Thursday, August 16, 2012

Day 361: My Good Uncle

So, I mentioned a few days ago that my uncle died. Apparently he left us sometime during the night of my 50th birthday (or in the wee hours of the morning after). But as deaths go, it seemed like it was a good one. He'd been very ill for a few years; I think there was something going on with this heart, and one day he simply passed out and fell, hitting his head hard. And then after that . . . nothing seemed to go right for him. He developed skin cancer on his head, had it removed, and then the wound never closed. His circulation continued to be an issue, which made him exhausted all the time and overwhelmed the rest of his organs (like — his body couldn't process bile adequately, so much of his esophagus was eaten away). Everything got harder for him: movement, speech, memory, breathing. During the last week of his life, he was nauseated and couldn't keep anything down, and on Friday he had so much trouble breathing it was throwing him into a panic attack.

Before then, my aunt had called hospice, so he (and she!) were being well taken care of, and my uncle had said several times that he was ready to go, he didn't want any Big Intervention — but when your loved one is right in front of you trying desperately to breathe and failing . . . I am really proud of my aunt for not panicking. She held his hand and spoke to him calmly while simultaneously calling hospice and getting him some anti-anxiety meds, and he was able to calm down and breathe again. And then their former minister came to visit, and he actually got my uncle to sing with him, which is HUGE — my uncle had always been so musical, he had a beautiful deep voice and loved to sing, but he hadn't been able to do it in years (the esophagus thing). And then he and my aunt kissed each other and said "I love you," and he fell asleep very calmly. And the next morning . . . he was gone, with a look of peace on his face.

My grandparents are all gone, and this is the first person in the next generation to go. And while, as I said, it isn't a huge surprise — we knew it would be soon — I'm still reeling from the loss.

Uncle Bill, Daddy's little brother, is the person in the world most like my adorable dad. They were such partners in crime. Both were masters of deadpan humor; they would say these droll, witty things and barely crack a smile.

There were four kids in the family; my dad and Bill were in the middle. (Left to right, that's Bill, Dad, and Butch, the eldest. Look at my dad's curls! Is he not adorable? Though he already has the weight of the world on his shoulders, as you can see.)

Actually, there was a longish stretch following Bill, and then Diane came along, a cherished princess after three strapping boys. (My uncles are giants, in every sense of the word. Big tall men, big booming voices, enormous feet, larger-than-life personalities. They fill a room.) The story they tell about the first Princess Di is that it's a wonder she ever learned to walk; her adoring big brothers carried her everywhere until she was five. But when Di was still a baby, their mom left their dad, an itinerant musician living in Oklahoma (and possibly cheating on her, given that she was Wife 2 out of 5) and fled to California, where she had family. But no one had money, and she promptly went to work two jobs, leaving young Bill basically motherless.

"And now," says Di, "he has her all to himself, at last."

There was never any money, so the kids made their own fun. Sports were huge; the boys played a lot of basketball, which required the least equipment. And they made a game out of whatever they did. In one of my favorite stories about Dad and Bill, they would be playing cards (whatever game they happened to be playing), and, I imagine, being very funny and clever about it, as they always were, so they began to attract an audience. And once they knew people were watching, they just started making up crap. "One-eyed Jack!" Bill would yell, slapping down a card, and they'd get up and switch seats. "Seven of hearts," Dad would say. "Give me seven cards." And Bill would. They got each other perfectly, always.

My dad doesn't have that now. That's a kind of loneliness I can't even bear to think about.

Bill was the last one of the kids to get married, but he chose well. My Aunt Val is stunningly beautiful (men followed us around Tiajuana crying, "Wonder Woman! Wonder Woman!" She looks a lot like Lynda Carter but even prettier), unfailing patient, adorably funny, and always kind. I think I was 10 when they got married, and I remember staring at her in awe during the whole wedding — she was such a goddess to me. (I said to Mom later, "I'm so glad that Aunt Val is in the family now! I want to look like her when I grow up." Oh, poor Mom, who had to explain genetics to her crushed little girl . . . )

They had two kids, who looked just like the Campbell's Soup babies — round and red-cheeked. I saw them only occasionally over the years, because they lived in Southern California and we lived in Northern — and seriously, people, it's like the two Irelands, except only one half of the state seems to realize there's a war. (Northern California: "L.A., bah! Smog! Traffic! Shallow people! Ugh!" Southern California: "Ooh, San Francisco, redwoods, hot tubs! Love the shops!")

But as the kids got older and the adults were more able to travel without having to deal with child care, we began seeing them a lot more, because Bill and Val came to everything important we did. Between me and my brothers we've had five weddings, and Bill and Val were at every one of them.

This picture is from 1961, right after my mom and dad eloped, and her parents threw a party for the new couple. (I think they considered punching my dad — my mom was only 18!! — but he won them over. And they've been married 50+ years so far, who's to say.)** Mom and Dad are in the center, Aunt Di is holding the baby, and Bill is next to her. We howl over this picture, as everyone else is enraptured by the cute baby — except Bill, who always knew where the camera was.

Bill and Val came to my grandparents' 60th wedding anniversary, even though these were Mom's parents and technically not their own relatives — but Bill and Val were so much part of our immediate family, no one batted an eye.

One of the joys of my life was to get Bill, Dad, and Dad's best friend Everett in a room last summer and have them tell me stories about living in an apartment together as young men before they went into the army. (Ev: "Your dad did the cooking, I did the dishes, and Bill . . . napped." I said, "My dad always claims that he was afraid of girls," and Ev said, "We both were! Bill was more outgoing, so he'd do the talking while your dad and I stood there with our hands in our pockets.")

He was my singing uncle, the one who would always tell me family stories when I asked, my dad's buddy. He loved me from the day I was born. He was a good, good man, and I can't believe he's gone.

Aunt Val is coming to Mendocino with us next week, and I imagine we will tell lots of stories and do some toasting and laughing and crying and maybe even some singing. I'm so glad she will be there — I think we all need to see each other and spend some good family time. And I'm happy that my own daughter will get to know her goddess great-auntie a little better.

I miss my uncle. I know he's in a better place, but I still miss him. And I am sad for my darling Aunt Diane, who has always been the cherished little sister of three big (BIG) brothers, and now must adjust her worldview. And of course I'm sad for Aunt Val, who lost her partner and soulmate and still has a long, long life ahead of her without him.

And my heart breaks for my dad, who lost one of the people deepest in his heart. Like many men, Dad doesn't have a lot of those people. Losing one is huge.

All I can do is be the best daughter and niece I can be — and cherish my own brothers, too, who drive me crazy but are also wonderful, good men. And keep telling the family stories, so that we always remember. And be grateful that I have a large loving family, which not everyone does. And that is really all I can do.

Rest in peace, my very dear uncle, and know that you are always in our hearts.

—Lady C

** Though on occasion my dad still introduces her as "my first wife."


  1. Just beautiful. I'm all misty eyed. Thanks for including the pictures. Your dad looks exactly the same today, ignoring matters of the hair.

    What luck to have such a great family! Sorry for the loss of your dear uncle.

  2. What a lovely tribute to your uncle... thanks for sharing him with us. Sorry for your and your family's grief...

  3. Thanks, chicas. I appreciate your kind words more than I can say.


  4. I love that photo and your touching tribute. Looks like Uncle Bill had a lot of that Davis height!
    Mrs. Cynicletary