Uncle Jim

My Uncle Jim passed away last week at the age of 83. He grew up the middle son of three, sandwiched between my Uncle Bob the eldest, and my own father Andrew, the youngest. There had been a fourth brother, Donald, after whom I am named who died before the age of ten.

Jim Bull was the fun-loving middle child of the three boys, which is actually a serious and important role in any family. Being a middle child myself, I understand how a well-timed silly comment can diffuse the family tension around the dinner table, while other family members dig in their heels, hold grudges, or mentally check out. We become the bridge-builders between parents, parents and children, and between brothers and sisters. Uncle Jim was willing to listen, willing to teach, and willing to play the jokester to keep people talking.

It comes not from a desire as much as a need -- the oldest and youngest are secure in their roles, but when you’re in the middle you feel most secure when all others are secure. When I saw my Uncle Jim in action, talking with my grandparents and brothers, I recognized myself in him.

He was an accomplished and award-winning teacher, both at the high school and university levels, a calling I now hear as well and which I hope to make one of my next vocations.

He was my father’s best friend growing up. When my mother first dated my father, she knew him as “Jim Bull’s younger brother,” since all the young women throughout the small town of Fort William, Canada knew Jim. My mother has a vivid memory of him showing up to a high school football game with his then girlfriend, dressed in straw hats, raccoon coats and waving pennants as if it were the 1920’s.

He made chores fun -- when we visited his family at their cabin on Lake Shebandowan, he’d gather the boys from both families and we’d go out on a hike. The miles were filled with jokes and laughter and we ended up carrying back wood for the stove and fireplace, not even realizing we were doing chores. I try to use his technique now as I raise my daughter Lily.

I felt special because as an uncle he wanted to be in our lives and wanted us to know him as our father’s brother. He anointed himself “Uncle Adonis,” and insisted we call him that, which was both absurd and hilarious, but also a name only we nieces and nephews could use, and each year we’d get a new Uncle Adonis photograph for the refrigerator.

He was also my father’s best friend growing up, and he could soften my father’s more serious personality. My father was happiest and had the most fun when some other man around him gave him permission to relax and have fun -- and that was often Uncle Jim. One long summer James Bull and his family left Canada and came to San Francisco to spend three months with us, and that summer was a highlight of my childhood, with two big families under one roof. All summer long it was day trips, Giants games, camp outs, and Disneyland.

No one gets out of life unscathed, and the Bull boys had their share of problems. Youngest Donald passed away in childhood. My own father died twenty years ago from pancreatic cancer, meaning my Uncle Jim outlived two younger siblings. Jim was in a car accident in 1989, which almost killed him, and the resulting brain bleed took away some cognitive function and robbed him of much of his vitality for the last 25 years of his life.

My cousin Jeff helped take care of his Dad in the final years of his life, while he was also raising his three own boys...just as I remember my Dad and my Uncle Jim taking care of my grandparents as they aged.

Now the life cycle is repeating again with me. I am raising a daughter and supporting a family while also working with my brother and sister as we help our own mother decline with dignity and grace. While we do her taxes, plan her long-term care, and argue with her about her health, Lily looks forward to time with her cousins, just like I did with my Uncle’s family. And like I once was, she is vaguely aware of her grandmother’s decline and the work her children are doing, a job she will inherit when she takes care of me one day.

The business of life invades our busy schedules while we make all our other plans, but it is the business of growing, living and dying that makes us human. When I wake up in the morning I have so much I must accomplish for three generations, yet now is the age that I feel truly alive and aware of life’s continuum. I see the beginning, middle, and end, all at once. I also feel alive because I know that it’s passing. Years pass, roles pass, torches pass, mantles pass, and people step into their new roles and life goes on.