My uncle died last week. Gone. Kaput. No more of this Earth. Dying is a popular trend at the moment: David Bowie, Glenn Frey, my uncle. All the cool kids are doing it.
By the time this posts I’ll be halfway across the country, sitting with relatives I rarely see but who are always gracious. By the time you read this, I’ll be at whatever sort of service they put together for the big man.
He truly was a big man: tall and broad, with a bottomless well of stories that he bent and stretched until he was even bigger. They ran the gamut from teenage drag races to his time as a star high school basketball player, and on through his long career as a firefighter. His stories even included the short period during my young childhood when both my father and he took night jobs as delivery men for a Denver liquor store. They’d bring home promotional items from the store, and thus I was the only first grader whose bedroom featured Pabst posters and over sized inflatable whiskey bottles.
When my aunt and uncle took my family to the municipal pool near their house, my sisters and I would bring our giant liquor bottles and use them as pool floats. I couldn’t swim until I was nine or so, so I imagine I paddled around the shallow end clinging to a Seagram’s bottle roughly my height. On one of those summer days an incident occurred that became a touchstone of my relationship with my uncle. For the next four decades I couldn’t visit him without hearing the tale of the time that my father threw me into the deep end to sink or swim. When I was finally yanked from the gaping maw of certain death, I wrongly accused my uncle. The story changed slightly with each telling, details added or deleted to suit his audience, but it always ended the same way. “You were so mad at me,” he’d say, and then he’d lock me into a brief stare. Only now does it occur to me how badly that must have hurt his feelings for him to latch onto that incident for 40 years.
But only this uncle made sense as the pool chucker. He stood alone among my grownups as the throw around guy, the one likely to chase me through the house or wrestle with me. I don’t think either of those things ever happened, but the potential was always there. Even in his seventies, post heart attack and living with congestive heart failure, he played a game of one-on-one with my 15 year-old son. He won, too, though it clearly took everything he had. When they were done, my uncle sat on the edge of the driveway, trying hard not to reveal that he may have won the game but his body was beating him.
When my parents moved us away from Denver I was only seven years old. From that point on my extended family was relegated to vacation status, and my aunt and uncle always made a point of visiting us wherever we were living. On these visits he made up for lost uncle time, teaching me how to shoot straight, fixing my batting stance, and teaching me dirty songs like “Oh the big dog jumped and shit on the wall / Oh the little dog jumped but he couldn’t shit at all.” We’d go out for big dinners that he insisted upon paying for, and throughout the meal he held court with his bottomless collection of outrageous stories, most of them fireman-related. Some were gory and others funny. Most were a little bit of both, bearing punchlines like, “So I said, ‘If he’s alive enough to shit on me, he’s alive enough to walk his fat ass down the stairs himself.'” At some point in the evening he’d say, “Do you remember that time we took you to the pool….”
They were visiting when I broke my first bone, my left wrist during a little league baseball game. Before my parents hauled me off to the emergency room, he said, “What do you want for dinner, Jimmy? I’ll make you anything you want, Bud.”
“Mexican,” I said. When we arrived home several hours later, a full-blown Mexican feast awaited us. That business about firefighters being great cooks is true, or at least it was in my uncle’s case.
He was an incredibly proud man, which explains why he didn’t want to appear wiped out by a game of driveway basketball with my teenaged son. Once during a visit when I was a young art school student, my uncle proudly showed me the seascape painting he’d recently purchased. It was the kind of thing one finds in a mall gallery — executed well but trite, no more than a pretty decoration — and I was an arrogant kid at the time, consumed with notions of A-R-T.
“What do you think of it?” he asked.
“The important thing is what you think of it,” I said. “If you like it then it’s a good painting.” I congratulated myself on this clever bit of diplomacy, and then I saw the wounded look on his face. It’s a small moment, but I still carry it with me as one of my biggest regrets.
Our relationship shifted from BB guns and baseball lessons as we both aged. Throughout my twenties and thirties he used our rare visits to try and mend the broken fences separating my father and me. “Your folks were young when they got married,” he’d say. “Your dad was just a kid. He worked his butt of to provide for your mom and you kids. He loved his family.” Often I assumed that he was projecting, but I listened and I appreciated it.
Once we sat in the car in front of my house for a good 30 minutes while he ran down the list of shitty fathers in my family tree. It was a cautionary tale: My newborn baby slept inside, blissfully unaware of the damage done by and to the generations preceding him. My uncle talked of my father’s mistakes, punctuating his stories with variations on “we were young, we didn’t know any better.” As our conversation wound down, he said, “Do you remember that time we took you to the pool….”
As my marriage failed, he did what he could to help. “She’s a good person and a great mother. You do whatever you can to make it work,” he said. “You don’t want to lose her.” Again I wondered if he was projecting, but I appreciated his concern and his advice.
The last time I saw him was a few years ago, on the trip with the aforementioned game of basketball. It was the last time I watched him hold court on his patio, telling tall tales that were now part of his distant past. He showed me his coin collection and a Bing Crosby Junior Juke, his childhood record player. “One of the guys at the firehouse collected jukeboxes. He said it was the only one he’d ever seen — told me to name my price, but I didn’t want to sell it.” When we got home from that trip I bought one on eBay for not much money, but when it arrived I couldn’t bring myself to take it out of the box. My uncle was 2,000 miles away, but I didn’t want to burst his bubble. As long as mine remains hidden away in my attic, his is the only Bing Crosby Junior Juke I’ve ever seen, and that’s how it should be.
Apparently his health declined rapidly after that visit, but that’s someone else’s story to tell. Mine ends with him standing tall at the curb of his neatly manicured lawn, waving goodbye to my kids and me after that last visit.
He is the first of my grownups to pass. The others will follow soon enough, as will the grim roll call of pop culture icons whom I admired growing up. Soon they will all be gone, and I will be the old timer shooting hoops with a grandson or a great nephew. And then I will be gone, too, leaving my son and daughter or perhaps some distant relative who falsely accused me of throwing him or her into the deep end, to the sad business of realizing that they are now the grownups.