Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Shooting my Uncle: a Memorial

My Uncle Don died recently. Actually, it's probably the third or fourth time that he died, but this time he meant it. Another of my uncles used to call him Lazarus, in honor of his propensity for coming back to life when all hope was supposedly lost. He was tenacious that way.

When Don was still a young man, before I was born, he was in a horrible car accident with two of his brothers. He went into a coma and the doctors told my grandparents that he would never wake from that coma. But wake, he did. And walk. And speak. And live, fully and happily. All things the experts said he would never do.

When I was a child, he was very active for a man who was never supposed to wake from a coma. He would sit, smoking cigars and drinking coffee at family parties and telling dumb jokes that even us children rolled our eyes at.  It never ceased to amuse him to remark that us "kids" were a bunch of goats.  I thought it was the brain damage talking, but my mom says he always had kind of a dumb sense of humor.

He liked us kids. He'd ask us to show him our schoolwork and the various things we were learning to do. He loved it when we did cousin talent shows at holiday parties. He'd invite us to watch Lassie and The Lone Ranger with him on the little TV in his room. Sometimes we would.

He was generous, too. Though he had only a limited income from his VA benefits, he bought me, his first niece, two of my most treasured childhood toys: the very creatively named Big Ted and Little Ted, which, as you might guess, are two teddy bears of disparate sizes. I've had them as long as I can remember.Those poor bears are bare in patches and lack much stuffing, but they are still mine.

He liked to paint and write letters. The mail arriving was one of the highlights of his day, when he could still work his way to the mailbox and gather it himself. He had an obsession with the mailman and made all kinds of jokes about him, too.

When I went to college, then away to Alaska, he was my correspondent. I sent him pictures of the places I was living and letters about what I was doing. His handwriting got harder and harder to read, but we kept it up for a long time.

I'm not sure when exactly we stopped writing to each other. Declines are like that. Gradual, hardly noticed at the time. The past twenty-five years have seen that kind of decline in my uncle, bit by bit, little by little. First, there was his hand-eye coordination. He was no longer able to do the paint-by-number kits we used to buy him for every holiday or write letters. His hearing and eyesight diminished. Later, his mobility was affected.

There were medical problems of various sorts and trips in and out of the hospital. More than once, doctors thought he wasn't going to make it. But he always did.

He still lived at home, among the hustle and bustle of all of us. He still went to every family party, though now it took two brothers to maneuver him in and out of vehicles and into his wheelchair. His brothers still took him out target shooting.

After my grandfather died, some of the wind went out of his sails. I think it did for all of us, for a while. Money was tighter, so that probably didn't help. What money he had went to my grandmother to help support the house and the two of them. More years went by and he lost his ability to balance well enough to walk. He began to crawl around the house like some six foot something baby, still determined to get around, and out to the porch where he could watch the goings on of the neighborhood.

Even this time, this last time, when he was in the hospital, I didn't think this would be the end.  As I received messages from various members of my family, I could see that all of us thought he would rally, that he would thumb his nose at death yet again.

But not this time.

We've got a great memorial planned for you, Uncle Don. You'd love it. There will be food and drinks, of course, and a bonfire. One of your brothers has worked out a way to mix your ashes with gun powder and let us shoot you. I think you would love this idea.

I hope you're having fun, Uncle Don, wherever you went from here. I hope there are cigars and cheesy fifties TV shows and letters for you in the mail every day. I hope this one makes it to you, too. I miss you.

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