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Family members closed ranks, marched in solemnly, and quietly filled the first four pews on either side of the aisle in the church. They had dropped everything to be there with Patsy and Bill Sr. for Billy’s funeral service.

Being there was an affirmation: we are family! We are more than merely blood kin; we choose to be family! We love and care for each other. And, like Patsy and Bill, we loved Billy, too.

I had left in the middle of a conference to get there. Another cousin left her son and daughter-in-law in the midst of adjusting to the needs of a severely handicapped newborn. Other cousins, aunts and uncles came from near and far. One family member sang and another read the Scripture and gave some remarks. Like all our family events, this one was characterized by superb music. At the end of the service, Patsy, the mother, walked up to touch the casket and turned to say how much everyone’s attendance meant to Billy’s family mother, father and brother and his family.

When I first married into the “Crouse Clan,” I found the demands of family somewhat overwhelming. My father-in-law was the oldest of nine children who had survived the death of their father in the midst of the Great Depression. There was a lot of pressure to be at everything family-related. My husband often had to remind his Dad that I had family, too, and that we had professional obligations that sometimes conflicted making it impossible to always be there. At times, the closeness seemed “smothering” and the demands too “forced.” At times, driving into the wee hours of the night to get to another family event seemed too much. Over the years, however, I’ve learned how important it is for family members to gather at the major milestones in peoples’ lives. It is incredibly joyful to have a huge crowd of family to celebrate marriages and it is indescribably comforting to have family gather in times of grief and loss. Through all this, I’ve learned first hand that certain ingredients are necessary for closeness that families don’t grow together without effort; that maintenance is necessary if the normal progression toward disintegration and distance in relationships is to be avoided. I’ve come to appreciate the fact that “connection” has to be built through personal interaction and sharing lots of it, as frequently as possible. Entropy operates in personal relationships, just as decisively as it does in impersonal systems. Without sharing, families grow apart. If we don’t get together, we can’t really know each other. Empathy requires proximity; emotional vulnerability precedes closeness.

Billy had been living with his mom and dad for several years as he tried to withstand the onslaught of a devastating kidney condition that required routine dialysis treatment while hoping for a kidney transplant. He continued to play the trumpet locally, but the days of performing professionally with Quincy Jones, Dizzy Gillespie, Artie Shaw, Tito Fuente, Celia Cruz, Natalie Cole and bands like The Glen Miller Orchestra, The Tommy Dorsey Orchestra and The Woody Herman Orchestra were over abruptly and, it turned out, finally. His magnificent trumpeting was silenced forever due to cardiac failure from End Stage Kidney Disease.

His buddies, members of local jazz programs The Charlotte Jazz Orchestra and Fuego Lento, a Latin jazz group accompanied the music during the funeral service and then, in a final tribute, entertained at a jam session following the funeral lunch, playing a piece they composed in honor of Billy. It was a celebration fittingly crafted for a gifted young jazz musician whose life had ended all too soon.

Despite such colorful drama as hearing the jazz ensemble mournfully launch into “When the Saints Go Marching In” at the close of the service, the overwhelming image that remains from Billy’s funeral is the family that gathered around to honor him and to acknowledge the gaping, empty hole that his death leaves for the family. To the end Billy doggedly continued living participating in the jazz programs at the local community college, playing a key role in organizing local jazz programs and working on original scores and arrangements. He succumbed to a heart attack at a jazz session . . . his final.

The pictures in the church lobby showed a vibrant young man whose artistry didn’t end with the music he created, but one whose green thumb produced delicious vegetables and gorgeous flowers, a fun-loving brother who enjoyed a ride through the countryside in his brother’s convertible, a loving uncle who delighted in spoiling his nieces, Savannah and Camille, a son who reckoned with the necessity of moving back home as a seriously ill young adult returning to the close embrace of family during his hours of greatest need.

For sure, with today’s busy schedules it is hard to meet family obligations and we can’t always be there. As one cousin said, “These things always happen at the worst possible time.” But I’ve discovered that we never forget those who were there so it’s painful for us when we can’t be there.

And another lesson I’ve learned one that was reinforced at Billy’s funeral is that, gathering with loved ones, whether in good times or bad, strengthens the ties that bind us. Perhaps most important, gathering as a family renews our spirits with the confidence that whatever the joy, there are loved ones who’ll be there to help celebrate; also, whatever the load we carry, there are family members who’ll be there to help shoulder the burden.

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