My dad writes that the news is "pretty good. He was alert and sitting up. He claims to have quit smoking. And when the oxygen tube came off, he put it back in by himself."
I have very few memories of this uncle.
Probably a lot of complicated things happened before I could understand which contribute to that fact. There is sorrow there that I can only vaguely sense. Those very few memories I do possess are likely colored by a fondness which they may not deserve. Perhaps they do deserve that fondness. Who can say?
He would appear and disappear unexpectedly throughout my childhood. With the scent of Camel cigarettes and with intricate, esoteric brush strokes on sheets of heavy paper. Once he brought by a set of dried watercolor cakes in a little plastic case. I loved mixing, remixing those hues, never quite coming up with the same color twice. You must treat your brush with respect, he said one time when he saw me mashing it into the green pigment. Somewhat embarrassed, I protested, saying that it was just a cheap brush. But it didn't matter whether I thought the brush was cheap or not. Ugh.
As a little girl, I would accompany my father to pick him up at Alewife Station sometimes, where he would be waiting on those curved benches made of yellow-stained wood. Benches where hundreds of thousands of people have sat, waiting to be picked up, but which will be forever linked to my dad's brother in my mind.
We saw him next as P's birthday party was wrapping up. We were all in our bathing suits, even my father, playing on the Slip 'n' Slide. My uncle took off his shirt; removed his keys, wallet, and cigarettes; and slid down the slope in our front yard in his worn blue jeans.
About a dozen years old, I wrote a little story and outlined illustrations for it in pencil, filling in each shape lovingly with the paint. He stopped by while I happened to be working on it, and I eagerly showed him my work. That is nice, he said, after glancing briefly at the pages, but these are watercolors. I began to feel that same tightness in the back of my throat as when I was admonished for mashing my brush. Watercolors aren't supposed to stay inside the lines, my uncle explained to his brother's earnest child, with equal earnestness on his part. You are supposed to let them bleed, let them seep into one another.
The words, their blunt delivery, crushed my twelve-year-old heart.
And then I watched as he painted two colors next to one another on a fresh sheet, watched in horror and delight as they swam and intertwined.
Last summer, we had a family reunion for all the descendants of our Irish great-grandmother. We were supposed to pick him up at his apartment. We waited and waited, rang the bell, waited some more. He was not there. Somebody in his building told us he had left a couple hours prior. We drove out to where the reunion was and had a jolly good time. Turns out he had gotten up early, taken the bus and then the train and was waiting for us at Alewife, on those curving yellow benches.
On the evening of the winter solstice, P told me our dad's brother was in the hospital, that he had collapsed at a bus stop.
Now here I am, with only these these little vignettes. I was very sick the days leading up to Christmas, but I am young, and able to recover from such things. Now that I'm well again and no longer at risk of infecting him, I am afraid to see my uncle. I never became a painter. I don't think I even finished the silly little story with the pencil-line illustrations. Every once in awhile, though, I do get out my watercolors. I mix and remix and lovingly spread the paint in bold strokes across the page, watch it fan out, trickle, wind together in teasing, unpredictable currents...
But I'm afraid of death, of the dying, or even those whose conditions merely hint at death. I am not brave, and I also suspect that those memories which were seared so strongly into my unfolding consciousness have long been carried away from his.
So now what?