|Sketch drawn by Jason|
In many ways, the news was not completely unexpected. Uncle Jay's struggle with ALS has been intense for what feels like a very long time. It's been difficult to watch this remarkably strong and fiercely independent man be forced to rely upon a feeding tube and a CPAP to survive. We were all grateful to learn that he passed away peacefully in his home without pain, drifting off to sleep while surrounded by loved ones.
But still...I wasn't ready. When the phone call came, hot tears escaped from eyes because no, I didn't want to say goodbye yet. There were letters I wanted to write, cards I meant to send--each saying the same thing: Uncle Jay, we love you. You've meant so very much to our family over all these years, as an uncle, a friend, a mentor, a teacher, an employer, a boat repairman...the list goes on and on. Even though you may not be able to do much from the confines of your chair anymore, just your very presence enriches our lives. We love your smile, your sparkling eyes, the wave of your hand. Uncle Jay, we'll miss you.
I never sent that letter. But I'd like to think he knew.
Jay's wake and memorial service were beautiful. Since we all desperately wanted to be there, we hopped in my parents' eight passenger mini-van and made a beeline for New York, just like Jay and his family did coming the other direction last Christmas. Was it a little bit crazy? Definitely. Just like Uncle Jay would have liked it.
Originally, we'd thought that the casket would be closed for the viewing, but once Jay's body was laid, he looked so peaceful and happy that it remained open. It's funny, but oftentimes during a viewing you look upon the body and immediately sense that the person is gone. With Uncle Jay, seeing him rest peacefully and free from all the contraptions made him feel closer than he'd felt in a while.
Eli definitely sensed this. Even though we explained that Uncle Jay's spirit had already left his body, he kept insisting that this was the place where we came to say goodbye to Uncle Jay before he went to heaven. To our little man, Uncle Jay was simply sleeping. Eli was continually drawn to the prayer bench before the casket, where he would happily sit close by to keep Jay company.
During the memorial service, we gathered to share happy and quirky memories of John Wells. While there were certainly tears, there was an abundance of laughter as well. Katelyn played her guitar and sang the most precious song that she wrote about her dad for Father's Day. No matter what the drama, whether delivering Katelyn in the front seat of the suburban or simply losing the keys, Uncle Jay smiled and said, "It's all right." Someday I hope to record Katelyn singing and post the video here. It's priceless.
Eric VanderMaas, a long-time family friend, likewise shared some thoughts, beginning his remarks with a question: By raise of hands, how many of you have purchased an excavator on e-bay? Right there, Jay's one-of-a-kind uniqueness became clear. We all chuckled as Eric described Jay on the job site, where his idea of eye protection was squinting really hard, and ear protection meant raising a shoulder to the ear closest to the noise. Janet smiled at the irony that hospice, when carrying away her husband who always hated seatbelts, buckled him in two.
Alesia and Gregory also shared wonderful memories of their Dad. Alesia reminded us how the very best stories about Jay generally involve something mechanical and something unexpected. Even as a small child, I understood that whenever we were out on the water with Jay, breakdowns were just the norm and added to the adventure. He always got us home eventually. Alesia had us all on the edge of our seats, gasping in terror, as she recalled how Jay not only crashed through thin ice while snowmobiling on Lake George, but then proceeded to actually fish the machine out of the lake through unbelievable persistence, driving it home the next day against all odds. Great lessons on determination and hope to be learned there.
Gregory talked about how selfless his Dad always was, putting others before himself. He reminded us how Uncle Jay was always so busy baiting everybody else's hooks that he very rarely had a chance to fish himself. I've certainly been the recipient of that service! In fact, the very last hooks Jay baited were probably for my children two summers ago when Talia reeled in a whopper at Lake George.
As for myself, what I remember most about Uncle Jay is his positivity.
Jay had a remarkable gift for seeing potential. He was a builder of people and buildings alike. Instead of a traditional arrangement, his wife and kids had their flowers placed in a vase full of nuts and bolts. Next to his coffin hung his tools. All over Long Island and the city there are buildings that bear his mark, even though he has passed. But his greatest legacy, of course, lives on in the lives of his four children.
Alesia, Greg, Katelyn, Jeanette--you guys are remarkable. So talented, strong, and caring, even in the face of sadness. It's okay to miss your Dad. We all do. Anytime you want to laugh, cry, and swap stories, we're just a phone call away. Even though 58 years isn't near enough time, your Dad had more adventures than most can claim in multiple lifetimes.
And Janet, what to even say? Lots of people say I love you, but so very few have shown love the way you showed Jay, caring for him day in and day out, hour after hour. I can't find words to express the admiration I feel, but this I am sure of: your hubby knew you loved him. Loved him with the deepest love that only comes through years of partnership through the very best and very hardest of times. I sincerely pray during this time of change and transition, you are filled with renewed light, hope, and an extra measure of peace. I'm sure Jay would want that.
During the memorial service, Brooklyn, Talia, and Eli recited the following poem.
I'd like the memory of me
to be a happy one.
I'd like to leave an afterglow
of smiles when life is done.
I'd like to leave an echo
whispering softly down the ways,
Of happy times and laughing times
and bright and sunny days.
I'd like the tears of those who grieve,
to dry before the sun
of happy memories
that I leave when life is done.
Uncle Jay, your Afterglow shines on.