When my mother had a stroke, I was 9,000 miles away. I was living in Sydney and rushed home to Saint. Louis, after saying a tearful and unexpected goodbye to friends I didn’t plan to leave for another month, when my job transfer was to end. I went back in time by crossing the International Date Line, but couldn’t get back far enough.
My father picked me up at the airport and took me to the hospital, where I saw my mom in a coma. Wearily, we headed home that night, only to find an answering-machine message from a Holy Cross priest at Notre Dame whom we didn’t know. I knew before my dad returned the call that this would be more bad news—about my uncle, Father George Wiskirchen. “Is this my life or the Book of Job?” I wondered, as we found out my uncle had also suffered a stroke—only three days after my mom’s.
My mom passed away a few days later, and two Holy Cross priests, friends of my uncle, came to attend the funeral Mass in his place. Their presence comforted us. Later, my dad and I visited my uncle. The stroke had left him paralyzed on the right side of his body and unable to speak. It was unclear if he would make it or not, but he proved stubborn. He recovered enough to be moved to Holy Cross House, where he’d spend the next four years. He wouldn’t teach again or direct the marching band, but each autumn the band would visit and serenade him.
When I was a kid, I wasn’t sure how to address my uncle. He was my uncle, but he was also a priest, and I knew that came with a title. So I called him “Uncle Father.” (That’s Uncle Father and a younger me in the picture at right.) He was intimidating yet funny, and I looked forward to his visits. He would tease my mother—asking for ketchup after she served him a porterhouse steak. He addressed me as “Kid” and would tell me tall tales, like about the flea circus he had seen as a boy. I would watch him work on music or read his prayer book and would tell my friends that priests weren’t stuffy—they smoked, ate decadent meals and liked jazz. Gradually, he was forced to give up those things, except for the jazz. Arthritis, diabetes and a heart condition took their toll on him physically, yet he never complained.
On campus, my uncle was an iconic presence—the kind of teacher who scares you but whose fearsomeness motivates you. I was a little scared of him myself—too scared, in fact, to sign up for his “Current Jazz” elective, fearing I’d be singled out for teasing. At the same time, he was a comfort. When I arrived at Lyons Hall, a shy only child and veteran of a sheltered all-girls high school, he was the only person on campus whom I knew. Just about every week I’d get a call from him: “Hey, Kid, want to grab some dinner?” I was grateful for the break from the dining hall and for the family connection.
My time at Notre Dame wasn’t the best four years of my life. While I learned a lot from my professors and made some amazing friends, I never felt that I fit in, lacking the conservative mindset and trust fund of many of my peers. Freshman year was especially difficult, as my friends in Lyons and I grappled with a mentally ill friend, with little support from our dorm leadership. Although my uncle and I both suffered from a German reserve and were usually guarded in our conversations, his presence and advice were a great support. He encouraged me to pursue writing and even gave me an occasional compliment when I showed him stories.
Seeing him after the stroke was difficult. He had lost the ability to unleash his razor wit. Gradually, some speech returned, but he often had trouble coming up with the words when he had a thought. I visited about once a year, on a football weekend, usually with my dad in tow. My bedside manner is lacking, and my mother’s long struggle with cancer (she had been in remission for a year when she suffered the stroke) made me dread going into hospitals and nursing homes. But Uncle Father was happy just to see me. He was more positive than ever before, despite the chronic pain, paralysis, and a life that seemed to me to consist mostly of naps, rosaries and Law & Order reruns. “Maybe there is something to this faith stuff,” my dad, a faithful Catholic, joked. Maybe there is, I began to think, although after leaving Notre Dame I had fallen away.
I planned to see my uncle again on Memorial Day weekend, when he would have celebrated his 50th anniversary of ordination. Unfortunately, he died about 10 days before this occasion, because of some complications from a recent operation. When my dad called to break the news, I cried, although some part of me was relieved for him as I knew he’d been suffering. I flew to Saint Louis, and my dad and I made the same drive up Highway 55 to Interstate 80 to South Bend that we’d made many times before, not talking much, contemplating the cornfields, truck stops and Our Lady of the Highways.
We were offered rooms at Holy Cross House, which is more a nurturing home than a nursing home. Upon arrival, we were greeted by my uncle’s good friend, Father David Porterfield, who had attended my mom’s funeral. I found boxes of my uncle’s belongings in my room, and I flipped through Christmas photo cards from former students and read articles about my uncle’s appearance at the Kennedy Center inaugural concert. He was leading the Melodons, the jazz band at Notre Dame High School, at the time, and they were the only high school band invited to play. They had the dubious task of following Count Basie, but The New York Times declared they actually upstaged Basie: “More than the other three bands, this high school jazz band showed an awareness of what has been done in jazz, what is being done and what may be done” (The New York Times, John S. Wilson, Sept. 26, 1971). This was the first I had heard of this event, as my uncle never boasted of his accomplishments or name-dropped musicians he knew.
The next day, they brought my uncle’s body back to Holy Cross House and held a service in the chapel. Father Dave presided and gave a moving homily that touched on some of the humorous aspects of my uncle, such as the yarns he would spin (he once convinced some students that he was one of the soldiers who raised the flag on Iwo Jima). That night my uncle was moved to Moreau Seminary, and we attended another prayer service there. We saw some familiar faces—folks who had worked with my uncle and former students.
Before Monday’s afternoon funeral, my dad and I went to Lunker’s, a fishing and hunting emporium in Edwardsburg, Michigan, that my uncle had enjoyed. As I stared at a giant fish head exploding out of the wall, I recalled that my uncle and I shared a love of tackiness. He collected garish souvenir velveteen pillow covers, while I collect snow globes. I’ve organized road trips around large, kitschy roadside attractions, and it seemed oddly coincidental that Our Lady of the New Millennium, a 33-foot-tall silver statue of the Virgin, had made a tour stop at Notre Dame that weekend. We stopped for a photo on the way back, and I smiled, wondering if the statue was a gleaming message from my uncle. I took a walk around a mostly deserted campus—graduation had been the previous weekend, summer programs hadn’t begun. I had never seen the place so still. I walked around the lakes and smiled at the baby ducks, as their mothers eyed me warily. Death had brought me back to Notre Dame, yet the campus was brimming with new life.
The funeral in Sacred Heart reminded me of the Pope’s recent funeral, on a much smaller scale of course but with no less elegance or gravitas. I couldn’t count all the priests on the altar. Father Hesburgh’s and Father Malloy’s presence reminded me of how thrilled my mom had been when my uncle had introduced her to Father Hesburgh at a bowl game. A group of former band members played hymns. There was incense, chanting in Latin—the trappings that make the Mass so powerful. Attending the funeral made me long for a deeper faith. Whether or not I’ll work toward it remains to be seen. I saw the impact my uncle had on his students, colleagues and fellow priests—and I appreciated for the first time that a religious life could be a truly full life, with much love from a supportive community.
The funeral’s closing hymn was the Alma Mater, and as I sang the words I still knew by heart, I felt more love for Notre Dame than before. I saw the university through my uncle’s eyes. He had given me the gift of a Notre Dame education, through a Holy Cross grant, and his funeral—more a celebration of his life, than an occasion for mourning—was another gift.
Julie Wiskirchen lives in Los Angeles. She co-authored St. Lou Haiku (Timberline Press, 2004) and is the co-editor of an online humor magazine, Ape Culture, at http://www.apeculture.com.