“The cross is in the ballpark.” Paul Simon
I just heard through Facebook that my Uncle Jack is gravely ill and will probably not make it through the day, let alone the weekend. Strange to think that someone who was born in the 1920’s, and lived through the Great Depression, plus narrowly avoided the draft in World War Two and who went on to become a teacher and then a principal who spent years in Singapore and Algeria before returning home would eventually have his death announced over social media.
Uncle Jack was, (it feels weird writing in the past tense, especially since he may very well still be alive as I write this), one of those people in your life who you simply cannot imagine not being in your life. It was always “Jack and Doris”, my uncle and aunt. Just in the same way that my Uncle Barry and Aunt Betty were always “Betty and Barry”. In fact, Uncle Barry was another one of those pillars that I still, even now almost two years later, haven’t fully accepted that he’s gone. I don’t know if I ever really will, to tell you the truth.
They say your mourning and grief is proportional to how much someone meant to you, and I guess that makes sense. In this case however, the news that Uncle Jack has taken the final turn is not unexpected. He has been in the hospital for almost a year now, and his body has just plain worn out. He used to have such a deep, booming voice, but now you could hardly make out what he was saying through the rasp. He has more than one type of cancer; last week we learned that his kidneys had given out too.
I’m glad I had a chance to visit with him last week, but I’m not proud of the circumstances. His son lives down in Minneapolis and we were going to go spend the weekend with him and his family (and check out a Coldplay show while we were at it), and if I didn’t go visit his dad (my uncle) before I went down, I would have felt like a real douche. So my visit wasn’t entirely altruistic, and actually was motivated by self-interest more than anything. Nevertheless, I am still glad I had the afternoon with him.
He was heavily medicated, and when he first saw me he thought I was my Dad, which was a little upsetting but we got it all sorted out and it turned out to be actually a lovely visit. I pretty much just told him what I was up to, and what kind of antics Audrey was doing. He was happy to hear that I was going to go visit his son and family that weekend. Family was always important to him, and although he wasn’t the type of uncle who would be super affectionate or get in there and play with you, you always knew that he was interested in what was going on and he wasn’t just asking to be nice.
Academics and athletics were his two passions. For example, for Christmas, I remember one year he gave me a picture atlas. Not exactly the model train or Star Wars action figure an eight-year-old would be looking for, but I actually kind of liked it. Did it have anything to do with me studying geography at university years later? Probably not, but you never know. Academically, I was always pretty good at school: it just came easy to me, so that was fine with my Uncle. Athletics: not so much, but we both loved baseball and that was an instant connection. His team was always the Philadelphia Phillies. I’m not even sure how he started following them, I think it was almost a random choice, but I learned from my uncle that the best way to enjoy baseball is to choose a team and follow them through thick and thin and that there will be more bad seasons than good, but there will be always something to learn and love about the game and that anything can happen in baseball. I was so happy for him when the Phillies FINALLY won the World Series in 2008 (they only won it one other time, in 1980, before I knew what was going on.) He and I both had a chance to visit Cooperstown recently (albeit on different trips) and we both geeked out about it together afterwards. A couple of years ago, we were both at a family reunion and he told me that he was sorry to be missing the baseball game tonight, (he had tickets to our local independent league team). I said, “Hey Uncle Jack, this reunion is kind of dullsville, why don’t we check out the game?” There was a gleam in his eye. “I’ll just check with Dave”. “Dave” was his nickname for his wife, Doris (don’t ask). I checked in with Marla and Marla thought it was a great idea. She thought it was nice that I could get to spend some time with my Uncle. So the two of us headed out and had a super great impromptu night at the ballpark, playing hooky from the reunion, leaving my wife to contend with a park full of in-laws.
Speaking of academics, when I decided to drop out of law school about 10 years ago, the person I most dreaded telling was my Uncle Jack, for obvious reasons. Marla wanted whatever was the best for me, and she could see how miserable I was at the time. That supportive attitude was almost universally present among my friends and family, but I was still worried about how my Uncle would take the news.
He was the best. We went out for lunch and he told me about how he “changed careers” in midlife and how scary and uncertain it was at the time for him but that it was ultimately the right decision for him and he had no doubt I would find my niche somewhere. Now in his case “changing careers” meant going from teaching to administration, but it was such a blessing to have this talk with him, even though I weirdly felt like I was letting him and family down somehow.
Uncle Jack was not known for his singing voice, and every Christmas our family would get together and sing carols after Christmas supper. One tradition was singing the 12 Days of Christmas and we would be grouped into each of the parts. Of course Uncle Jack was always assigned the “Five Golden Rings” and he would sing out in his best monotone. It was always a highlight of the holidays and it became legendary in our family. Despite his lack of talent, he still enjoyed music in his own way. He had a funny quirk of knowing the church hymns only by number. He’d say, “We sung good ol’ 149 today!” and when I tried to get him to sing a few bars for me, nothing but monotone came out. When the United Church changed hymn-books a few years ago, he never really adjusted to the new numbering.
Just like how I am not really going to adjust to the idea of just “Doris” now, not “Jack and Doris”. The usual dynamic with my aunt and uncle would be that my aunt would get herself into some crazy situation and become hysterical and my uncle would be the calm, reassuring voice of reason. The stories from now on won’t be quite so fun now as they will only be about a person becoming hysterical without the calm reassurance at the end.