Monday, March 07, 2005

Uncle Bud

Last week I wrote about the death of a woman my cousins and I know as "Shorty." It took me a full week to get around to calling my uncle with condolances, one day after her memorial service. The fact that there was a memorial service (instead of a funeral) is itself significant, since that side of my family and the (unfortunately) Southern Baptist church they attend is all about 2 or 3 days of open-casket "visitations" + funeral. Apparently Shorty didn't like the idea of people gawking at her and didn't see much point in spending a lot of money "just to be put into the ground," so she was cremated, and the single memorial service was it.

My uncle told me all this on the phone, and plenty more, too. He told me the kinds of things uncles just don't tell nieces about (at least in the world my parents seem to live in). Apparently, Shorty's husband (my uncle's father) has Parkinson's, which I never knew about (though he does seem to shake quite a bit). As a result of the medication he's taking, my uncle says, he's convinced he sees "little people" everywhere he goes. They're always watching him. They tell him to do things. When they're angry with him, they punish him. In order to function, my uncle says, he has to maintain very close contact with his environment. When he walks, he drags his feet, keeping them on the ground. He hesitates at doorways, as if he's not sure quite what to do there. He doesn't have any hobbies and never has, my uncle says, and the biggest problem he has is being able to keep his mind occupied. He can't complete thoughts. His vision is deteriorating. His grip on reality is very tenuous.

My uncle is now the chief executor of the family estate. He has power of attourney over his father and will look out for him for the rest of his life. He's feeling a lot of pressure here, as my aunt takes care of all the finances in their family. He wants to leave his dad in his own place for as long as possible, since he suspects the change in environment might make things harder for him. He's having to set aside what used to be a hiking obsession-- no time now for multi-day camping trips or long hikes through the Smokies or along the Appalachain trail. And while he used to think life wouldn't be worth living if he ever had to give up his time in the woods, he's changed. These days, he enjoys a good book.... have I read any good books lately?

The intimacy of this conversation is beautiful and rare. No one else in my family talks to me this way, at such an equal level. My relationship with my parents has always been the sort where parents don't confide in children and many things that just aren't discussed at all. I am a different person when I'm around them. While there have been moments I've tried to open up to them and communicate, they don't really know me for me. They don't seem to want to know.

Two summers ago, when I was home for a week or so, my uncle and I went hiking one weekday morning by ourselves. I think he'd even taken off work to do it. It was the first time I can remember ever being alone with my uncle or having a meaningful conversation with him. I was shocked at how much he seemed to want to know about me, surprised at the questions he'd ask me. They weren't the impersonal "how's school?" kind of questions I generally get from family members. They were smart and provocative questions, about why I do what I do, and what I find meaningful. We talked about nature, and politics, and families, and technology, and culture, and stories, and it was amazing. He treated me as an equal, not as a child, and not as a stranger. I'll never forget that.

My folks don't think so highly of Uncle Bud. Though he's an incredibly intelligent man, he never went to college and "settled" for a job as a mechanic. He's fiercely independent and doesn't follow all those unspoken rules. He wears camoflague pants to church. He goes on strange diets. He hiked then biked obsessively, sometimes on important holidays. He let my aunt take care of most of the raising and disciplining of the kids. I don't think they approve of him holding me upside down by the ankles when I was little, either. But I love all these qualities about him, and I especially love that he sincerely seems interested in knowing who I am as a person.

I'm probably the shyest person in my family, and it's not always easy for me to talk about myself or to hold a conversation with someone I don't know well, but I want to be open with him and build on this relationship. I don't know why he's taken such an interest in me, but it's taught me a lot about the kind of aunt/parent/adult role model I want to be for all the kids in my life.

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