My uncle passed away yesterday. He was my Dad’s younger brother, one of a set of twins. He died of a massive heart attack.
Several circumstances came together on Tuesday that somehow made it possible for me to be present when my Mom got the call from my cousin, whom my uncle was visiting for Thanksgiving.
The news of his passing brought floods of images in my mind that always accompany my memories of my Grandmother.
I can see clearly in my mind’s eye the time I sat in my Grandmother’s dining area in her apartment, surrounded by her Erté prints, needlepoint projects, and small treasures from her trip to China. My uncle was there. I didn’t know it at the time, but he had recently been divorced, and was likely very pained at this time in his life.
I begged and begged him to blow smoke rings with his cigarette. I thought he was the coolest of the cool when he did that. I’m sure that fact was much to my mother’s chagrin. He did it anyway, knowing that it made us laugh and smile.
He drove a Volkswagon Bug. As long as I can remember he drove that car. He replaced the engine a few times. By the end of the car’s life, I’m fairly certain that the chassis was the only remaining piece of the car that was there when he bought it. It was light blue, and rumbled when he drove it. I can hear a car drive by with a similar sound, and my mind goes right back to that blue Bug, pulling out of our driveway.
He was a Vietnam veteran. He saw things that people really shouldn’t be forced to see. When my father would ask him about it, more often than not he would refuse to discuss it. Pieces of his Vietnam story would seep out occasionally. For example, he told my father that a helicopter he was supposed to be on was shot down shortly after take off. All of his friends on board were killed. He got off the helicopter to grab something he needed and said he would take the next one.
He told my Dad that story twenty years after it happened.
He drank coffee and whiskey, heavy on the whiskey.
His life was no fairy tale. He had a complicated and difficult relationship with my grandfather. My Dad said, “He’s up there having a long-overdue talk with Papa. It’s finally his time. I wish I could hear it.”
These are how memories come to you and stay. Pieces. Smoke rings, light blue Volkswagons that smell vaguely of smoke, a shot of whiskey, pictures of a young man in uniform, imagined conversations that heal and give you hope.
Somehow, the day he died, he managed to get on a plane and travel to see his daughter and grandchildren. He wasn’t feeling well when he took off. He got off the plane feeling light headed. When they were driving back to my cousin’s house, he passed out in the car. He was gone. And yet, despite the fact that he lived alone in Texas, he found his way to his daughter and was able to be surrounded by people who loved him no matter what when he left this life.
I will miss him.