Tomorrow marks one year without my Uncle Thom. With all the devastation and loss brought on by the pandemic, I know my family wasn’t the only one that spent last Christmas feeling somber. Uncle Thom, however, didn’t have COVID; he lost a battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
The thing about a condition like Alzheimer’s is that it doesn’t just steal memories from the people it’s affecting. Those who love them also lose memories, or at least the potential to make more. Thom’s parents—my paternal grandparents—spent more than a decade with the same disease, and sometimes it’s difficult to remember what they were like during my childhood.
With Uncle Thom, it all happened quickly—perhaps a blessing in a way. He suffered some complications from neck surgery in 2018, ending up in various rehabilitation centers and nursing homes as his memory and functions continued to decline. Two years later, he passed away. My heart aches for my dad, who still feels the weight of this loss every day.
I’ll admit that I was never very close with Uncle Thom. My dad has a large family, and as a kid, I sought out the company of a few cousins when we all gathered together. It seems like I always knew Uncle Thom was around when someone was laughing. He was the life of the party, always saying some absurd or hilarious things. He was outgoing and could make conversation effortlessly. But Thom’s presence was often fleeting. While he was the life of the party when he made an appearance, he was still a bit of an outlier who liked to do his own thing.
Because we weren’t that close, I’m trying to cling to the memories that I do have. Growing up, I marveled at his role as a train conductor and enjoyed hearing stories about his shenanigans as “Big Mo,” the mascot for the former Muskegon Mohawks hockey team. I always knew that Uncle Thom loved sports; he and my dad regularly discussed players and stats ranging from high school football to NHL games.
In more recent years, I was amused by Uncle Thom’s affinity for Christmas traditions. He could quote every line from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and never missed an opportunity to watch A Christmas Story. On Christmas Eve, he always enlisted every male relative at the family party to join him out in the garage for a strong, celebratory shot of Crown Royal. Their reactions were priceless.
My favorite memory? It had to be watching him dance with his daughter (my cousin) on her wedding day. A slow and sentimental song began before the music transitioned to a high-energy dance medley. To everyone’s delight, Thom joined his daughter in a choreographed dance routine out there on the dance floor.
That’s how I want to remember him: dancing, laughing, everyone cheering…the life of the party indeed.
Because of the pandemic, connection hasn’t been easy. Family gatherings have much less frequency. Holidays sure haven’t looked the same. But if there’s one silver lining for my family, it’s the opportunity we had to partake in a funeral service for Thom last year. At a time when we decided to forego a Christmas party, we were still able to put on our masks, air hug from a few feet away, and reminisce on Thom’s life.
He didn’t always have it easy, especially when it came to his career journey and his later health issues. However, I’ll always remember Uncle Thom for his infectious personality and his humorous remarks that brought some laughter to the room. I’m going to keep clinging to those memories and not let that awful disease have the final say.
I think I’ll go watch Christmas Vacation now.
Kayleigh (Fongers) Van Wyk (’18) graduated with a degree in writing and resides in West Michigan. She works as a reporter for the Grand Rapids Business Journal and Grand Rapids Magazine while also making time for freelance writing. When she’s not behind a screen, she enjoys going for walks, eating ice cream, and buying more books than she’ll ever read.