Thinking back to last year only a little over a year ago, Uncle Neil came over for Thanksgiving, all the way from Georgia, as he did every year since my parents bought their little cabin. He and Dad loved being in the wilderness, hearkening back to their childhood in the hollows of Pennsylvania. For years it had been a wonderful time to catch up and reflect on how thankful we were for the bond that we all shared.
Uncle Neil has always been my favorite uncle because even though he lived far away, he found ways to stay emotionally close, whether that was by calling on the phone, writing notes, sending cards, and sending gifts. He used to buy my sister and I porcelain dolls and now I have many beautiful dolls to pass down to my daughter. He used to ask on the phone, “When are you getting married?” I thought it was funny and I’d reply, “I don’t know, Uncle Neil! I’m only 8!” (or whatever young age I was when he asked me). There were a few weeks when I was young when we went on a vacation to visit him and the family and I remember seeing their fun Dalmatian dogs and enjoying the area. I took my first plane ride on the way down there!
He and his wife, my Aunt Pat, never missed any big milestone event in my life or any smaller one. They came up with my cousin, Melissa, to my wedding and participated. I really can’t thank them all enough for the beautiful memories and their support throughout my life. At every event, I have some token of their love such as a little gift or card that I have kept. Uncle Neil and Aunt Pat also made sure my kids weren’t forgotten and they have some amazing treasures from their great aunt and uncle that we’ll always keep.
Uncle Neil has had some issues with cancer off and on over the past few years. He displayed such strength, surviving cancer and beating it over and over. It seemed like a literal battle at times for him because he’d have to go through scary surgeries and procedures. He was doing well last year and I remember him hanging out with my daughter. He was one of the first people that I told about my pregnancy with my son. I remember leaving a little early from the cabin because I was nauseated and my husband had to go to work the next day. I remember thinking, “We’ll see Uncle Neil again soon,” and he planned on making a trip out in a few months and discussed it with us. I never considered how the world would change and how his condition could change. I never considered what loss during a pandemic would look like.
This time, the cancer came back and metastasized. It became quite aggressive. There were points where the care was somewhat delayed because of the virus precautions. He couldn’t have visitors during some of his hospital stays. They had to cut out part of his tongue so he had trouble talking. The constant Uncle Neil voice that I always heard in my head was now only in my head. He had a tracheotomy and a feeding tube put in because of the spread of the cancer, which impacted his ability to breathe and eat.
It was difficult being far away from him during his period of illness and wishing I could help the family more. We hatched a plan to go down and see him but of course, I had the baby and then things got worse for him. When we finally did plan everything and got ready to go, we had to cancel since the family didn’t want him to be exposed to anything because his immune system was weak. He was also always thinking of others and said he didn’t want us to come down since I’d also have to bring the babies and he felt the area was a hotbed for the virus. He made it clear that the last thing he would ever want is to put the babies at risk. I can respect that, absolutely, and I appreciate them thinking of us. It has been hard getting over a real sense of grief, mourning the fact that I won’t see him again and the “good-byes” I have said were through letters and trying to send little things my daughter had finger painted.
More than my own feelings of sadness, I reflect on his experience and all that he must be going through. I pray for his family and how awful things must feel. They live in terror of him contracting the virus and feeling worse. That makes it difficult for them to socialize and try to offload some of their emotions or go and do something to take their mind off of things. He has had to endure pain alone at times, receiving care in medical facilities that have various precautions in place. He can’t be with his best friend or brother (my Dad) because they live far up north. His children and wife remain largely isolated, trying to protect him without being able to attend to their own needs because they want to protect him from the virus.
My husband’s grandfather had also died earlier in the year and we couldn’t go to the funeral or see him either because of the virus restrictions. I watched an online stream of his funeral and prayed on my own. I had to let my emotions go like a little boat on the water, trying to grieve silently and alone for the most part, though I would have liked to have been with family and have someone to understand my feelings. As the end comes closer for Uncle Neil, I feel that my husband’s Pappaw’s passing foreshadowed how things will be with Uncle Neil, a grieving experience that I never thought I’d have to go through. I never thought there’d be a time when it wouldn’t be ok to try and travel and be with family, to go to funerals and be at someone’s bedside if that was what they wanted. There’s an extra layer of risk and concern about travel and worrying about bringing the virus from our “purple zone” somehow to the family if too many people make the trip.
Even though I can’t be there or say and do everything I would like to do in order to say a proper good-bye, I like to think that Uncle Neil already knows how I feel. I can hear his voice in my head and feel a nice, warm hug. I can see him combing his silly mustache that he always liked to comb or brushing his hair in its little comb-over. In my mind’s eye, he’s as real as ever, laughing and able to tell me how he feels and how he has valued getting to be my favorite, beloved Uncle Neil. Right now, that’s all I have to hold on to.
In Loving Memory of Neil Hammaker, March 28, 1952-November 25, 2020