I sat in a church today, squeezed into a pew with one too many people, and said goodbye to one of the first men I ever loved. Looking around it was easy to see that I wasn’t the only one. Every seat on every pew was filled and chairs were set up in every available 2’x 2′ spot, and still people stood at the back, in the doorway, and just outside it.
The room grew warm with body heat and loving memories as the preacher spoke about what an open, welcoming, loving, appreciative, faithful, loyal servant of God and man he was. Then the preacher asked the mourners if they would like to say anything. A few spoke, most did not. For a split second I wondered why that was. Then I realized, like me, they may be unable to speak without bursting into tears. Thinking about, talking about what we had and what we’d lost would be too much in front of this crowd of family, friends and complete strangers.
My Uncle Sandy was many things to many people:
He was a loving and faithful husband to my Aunt Ann for over fifty-eight of his seventy-eight years. They modeled for me what marriage should look like. In fact, I said to someone the other day that I rarely remember having a conversation about one that didn’t involve the other. It was always “Ann & Sandy”, as if they were one unit. And they were. They were always together –– by choice. It was easy to see their affection for each other all the days of their marriage.
He was “the best hugger in the church” at Clarksbury United Methodist Church. When I heard that truth from one of his fellow parishioners, I thought back on all of the hugs he’d given me and my cousins, welcoming us to every family get-together with a big smile and a joke. Darryl and I have been married for almost thirty-five years and together for thirty-nine, but every time we walked into the family room of my grandma’s house, Uncle Sandy would say, “This isn’t the same guy who was with you the last time I saw you.” Then we would laugh and he would give me a warm hug. His teasing made me feel seen and loved.
He was a faithful and dependable friend. All of my life and way before I was here on Earth, Uncle Sandy and Aunt Ann shared a close friendship with Maurice and Grace Anderson that I envied. I didn’t really appreciate how impressive it was to maintain a life-long friendship like that until I grew older and saw how life can make things fall apart. So many of our friends have been pulled (and a few pushed) out of our lives by divorce, relocation, busy lives, and a failure to nurture the bonds. Though we have good friends who I know I could call right now who would be on my doorstep as soon as time and the law allowed, we don’t have the luxury of friends so near and dear as Maurice and Grace were to Ann and Sandy. They traveled together, raised their children as friends, and were there for each other through thick and thin, showing me what friendship should look like.
Like my Grandma Cartner, who I clearly adored, I never heard my Uncle Sandy say a harsh word about anyone. He praised the good he saw in everyone. He complimented a good cook, told all of us how great we looked, and smiled on every one of his son, Marty’s, accomplishments. He was, perhaps, the most glass-half-full person I’ve ever known. I envied that, too. My glass has been nearly empty for most of my life since I suffer from anxiety and depression, but Uncle Sandy could always make me feel better with his smile, hugs, and kind words.
The last time I had seen Uncle Sandy was at a family get-together in the church Fellowship Hall just before Christmas. Over the past several years he had suffered several brain bleeds and his memory had been affected. When I walked up to him, he said, “You’re not a Cartner are you?” My heart sank a little. I thought he didn’t know who I was. I smiled and said, “What would make you say that, Uncle Sandy?” He said, “Because you have too much sense to be a Cartner.” I laughed, realizing he was teasing me once again. I knew he didn’t really think ill of Cartners. He loved the best (and worst) of us. As I looked around the packed church today I saw nearly every living remnant of my family. Though Sandy was only ours by marriage, not blood, every one of my aunts, uncles, and cousins from several generations were there.
Sandy was, simply, one of the best, most loving men I have had the pleasure of knowing and I will miss him dearly. I know I am not alone. More than anyone I’ve lost, I will look back on Uncle Sandy and have only good memories. I will keep those smiles and hugs and teasing words close to my heart until I am able to see him again someday. And I will honor his memory by trying to be a warmer, nicer, more accepting and forgiving person like he was.