My dad’s brother is my Uncle Chuck. He’s a teacher by trade and an Christian Brother by calling. He took a vow of poverty and lives with Christ in his heart. He devoted his life to teaching young men the ways of the Lord by teaching in several all men’s high schools during his multiple postings over maybe 60-70 years of ministry.
There are two types of memories of Brother McKenna, as most people called him, from over the years. There are the men who attended St. Laurence HS post 1975ish who adored the man who would take them to St. Pius to serve in the soup kitchen and volunteer in the donation center. They found him to be smart and funny and kind. Then there were the men who were terrified of the Dean of Discipline who apparently showed little mercy to those requiring a visit to his office. They did not get to see the soft side the rest of us have always known and loved.
I could never reconcile those two completely different men with the gentle Uncle I had always known. When I was young, he would ride his bike from the Brothers’ House at St. Laurence to visit his mother at the nursing home 7 miles away. He did this several times a week without complaint. Then on Sundays he would bring her to our house for dinner. He would take the Orange Line into the city to walk around and people watch while eating the peanut butter sandwiches he had packed in a brown paper bag. He would never make his bed except on Christmas Eve when my whole family would gather with the Brothers for their annual celebration. He would never forget a birthday—always sending a card in the mail. Thinking he was a harsh disciplinarian was so out of character for him—at least to my young self.
When his memory started to fail, it was slowly at first. Forgetting where he parked the car at the Orange Line parking lot was a regular occurrence. Then he started falling with his balance leaving him next. It was then that his beloved Brothers said they couldn’t care for him in the home they all had shared for so long.
He lived in exactly 2 places that I can ever remember—and always with the same Brothers. So when he had to be moved into a long term care facility for retired religious ordered persons, it was a big shock to his system. He wanted to go home. He didn’t like the food. He didn’t want to be there. And then Covid hit and he could no longer have visitors. It took a toll on him. He quickly declined and his memory was failing more and more each day. He was moved several more times and has since landed in a facility very close to my work.
So now On Wednesday or Thursday afternoons I go to the chiropractor then visit with Uncle Chuck. Occasionally I will stop in and eat my lunch with him. He doesn’t remember who I am, but he is starting to associate me with the treats I pull from of my purse. I bring his favorite treats like chocolate chip cookies, plain cheeseburgers and apple juice, or vanilla soft serve. It brightens his day and I love to see him smile. I carry most of the conversation as he’s not much for talking these days. I will tell him of my kids and show him pictures of my nieces, nephews and cousins. I remind him that I am Dan and Deb’s daughter. I ask about the activities at the facility and he always tells me he doesn’t like to go to them. We take a walk if I have time and then we part ways until the next week.
Today they were holding an Ash Wednesday service. I used my lunch break to visit and go to the service with him. I woke him when the gospel was being read and we were saying prayers. He held my hand and talked to me about his brothers. He was in good spirits and was remembering quite a bit from long ago. He asked me about the cookies I always bring and I told him I left them in his room. When leaving, I told him I would see him next week and asked if he wanted anything special. He quietly told me soft serve as if saying it too loudly would make his wish not come true. So next week I will be bringing McDonald’s soft serve. Hopefully it’ll be nice enough for a walk outside. I’m so glad I’m getting this time with him I otherwise would not have had. It’s truly been a blessing.