We started exchanging Christmas cards thirty years ago.
You came and spent our first Christmas 'without Dad' with us. You filled a gaping hole in our hearts, our supper table and our Christmas memories that year.
You have a quiet way of knowing. You look at each one of us and seem to hear so very much more than we are saying. You speak everyone's language because you listen with your heart.
You were and still are a favorite uncle to all. We filled pages upon pages (within our family's book of stories and memories), with all the ways you impacted all of our lives.
You quietly went about your life thousands of miles away from the place you call 'home', yet you remained connected and a great part of our family despite the miles and time that distanced you from us.
Every time you came home, there was great rejoicing among all.
Your nieces and nephews said perhaps it was because you came home at Christmas time, bearing gifts for all (and there were a lot of us). You were our family's very own personal Santa Claus.
You gave and you gave and you gave.
We gave you our hearts, our trust and our loyalty in return.
You were an icon within our family. Similar to Santa Claus, only better. Because you were real. You weren't just a fictional character who appeared only once a year. You came back home at times of celebration, for reunions, for good times and bad. Santa is a fickle, fair-weather friend. You showed up for 'life'.
Yes, it was the year after you 'showed up' for our family when I sent you that first Christmas card.
You are such a gentleman. Full of honor, respect, generosity and impeccable manners. You replied to that first letter I sent to you and we became Christmas-time pen pals.
Your letters were always personal. You always asked about my family. You always made some comment about some little quality about 'me' you had noticed. You put pen to paper and reading your words was always a gift.
You see what goes on beneath the surface of a person. And you speak to that quality. I truly believe your perception brings out the best in people. I know I feel a little more special than I really am when I read your words.
I am so very grateful that life, time and circumstances gave me the opportunity to know you a little more than I knew you, beyond our annual Christmas card exchange.
I tentatively invited myself into your world when I approached you with the idea of collecting memories of Dad's family. You were on board before the ship even arrived. You not only encouraged me, you said you thought it would be a great idea before you read my proposal.
And so our voyage began.
Six years ago, Mom and I went out to spend several days with you after Christmas. It was the beginning of 'our story'. Not just our family's memoirs. It was the beginning of the story of getting to know 'the man behind the gifts, kind words and annual Christmas letters'.
When I first came up with the idea to collect stories for Dad's family, it was because I had a quest to know more and to hear everything I possibly could, about my own dad.
Wrapped up in the incredible gift of hearing story after story about Dad, was the gift of knowing his brothers.
You were my go-to-brother, when I had a question.
You must have cringed when you opened up email after email. Question after question. Clarification on the answers you provided.
We wrote a lot. We talked many times. You came to my home and allowed me to do you the favor of being your 'host'.
In all the times we spoke, you rarely spoke of yourself. You would talk of your friends. And boy, do you have friends! You have kept in touch with people you have worked with and come to know. You never broke the connection. Your friendships go back decades upon decades.
Then I thought of our first Christmas card exchange. Of course! You would keep in touch with anyone who took the time to keep in touch with you. Where there is a reciprocal exchange of words (whether it is once a year or every week), the seed of friendship is watered and nurtured so it has the opportunity to bloom whenever the sun may have the chance to shine down upon it.
You, the horticulturist of our family, planted many seeds along your way.
You aren't able to 'tend your garden' this year. You, for the first time since I have known you, are tending to yourself.
It must have been an excruciating year for you. Yet you kept doing what you had done, all the years which preceded this one and just kept moving forward.
Still thinking of others. Still doing for others.
Then ... you broke.
We all have our limits. You reached yours this year.
You are still my hero. I wrote your Christmas card and mailed you a small piece of my heart. You may or may not remember it this year. You have a lot of other things on your mind.
I peek into my mailbox each day, wishing I could see your handwriting on an envelope. I know it won't be there. But I feel it in my heart. You would be showing up in my mailbox if you could be.
I brought out your card and letter from last year and reread them this morning.
The small things. Realizing you spelled my Youngest Son's name with a "C" instead of a "K" and correcting it (with a notation in the margin). You took note of these small nuances of life.
Your letter was anything but a form letter. It was to me. And to me only.
You spoke of our most recent visit and "how much ground we covered" (that was your very kind way of referring to the fact I had talked your ear off) when we went out for supper when you were last down. You made a gentle reference to the great restaurant I 'found' for us (I took the wrong turn and we ended up on a very, very long detour to what should have been a very short trip).
"You remember everything," you have told me time and time again. Oh, my dear uncle, it is you who has set the bar. It is you (who has an eye for noticing the subtleties within people, within life and within the actions of those you encounter), who remembers so much.
You speak to the 'little things'.
Even now. Even when I spoke to you a few days ago, you thought to ask about my 'young guy' and you asked about my middle son's farm. Even now.
You have so much to contend with at the moment, yet you are still seeing and hearing far beyond the surface of what a person says. You spoke to my cousin about a reaction you saw in her, when she didn't say a word. Even now.
I have placed last year's card up in my tree in a place of high honor. It is exactly the place where I hold you within my life.
I am sending you my hope and wishing it could make a difference. You have truly made a deep and lasting impact upon me, our family, your friends and the world around you.
You have planted many seeds along the way. It is time for you to bask in the autumn sun and reap the rewards of a garden well tended.
Be well, my dearest uncle. Maybe next year I will find your handwriting in my mailbox. I am full of hope. Always have been. Always will be.