UNCLE HENRY DIED at 12:15 p.m. Eastern Time yesterday. He was my mom’s little brother.
He was diagnosed this winter with glioblastoma, a fast-growing brain tumor that surgeons tried to remove a few weeks ago. Since then, an MRI showed that it spread to the other side of the brain.
Mom sang to him last night.
When Henry was born, Mom was a kid in school. Someone told her that she had a little brother at home.
“No I don’t,” she said.
“Yes you do.”
Mom hurried home, walking fast through the woods to their house in the West Virginia holler, beside the creek.
My granny introduced Mom to Henry. Granny said, “He’s going to be your little boy to take care of. I’ll show you how to take care of him. But you’re going to be the one to look out for him.”
By that time, Granny had three sons and two daughters, with another daughter yet to come. She also had a farmhouse to run, with a garden, critters, beehives, and a coalminer husband. So, I’m guessing Granny meant what she said. She needed Mom’s help.
That built a special bond between the two kids. In the adult years, Mom has had arguments and butting-head run-ins with all of her brothers and sisters – except Henry. She says she can’t remember a single exchange of heated words between them. Which is saying something for a Williams. All I can say about that is, if you’re going to mess with a Williams, do it from a distance. Or wear earplugs.
Last night, Henry lay heavily sedated and unresponsive. But hopefully listening.
His oldest daughter, Debbie, sat with him. She was the only one there when Mom called, to say goodbye to her little brother.
Mom told Henry she loves him.
She told him about the first time she met him and about their mom placing him in her care. She told him she was glad that he was her little brother and one of her best friends.
Then she told him it’s okay to go. “When the angel comes to get you, go ahead and go. Mom and Dad and Charles and Duane are waiting for you.”
Then she sang. Right over that speaker phone.
No, never alone,
No, never alone,
He promised never to leave me,
Never to leave me alone.
“Lord, lift me up and let me stand,
By faith, on Heaven’s tableland,
A higher plane than I have found;
Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.”
“I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop
In that bright land where we’ll never grow old
And someday yonder, we’ll never more wander
But walk on streets that are purest gold.”
That’s how Mom said goodbye.
I said my goodbyes a few weeks earlier.
My last letter to Uncle Henry
February 21, 2015
HELLO YOU OLD COALMINER.
Your big sis – my mom – called me a few days ago.
“Write this down,” she said.
Slowly, she spelled the word.
She said that’s what the biopsy shows you have.
“Hang on,” I told her. “I’ll look it up on the internet.”
Neither of us knew what it meant.
What we knew is that you had a fast-growing tumor on your brain and that the surgeon in Morgantown took out as much as he could.
The search engine took me to the website of the American Brain Tumor Association.
I read out loud so Mom could hear. I skipped over some of the more technical doctor-talk.
“Glioblastomas are tumors….usually highly malignant (cancerous) because the cells reproduce quickly and they are supported by a large network of blood vessels.”
“Mom,” I said. “I’m going to jump down to the prognosis because I know that’s what you want to know. I want to know, too.”
“For adults with more aggressive glioblastoma, treated with concurrent temozolamide and radiation therapy, median survival is about 14.6 months.”
I was choking on my words by then.
I was afraid Mom would think I was done reading, when I was trying my hardest to get the words out.
“Almost 10% of patients with glioblastoma may live five years or longer.”
I didn’t say it. I thought it. “That means 90% don’t.”
“Mom,” I said. “When the snow clears enough to travel, you’ll want to go see him.”
I know she saw you a few weeks ago, after your surgery. I figure she’ll be seeing you again soon.
Me, I’m a thousand miles away.
But what’s a thousand miles to a writer. Words can go anywhere, anytime.
The thing is that at times like this, I’m not sure how much help you can get from words. It’s better to have people. I don’t know of any word that conveys the power of even a single teardrop that your little sister, Sue, cried when she happened to come upon you in Walmart, when your wife Betty brought you there to get some medicine.
Henry, you’re close enough to me in years that I never felt especially comfortable calling you Uncle. You felt more like a big brother.
In our younger years when we lived closer to each other, you even acted like a big brother.
Sometimes a good big brother. You let me drive your car on those West Virginia dirt roads, and assured me that I could get the car safely across that narrow wooden bridge that didn’t have guardrails.
Sometimes a jerk of a big brother. My first memory of you is standing alongside the road in front of the home place. I was in grade school, one of the little numbers closer to kindergarten than sixth grade. You were chewing tobacco. You asked me if I’d like a chew.
I don’t remember what I thought of that first brown wave of flavor in my mouth. My memory rushes to the sensation that followed, after you said, “Swallow the juice. It’ll kill pinworms.”
Far as I know, I didn’t have pinworms. But if I did, they surely died that day.
Henry, if you feel you need my forgiveness before you leave the planet, heck with that. I’m hanging onto this memory. It’s one of my favorites.
Many years later, you gave me another one of my favorite memories. It started with another call from Mom. She said, “Steve, you need to call Henry. He’s got a story you need to hear.”
That was the story you kept from almost everyone for 30 years. It was the story of the last moments of your dad, my Pap-pap, who was dying of prostate cancer. You told me that you and Granny brought him home from the hospital on a Thursday. It was a good day for him. Friday, too.
Saturday as well, until 11 o’clock at night when the convulsions began. Sunday was hard, with Pap-pap in pain, and saying, “I hear angels singing.”
You said that by daybreak on Monday morning it was clear that Pap-pap was about to leave. You began to read the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside still waters. He restoreth my soul.”
You said that something so amazing happened next that you couldn’t tell people about it because you thought they would think you were crazy.
Pap-pap drew his last breath. And you said you felt something. A presence, filling the room.
I wrote down your words so I would never forget them.
“I saw a vapor of his body asleep; it looked like a vapor, a mist. It just slowly lifted up out of him.”
You said it rose above his body, hovering in the air for several moments. Then gone.
I asked if you were afraid.
“It never scared me the least bit. It sure felt good to me. I mean, I wasn’t happy, but I knew that everything was all right.”
Henry, I’m a man of faith.
- I believe the Bible songwriter: “He restoreth my soul.”
- I believe the West Virginia coalminer: “I knew that everything was all right.”
I love you, Henry. Always will. Death can’t do a thing about it.
My life is richer for having traveled all these years with you in my herd.
And, I don’t have pinworms.
An afterthought, after the letter.
Henry, if messages like this get through to you, thanks for being my uncle and my friend. Thanks for riding with me and your sisters to Uncle Wade’s funeral in Colorado. Tell my family up there that I miss them. It might be awkward, but give my dad a hug and a kiss on his cheek. Tell him it’s from The Boy. I’ll see you later.