When I was a young man, I used to get pretty annoyed when my mom told us we had to be dropped off at CCD (Catholic Catechism classes) at our local Catholic Church. Turns out, my mom was trying to give me a little bit of faith, but all I could think of was no after school TV, no playing with my friends and no escape from nuns, lots of nuns. I was going to CCD to prep for my Confirmation. Here is what I knew about confirmation:
1. It was some kind of sacrament, like Baptism and (1st) Communion and Marriage and Death; and
2. you had to pick another name. I already had 3 names, why did I have to pick a 4th name?! The name was supposed to be someone you admired, someone you looked up to. Someone you wanted to honor by picking their name.
I had two uncles on my Mom’s side and we weren’t talking to my dad’s side yet, at that time, if I recall? My uncles were Michael (or Mike) and Peter. I would later name my first child after one of my childhood heroes, Uncle Mike; but when it came time to choose an adolescent hero, I chose Uncle Peter. Of course, I paid little to no attention to what the nuns were trying to teach me in CCD, so I had no idea of the Catholic nor the Christian significance of becoming John Steven Peter Johnson. I just knew my uncle was really awesome.
Uncle Pete was married to my mom’s sister, Aunt Jo, and together they were the coolest people I knew. They lived in an apartment in very cool New York and we lived in either welfare housing or a ramshackle section 8 house or with my grandparents in very, hot and not quite so cool, to my naive self, Titusville, Florida. (I literally have no idea which house we were in at that time?) Uncle Pete was everything I wasn’t. He was confident, good-looking, he seemed to drip of money and affluence. When we still lived in New York, he drove the coolest Corvette Stingray. I was the poor white trash kid, who made Steve Urkel seemed like James Bond. I literally did not have two nickels to rub together to buy pencils or paper at the school store.
Uncle Peter, on the other hand, exuded a cocky charisma and swagger. His family lived in a big house and owned their own business. He was tough, he was a carpenter, a skilled craftsman that worked with his hands. He was funny and a risk taker, he got into a fight with some guy at the beach one time and beat the guy up. All I knew how to do was get my dorky self beat up at the bus stop. Right or wrong, I was a teenager and my mixed feelings aside, he could do things I only dreamed of doing. He was wild and I was meek, he was strong and I was weak. He took us to Disney for the first time! All of us. My grandparents, my triplet sisters, my mom, my other Aunt and me. This was not the park hopper days, it was in the pay by the ride, e-ticket days! He was the late 1970s and early 1980’s version of a baller. He taught me to not be afraid of the special effects in the Haunted Mansion because they were just illusions and taught me how to think about how they did it versus how scary it was for me.
Uncle Pete was always doing stuff like this in our very limited time together. He went out of his way to try and make me feel special when I was with him. He knew the closest thing I had to a Dad in my life was my Pepop, who was and is a great man and provider, but not someone who did what a teenager would call cool things in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Pepop and I cooked Sunday dinner together and watched Abbott and Costello and Lawrence Welk, and I listened to his stories from the war and New York family drama back in the day, you get the idea… So Uncle Pete tried to give me the “cool factor” and I wanted to name myself after him. I mean the man could play Ms. Pacman like a boss! He once gave me a box full of game tokens, that might as well have been the keys to a Mazerati to my young self in the days of the Titus Bowl arcade, when it took 5 of those hard-won nickels to play even a few minutes of one video game.
So I added his name to mine and I wore it proudly. I got beat up with just a little more pride. I played Ms. Pacman with just a tad more confidence before begging and scrounging for my next quarter. I sat around and waited for the next time my cool uncle would come down to Florida to visit. Then the coolest thing happened, we started talking to my dad’s side of the family and before I knew it my other Uncle, on my Dad’s side, was sending us plane tickets! I was riding on a plane every summer to see them and as an added bonus, they let me see my mom’s side of the family too- and my Uncle Mike and my Aunt’s Elaine and Aunt Jo and, of course, my cool Uncle Pete.
So for several very formative summers, between the Uncles and Aunts on both sides, I was whisked away to another world. The world of Long Island, New York and yes, the world of Manhattan, New York. Who was in Manhattan, but Aunt Jo and Uncle Pete? They lived in a high rise apartment and had to drive around to find a parking space on the street. There were semi-famous people who lived in their building. There was a doorman and you had to go to New Jersey to buy groceries (more groceries than I had ever seen in my life) and then bring them up in the elevator. They bought fruit at a fruit stand around the corner and rode the subway. There was literally a dude that talked to himself on the corner, just like you see in the movies. Uncle Pete worked on TV! Which means he worked on the thing I loved most in the world at that time, and granted it was a soap opera, but that only slightly dimmed the cool factor. Uncle Pete would take me to work with him and I would see beautiful soap opera stars and sit in control rooms and he would drive me all over the city. In the early years, he worked on Broadway and, due to those connections, I got to see a Broadway show from up in the spotlight booth. Think of it, you are a teenage boy and you get to go backstage of 42nd Street with gorgeous dancers all around you and then you get to climb scaffolds and ladders through a trap door in the ceiling of the theater into a spotlight booth. You get to see backstage of Cats, all the gadgetry all the stage equipment. You get to sit on set all day and watch a TV show being filmed. Ok, that part got a little old after awhile, but how cool was it to see all the behind the scenes stuff for me?
Uncle Pete took me from food stamps and government cheese to restaurants and my first beers. He introduced me to a good cup of coffee. He taught me about good food, restaurants, little Italy, Chinatown and this thing called tipping- where you not only pay the people for the food but you give them extra money! He and Aunt Jo bought me my first computer. He taught me how to drive a boat. They took me out and got me a cool haircut and bought me cool clothes. The kid with the crooked Dumb and Dumber bowl cut, sliced with my Grandma’s seamstress scissors and a piece of scotch tape across the brow to guide her hand arrived at high school one year with spiked gelled hair! He would ride down to all the famous sites and show me around. He even showed me some of the darker sides of town. A couple of times he teased me and told me to get in the back of the van as he drove up on prostitutes, threatening to hire one for me. He thought this was hilarious because I was so painfully shy and I thought it was a game. Later, I figured out it wasn’t really a game or about me at all. It wasn’t even really about prostitutes, I think it was about something else-his hidden demon-drugs and alcohol.
Amidst the New Jersey seltzer water and fruit stand fruit, and real beer in their apartment fridge there was Odoul’s non-alcoholic beer. At the time, I didn’t know why he had beer in there that didn’t taste as good as real beer? I later learned that he was at the beginning of a fight he would lose with alcohol and drug addiction. I later learned that much of the confidence and swagger I saw was a mask for brokenness and insecurity. I discovered, as an adult, that the man I named myself after, and admired, despite his good, good heart, would end up hurting the ones he loved the most, over and over again. I watched all this from afar. I got a couple of close glimpses of this one Christmas season, when my other Uncle, Mike, killed himself and I went to visit my Aunt Jo, only to find Uncle Pete mostly absent. I also saw that when my dad died, he was already pretty much gone from my Aunt and Cousin’s lives. The man I knew, was gone, oh so many years ago. Lost. Broken.
Again, I wasn’t there, so I don’t know first hand all the reasons why. I was so involved in my own issues and growth and family, I didn’t stay close and I may have missed an opportunity to make a difference, I’ll never know….. Many times there are hurts that run so deep and genetics that are so strong, it is like a storm surge that cannot be overcome. To hear my Aunt tell it, he never truly admitted he had a problem that he couldn’t overcome on his own. The swagger and ego and machismo I so admired, was not only a mask but a barrier to getting well. An obstacle between him and true salvation. An alienation, a separation, and a betrayal that his family could not withstand and remain whole. In the end, all the affluence of his youth was gone, all the good looks. In the end, he was not even a shadow of his former self. No longer a father, unable to be a grandfather, unable to be a brother or a son or an uncle. In the end, he was separated.
I mourned for my Uncle Peter this morning, a couple of days after his passing; a quick and quiet cry in the shower. I mourned for his children. I mourn for the grandchildren that will never get to meet the Peter I knew. I mourn for all the Peters and all the Peters’ children and grandchildren. I mourn for those who choose to remain separated from God, from their families, from admitting that they need others to survive and to thrive. I prayed for all of these people this morning during and after my cry.
I still have that 4th name-forever. I still have the memories. Several years ago, I gave up what I was holding onto, I gave up trying to do it all myself, and now I have God. So now I’ll carry the name with me into battle. I now have the knowledge that Peter was someone else’s name. It was the name of the rock that Jesus built a church on. I also have the knowledge that there are broken people like me and Uncle Peter out there- everywhere-often right under our noses, that could really benefit from a community. People, who I might have a chance to touch with kindness and grace in some way shape or form? People who don’t know life is Better Together because they’ve never been shown it, or they think they have seen it, but they have it all twisted and wrong somehow. People who need us. People who need each other and people who need God.
The story of the prodigal son has been on my mind this week. The story of my Uncle is a sad reminder that sometimes the father scans the horizon and never sees his son return. The fatted calf grows fatter. The more dutiful brother inherits the remainder of the fortune and never gets to see the father embrace the wayward son. The only solace I can find in this whole mess, is that I agree with what Jeff Foxworthy said about it in an interview I watched recently. He said that the story is not really about either of the brothers, it is about the father who sees the wayward son in the distance. Jeff reminds us in that interview with Andy Stanley, that the father can only see the son coming in the distance because he never stopped looking for the son to come home. He never stopped scanning the horizon and he never gave up on the son. I’m glad he never stopped looking for me and I am so glad he is still looking for anyone who wants to run home to him.