What it means to be a good man…

“Only the good die young.”
“It’s all part of God’s plan.”

There are things we tell ourselves to comfort our minds and hearts when we have to sit by, helplessly, watching someone we love inch closer and closer to leaving this world.

I don’t want to eulogize someone that hasn’t passed. I hate when people do that, unintentional as it may be. Instead of a eulogy, I offer up a tribute to a good man.

A good man.

We may each define what makes a good man a little differently. Minute details around the edges of our definition that include this or that, that takes point off for one small thing or adds them back on for something else. But the core stays the same. The big ones. The major things. Those are always there.

Big heart, responsible, good family man, loving, loyal, trustworthy, dependable. Those are the big ones that usually stay the same.

A good man.

I hope each and every person has someone in their life that meets that definition, exceeds it really, as much as my Uncle Tom does.

To know Tom Bernard is to love him. To know Tom Bernard is to know a man that would do anything he could to help those he loves. Come hell or high water, he will do anything within his power to help you. He’ll make you laugh at any time – whether with a joke, a story, or doing anything he can to embarrass you in public.

His life hasn’t always been easy and the illnesses bringing it to an end certainly haven’t been either. No matter what life has thrown at him – and most times that was an awful lot – he has persevered. Fighting tooth and nail for everything and everyone and somehow making it look a lot easier than it should. Serving in Vietnam, being separated from him son for years and years, the tolls of being the patriarch of his family. A father, grandfather, brother, uncle and friend. To meet Tom is to love him. To meet Tom is to raise the bar of what you thought a good man is supposed to be. To know Tom is to witness firsthand that men like that really exist. To know Tom is to be proud to be able to say that you do. To know Tom is to understand why he looked a mob kingpin wherever he went – there wasn’t a room he walked into that people didn’t immediately get up to greet him, to say hello, hug, to offer up salutations and respect.

We all have our special memories, our special moments, that we’ll bring to mind when we think about Uncle Tom. When we know we’re losing someone, memories often hit like hot twinges in our chest, little pricks of some odd combination of love and pain hitting right in the heart, as we ask aloud why we must endure the thought of a world without this man in it.

My memories of Uncle Tom always make me laugh. Even now. That’s what he does. He makes you laugh, at the very least he’ll get a smile out of you. No matter what.

It’s because of him that I’ll always be scared of Florida alligator farms. It’s because of him that I got my first job waitressing at Stella’s when I was 14 or 15, where he would come in every single day and try embarrassing me in front of any customer that wasn’t a regular who knew better – “I wouldn’t eat that, she probably did something to it. Don’t drink that, she didn’t wash the glasses out after the last guy left.” – leaving me to laugh and roll my eyes. “Ignore him, that’s my uncle.” It’s because of him that I met a couple of lifelong friends at the age of twelve, alongside the side of 75 in standstill traffic. It’s because of him that I know the difference between different years of 1950s Chevys. It’s because of him that so many little kids looked shyly at him from the corner of their eyes and sat up a little bit straighter, just in case he really was Santa Claus.

It’s because of him that we cry now and we’ll cry when he’s gone. It’s because of him that we all know what it means to know, love and be loved by a good man.

A good man.

My heart breaks for my cousins, I don’t know what they’re going through and can’t imagine the pain. My heart breaks for my aunt, his Suzy. There’s not a time I can remember seeing Uncle Tom that Aunt Sue wasn’t next to his side (often times keeping him check, because really, someone has to.) My heart breaks for his sisters and brother, losing a sibling doesn’t get easier if you’re 20 or 60. My heart breaks for his grandkids, friends, and anyone that knows what a wonderful man is about to leave this world.

We all have something to thank him for, even though, in true Tom Bernard fashion, he would wave it off and say that’s what family is for, downplaying his effect on each of us lucky enough to have him in our lives.

We’ve been lucky in this family, haven’t we? That seems odd and borderline inappropriate to say at a time like this, but we are. Not every family is blessed by men that set that standard of what it means to be a good man, a real man, the way that Uncle Tom, and his brother Jim before him, have done. It’s easy to fear for a world where it seems like there are fewer and fewer people like this left, but I know firsthand the lessons and morals that have been taught and passed down in this family. I see those qualities in my cousins, in their kids, in my brothers, in my aunts and uncles… Those things will live on because of men like my uncle. Those things will live on because he has passed them on to each of us, not by sitting down and explaining things we should do, but by leading by example. By raising the bar. By being what not many can be so naturally. By being a good man.

A good man.

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