Tuesday, December 29, 2009


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?  


Anonymous said...

Go see your uncle. You are connected to him in ways you don't even know. Ask him what it was like growing up with your dad. Let him teach you. Your company will ease his pain and the shared experience you create will mean a lot to both of you.

The regret that comes from not doing the right thing is usually worse than any awkwardness from actually doing it. Choose a date in the near, near future and make it happen.

Newt said...

Anonymous, thank you for your thoughtful advice. Unfortunately, there's a lot I haven't included in this post, for privacy reasons, which makes it a little more complicated to have a conversation the way you suggest.

Here's a post from a year and a half ago that gives a little bit more context (but unfortunately not much) to the situation.

You are right, though. I do want and need to do something to acknowledge this man who is linked to me by these incomprehensible kinship ties, despite what he has suffered, what he has done, despite the suffering he has caused and the suffering he endures even at this very moment... Yes, I'm struggling to find an appropriate way to do this with sensitivity and humility.

n said...

You should still go see him since he is in the hospital and a family member. But if you had a tempestuous relationship and don't feel adequate about it. Then send a card or a phone call. However, it's best to see him because you have lingering memories that conflict with what might happen if you do see him. You said you're not Brave. A lot of us are not brave when faced with uncertainty. We ruminated about the outcomes, if giving the chance, but you can't exactly compute them. So, I say take the plunge and go see him, especially since it sounds like he is in serious pain cause by cigarettes-- I'm guessing.
Unfortunately, cigarettes were being sold long before the health risk were known. My own father was hook, but quit when his first child was born, he is still around and quite healthy. Also, smoking is rampant amount actors, musician, some hipsters, the military( they used to give them out for free) and other cohorts. Why do people smoke? I don't know. I'm not going to make up a non-empirical theory to that social phenomenon. Nevertheless, the best explanation I have read, was on Gladwell's "The Tipping Point" Because it's an epidemic. Young teens start smoking because their buddies did or met someone whom they admire and he or she smoked. And then it's really genetic or how your body reacts to nicotine. Some teens quit immediately while other get a laden buzz. Furthemore, Gladwell then splits them into two groups. The Chippers and Addicts. The former just smoke socially and can easily quit. The latter become full-fledged smokers.Smoker, moreover, have spontaneous traits; not dull. According to Gladwell. Now we know the probabilities: on average smoking will rob you of six years of your life and is the leading cause of lung cancer. The odds are against smokers this is why they should quite, besides the smell and being treated by some righteous nonsmokers as subhuman,which is detestable. It's like walking around and treating obese people as subhuman since we know the odd are against them too. They'll suffer from diabetes, hearth problems etc. And some scientist have shown that sugar is as addictive as any other substance--they have difficulty reducing the sugar intake. But smokers get a bad reputation this days and the activity is more salient. However, they should quit so we'll stop the smoker epidemic.

Some sobering odds which apply to all of us.
1 in 5 Heart Disease
1 in 7 Cancer of some form.
1 in 24 Stroke
1 in 84 car accidents.
And 1 in 100000 die of medical malpractice.

The good news,however, is that our life expectancy is 78 in the U.S.A. And the odds of a dying in a terrorist flight attack, which has been all over the sensationalist news, is 1 in 10480978. And the odds of a happy marriage are still fifty-fifty---not good.
To clarify, though, I am not dropping these numbers because I think they will alleviate your pain and fear. I am just trying to show that Life is risky and you should drink it in like some rare oasis on the desert of the universe. Indeed, we are very lucky to love and be here.So, I still insist you should see the fellow; it might be your last chance.

NAlton said...

I know I am late. But my thought was "take him a watercolor." If you're not sure you want to go see him in person, send him a card that you made. And then write a note expressing whatever it is you're feeling. This way you could focus on, what seem to be, your fondest (more ingrained?) memories of him, and not on the hard parts.

just a thought.

I hope he is doing well.

Newt said...

xan, that is exactly what I'm doing - how did you know?

Rachel. said...

Katie, la Dancing Newt, child of the rain, and daughter of dreams. I am glad you made/are making a watercolor.