When You Don't Know What Else to Say.
My uncle died yesterday of an illness no one bothered to investigate in a nursing home in the middle of nowhere. He had been placed on palliative care for a week or so.
This happened twenty years after a massive stroke left his memory and body shot to hell. By all rights it should have taken him then. That stroke happened when he would have been about the age I am now. The stroke hit a decade after a car accident on a foggy, lonely country road at dusk when he was smashed between cars he was trying to help jumpstart by a drunk driver. That accident left him with a traumatic brain injury and legs that wobbled before they would snap into place as he walked.
He had been declining for years—off and on—incrementally. In all the ways common to those whose brains and bodies have accumulated insults. He wasn’t the easiest on it before then, truth be told. He worked construction and was young and dumb. He was young before then.
And his death, like most deaths in complicated families, leaves a lot of unanswered questions, wishes and grief, pain that can’t be solved, and only the living to direct it at. It leaves us fighting with each other—some of us confused. Some of us angry. All of us wishing things were different. Some of us wishing that each of us had done a different thing.
And soon there will be a funeral in a small-town chapel. It’s the same one my grandmother was buried out of, I believe. They’re easy to work with. Kind. And then my uncle’s mortal remains will be interred beside his oldest son in the Smalltown cemetery. Near my younger sister. Near all of our people. Near an empty piece of dirt that waits for me.
When people die, secrets and old hurts rise to the surface.
It’s hard to believe, as I look out across the snow that still blankets the world, that the ground will be soft enough to break ground and bury soon. But I hear birds out the window, so I know it’s already thawing today. It’s only eight in the morning.
The snow has reminded me several times this week of my favorite memory of my father. My only memory of my father that is mine and mine alone.
One winter, there was an awful storm—probably a lot like this one. Storms were worse in the 80s. And inches of snow fell on an inch of ice at the end of my Christmas break, extending it three days. Dad was cutting and clearing brush at my grandfather’s property—a piece of land my great-grandfather had once owned. Dad took me with him in his big, primer-grey Dodge. Mom sent him a thermos of coffee, and me a small thermos of cocoa. Dad always burned his brush as he worked, and so there was always happy fire of cedar crackling near the pond. I still love the smell of burning cedar. I brought books (The Adventures of Robin Hood, I remember) that I would read while Dad worked. He was a responsible worker. He cleared off some of the pond, and I brought ice skates that I would use, until I got cold and tired of falling. I mostly read. And when Dad took breaks, I would tell him all about Robin Hood’s adventures. He made a fuss over how well I remembered the stories. I think he took many more breaks than he normally would have. We rarely had time that was just us.
I must have been about eight.
When my cousin was about eight, he went with his father on a foggy autumn night to jump a bandmate’s car.
My uncle was a musician and a lead guitarist in a covers band—he loved rock and roll, 80s hair bands like AC/DC and Whitesnake. I wonder if they played that in the car? It was always my two cousins together with my uncle. The one who went with my uncle that night was the younger. I wonder how he begged to go alone with my uncle. Maybe his brother had homework. Or perhaps he was in trouble for some sort of slick stunt. My cousin sat up on the hill, away from the cars, perhaps watching the mechanical interactions at a distance to learn. Maybe he was annoying them with questions—he was a tag-a-long. The youngest of all of us four cousins who played together as children. But the men kept him out of the cars. Maybe he saw the headlights—I wonder if the headlights were on—when the drunk driver swerved off the road into the cars. My cousin ran for help. It was at least a quarter mile in any direction—an eternity for an eight-year-old. But he got help for his Dad and the drummer’s wife who was already dead and another man who broke his leg. The driver was mostly fine—just drunk as a skunk.
Those are our private memories, my cousin’s and mine. I know mine. I imagine his. He’s never talked about it with me. I’ve never asked.
Families are complicated. My uncle died yesterday. I want to reach out to my cousin, to tell him that I’m sorry that he’s hurting. I made him a pan of pasta to tell him instead, but he said he didn’t want my food. He wanted my mom to give him his father’s heirlooms. He wanted to arrange the services himself, and by law he can and did. He asked nothing of my mother’s opinions. Or my aunt, who has served as my uncle’s guardian since our grandmother passed.
I think I remember my cousin was there when my Dad passed. I think he was out of prison at the time and gave me his shy, loving smile. He looked at me apologetically. He has a good smile. I know he loves me, and I love him. We both loved fathers who loved guitars. My Dad taught his how to play his first notes. I hope to hug him, if he’ll let me. If not, maybe I can smile apologetically.
Deaths are complicated.