Uncle Jim was a long-haul truck driver. For most of his life, he delivered bricks in Eastern Canada and the United States. Over the last several years of his career, he hauled specialty vehicles for the rich and famous (i.e. he transported Celine Dion's car from Florida to Vegas). It was this last job that caused him to crisscross the continent. And it was during this time that many of us in the family got to know Uncle Jim.
Our family is pretty spread out. In Canada, we literally span the country, from Halifax to Vancouver. And we have members who also live south of the 49th parallel, primarily in Texas. Over the years, the bonds of our family have had to become pretty elastic to accommodate the intervening miles. But the bonds have never stretched to the breaking point, and one big reason for that was Uncle Jim.
Uncle Jim was our original information highway. Family was vitally important to Jim, and as he crossed the continent, he'd always set time aside to drop in on his various nieces, nephews and cousins. Jim kept a trucker's timetable, which meant you wouldn't get much warning. You'd get a call, which generally went like this; "Hey, it's your Uncle Jim. I'm in town. Got time for a coffee? I'd like to see you."
Jim didn't care about how tidy your house was, or whether there was anything to feed him. He was a man who appreciated a hot cup of coffee and a good chat. You would bring him up to date with your life, and in return he'd share his treasure trove of family tidbits from across the country. Through Jim, you'd reacquaint yourself with your far-flung family: the cousins who were expecting, starting a new job, going to school or getting engaged. At the end of the visit, you were always very glad you took the time for a "coffee and a chat." And Jim was always gracious and grateful for the time you took out of your day to share with him.
Uncle Jim made the life of a long-haul trucker tolerable by using it to become the glue of our family. He tied us together in ways that we've only now begun to appreciate with his passing. To a person, each of us have our "Uncle Jim" stories which have become so precious to us. We even had "Uncle Jim" alerts. My sister, who lives in Edmonton (about a 12-hour drive from our home) would give me a quick call to let me know Uncle Jim was on his way and I could be expecting a call soon. This gave us enough time to grab some cookies to have with coffee.
In the past few years, as Uncle Jim battled with cancer, I was able to return the favor. Whenever my travels took me anywhere in the vicinity of their home, I took an extra day to spend some time with my aunt and uncle. I didn't think it was possible, but in the past three years (since his original diagnosis) family became even more precious to my Uncle Jim. Whether it was weddings, reunions or joint family vacations, he was never too ill to travel and spend time with family. Fortunately, my wife and I were able to host one of these reunions at our home a year and a half ago. It would become the last family reunion that Uncle Jim was able to make.
My last visit with Jim was a week before his passing. We didn't have coffee, but we did talk about family and share some laughs. The burly truck driver was barely recognizable in a physical sense, weighing less than half what he once did, but the spirit was still there. He struggled to sit up so he could shake my hand. He was so grateful for the time I took out of my day to spend those last few minutes with him. I can't express how much I'll miss those visits.
On Christmas day, we all struggled with our loss. But somehow it was fitting that Jim's far-flung nieces and nephews reached out online to share our grief. We posted little slivers of our sadness on Facebook -- and from those slivers, a picture of Uncle Jim began to emerge. It seemed fitting to me that the portrait of a man who spent so much time on the road came from people separated by miles but united by memories.
I'd like to end 2010 with my own Facebook memorial to my Uncle Jim:
Uncle Jim... there's a stop ahead where you can rest for the night. The food is good, the coffee hot, the traffic light and there are friends and family waiting for a visit. You've had a long haul with a tough load. It's okay to let someone else take the wheel. You've more than earned a rest. Sleep well, Uncle Jim, sleep well. Your job is done!