Thursday, September 12, 2013


This tribute to my Uncle Richard was a second eulogy that I wrote to express my direct personal memories; however, I did not get the chance to deliver it in its entirety. This tribute describes my last experiences with my uncle and my feelings of admiration, love, and respect. By the way, this is the last photograph that I ever took of Richard. 

On Saturday of Labor Day weekend, I took a break from the powwow and visited my Uncle Richard at the vet’s nursing home in Spokane. My wife Rhonda went with me.

Toward the end of his life, he didn’t always have the strength to acknowledge people, but apparently we arrived on a good day because we found him sitting up in bed, and he immediately greeted us and asked about the kids. We spent more than hour visiting and laughing as we had many times before. We exchanged no words of wisdom or parting words of farewell – we simply sat together and spoke of everyday things. For example, he asked if our children were still performing in theater, and he asked about my brother’s military career. He mentioned buying a hundred dollars’ worth of scratch tickets and then discussed at length his struggle with obtaining proper care from the VA – oh, and could I please remove his socks because his feet were swelling something terrible.

I removed his socks and called the nurse to bring something for the pain.

Like many other times, he also mentioned the war. On this particular day, he shared his memory of trekking through the jungles of Vietnam while the US government dropped Agent Orange from the sky. The toxic chemical withered massive tracts of jungle vegetation. They said it was necessary to remove the enemy’s hiding place, but the substance also fell on our own service members and covered their clothing and skin. Richard paused his re-telling of the story and smiled, but his eyes bore witness to a deep sense of betrayal. “They told us it was safe,” he said, “They said it wouldn’t hurt us, but then we saw animals and monkeys dropping dead to the ground. How could they say it was safe?” He blamed Agent Orange for many of his current health problems.

As he finished his story, he sat quietly for a long while. Then he looked at me with weary eyes and said, “Barry, don’t ever get old.” For at least ten years he’s been telling me the same thing, and always trying to be the obedient nephew, I answered, “I’ll do my best, Uncle.”

But during this visit, something about his words unsettled me. This time I answered differently and said, “Uncle, I wish you wouldn’t say that. The only way to never grow old is to die young. Please don’t wish that upon me.”

He nodded and said, “You’re right.” He looked at the ceiling as if to find a corrected version of his wish. Finally he said, “Stay young as long as you can and always take care of your health.”

Tears came to my eyes and I said, “Thank you Uncle; I’ll do my best.”

Unexpectedly, the nurse bounded into the room and interrupted our conversation. She said, “Eli, when’s the last time you had a bowel movement?” By his own request, the hospital staff always called him by his last name. It seemed so formal, but now I was embarrassed to witness my uncle talking about his private bodily functions in front of his nephew. I thought about stepping into the hall, but the nurse said something about getting milk of magnesium to “get things moving,” then she walked out the door as just quickly as she appeared. I covered my embarrassment with a joke. I said, “Well Uncle, if your bowels are going to start moving, maybe it’s a good time for us to go.” That made him laugh. In fact, he laughed so hard he started to wince and groan. He said, “Dammit Barry, don’t make me laugh. It hurts too much.” But even as we got up to leave and walk down the hall, I could still hear him chuckling to himself.

It was a wonderful visit – almost normal, but we knew that time was getting short.

The next day, I went back to powwow for the veteran’s honor dance. I have never been part of the armed forces, but I danced because I wanted to stand for Richard. He would stand for himself if he could, but now I felt moved to pray for him. As I stood among the veterans, I was both happy and surprised to see my Uncle Richard come through the door. They sat him in a chair in the middle of the wardance hall, and for one last time, he got to speak his own prayer for the people.

And for the last time, he sat by the drum and sang with us.

The following Tuesday, we met again at the vet’s home to discuss his future plans. He told us very clearly that he wanted to stop treatment. “I want to go home,” he said. It was important for many of us to hear those words and feel the surety of his last request. It still gives me peace to know that his wish was honored.

During that same meeting, Father Connolly arrived. Richard was very happy to see his old friend and he smiled warmly. Father Connolly prayed for him with oil and the laying on of hands. Then he spoke about Richard’s relatives who have gone ahead to the other side, including his parents. “They’re waiting for you,” he said, “They’re making a place for you.”

For a moment it seemed that Richard stood at the doorway between worlds. He said, “It’s a beautiful table. I see baskets of huckleberries – lots of huckleberries – enough for everyone. And all our roots are there too.” As he spoke of that spiritual feast, I sat behind him and wept.

That same afternoon, his children got on the phone and made all the arrangements to bring their daddy home.

The next evening, I got a call from Samantha while I was teaching a class at Whitworth University. She said, “If you want to see my dad, you better get here quick.” I canceled the last hour of class and drove straight to Wellpinit.

At the end, Richard was surrounded by his wife, children, grandchildren, and extended family. His siblings, friends, nieces, and nephews gathered to sing and pray, and I thought there is no more beautiful way to leave this world. Those of us who sat with him that last hour were privileged to witness his last breath just before he passed through the door and sat at the table of his ancestors.

I have heard it said that courage is not the absence of fear but the realization that something is more important than fear. In this way, Richard gave us the gift of courage when he stood in the face of emotional anguish and physical pain. For him, family, friendship, and loyalty were more important than anything he might suffer.

Richard was not a perfect man. Throughout his life, he had shortcomings, doubts, and fears, but he was still one of my heroes because he demonstrated the original meaning of courage, which means to be filled with heart.

No matter what pain afflicted him or no matter what demons haunted his dreams, he always loved us. And that was the most important thing. I pray that we would take that gift of courage and remember to love one another. Be kind to one another. Forgive one another. I also pray that we would always take the time to appreciate this gift of life and to give thanks. And when we reach the end of our days, I pray that Richard will remember to set place at the table for each one of us. 

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