People die all the time. In hospitals of incurable diseases (and occasionally of completely curable ones, too), in various places due to random bad luck and happenstance. Airplanes, car crashes, wars, aneurysms, heart attacks, old age, tropical infections, kidney failure, drowning, botchulism.
None of these things affect me all that much.
This is, of course, not because I lack empathy, but because these deaths don’t touch me. These deaths do not directly alter my life, nor do they change the circumstances under which that life is lived. Were my grandfather to die, I would undoubtedly be devastated. No longer would I be greeted within a few moments of entering the door by a jovial “Hello, Cyle!”. No longer would I have someone to join me at the breakfast table and share a laugh at grammatical errors made by the local newspaper. Again, I am not without empathy.
This is, perhaps, why I find myself so befuddled.
For a variety of reasons, I have not spoken to my biological father and his extended family for a number (6) of years. I do not care to divulge the details and/or backstory of this estrangement except to give the following caveats:
1.) This estrangement was self-imposed. It is my conscious decision to have no contact whatsoever.
2.) I cannot imagine any situation, circumstance or interaction which would change this conscious decision.
3.) The quality of my life, barring a (very) occasional feeling of guilt, is infinitely better for having made this decision. I harbor no ill will and am living by the age old tenet, “Live and let live.”
By and large, and because my biological father does not live anywhere nearby (geographically speaking), my casual diffidence is remarkably easy. Again, “live and let live”. However, the vast majority of his extended family- my paternal grandmother, his two sisters and their spouses and children- happen to inhabit the same small mountain town that I have come to call home. One of his sisters and her husband own a reputable business here and, because it is a small mountain town, seeing one another is almost inevitable. When the inevitable occurs, I am pleased to say that we handle it well by simply (though courteously) ignoring each other. It is easier for both parties, I suspect. However, I do occasionally hear about the pithy details of their lives via my stepsister, Jessie, who maintains a good relationship with them. They are, by and large, decent people who mean well and I, quite honestly (and contentedly) wish them no ill and, indeed, all of the best. Unfortunately, life rarely regards our best wishes for one another and, it would appear that Bob, my biological father’s brother-in-law and my uncle, has been dealt some very inconvenient and very ill will.
He has an inoperable brain tumor and his death is, if not imminent, on the very foreseeable horizon.
Bob has always been the goofy sort. Kindhearted, with an airy, high-pitched voice that betrayed his irascible sense of humor and penchant for practical jokes. He has never been one to miss an opportunity to trick or mislead someone- always for a laugh, a chuckle, a guffaw. When I was 14, he asked me to go golfing with him- not only to enjoy his favorite hobby, but to introduce his godson to the joys of the game that he himself loves so much. I accepted enthusiastically and was told that we’d be going, along with a few of his friends, to a very prestigious and exclusive course- one that required a collared shirt and slacks to enter. Having seen a few highlights for golf on Sportscenter, this seemed to make sense and so I obliged him, even taking the time to press my slacks for the occasion so as not to embarrass him and his friends. I was dropped off at his house and he greeted me at the door in jeans and an old t-shirt.
“I’ve got my duds in my locker at the course,” he assured me.
We drove half an hour south of town before turning on to a dusty, dirty gravel road in the middle of a stretch of farmland. Looking around at the various ditches, divots and stretches of bald, grassless patches of earth, I realized just how set up I had been. The “prestigious golf course” was a farm that had been rototilled to make a course replete with water hazards (ditches) and roughs (vast muddy fields).
Though I enjoyed myself, I was laughed at all day- not only by my uncle and his friends, but by other players upon being told why I was dressed in the manner I was.
I am writing at a picnic table in a park that is across the street from the Catholic church where Bob and his wife were (and still are, I presume) parishioners. Bob served as a deacon, though I am unaware of whether or not he still serves in the capacity. When I was 17, I was recognized nationally as a “Future Leader of America” for my work in the community, as well as for academic prowess and invited to go to Washington D.C. as a part of an exclusive ten-day conference. There was absolutely no way that my mother could afford to send me, despite her fervent desire to see me go. Anticipating this, though unbeknownst to me, my uncle spoke to his priest and a few days after receiving the elegant letter and invitation to D.C., my uncle invited me to accompany both he and Father Paul to lunch. Father Paul was a keg of a man. Short, squat, though impeccably fit and with biceps as large as tree trunks, he shook my hand harder than anyone before or since, repeating my name like a mantra as he shook his head with unbridled joy.
“Cyle, Cyle, Cyle, Cyle, Cyle. Skinny, strong Cyle. Look at that handshake, Cyle! Cyle, Cyle, Cyle!”
Though I cannot now remember the specifics of what the three of us spoke about, I can distinctly remember the odor of the good priest’s cologne. Old Spice quickly wafted throughout the restaurant, weighing it down with its specific blend of misplaced pretense and self-satisfaction. The meal came and went and more than a few laughs were had. The golf story was told, much to Father Paul’s delight. Throughout the conversation, Father Paul regarded me with no small amount of curiosity, turning his head this way and that, as though he were trying to see every angle of my face, every side of each of the comments I made. As we sat back contentedly and the two men drank their decaf coffees, Father Paul suddenly sat up rigidly, smacking his lips and clapping his hands.
“Alright,” he said to my uncle. “I’m convinced.”
There was a short silence as the two men regarded each other, satisfied.
“You ought to ask him what he is convinced of, Cyle,” my uncle gestured toward me with his chin and then to his priest.
“Convinced of what, sir?” I asked hesitantly, fearing another joke.
“Well, Cyle, strong Cyle, tough Cyle- of the need to give you this,” he replied. He reached in the folds of the jacket hanging on the back of his chair and pulled out an envelope which he slapped down with great gusto onto the table, rattling flatware and spilling a few drops from water glasses dispersed throughout the table.
I looked at the envelope, confused, and then at Bob who seemed to know exactly what was going on. He leaned back in his chair, rubbed his sizable gut and then interlocked his fingers and put his hands on the crown of his head as though he had just finished a run and was trying to catch his breath. I reached for the envelope that bore my name in hasty, squalled lines and opened it. A check fluttered and fell to the floor, drifting in lazy, spinning circles. It landed face up.
The total of the check was more than enough to cover the cost of the conference, airfare, food, lodging and sundries- well over two thousand and five hundred dollars.
“Cyle, Cyle, Cyle, Cyle, Cyle. Skinny, strong Cyle. Look at that, Cyle! Cyle, Cyle, Cyle!”
I am five. I am tempestuous, irascible in the way that some children are when they have ideas larger than their vocabularies allow them, when they know that they are not adults- but also know that they cannot stand the skin in which they exist. I feel incorrect, I feel wrong, as though a mistake has been made. I wonder constantly when I will wake up and be what I actually am- an adult.
I am going to my Aunt Sue’s house. I like Aunt Sue. She is fun. She has my cousins- that’s where they live, at least. Sunny and Nikki, my two favorite people. Aunt Sue is where Uncle Bob lives. I like Uncle Bob, too. He throws me in the air. I am going to my Aunt Sue’s house.
My mom tells me as we drive that I know what I need to do. She asks me what she always asks me.
“What’s the most important thing, Cyle?”
I fidget with my backpack, zipping it and unzipping it. I wish I had a suitcase like I’ve seen in old movies.
“Oh! Sorry, Mom. The most important thing is to be a gentleman,” I look at her in the front seat. She is not wearing a seat belt. The commercial told me to wear a seat belt and I always tell her to, but she never does. Adults never listen.
“That’s right,” she smiles and turns up the radio and we sing together.
It isn’t long before we’re at Aunt Sue’s. I know the house. You pass one Texaco and then another and then you turn onto the road that makes a big circle and then you go past the house with the falm tree in it and then you’re there. Aunt Sue is outside as we drive up the driveway, so is Uncle Bob. I am happy. I reach for the door and open it as quietly as I can. I know that we haven’t stopped yet, but if I open the door now, I can get out quicker. I hold the door so that it is open very slightly.
“Cyle! Wait, please!” my mother shouts suddenly and I am so surprised that I slam the door shut quickly. How does she always know when the door is open?
Aunt Sue comes to the door and I cannot help but shriek with delight. I am embarrassed that I do this. After all, this is not what adults do. I compose myself and as she pulls me from the car, I greet her as I have seen my mother do to her coworkers and friends.
“Well hello there, Aunt Sue! How do you do today?” She laughs. Uncle Bob laughs.
I cannot figure out why they always laugh at me.
Several hours have passed. I have played with Sunny and Nikki for what seems like days. Ninja Turtles and Barbies and on the slide and in the yard and I am now hungry. Aunt Sue is cooking in the kitchen. I can smell it. Ugh. I hate food. I hate hate food. I really hate hate food. Well, not all food.
I like peanut butter.
“Sunshine! Nicole! Grab Cyle and come inside to eat, please!” she shouts from the kitchen window.
“Come on, Cyle,” Nikki reaches for my hand and I take it. “Let’s go wash our hands.” Nikki is remarkable. She always knows just what to do.
Our hands washed, we are sitting at the table and Aunt Sue has loaded our plates with something that looks foreign to me. Sunny and Nikki are eating with wild abandon, but I don’t trust it. I don’t like the way it looks at me. Uncle Bob seems likes it too and he has some on his face, but I just… I can’t…
“Cyle,” my Aunt points toward my plate. “Eat, baby. It’s good, I promise.”
I am not convinced. This is not good. It smells weird and I tell her so. I don’t want it and I tell her so.
“Aw, come on now,” she says. “You’re going to hurt my feelings! I made it extra special for you!”
“Aunt Sue! Adults don’t have feelings! That’s ree-dica-loss!”
They laugh. I cannot figure out why they always laugh at me.
“Cyle, look,” my Uncle Bob has managed to get his entire meal onto his fork and he raises it high above his face. It’s a huge bite. I’ve never seen a bite so big. It’s incredible, but I don’t want to say that word out loud, because they’ll probably laugh again. With a flourish, he opens his mouth and stuffs it in.
“Das how goo ’tis!” he says through the mouth of food. He puts a thumb up and smiles, his face filthy from the bite he has just taken. “Thry it!”
Everyone has finished their meal. I am left alone at the table. I can hear Aunt Sue and Uncle Bob in the kitchen doing the dishes. They’re talking about me as I stare at my plate. It just seems to look meaner and meaner. Life is awful. Miserable. I hate everything. I wish I was tall enough to make a peanut butter.
“He’s not going to eat it, honey,” she says. “We might as well just give him something else.”
“Gah,” he groans. “I hate it when kids do this. Ten years from now, he’ll love this stuff. Didn’t we have pretty much the same thing at Renee’s when we were there last week?” I have never heard my Uncle refer to my mom by her first name. Amazing!
“Yeah, we did, but she calls it something different. You know how he is with words, Bob.”
“He’s just going to want a peanut butter sandwich!”
“Goofy kid. Alright.”
“Thank you, sweetheart,” she says. I can hear them kissing. Gross.
Uncle Bob walks in to see me. He has a big smile on his face, but I know he’s not happy with me. So what? This stuff is gross and mean and I’m not eating it, no matter what he says. He could say that we’re having triple decker chocolate ice cream cake and I STILL wouldn’t eat it. It’s a matter of principle now.
“Alright, pal,” he bends down to meet me eye to eye. I like when adults do this.
“Uncle Bob, I don’t wantta,” I cross my arms.
“Okay, You don’t have to. What do you want instead? You’ve gotta eat something, right?”
“Can I have a peanut butter?!”
He sighs. He stands up. He picks up my plate and goes to the kitchen. Life is good again.
It’s a few minutes before he comes back. He’s done it perfectly, I just know it. My Uncle Bob. He has a plate, he has a glass of milk, he has the sandwich. Life is so good. He puts it down and even if I had the words to express my thanks, they’d probably escape me. I look up at him and smile as big as my incorrect and too small face will allow. He smiles back. He goes back to the kitchen.
I pick up the sandwich and take a bite. Something is wrong! Peanut butter doesn’t have crunchies in it! Peanut butter is sticky and gooey and with no chunkies! This is wrong! Life is horrible! Life is wrong! Everything is wrong!
I can’t help it. I scream through my mouth of peanut butter.
“What is it NOW?!” Uncle Bob is mad. I know it. But I can’t help screaming. It’s horrible. Life is wrong and I am wrong and I can’t do anything for myself and my nose is running and I hate everything! And this sandwich is what I want but in all the wrong ways! Crunchies! No crunchies!!!
“Bob! Why is he screaming?!”
“How in the hell should I know?! I did exactly what he wanted!!!”
“Oh, dammit,” she says. “Did you make it with chunky or creamy?!”
“Oh, shit! THAT’S why he screaming?!?!”
“Yes!!! You can’t make it with chunky!!!”
“We don’t have creamy! We NEVER have creamy!!!”
I am still screaming, though mostly now because they are. Life is all wrong. Life is horrible. My cousins try to console me, but I can’t hear them through the sounds of my own voice. I just can’t understand why life is so hard. Uncle Bob has his coat in his hands. He puts it on. He’s probably leaving forever. The door slams. I made him mad and now he’s going away and I’ll never get home and I’ll never see my mom again and my dog is at home and he’ll have to come find me, but he’ll get lost because he can’t remember if it’s one Texaco or two because he can’t read and I’ll have to be here forever with stupid chunkies and wrong peanut butter and bad life and I’ll probably never grow up and I’ll always feel wrong and incorrect and- the door opens and closes again.
Uncle Bob is back. He’s not gone forever. He bends down to see me eye to eye and I like that. He takes something out of a grocery bag. He shows it to me. It’s the right peanut butter. I know it. It even says “Creamy Style” on it. He sighs. He tousles my hair and goes into the kitchen.
I take a breath and my jaw trembles as I exhale.
It’s a few minutes before he comes back. He’s done it perfectly. My Uncle Bob. He has a plate, he has a glass of milk, he has the sandwich. Life is so good. He puts it down and even if my eyes weren’t filled with remnant tears and my nose wasn’t so stupid and runny and I had the words to express my thanks, they’d probably escape me. I look up at him as a tear falls off of my chin and smile as big as my incorrect and too small face will allow. He smiles back. He goes back to the kitchen.
Oh. My. G-d. He bought me a car. Oh. My. G-d. What in the HELL am I going to tell my parents?! My stepdad does NOT want me to have a car. He has expressly forbid it several times now. But there it is. A car. My Uncle Bob is behind the wheel of it and he’s honking the horn at me through the front window of the retail store where I work. When he told me he was going to a police auction and asked me if I needed anything, I was joking when I replied, “Yeah, a car.” J-O-K-I-N-G joking.
Oh. My. G-d. It’s a little sedan that can probably go really fast. I can’t WAIT to take my girlfriend for a ride.
“Do you like it?!” he beams as I step outside. He is so proud of himself. “It’s basically new. Still under warranty! Eighty-five thousand miles on it! Can you get out of work for a minute and take it for a drive?”
Oh. My. G-d. He bought me a car. Oh. My. G-d.
I go back inside and talk to the manager on duty. I tell her what has just happened.
“Clock out,” she smiles. She is young. She knows. A college senior and can see the look on my face. “You and Elanor are going to have a good time with that thing,” She is talking about my girlfriend and I am suddenly imagining driving to the top of Red Mountain Pass at treacherously high speeds as we listen to Jimmy Eat World at treacherously high volumes.
Oh. My. G-d. He bought me a car.
I was supposed to take the trolley home after work. Instead, I drive my uncle back to his house and then drive the car, MY car, home. I pull in to the driveway, get out and hit the button to lock it. It has a button. My car has a button. It makes a loud beep and I feel so. damned. cool.
My stepdad walks out of the house and my heart drops into one of my big toes. I can’t tell which one.
“What is that?” he asks.
“That- uh- it- uh- well…” I don’t feel cool anymore. I feel sick.
“What. Is. That.” his teeth are clenched. He is never mad.
I am terrified.
My mother walks out of the house and the feeling doubles. Triples. Exponentially.
“What is that?!” she is incredulous. She looks at me, then looks at my stepdad. The world is silent.
The phone rings.
“Please go and get the phone, sweetheart,” my stepdad says.
We stand for a few moments in silence. We can both hear my mother answer the phone.
“Hello?” a pause. “Oh, hi, Bob. Yes, he’s here- and with some strange car. Eric is talking to him.”
My stepdad looks at me, looks at the window and goes inside.
“‘Rubber Soul’?! That’s the one you like best?” We are arguing over which Beatles album is best. His contention is that ‘Revolver’ broke the most ground. Mine is that ‘Rubber Soul’ is the most cohesive and strongest whole of all of their releases.
“Absolutely,” I say, as we stand in the music store where I work. He came in to buy strings for his old, beaten acoustic guitar. “Think about it- 1965, music is becoming more narrative, the album is becoming the predominant form of musical expression, singles and B-sides are being done away with-”
“’65?!” he interrupts, incredulous. “’67, Cyle. You should know better.”
“Wha-?!” I blister back. “I DO know better! ’65! ‘Revolver’ comes next in ’66, ‘Pepper’s’ in ’67 and on from there.”
“You’re kidding yourself, buddy,” he scoffs.
“Check it! I’ll put five dollars on it!”
He studies me as car salesmen do. This is apropos, seeing as he has handed over the vast majority of his business to various family members a year ago and has since been selling cars for a local dealership. Getting in and out of his truck got to be too difficult for him after several hip and knee replacements and the strain and tug of many years.
“Alright, kid. You’d better make enough here to spare five bucks.”
We go to the computer. I quickly get on Google and run a search.
“Jesus Christ, you type fast!” he says, his eyes wide as my fingers spider across the keyboard.
“The only useful thing about being an English major,” my coworker, who is also my good friend, says.
“If you don’t shut up, Will, I’m not going to teach you how to read later,” Will and my uncle laugh. I hit ENTER with a flourish and Google immediately responds.
“So, you’re buying me lunch for hurting my feelings right?” Will laughs again as he reads the screen.
I turn the monitor to my uncle with a smug grin.
“Aw, come on!” he shouts. He reaches into his wallet.
My dog, Woody is whining. It’s coming on nine o’clock as I am writing this and he knows that it is time for his (our) evening walk. It’s remarkable what an animal can learn and “know” when they get into a routine. Woody came into my life almost a year ago today and since then, we have gone for a walk every evening precisely at nine o’clock. Regardless of where we are or whose house we are visiting, Woody knows when it is time and he comes to find me, whining, sitting at my feet and raising one of his paws as if to say, “Please?”
I became a dog owner due to one of my mother’s brother’s dying wishes. Scott was diagnosed with lung cancer in July of last year and succumbed to what the doctors quickly realized was rapidly moving bone cancer in October. I had gone to see him several times between diagnosis and death, and when he finally accepted his pending mortality, he asked me to come and sit next to him on the couch where he lay every day.
“I don’t really know what your situation is or where you’re living, but uh-” he trailed off and purposefully kept his eyes off of mine, though I was leaning in toward him, my elbows on my knees, my chin in my hands.
“It uh- I-” he began to cough and I handed him a tissue. Scott had never been good with words. He considered himself a man of action, of doing things and as such, words and displays of emotion were not on this, or any day’s “to-do” list.
He coughed again, spit into the tissue and composed himself.
“I’d really like it if you took Woody. I don’t know if your living situation will allow it, but uh, if you can, I’d really appreciate it. You could actually take Woody this time- well, not “this time” this time, but uh- you know what I mean.”
And I did.
It did not take me long to fall completely in love with Woody- it does not take anyone long to fall in love with him. If you’re not taken by his huge, expressive brown eyes or his maniacal grin, you’re quickly enraptured by his kind heart and sweet demeanor and, if neither of those things catches your fancy, he’s willing (and anxious) to please by chasing a ball for as long as you’re willing to throw one. Should you so desire, he’ll also quietly and very contentedly accompany you on road trips, long hikes or whatever else you might care to throw at him. He is nothing if not well-mannered, obliging and willing, so long as you desire him around.
Of course, we became friends immediately.
“Well, Scott,” I’d say in the midst of whatever the three of us happened to be doing, “if you wake up tomorrow morning and both Woody and I are gone, don’t worry. You know who has got him.”
He’d laugh. He’d look at Woody, he’d look at me.
“Not this time, man.”
It occurs to me as I sit here, rubbing my dog’s face and gently removing a burr that has lodged behind his ear from the hike we took today, that he has a skeleton, that he has guts and blood and organs. It occurs to me that one day, those things will have aged to such an extent that they will no longer be able to sustain function. One day, my dog and my best, most trusted friend, will die. One day, nine o’clock will come and go and I will not have anyone to remind me that it is time for a walk, nor to accompany me.
Perhaps I will not go at all.
But one day, Woody will go into the ground and his skeleton will break down and feed into the earth and the whole thing will start over again and the only thing that I’ll have to remember him by is a collar, his threadbare blanket, a memory.
It occurs to me that, regardless of who we are and what we have done or been, we are all just skeletons. We all have guts and blood and organs and one day, those things will have aged to such an extent that they are no longer be able to sustain function. If we’re lucky, this function will cease due to age and a lifetime of cycling or pumping or firing. If we’re not so lucky, this function will cease due to being malformed from incorrect use or the unfortunate and random happenstance of the wrong genetic concoction and code that was always destined to fail us.
It will happen to you, it will happen to me. It happened to my Uncle Scott and it will, despite my best wishes over the last few years that I have ignored him, unfortunately happen to Bob.
I am coming to terms with this. I am coming to terms with the fact that, though he and I have had no meaningful contact over the last several (6) years, Bob has played an enormous role in my life and has exerted not a small amount of influence throughout the course of my formative years. Some of these things are good, some of them are not. But, the influence cannot be denied and so I wonder whether or not I should call this man who has played such an enormous role in my life and see how he is and who he has become since we last spoke. I wonder if it would do any good- for either of us.
Again, I am not without empathy.
Mostly though, I wonder if Bob needs to be anything more than he already has been to me: a golf game and pressed slacks, a very large check, a peanut butter sandwich, a car that eventually had to be returned (after a very pleasurable and very fast drive, it should be known), and The Beatles.
I’m not sure.