You probably didn’t notice. Most of you weren’t even regular readers at the time. I referred to it as “a last minute detour.” It was the first day of my trip. Even though I left in the morning, I didn’t get to Portland until nine o’clock at night. I’m talking about those extra hours between Seattle and Portland. I didn’t want to talk about it then, and I wasn’t sure I was ever going to want to talk about it. Even now, as I type this, I’m not positive I want to make this post public.
I got the phone call from my mother back in February. My Uncle John had been suffering from a bad cough, and finally went to the doctor. They told him he had esophageal cancer. And it was bad. Very bad. They said if he did nothing he had two months to live.
It wasn’t an easy time to get the news. My family was still mourning the passing of my grandmother, who had died a year earlier. Almost exactly a year to the day that Uncle John was diagnosed. I don’t remember much of the conversation with my mom. It was a difficult mix of not understanding the truth and not being able to believe it yet. I think I must have asked her how she was doing, because the only thing I remember her saying was, “Well, it’s hard.” I heard her swallow a lump in her throat. “He’s my little brother.” I asked my mom to keep me posted and hung up the phone. I turned to Rob and said very simply, “My Uncle John has cancer. He’s going to die.” He brought me over to the couch and sat with me while I cried.
I cried again a few weeks later. It was after church and the whole congregation was downstairs for coffee hour. Normally people make prayer requests up in church during announcements, but I’m always downstairs with the Sunday School kids during that time. I stood next to our priest, Fr. James, and began what I thought was going to be a very basic and straight forward request for prayers. I had planned to simply say that my uncle had cancer and he didn’t have long to live, please pray for him and our family. I don’t remember how far I got before my words got caught in my stomach and Fr. James put his arm around my shoulder to comfort me. Everyone in the church was very supportive, and while I dried my eyes they shared their own stories of losing loved ones to cancer.
It was the day before Easter, known as Holy Saturday, when my sister Nikki and I drove the two hours over to Yakima together to visit Uncle John and Aunt Linda. He had lost a lot of weight. Too much. Linda told us he was eating nothing but cereal, since that was the only thing that didn’t seem to upset his stomach these days. The four of us sat there in the living room talking. We told them about my trip and our plans to have Nikki join me when I hiked the Grand Canyon. Our cousin Trinna came over to say hello. Trinna is very smart. Too smart, at times. Last year she told her high school counselor that they had to do something to challenge her more in school, or she would have to drop out. The school’s solution was to have her take the next two grades simultaneously, which she did. She was also going with John and Linda when John was getting his chemo treatments. She would ask the doctors and nurses questions. She wanted to know about his cancer, about the chemo, about the needles and the drugs. Trinna’s the only person I’ve ever met who I think could become a neurobiologist by accident.
As Nikki and I left, we made sure to promise that we would come visit again soon. Linda had mentioned before that John was getting really depressed. He liked having so many people come to visit, but he couldn’t help but think that every time he saw someone it was for the last time. I made it clear that I would be back before I left on my trip. This was not the last time he would see me.
About two weeks before my departure date I called Aunt Linda. Nikki and I had been trying to work out a good time to come back together, but none of our dates matched up. I told Linda I was hoping to come by on my own the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, right before I left. She told me there was no need, her and John were planning to drive over for the party at my folks’ house that weekend. John wanted to see everyone anyway. I told her it sounded like a great idea, and that I would see them then.
In the days leading up to Memorial Day, John got very ill. He went to the hospital for a little while, then came back home. On Sunday my mom called. She had just talked to Linda, and they weren’t going to make it over.
“I should go there, shouldn’t I,” I said to my mother.
“I think so,” she said. “I don’t think he’s going to be here when you get back.”
I looked at my calendar. I was leaving in three days. There was no other time. I called Linda and told her I would be by on Wednesday. They would be the first stop on my trip around the country.
It rained for most of my drive to Yakima. I parked in front of the house and breathed deeply.
Uncle John had grown frail. It’s hard to explain how devastating this was to watch. My Uncle John had always seemed like such a huge man to me. Some men are just like that. They are tall and have broad shoulders and walk around like they intend to take up space. I know in real life he wasn’t so giant, but in my memory one always had to look up to see my Uncle John. That was gone now. Pound after pound had fallen off, and his face was thin. He couldn’t stand up much, and Linda rushed to get him back to the couch after he stood up to greet me.
The three of us sat talking for awhile. The TV was on, and occasionally we would all collectively get distracted and start watching it. Linda had to leave for a while to pick up one of their granddaughters, and John and I were left alone. I feel like I should regret how I spent those hours with Uncle John, because for most of the time we just sat there, watching Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives on the Food Network. I can’t even pretend that it’s one of those sweet memories, like, “Uncle John and I always used to watch TV together when I was growing up” or “we both loved talking about food.” No. Prior to that day I can’t recall any memories of watching TV with Uncle John. And by the time I came to visit he could barely eat at all. Honestly I was a little surprised the show didn’t make him sick to his stomach.
I sat there for much longer than I planned. I knew how long it would take to get to Portland. I knew I was going to be much later than I had intended. But I sat there, because I knew what would happen when I left. That would be it. That would be my last memory of Uncle John.
Eventually Linda came home, we talked some more, and I forced myself out of the chair. They offered to let me stay for the night, but I had already told my host in Portland that I was coming. I gave Uncle John a hug, standing there with him as long as I thought he could manage. I walked out to my car. I made sure I was across town and almost to the freeway before I started to cry.
It was 22 days and 3,000 miles later when I looked at my phone and saw a missed call from my mother. I was sitting in the living room of a man I’d just met, my couchsurfing host in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He and his friend had their guitars out, and they were letting me share in their impromptu jam session. I excused myself and went outside. It was hot and dusty, two things that can be said about all of New Mexico. I called my mom. I knew what it was about.
My parents had been up in Gold Bar, WA, leading a camp for high schoolers. She had done this for years, and this was the last one she would lead before her retirement. Mom and Dad had been down to see John and Linda recently, but while at camp my mom got a feeling. That happens to her sometimes. She turned to my dad and said, “I think we need to go to Yakima.”
After a few hours of visiting, my parents drove back up to the camp. As they were pulling in they got the call from Linda. Uncle John had passed away just before five o’clock in the evening. Linda said he must have been waiting to say goodbye to his big sister.
I didn’t cry when I hung up the phone in New Mexico. I took a deep breath and walked back inside. I said nothing. I managed, quite successfully, to pretend for the rest of the night. For several days, in fact. At some point later I know it hit me, but for some reason I can’t remember where I was at the time. I can remember so much so distinctly, but I can’t remember that. It was probably at some forgettable roadside stop on some forgotten highway.
I was in upstate New York the day of the memorial service some two months later. Everyone said my mother’s eulogy was beautiful. Not long after I got home I got a package in the mail from her. She had sent me a copy of the service program and printouts of the reflections that were given, including hers. Everyone was right. It was beautiful.
I cried three more times for Uncle John. The first time was when I was writing the 3rd paragraph of this post. The second time was 700 words later, around the 9th paragraph. The third is still more than 300 words away. I don’t know about it yet – these are words from a future self who will come back later to edit them in. This cry will be the worst of all, and it will come as soon as I finish typing.
I wonder sometimes, why I didn’t take better advantage of that last day with my Uncle John. I wonder even more why I don’t feel regret about wasting it in such a manner. I think perhaps it’s because I know there wasn’t a better way to spend it. As I sat there I considered asking him questions about his life, about how he was feeling. I thought about asking if he had any thoughts on death, if his beliefs about it had changed at all. But I just couldn’t imagine he actually wanted to talk about any of that. My poor uncle had being dying for three months. And I don’t think I wanted to hear his answers, either. Not like this. Not while he was sick and thin. I didn’t want a heavy discussion, the kind that would be burned into my brain. I didn’t want to tell people about “those last few hours with my uncle, oh the things we learned about each other!” I just wanted to sit there with him. I can only hope he wanted the same thing.
As a result of me sitting there, saying nothing, my memories of my uncle dying are few. I have, in fact, listed every one of them here. The entire rest of the picture, all of those times we were together when he wasn’t dying, that’s what fills in the rest. That is where the majority lies. That’s where it ought to be.
In the long line of memories, one stands out above the rest. It’s a strange one, because he wasn’t actually present for it. Uncle John was born on December 25th, Christmas Day. John and Linda always spent Christmas in Yakima, and my family was always in Seattle. Every year when people would come over to my parents’ house for Christmas dinner we would gather around the food and hold hands. My dad would say grace, and he would always point out that we were in fact celebrating three birthdays: Jesus, our good friend Carol (who was often in attendance) and my Uncle John. I remember celebrating my Uncle John’s birthday, on his birthday, every year, for my entire life.
This year will be the first Christmas without Uncle John in the world. He would have been 62.