My uncle died from COVID-19

So it finally happened.

At the start of the pandemic, I knew there was the possibility that we would lose friends and family to COVID-19. That was the hardest part of reality to deal with as lockdowns and stay-at-home orders were issued worldwide.

There was the sinking feeling that not all of us are going to come out of this alive, but while simultaneously not being able to be with the people we love.

I’ve spent most of the last year as a journalist, documenting the pandemic and helping the team I work with track the new COVID-19 cases and hospitalization rates locally… and the fatalities.

It’s a weird feeling when someone in your family becomes a statistic.

I know everyone has pandemic fatigue. No one does all of this quarantine stuff just for fun. But this is the first coronavirus death in my family, so now it’s personal.

Please be safe. Keep wearing your mask. Hopefully, over the next several months, all of this will start to fade to memories. Until then, I think we all want to be with our loved ones, healthy and whole, and following CDC guidelines is our best chance at returning to normal one day.

I wasn’t close to my Uncle Jim, unfortunately. I try to be honest rather than pretend that we’ve always been one big happy family. I grieve the relationship we didn’t have.

My Uncle Jim used very few words. He answered most questions with “yup” and “nope.” He also did this weird thing when you called the house and asked to speak to my Aunt Carol where he would pretend he didn’t know who that was or couldn’t hear you until finally giving her the phone. I’m still not sure if he had an extra dry sense of humor or if he was being a jerk. He was not the sort of uncle that jokes or has deep conversations with you. I have a very different relationship with my Uncle Harvey, my mom’s brother.

October 1999: Family photo front of my Aunt Carol’s house in Port Neches, right before getting into our Ryder moving truck to leave for Colorado.

He looked like KFC icon Colonel Sanders, although he got mad at anyone who said that, leading to hilarious mishaps.

On Christmas Eve 1999, my Aunt Carol and Uncle Jim were supposed to pick up my family at the Houston Intercontinental airport when we came back home to Southeast Texas for the holidays after moving away to Western Colorado the fall before. None of us had cellphones, and we couldn’t find my aunt and uncle anywhere. My mom waited with my little sister at the gate because before 9/11 you could still go to the gate to pick someone up, even if you didn’t have an airline ticket. My dad and I went to baggage claim and waited there. I was a hyper 10-year-old, running back and forth through a crowded airport to frantically relay messages between my parents. We asked airport security guards if they had seen anyone who looked like Colonel Sanders, but my mom cautioned me never to repeat that to Uncle Jim.

It turns out he and my Aunt Carol had been parked under the passenger pickup sign outside for over an hour, because again, this was before security rules mandated pick-up only, no parking and waiting.

“Why were y’all out there?” my mom and dad asked them.

“The sign says passenger pickup!” Uncle Jim insisted. “So I waited at passenger pickup!”

October 1999: Aunt Carol and Uncle Jim at my cousin Michael’s wedding at Beaumont’s First Baptist Church’s at the old church building downtown, when my sister and I were their flower girls.

Over the years, my parents and Aunt Carol and Uncle Jim often disagreed on how to best take care of our aging relatives. If you’ve been my friend during the last few years, you probably know my stories about the family drama while I cleaned out my Aunt Joan’s hoarder house.

I say all this because while our relationship with Uncle Jim and Aunt Carol has been tumultuous and difficult, I would never have wanted them to get the plague. Neither of them left the house when quarantine started, not even to go to church. Aunt Carol has multiple sclerosis and is mostly homebound. Uncle Jim only went out to pick up to-go meals at the cafeteria for them to eat.

But they both tested positive in mid-January. Aunt Carol is recovering.

The last time I saw them, Uncle Jim handed me a check for the last of the inheritance money Aunt Joan left us and said, “Don’t spend it all in one place now, haha.”

It was a final, peaceful moment.

He died on Jan. 18, 2021 at 7:58 p.m. at 88 years old.

I found this out by calling the hospital where he died, because my cousins still refuse to speak to us, ever since the last argument. After my dad told me he called his sister, Carol, who was sobbing after she told her husband goodbye over a phone call due to hospital rules, I googled his name.

I found several comments he left on other people’s obituaries over the years in Google search results. My Aunt Carol told me last year he was working with a friend to write a book about his life. The comments left on his obituary describe him coaching their sons for baseball, him being a dinner guest.

It’s strange to think that other people outside my family knew my uncle better than we did.

OBITUARY | James Henry Paslean – January 6, 1933 – January 18, 2021

Easter 1992 or 1993: My parents rented a wheelchair van to take my grandfather to church with us. He was terminally ill with supranuclear pseudobulbar palsy, a rare neurological disease, and living at the Clairmont nursing home in Beaumont. My dad is on the far left, next to my grandmother, the original Eleanor, my cousin Michael, and my Aunt Joan. I’m the toddler photobombing the group photo.

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