Monday, March 14, 2016

Memories of Uncle Johnny

My earliest memories of Uncle Johnny are more about feelings; I always felt loved and safe when in Alabama in the house on the farm.  I looked forward to those visits and knew there would be lots of fun and that wonderful “at home, I belong here” feeling.  I remember singing hymns every night and reading the Bible; in that way, the foundation was laid that relationship with God was most important in this life and needed daily attention.  

After my Daddy died, I was aware that my mama asked Aunt Joan and Uncle Johnny to take me in if anything happened to her.   That provided the gift of comfort my young heart badly needed.  My world was ripped apart by Daddy’s death and both brothers leaving our family home within a year and a half of his death.  My greatest fear was that my Mom would die; once I learned who would raise me, if that happened, my mind began to relax and take comfort.  

I have a memory of helping my cousins throw wood over the electric fence into the pasture one summer.   Somehow, a piece of wood I was holding didn’t leave my hand, nor clear the fence; next thing I knew, I was experiencing the biggest shock of my life; that fence was not letting go of me or that piece of wood.   One of the cousins went running for help; next thing I knew I was safely being held and comforted in the arms of my Uncle Johnny while I bawled like a baby (that was my specialty!)  I believe that was the first hug from a man after my daddy’s death.  I remember how loved and comforted I felt. 

As I have shared recently, one of my favorite memories was the 1977 trip to West Virginia.  Uncle Johnny and Aunt Joan decided to invite my mama and me along for a journey down his and my mom’s childhood memory lane.   I marvel at the hours and hours with five kids and three adults in a van, picnic lunches, plentiful snacks and soft drinks, and singing for hours.  I don’t recall a cross word from one of the adults directed towards any of us kids.   They let us sing and giggle and be our silly selves the entire trip.  

I admire the selfless love that Aunt Joan and Uncle Johnny poured out to his mom and to the whole extended family by caring for Grandma Nicholas for a long period of time in their home while she journeyed through what we now can identify as Alzheimer’s .  The hours and hours, long days and longer nights of loving her and taking care of her needs are so inspiring and admirable.

As is well known in my family, I made a series of regrettable decisions in my early adulthood.  Those decisions caused me to go years without fellowship with any of my extended family.  The important wedding milestones in our lives were not shared; births of children were not shared.  While attempting to build my life, it was quickly crumbling; as my mom began her descent into early onset Alzheimer’s, my marriage continued to falter and fail.  The blessings I got from that failed union were two beautiful children.  They are the gifts that make my decisions not regrettable.  

Finally, in the early 1990’s, I decided that those two beautiful children needed to know about this great legacy of family love that existed on a farm in Alabama.  The three of us went for a visit and were welcomed with opened arms and hearts!  It still felt like home!  Aunt Joan and Uncle Johnny never pried about the failed marriage or the events involving my mother’s heart and spirit being broken through my ex-husband’s actions.  They poured out their love on us all and life went on.  That was one of the greatest gifts of my young adulthood.   I had carried shame and heartbreak for so many years,  it was a gift to be loved just because I belonged to this family.  

I have hesitated to share the greatest gift my Uncle Johnny ever gave me with anybody; I’m not sure if my feeling so undeserving or what exactly kept me quiet, but I don’t think I’ve told anyone other than maybe my husband (?) about this gift.  When we traveled to Alabama for the big 50th wedding anniversary celebration, Uncle Johnny and I had a few moments alone at some point.  (That was when he told me he had been the one to baptize my dad.   That made my heart so happy.)  But an even bigger gift that I’ve held in my heart and will hold all my days is that Uncle Johnny told me that he loves me, like one of his own.  After all the heartache my choices brought into my life and that of my children, his words were not only loving but affirming- a priceless gift I will always treasure.  

Finally, even in his death and dying, Uncle Johnny continued to teach me strong lessons and love.  It amazed me to know the level of care that his own children have poured into his final days. Most families put their loved ones in specialized (nursing) facilities when dealing with the wear and tear of Alzheimer’s.  But because of the great love his children have for their father and mother, the great love he and his beloved poured out on his mom, my cousins became my heroes and cared for him until the end in the place he loved, surrounded by his memories for as long as his mind could hold them, and with his beloved Joan always by his side.   And even in his final breath he seemed to speak of his great love for God, family, and church.  To have been serenaded towards heaven by family and church family for an hour before his final breath is just the perfect ending to his earthly life.  To take that final breath just after the “Amen” of the prayer just before the church family was leaving, wow!,  all I can say is I think Uncle Johnny transitioned in the perfect way for him. 

I was quite beside myself all last week leading up to our visit to the farm.  I became so angry at this disease that seems to attack the Nicholas family with a vengeance.  I mourned my own choices that kept me from “picking the brain” of this family patriarch about marriage, raising children, and relationship with our Father; I mourned all the years I had denied my children knowing the grandfather figure they could have known from my side of the family.  Even though Aunt Joan and Uncle Johnny had welcomed me, loved me, and he had shared words of affirmation with me, I let Satan's lies convince me that I was not worthy of being loved by and sharing time with these special people.  And so years passed with missed opportunities of visiting the farm and relationship with Godly parental substitutes.  

My “second daughter,” a friend’s daughter who I’ve been close to all her life (she’s thirteen hours older than my Ben) had a band/symphony concert on Thursday evening before our last visit with Uncle Johnny.   I try to go to her concerts.  I did not acknowledge her mama’s note to me about it until I got home from Alabama.   She had told me they were playing, It Is Well.   Here is what I shared with her after I returned home and Uncle Johnny’s death:
I could not do that concert Thursday night. It was not well with my soul at all. I know it is dumb to hate disease; but I do. But that doesn't matter; it is what it is.
But I walked into my uncle's bedroom Saturday morning. He lay in his hospital bed surrounded by his wedding photos and the furniture he and my aunt have had since they married and family pictures.  I spent a few minutes talking to him. He may have responded; but was probably just agitated. But his eyes opened slowly. We were soon joined by three of his four children who were at the farm, his son-in-law, another cousin who had come down from Jackson, TN on his motorcycle just for the day, John, and my aunt and we sang "Where He Leads I'll Follow." That was another song we sang numerous times on our West Virginia trip in 1977. Then we were each asked to pick another song to sing. We sang for 30-45 minutes around his bed; he reacted at times or seemed to, sort of a groaning, crying out. I chose It Is Well because I realized after seeing him that It.  Is.  Well.  He would have been 88 three days after his death.  He taught and loved numerous children as a public school teacher.  He preached from the time he was a very young man; he built a house for his family which they have lived in since 1964. (John marveled repeatedly at his craftsmanship and filled my aunt and cousins with joy.)  He loved his wife well and showed his children how to build a Godly marriage; he loved them with all his heart.  And when he was blessed with grandchildren, he loved them and continued the pattern of being a Godly example and mentor.  He farmed the acres of land that surround that house. He cared for and loved his parents, siblings and their spouses, nieces, nephews.  Seeing him so diminished, the essence of his life gone with only a shell left, I knew it was indeed WELL. He had earned his great hall pass. And I know he heard the ultimate "Well done faithful servant" and it is and was well with my soul.” 

Goodbye hurts; but my parents and Aunt Joan and Uncle Johnny taught me well that this is really only “So long.”  We will meet again and it will be beyond well!  I look forward to that day! I am grateful for my memories and knowing that I was loved by this man, like one of his own. 

John Thomas Nicholas 
Mar. 2, 1928 - Feb. 28, 2016
Mar. 2, 1928 - Feb. 28, 2016
March 2, 1928-February 28, 2016