When my father died last year, I knew it was important to include his sisters in the funeral-planning process. But it was equally important to include their brother, the uncle I never met. Though he had died in 1946, when my father was just a toddler, my Uncle Richard was as real to me as any of my parents’ other siblings. In some ways, more real.
Children who die unexpectedly leave enormous chasms no passage of time can fill. Not only for the generation that knew them, but also for generations to come.
Richard was just 7 years old when he was killed. He was getting off the school bus when he was mowed down by a passing car. For my father, Richard’s death ushered in a period of tremendous darkness. He spent the rest of his childhood continually compared to the older brother who might have been. Two more babies helped to ease his burden. But as the only surviving son, born to a conservative Catholic farm family, my father was responsible for carrying on the family name.
Attempting to fill Richard’s shoes, my father went to Purdue University, joined a fraternity, and, in 1968, married my mother. At the time, he told no one — except a parish priest — that he had grave doubts. The source of his concern? He longed to be with a man. I would ask my father in later years why he would put my mother through the angst of a marriage doomed to fail. His answer: “Because Richard would have married your mother.”
My father first told me about Richard when I was 4, around the time my parents’ marriage was unraveling. We were at my first circus, and my father bought me a red balloon. Tying the string of the balloon around my wrist, he told me a story.
When he was a child, he said, his parents took him to his first circus. It was their first outing since Richard’s passing, and his father bought him a red balloon. It was filled with helium and cost money the family could ill afford to spare.
My father was in awe of the balloon. He divided his time at the circus between watching the action in the ring and studying the balloon tied to his wrist.
Back on the farm, my father took the balloon to the backyard, turned his eyes skyward, and let the balloon go.
His parents were furious. “Why did you do that?” his father screamed.
My father, so small, couldn’t get the words out. He’d let the balloon go, he told me, so that he could share it with Richard in heaven. He wanted Richard to be part of the fun. “Do you understand what I’m trying to tell you?” my father asked, looking at my balloon.
I did. And that’s why, when my father died, I knew what I had to do. After the funeral dinner, I returned to his gravesite with my husband and our children at sunset. “What are we doing, Mommy?” asked our youngest, shivering in the cold.
We stood before the mound of dirt that marked my father’s resting place, immediately to the left of Richard’s. “We’re giving something to Opa and your Great-Uncle Richard.”
“Who’s Uncle Richard?”
And with that, I told my children about a school bus and a day at the circus and a bond that lasted a lifetime.
As the sky turned pink and the cold wind blew, I presented each child with a red helium balloon I’d bought that morning. Together, we released the balloons. Craning our necks, we watched the splashes of red dance and hesitate for a moment before they flew upward. And as the last of the balloons disappeared, I smiled through tears at the image of two brothers, reunited at last.Mary Pflum Peterson is the author of “White Dresses: A Memoir of Love and Secrets, Mothers and Daughters.” Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Get the best of the magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your e-mail inbox every Sunday. Sign up here.