God, as he battled a debilitating illness himself, I sat down to write a kind of missive to him that I called “A Few Words Before You Go”. I wanted to express in my own way and in my preferred method the sort of impact his example and his love made upon me, while I had my wits. The same impulse has drawn me to set down these words, though my heart breaks with the knowledge of my uncle’s present condition. My purpose is simply to communicate that I love him back.
Once again, I move away from Uncle Joe with my faith strengthened – just as I remain confident that his will be rewarded.