Sunday afternoon I had the chance to reconnect with my favorite uncle, Uncle Pete, after
an absence of 7 years in each other’s lives and a sporadic connection for the last 20 years. Prior to that, though, Uncle Pete was one of the constants in my life, one of the few adults that I could always look up to and count on to be there for me and provide guidance and often, fun.
Our irregular relationship was more a casualty of my poor life choices rather than anything despicable happening to our bond. Essentially, it panned out as, life happens and people and relationships go by the wayside. However, I often thought of my Uncle Pete and held fond memories in the recesses of my mind in spare moments whenever I allowed myself quiet times of reflection.
So, a few years ago when I heard the devastating news that he had a seizure while out of town on business and upon further investigation was found to have a brain tumor the size of a baseball, I was heartsick. Of course, being my typical Uncle Pete, nobody in our family knew until months later; he had already had surgery to have the diseased part of his brain removed, had been through therapy and was learning to walk and talk again.
The news struck me particularly hard, as we had been closer than my brother or sisters had been to him; I spent almost every summer at my grandmother’s home in Humboldt, Arizona. My Uncle Pete is only 12 years older than I, the youngest of 4 children in his family, he was still living at home when I would visit, so we spent a great deal of time together.
Even as he grew into a man, he would come and visit my family, always bringing me a special gift or trinket, something signifying our special bond. I am not certain if my sisters or brother ever noticed or were jealous, they never said anything; I think it was just understood that we were close. Everybody looked up to Uncle Pete and we would get excited to see him come; he was positive, intelligent, a great athlete who competed in marathons all over the world during his vacations, and an incredibly witty conversationalist.
The last time I saw him was the fall after my mother’s murder trial; it had been an exhausting year for everyone in the family, and Uncle Pete came to Reno for business. He stopped by each house individually because, by then, we were mostly not speaking to each other; at least I was out of the circle by then. Then, he made special arrangements with me to spend the night in Sacramento with me and my girls the next night so I would get some additional time visiting with him. We had an excellent visiting; we went out for Mexican food and he regaled the girls and I with stories of his latest triathlon. That was 2005.
I did not know what to expect when I saw him on Sunday, but I was hopeful; I had talked to him on the phone once, and his voice sounded the same, a little slower, but the tone, the inflection was the same.
When I saw him, I was immediately impacted by how much thinner he looked, not the same toned athlete of years past, he had always been slim, but he was skinny. We hugged, a warm encouraging hug; I did not shy away as I usually do when somebody, anybody, approaches me to hug them. I genuinely wanted to hug my Uncle Pete, this man I had loved and missed for years.
We all visited and chatted easily; I felt myself observing mostly, my sister even commented that I was quieter than usual; most who know me would say that I am more like a “chatty Cathy” than an observer. I was trying to be patient as he tried to find the words to finish his sentences, as he looked to the sky searching for words that he had known his whole life, but now they escaped him, taken away by doctors when they scraped away parts of his brain.
I held back tears as I watched him trying to prepare our dinner, denying any help we offered, insisting on doing everything himself. He obsessed over the fact that there was no ice for the drinks, to the point of having to stop everything he was doing; we all piled into the car for a brief trip to the grocery store.
We finally got to the best part of the evening; he wanted to know about his past, with me. His memory is gone, but when he is reminded of things, he knows them, he recalls them. He was thrilled when I told him story after story about the two of us from when I was little; first, he balked, claiming “That cannot be, you would have been 5, and I would have been 10,” then I reminded him that he is 56 and I am 44, thus, making my story plausible.
I told him stories about pretending to be “Jeannie” from “I Dream of Jeannie”; I used to have some purple harem pajamas when I was about 8 and would wear them all of the time. He would let me tag along to his friend’s houses and their girlfriend’s always thought I was so cute when I would cross my arms, snap my head forward, and blink my eyes, casting a pretend spell on them. He remembered.
Then there was the story about the night we lit my grandma’s hillside on fire when we were playing “firehouse” with Tony the dog’s doghouse. We would light it on fire and then put the fire out; we had done it several times successfully, but one night the fire did not go out, unbeknownst to us. We went to sleep only to wake up with several fire trucks on the hillside dousing the fire. We just stared at each other in amazement as everyone wondered how the doghouse could have caught on fire, although I am fairly certain my grandma knew.
Several stories later, my Uncle Pete looked like a kid on Christmas Eve almost begging, “Come on, you have another story, don’t you?” I did have more stories, but I was so sad, so sad for him, I just did not know how to continue. I had never loved another relative the way I have my Uncle Pete; and, talking to him that night, I realize that he had no idea.
Even as a child, I had no way to reach out, to love, to share. I wish I knew what happened, what flattened me, and why.