Having my uncle Gary Sutton around, who we all referred to by his nickname, “Tuff,” was like having a second father. My mother’s youngest brother, he was always there. Like many others in the family, he was a musician, playing the guitar, piano and autoharp. Even though he had some piano lessons as a boy, he had long since abandoned that training and went on to play by ear the remainder of his life. When I was about 12, I began tickling the ivories myself and my enthusiasm caught Tuff’s interest. He saw my progress and helped me fill in the blanks. With no lessons except the coaching of my uncle I began playing in restaurants, for weddings and in 1995 several of my family ended up playing in our family band, The Brothers & Co. In 2004, my uncle was diagnosed with lung cancer following many years of smoking.
My wife Barbara and I were engaged shortly after that and planned a September wedding. Having both been married previously, we wanted a small, intimate wedding rather than something more elaborate. We invited only close family and friends and decided to have the ceremony and reception at my production studio. The space is large, open and covered so it was perfect to use rain or shine.
As the autumn date approached, my uncle’s conditioned worsened. He was now bed-ridden, unable to move around a lot and slipping in and out of consciousness from the medications and the ravages of the disease. On the Wednesday before our wedding, we received word that he had passed away, just a few days short of his 68th birthday.
Though his passing was expected, it did not minimize the saddening effects on our family. As memorial arrangements were being made by his family, we were devastated to learn that the funeral was planned on the same day as our wedding. Barbara and I suggested postponing it until the following weekend but my cousin suggested that this would have really hurt my uncle. Tuff would not have liked the idea that he was responsible for ruining our special day.
My brother Gary Deer, Jr., my cousin Edward Jones, my friend Jim Karns and I all played in the band with Tuff. Before he passed, my uncle had asked to be buried in the western uniform we had designed for our band many years ago. His daughter Pam asked the four of us to serve as pallbearers and we did so with honor, wearing our traditional black band uniforms to carry him to his final rest. Once the services were over, I hurried back home to prepare for our wedding, which we had delayed for one hour to give our family a chance to get there from the funeral. What a day. If not for the support of my friend Jim and my lovely wife-to-be, I don’t think I could have kept it together.
I did not have Barbara come with me to the funeral. I didn’t want her to have her memory of our wedding shrouded in images of such sadness. So, I had gone alone, returning to our house about an hour before the ceremony was supposed to start. When I arrived, most of the guests other than my family had already arrived and were standing around chatting.
Walking up to the open doors of the studio where the ceremony was set up, I had a minute to think about the night before. I was unable to go to my uncle’s viewing because of wedding preparations, but I had something that really helped. We have diverse family and friends who offered to bless our wedding space that evening. Spiritualists from three different religious backgrounds offered their support from a Cherokee blessing called “smudging” to a reading from the book of Psalms; it was an enlightening wedding eve. I went on into the house and got changed and the wedding went off with no further delays.
Before he died, my cousin had asked me to prepare a CD of our band’s music to play at my uncle’s funeral. Several of the tracks included music that Tuff had recorded with us, playing rhythm guitar alongside my piano work. He got to play his favorite hymn, “I’ll fly away,” at his own funeral. Ironically, some of the music we played at our wedding was from our band’s CD as well. So he really was there with us.
Sadly, unbeknownst to us, my mother was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease and doesn’t remember her brother’s passing, often asking where he is or when he’s coming over. She also does not remember our wedding but, for what it’s worth, she is the only one in the family who will not have to carry with them unbelievable emotional upheaval of that day.
The experience of losing someone that meant so much in my life on the same day as I gained someone who means so much more is an enlightening experience. It really makes you appreciate what you have at the moment that you have it instead of waiting until it’s gone.