Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Thoughts: Missing My Uncle On Father's Day

Sometimes I write these things at work, the real ones at least. I do it because when I'm in public with people who expect a certain decorum from me I know I'm not allowed to lose control. Not tonight though. Tonight I want to feel it, all of it, and if I end up screaming, crying, breaking all my things I don't care. That's how I want it. That's what will be right.

Fathers Day 2008: We're at my family's place on Lake Ontario and my Uncle says to me over breakfast, “You know, next year at this time, you'll be a Father too,” Capital 'F.' Father. I'd never felt pride like that, happiness. My wife wasn't with me; she was sick...or something; anyway, I'd made her excuses for her. She's my ex-wife now and she missed a million of these moments. So many little asides that I can't ever really share with anyone because no one was there, so many...fuck it. Why bother now?

We took a picture that Father's Day. At least I think it was that one. Four generations of us, my grandfather, my cousin and his two boys, my father and I. We were happy. It wasn't all of us. My other cousin was in Syracuse and, of course, it was just us boys. My grandmother wasn't in it, or my aunt or my stepmother. Four generations of men and boys who loved each other in the way that only a family could.

Fast-forward almost four years and I'm standing in the lobby of a funeral home telling my ten-year-old second cousin that it's all right to cry. His father has an arm around him. His father and I, we're waiting for instructions on how we're supposed to carry our grandmother's coffin outside and what we're supposed to do when we get to the cemetery. Meanwhile his father, my Uncle, that same man who smiled at me about the future is on his way home to die a little more. We get in the car and while we're waiting for the priest I tell my cousin and his brother about the time Gram heard that I was hurting for money and sent Gramps in to work with a check for a thousand dollars. Here we go, time to scream, time to lose it, time to break things...

Let's go back to that perfect Father's Day. That's what I want to remember.

It's before breakfast happened and we're playing catch, my cousin, my Uncle and me. I decide to see if I can still throw a curveball but it hits the dirt. 'Nice throw, sissy,' he laughs. I'm not embarrassed, but I explain myself anyway. That's how it was with him. I was always explaining myself. I wanted his approval. I wanted to walk into the room and have him think: This is a man I respect. He always called me nephew. It's like he knew what I needed from him and he was always reminding me that it didn't matter. We were family; it didn't matter.

I remember the first time he laughed, really laughed, when I told a joke. He said, 'Usually, you don't have much of a sense of humor, but that was funny.' I thought he was dead wrong, but I was proud anyway.

It's four years later and I'm walking up the endless incline to the elevators at the local hospital. Grandma's been dead for two weeks but it's his turn now. He's in a special room, the one you go to when it's the last time you go anywhere. I don't know that yet....I think they're just trying to make him comfortable enough to get well, to go home for a few more months. I'm looking forward to Christmas even though I know in my heart it will be his last. I'm skipping work for this even though I know he wouldn't approve. My father is sleeping on the couch, he wouldn't approve either, at least if he was his normal self, but right now I’m not sure he even knows what day it is. “Hello, Nephew.”

We talk for a while and he tries to give me advice. He’s always trying to say something prophetic these days. He knows he’s dying and he want the things he says to be remembered. He does this so much that it’s almost funny to me so I start calling these little outbursts Skippy’s Last Words. I mean it with love.

It’s about a week later, same hospital room. There is an old man in this hospital bed. This time he calls me Christopher and I make fun of his hospital socks. I hold his hand for a while and promise to smuggle in some booze and loose women.

Back to the best times.

After breakfast we all want to take a walk down to the beach, so we do. You can't just walk right to the beach, there's a cliff in the way...well, not really a cliff, it's only about twelve feet down, but you wouldn't make the jump. At the top there's a small, grassy park with a couple of benches and a stairway that will take you down to the water.

My Uncle, my grandfather and I opt for a bench while my father, my cousin and his two boys take the stairs that lead down to the water. My Uncle and I have a conversation. We talk about the heat. We talk about football and why the Bills are going to be terrible...again. I smoke cigarettes and he tells me I have to quit before Morgan is born. I know, I know. Why isn't your wife here, really? Well, she wasn't feeling well. A knowing grunt. She's never feeling well when there are family things to do. Excuses. It's all right, things will work out or they won't. He spreads his arms out toward the sun and the lake and the children playing “Look at all of this.” He smiles and rests his hands on his belly. “Look at all of this...”

He watches his grand-kids with their father. The eldest is being scolded and the youngest is collecting rocks. "You know, this time next year, you're going to be a Father."

"Yeah, I know. What's it like, raising children?"

He chuckles...I always thought he laughed like Santa Claus. He really felt it. "You'll see." He pats me on the knee twice like Uncles do and he stands up. He walks down the stairs to be scolded and collect rocks with his grandsons.

There are enough pallbearers. Some third or fourth cousin of ours is going to be here soon, they don't need me. I volunteer, you know, just in case. We're in the church....again...I didn't even have time to have my suit dry-cleaned, but I'm wearing a pink tie. Pink tie, black suit. He would have given me a look over that, maybe a comment, but definitely a look. "Nice tie." He would have been joking. My father said later, "Nice tie, by the way." He was serious, but my Uncle wouldn't have been. That's why I wore it. Maybe you wouldn't understand, maybe you would.

That third or fourth cousin didn't show up so I headed to the back of the church. I wanted to carry him. He carried me. He was my Godfather; he called me Nephew. Capital 'N.'

"Will I see you this Sunday, Nephew?"

"Yes, Uncle." I say it sarcastically, but I mean it differently. I don't have much of a sense of humor.

The last conversation we had before we both knew he had cancer was after a nasty fight we had at work. He told me he was sorry and he cried a little. I told him I was sorry and I cried a little too. We were family first and that's how it should be. He went on vacation then and he came back a month later, dying.

I carried his coffin and it was heavy. I wanted to carry the thing. I wanted to feel like I was close to dropping it and I wanted to lift it anyway. I'd have done it alone if I had to...I wish I could have done it alone just to prove that I could.

A year later I was a Father. My daughter was this little spike-haired, red-headed thing and my Uncle laughed when she soiled her diaper on Father's Day. "You'd better change that, do you even know how?"

"Yes, I do it all the time, Uncle." He nods his approval and I love him.

When my wife and I bought our first house, he built us a cabinet with drawers and shelves. My wife wanted to paint it, but I told her no. "it's just right the way it is."

When my daughter was born he made her a toy duck on a string, the same one he made for his grandsons. The wings flap as the wheels turn and it holds a place of honor in my home.

For my daughter's first birthday he and my aunt bought her a toy car that she could ride. She still plays with the thing even though she's too big for it. I'll never throw it away.

In her second year, it was a talking book. We read it all the time.

Last year it was a folding, cardboard house that is still assembled in my living room and the last card that will ever be signed with his name.

No more games of catch, no more conversations on the bench. No more fights at work, no more snoring in hotel rooms on business trips. No more belly laughs, no more 'Nephews."

Loss isn't a thing that happens in an instant. It is a series of small moments where you expect someone to be there when you turn around to say something, but they're not and you cry every time.

Happy Father’s Day , Uncle. I love you.

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