My uncle, in faraway Nebraska, is in hospice. This is my mother’s brother, the person everyone has compared me to back as far as I can remember: You’re so much like your Uncle Jerry. You remind me of Jerry. You and your uncle are so alike.
That connection has been more or less lost these last many years, the phone conversations non-existent, the e-mails intermittent at best, most of the news relayed through my mother, seven years her brother’s junior. That age gap frequently proved insurmountable for the two of them as they grew up, although I only realized how extensive a difference it was in the aftermath of the memorial service for my grandfather.
I knew he wasn’t my biological grandfather; that man abandoned his family when they were all young. This was the man I always called “Grandpa” and who my mother always called “Daddy.” But it turned out, as I spent the evening following his service in a hotel room alone with my uncle, that my uncle always viewed this man as “Bill,” his stepfather. For my uncle, seven years older than my mother and able to understand a lot more, that abandonment by his birth father was scarring, probably moreso than he had ever let on to anyone before that night.
Because my uncle kept to himself, much like I do (even as I blog to the universe). That was one of those intangibles, rather than the obvious things like our fondness for books, that caused family members to remark on our similarities.
For all the phone time we logged, especially in my 20s, I’m rather vague about his history. Life started in Nebraska, and after her husband left, my grandmother left her kids with family members while she went to wartime Washington, D.C., to earn a living. There she met my grandpa, and after retrieving the children they moved to Monte Vista, Colorado, where my uncle and mother grew up.
My uncle went to the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, about four hours away from home. One time he tried to make it home in a snowstorm, and slid off the road in South Park. He ended up bundled by the fireplace in a Fairplay hotel, and that may have been the moment he decided he was not about to spend his life in a snow-ridden place like Colorado.
He went to California, the Bay Area, where he spent many of his years. At one point he owned a bookstore — those were the glorious days when he sent Terri and me the entire series of the Three Investigators, a collection I still have and still enjoy re-reading, although I doubt they play well for today’s kids, who don’t understand having to leave chalk trails to be located and not being able to broadcast your searches on social media.
The bookstore, alas, wasn’t terribly lucrative but for the discount on personal books, so he either went back to or took up a job as a technical editor for the Lawrence Livermore Lab in Livermore, Calif. The only shame in this is that he was my maternal uncle, not paternal, so his name wasn’t Livermore.
He also didn’t live in Livermore until later, commuting for many years clear around the Bay from Palo Alto in a lifestyle I really couldn’t imagine. He became quite the champion of Honda cars for their gas mileage. Then, when the same internet that doomed my Three Investigators came along, it opened up a world of possibility for my uncle, who conducted what could have been one of the medium’s first internet romances with the woman who is now my aunt.
My uncle, jilted (I’m told) in college by a woman who left him for the Catholic Church, waited longer than most to find his true love, but he has been amply rewarded ever since in his life with Nancy, who not only loves him, but also his penchant for cats. They currently have seven, and I’m not sure if that includes the feral Senor Tomas who lives out back and hisses when anyone comes near but still expects his food to be provided.
Nancy and Jerry decided, to the perplexion of many, that they would prefer Lincoln, Nebraska, over California, so after retiring from technical editing he also pulled away from the coast, back to America’s Heartland where he probably remembered more fondly than any of us realized those early days before his family broke apart.
There he lived with his wife and his cats, until early this year, when dementia took hold. It had probably been a long time coming, but it arrived with the full force of the trains he was fond of, sending him to assisted living, where he didn’t want to go unless Nancy and the cats could come too. But they couldn’t even come visit, due to covid, so the telephone became his lifeline to his wife and sister, although he was having a lot of hallucinations and they had to try to parse out what was real and what was taking place only in his failing temporal lobes as he talked to them.
This week, a bladder infection turned septic, and now a staph infection is raging unchecked. Bearing in mind Uncle Jerry’s stated wishes, Nancy decided, as he lost the ability to swallow, to enroll him in hospice two days ago.
While not unforeseen, it’s still a gut check, these final days for the uncle who rarely came to visit (all that Colorado snow) but who sent marvelous gifts: the Crazy Wheel, the mysterious chemistry set for Terri, the 35-millimeter single-lens reflex camera for me, and the books, especially that mother lode of an entire series all at once . . . the uncle who gave me, the one so much like him, the gift of conversation, sharing moments of his closely-held life.
It is just sad, that’s all. And harder than I expected.