James “Jim” Robert Howard July 5, 1958-April 4, 2023

I’m sitting staring into a non existent wall, my eyes dissolve within the nothingness of what I can focus on. Looks like the storm has settled for a moment giving me a chance to catch my breath. It’s either coming or going, in which direction I am never certain. I guess it’s crazy to think it could be this easy.

From the moment I hit the bottom of the stairwell that day headed to the gym but not yet out the door, I heard the ping of a text that was going to change my whole life and shake up my entire world, forever. I casually read the message, but find myself grasping at straws to understand the black letters that formed sentences I couldn’t digest. My head swirled until I collapsed onto the floor in the hallway where I sobbed– begging God for what I somehow knew He wasn’t going to do. Everything was a blur. Three days of weeping and wailing and utter disbelief. Laying down like spilled soup on the bottom of my bathroom floor, wiping my tears with my discarded clothes.

After three days I dried my tears and started running, running anywhere as far and fast as I could. I was in places and spaces, there physically but so unreachable– buried so deeply into the loss that nobody could adequately grasp. I can’t believe this is real, really happening. Your loss evades me–I can never wrap my head around this finality. I will never accept that your rugged farmer hands, wispy faded, fair hair, pale blue eyes, unmistakable voice and laugh– matched with only your sense of humor and seriousness– are tucked into the grass now. I will not accept that, because I can’t deal with that. I watched as they placed you into a small pocket of dirt, and I couldn’t stop thinking the culmination of all of this, your life and everything we have ever had–is dust in this urn, in this dirt. I watch, thinking this is the man I swam with every summer, my Uncle, the one that I grew up with my whole life. My Uncle Jim, my forever and unflinching advocate, and as an adult a best friend. There is something about an Uncle. Uncles are precious gifts carefully selected by God. The good ones are ever present and always love you, doing their best to show you through spending quality time with you, in family. I have to say I was blessed with one of the good ones.

I don’t remember much of my youth, or entire life for that matter, without my uncle. His careful guidance with boat safety as we cruised around on his boat, always making sure we had those ugly, bright orange, boxy life vests on. Sweet young summer nights cruising slowly in town sitting on the wheel well of his pick up truck, the sticky sweet Midwest air kissing my checks and swishing my hair. We had nothing but we had everything we ever needed with each other. We found places to vacation, up and down the Midwest, anywhere you could pitch a tent, fish the water, boat or occasionally grab a cabin and enjoy family time. I will never forget our trips to Paul Bunyan. We celebrated family in simple ways, usually sitting around a table with a cup of coffee and a slice or two of pie, reminiscing and laughing–always quality time. We always had big spreads, large family thanksgivings and always Pecatonica Memorial Parade followed by visiting our family at the cemetery and a good big meal at Cimino’s. For most of our years we went to the Winnebago County Fair, the Demo Derby… We had so many pool parties, cook-outs, birthdays, get together’s, tagging him in every silly Far Side cartoon, random calls whenever I thought of him just to annoy him like only a Niece could and of course making him laugh (which was when I really accomplished something that day). I could deal with not getting to see you again, but to know I will never get to talk to you again is the worst. I laughed really hard the other day when I saw something so funny– I stopped abruptly mid laugh when I realized I couldn’t share that with you. I really miss you. There was nobody like you in my world, in all my days of living. You were a really special person and I know that this hurt will take so long to go away–to be honest I am not sure it ever will.

P.s. A Cardinal bird visited me today. As I was walking Elizabeth I stopped and stared off into oblivion again until a throaty chattering bird jolted me back into reality. As I think to myself what bird could that be, I look up to see a vibrant red Cardinal looking straight at me. He chits and chats and I’ve never been this close to a Cardinal, so close I can see his beak opening and closing as he sings. I get closer and whisper, “please don’t leave” as three tears stream down each cheek. We sit in a moment of time, admiring one another until he leaves the branch and flies directly over me, so close, almost in reach. They always say when Cardinals are near, a loved one is near.

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