This is intentionally posted on December 22 in honor of Russell Anthony Bowles.
It’s three days before Christmas. When we were little we had already made out the Christmas list, stood in line to see Santa and whisper that same list into his ear (wonder if he had a box or Qtips standing by to itch his ear after all those whispers probably made it tickle), had the family schedule all planned which always included a trip to Cincinnati to our Uncle Bill and Aunt Marie’s house in Blue Ash where it seemed all the family gathered….LOTS of kids, a good number of adults, all gathering around the piano at some point to sing Christmas carols and enjoy each other. That is probably one of my regular Christmas memories. But long before that there was a different memory for my family…my parents in particular. Let me see if I can take you back.
Christmas has always been hard for me until the last few years. I used to think it was because of the divorce of my parents, and for many years that was true. But if I dig a little deeper I realize it had to do with more. I FULLY understand why it was a painful time for our family for many years growing up, and I am so thankful for God’s healing since. Let me share it with you. Warning: you may want to have tissues nearby.
It was 1960. Mom had already given birth to their first child – Elizabeth (my sister Beth) – and a son had followed a couple years later. On October 2, 1960, Russell Anthony Bowles entered the world. From the stories I hear he was a hoot. As he grew he was known for ‘helping’ Mom with the laundry by sitting on top of the washer pulling laundry out of the basket and tossing it into the air. Wheeee!!!! And he giggled and giggled and giggled some more. Then there was the time at Old River swimming pool and park where the family was on one of the bridges and Rusty took a hat and tossed it in the air….and watched it sink to the bottom to swim with the fish. To the best of our knowledge it’s still there to this day. Rusty knew how to light up a room with his infectious giggle. From what I hear watching him enjoy life you’d never know something was wrong.
I don’t know when Mom and Dad found out but Rusty was suffering from hardening of the liver. Their first born son would not live a long life. It was the 60’s. Organ transplants weren’t a part of history yet. And little was known about hardening of the liver.
I can’t imagine what it must have been like for Mom and Dad, knowing their days were limited with Russ. At the same time they had a daughter and a sick son, they brought another son into the world. My brother Steve was born in March 1962. So here were Mom and Dad with 3 kids under 5, one of whom was in essence going to die.
While there is so much I wish I could share with you I have to say I can’t…not out of willingness but because of ability. I simply don’t know a lot about Rusty. I think every family has a immensely painful part of their story and this is one part of ours. I know we have a picture of Russ when his stomach was swollen and his face was getting jaundiced. He had a little cane in his hand and his freckled face was grinning ear to ear like he had just hid the cat or something. You could just TELL he was ornery! My kind of brother! I don’t know when it was taken but that picture, faded as it is, is a cherished family item. It’s too faded to get restored.
As 1962 wore on Russ’s condition turned for the worse. He went into the hospital a couple days before Christmas, I believe. I’ve only heard the story once or twice so I don’t recall much of it, but I know Mom and Dad enjoyed the antics of their son as long as they could. And then, on December 22, 1962, Russell Anthony Bowles went to Heaven. I cry as I type. I always do at the thought.
That alone is gut-wrenching and beyond for any parents. I’ve heard it said “parents aren’t supposed to outlive their kids.” Here it was, Christmas of all times, with 2 other young, wide-eyed, infatuated kids at home eager to see Santa, and Mom and Dad had to plan the funeral of their oldest son. I cannot begin to imagine what went through their minds. Heartache beyond description. Shut down of all emotions. Anger. Sadness. Confusion. Deadness? I guess since they knew it would come that made it a ‘little’ better, but there’s still that ‘why now of all weeks?!’ thought that would be natural for anyone. It’s hard enough getting through holidays – especially the first one – without a loved one…but to not even have time to mentally or emotionally prepare for that…..how do you survive that?!
The silver lining to this came two days later. We say that the number 2 must have been Rusty’s favorite number. He was born 10/2/1960, died 12/22/1962, was Mom and Dad’s 2nd child, and 2 days after his death, on Christmas Even, 1962, Mom and Dad got the word that Rusty’s eyes had given 2 boys sight!!!!!! They had donated his liver to science to better understand what was going on and we like to think he had something to do with helping science get where it is now. BUT GOD had more in store! He let Rusty’s legacy continue by giving sight – one of the greatest gifts of all – to 2 boys. What a treasure those parents received that day. What a gift they received! While our family always had an unspoken grief around Christmas those families had celebrations. That, too, makes me wipe more tears. My brother gave life to two other boys.
Growing up as Christmas drew closer things got tense around the house. Dad was short-tempered and we all knew why. Didn’t make it right or easy. It just was. And with my adult eyes I understand more than I ever could as a confused teenager. But by Christmas Eve things eased. It was just part of our story. Dad was hurting. More than he ever let on. He was never one to show much emotion. It wasn’t how he was raised in the Depression in an orphanage for a number of years. But one year I remember things changed. I think it was a night when we had thrown a 25th anniversary party for them at our church. We had family in from all over the country. It was one of the infamous Bowles Family Reunions. I don’t remember what brought it up in discussion but I remember Dad sitting at home with that peaceful smile and twinkle in his eyes. And I remember him saying “I finally let go of Rusty.” What a moment of freedom. What a rush of peace. What redemption from all the pain.
Mom and Dad went on to have 4 more kids, one a miscarriage. Rusty has always been a part of our family story. When we came back from a niece’s high school graduation 4 years ago we stopped by the cemetery and made sure Russ’s grave was being kept. He is buried near the street so it was easy for Mom to sit in the car (terrain made it impossible for her to get out to get next to the grave) and instruct us in what she wanted to have done. It was already in good shape. We took pictures. Scott in particular made it his mission to be sure things were in good shape.
Russ was oldest. Scott is youngest. Scott took Rusty’s name as his confirmation name. There’s just an unspoken bond that only God can explain. One time when I was visiting Dad we drove by the cemetery on our way back and Dad shared he goes there a couple times a year to tend to the site. How absolutely precious.
For me, I dream of seeing Rusty’s eyes. I don’t know what modern laws will allow but I would really like to track down the now men who received Rusty’s eyes and if they are still alive, I’d love to look into his eyes through them. One of these days I need to move that from a wish to an investigation. And even if the laws don’t allow, at least I will have tried.
I think some of the biggest gifts I have ever been given have come from my brother whom I have never met. Curious that he would give them to us around Christmas time. Guess he wanted to be sure we always remembered them and put them into practice:
1) treasure every moment – laugh, giggle, toss hats and laundry in the air and find the child-like glee in it
2) live every moment to the fullest – up until his body quit, Rusty spread joy. I want to be like my big brother.
3) be an organ donor – long before that was a ‘standard’ thing, he set the pace. His eyes gave 2 boys sight and 2 families the greatest gifts possible at that time….I can certainly continue the legacy
4) it’s okay to not be okay – we all struggled for many years around Christmas until we got to Christmas Eve…then it got better. It’s okay to feel hurt and pain and to cry and to be silent and have no words. And it’s okay to ask forgiveness when our actions hurt others. And most of all…it’s okay to love…even when it hurts to the core.
5) it’s right to finally let go – there will come a time when it’s time to let go….to let God hold you in that ‘sacred moment of release.’
6) it’s okay to dream – of seeing Rusty’s eyes….of giving that gift to others.
7) most of all – it’s okay to love….even when it hurts…ESPECIALLY when it hurts. As I used to hear growing up….and it makes sense now….”it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”
Until I meet you face to face next to Jesus, just know, Rusty, how much you have taught me. And I didn’t even come into the picture until almost a year later. You’re a great big brother and you have left a legacy for all of us. Thank you for showing us what it means to truly live…and give…so others may live too.