When I was a kid, this red-haired man was more of an encounter and less of a man. He was more of a dread and less of an uncle. I recall standing in my great grandmother's kitchen. Alone with my great uncle. Looking up at him as he recounted some dirty joke. It was inappropriate at any age, but especially so considering mine. To my credit, I did not understand and cannot remember what he said - only that he said it. Afterwards, he balled up his fist, stuck out his middle knuckle, and ground it into the top of my head, all the while trapping me within the crook of his opposite elbow. I suppose giving "noogies" a way of showing affection. Uncle Donald was the man who constantly "stole my nose" and wouldn't give it back! As silly as that seems, I took it personally, and I was clearly upset, but he was relentless.
I guess to understand the man is to know his history. To a little boy those things - the wartime experience and the failing marriage - don't mean much, and they don't excuse any sort of abuse, but they do help a grown man to understand. Uncle Donald was a tough guy, and the whole of the thing is this: I didn't like him very much.
A few years later, a new Christian wife, his own life transformed by an obedient relationship with Christ, and even a new responsibility of preaching in a small congregation in rural Oklahoma, another part of this ordinary man was made obvious. Not only was he tough, but he was also sensitive and gentle. The crusty exterior fell away to reveal a soft filling. In her battle with Alzheimer's, Donald's wife was never alone. He doted over her, perhaps too much, waiting on her hand and foot, long after she became bedridden and incoherent. It was both painful and endearing to witness.
One of his last great acts was to preside over my parents' renewal of vows for their 50th anniversary. Uncle Donald was able to express his own love for my family in the midst of their enduring love for each other.
Nearly completely blind for several years, he was still just a man. But he was a man made great through his reaching out to express love to me, almost embarrassingly at times, perhaps making up for those old days when he bullied me. I think he felt the guilt of mistreating me, though I easily forgave him and understood the tremendous changes he made to improve. He embraced my wife, and he made a special connection with my daughter, when she finally got to spend an extended time with him, this past summer. In his last days, in the throes of suffering, he would often call out to her with their catch phrase: "I'm OK."
Before 5:30, this morning, my great uncle peacefully passed from this life. Donald Warren Ellis was just a man, but he became so much more as his time on earth matured. Bully no more. Inappropriate no more. Loved and missed forever.