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Struggling with Tenses

A photo with my late father. (Uncle Rudy: photo bomber)


It was a fierce love that connected me to my uncle Rudy. He was more than a second father, more than a mentor and more than a keeper of my memories. He was my favorite person in the world.

He passed last fall and I suffer from a blinding grief that pushes me from the slap that he's gone to the slime of the changing tenses. I can no longer say, "I have an uncle..." but must say, "I had an uncle..."

It's impossible to order the chaos of memory that is left in his absence. Sure there are holidays and talks and late night parties and his laugh, that infectious melodic full laugh that echoes through the fact that he was here and now he's not. His death is a magic trick gone sour: so... you're saying that he's gone, forever? I am left, empty.

In town people stop me and tell me how sorry they are to hear that he's passed and it's as if I've been assaulted with his death all over again. I stiffly stand and listen to the ways he helped or offered advice or loved, grateful that they're sharing but breathless from the bleeding of my heart that hasn't healed yet.

My uncle was a good man. He loved the creatives and the downtrodden and the confused and the successful and treated everyone who visited him with a sigh of relief and the declaration that it was time for a glass of wine as if their visit was a celebration.

"Wine!" he'd shout as if there were servants to deliver it and pour it.

There were times, especially towards the end, when he drank too much and had to put his head down on the table to sleep during my visits. It was tough to watch him wasting his precious time. I would empty his ash tray, use the bathroom and then sit back at the table next to him.

"Hi Uncle!"

His head would pop up. "Hi sweetie. I didn't know you were coming. I need a glass of wine."

"Wine!" he'd shout.

Once dead we morph into a conglomeration of the stories that are told about us. Exclamations of "Remember that one time...?" fill conversations and through our pain we search to find the quintessential memories that defined who he was to us and what he meant to us.

My stories of our time together bubble in at random intervals. Perhaps revisiting is a part of the process of growing towards the past tense and the stark realization that our reflections are all that's left of him.

1. I’ll always remember the stories about the Easter Egg hunts on his 50 acre property in upstate, NY.

One year the Easter Bunny left my uncle a note that there was a fifty dollar bill hidden in a plastic egg out in his 50 acre woods as part of the egg hunt. We searched for hours, but only found the candy, toys and plastic eggs filled with loose change. It was a time in my uncle’s life that he didn’t have fifty dollars to spare, which is how we knew that he didn’t leave that money; the bunny was real. My mom teased him about investing in squirrel food.

2. Once when I was at college at SUNY New Paltz, I invited him and Aunt Mary to my dining hall to celebrate his birthday on my meal plan. I had eaten less for weeks so I could treat them to dinner. I covered the metal table with one of my mother’s tablecloths, lit candles and played Bob Dylan on a small boom box. Students stopped at the table to take his photo, mistaking him for someone famous. He doted on every student who approached the table and even signed an autograph.

3. I loved the former quarry in uncle’s back woods that had been made into an Olympic sized swimming pool. Imagine swimming in a pool so remote you could see no buildings or houses from the water. The six children in my family and his three kids, my cousins, would jump off the giant boulders that surrounded the water into the 10 foot deep pool, then climb up those boulders to jump again. Uncle would work all day, tending the gardens, running his shop, or creating pottery as was his trade, while we swam and my mother life guarded. He had so much work to do that after the sun went down he strapped a head lamp to his head to mow the lawns and weed the gardens.

4. Once I asked Uncle and Aunt Mary to make something for me. He made a large, deep platter on his potter’s wheel, and then Aunt Mary painted it with lavish flowers. They both signed it and then fired it in his kiln. That platter has moved with me from state to state and always held a place of honor at celebrations.

5. I remember visiting from out of state and spending time with him in his shop, Craft’s People. I’d listen as he gave advice to customers. One summer a frail man leaned on a cane and told us his story of recovering in the hospital after open heart surgery and how his wife came in and said she was leaving him for his best friend and the kids would live with her. Then his boss, a good friend, came in and fired him. The man was all alone; he’d lost everything…even his health.

There was an awkward silence as the shock of the man’s story sunk in.

Then Uncle started to laugh a deep, hearty laugh. You know the kind, where he spills the wine from his glass and holds on the counter to remain standing.

The man and I exchanged uncomfortable looks. Did uncle Rudy misunderstand this man’s pain?

When uncle could finally talk, he said, “Fuck, man. Your life was shit, but you didn’t know it. My god, man. You had the wrong wife, the wrong best friend and the wrong job. Things are going to get a lot better for you. You’ll see. Let’s drink to a better life!”

Uncle told me about six months later that the man returned to the shop. He was walking without a cane and was accompanied by a very nice woman whom he was dating. He had a new job and things had gotten considerably better from him.

Uncle Rudy was always right.

6. Then there’s that memory in Mexico where I was on a school trip in 1982. I babysat for six months and saved every penny to go on the trip. My uncle was the headmaster of “Our School” and we drove to Mexico with ten students and Aunt Mary in his van for a month of touring and practicing Spanish.

After climbing pyramids one day in Mexico City, my leg gave out. Broken? I lay on the ground screaming, clutching my right thigh. A bystander called an ambulance.

At the hospital there was a misunderstanding: they thought my uncle was a child predator and that I made up an illness to escape him. (Must be something about calling him “tio” which means uncle?) To prove their point that I was faking pain, the doctors in the emergency room repeatedly punched my injured leg. No bueno.

The sheets on the cot I lay on in the emergency room had blood on them from someone else’s injury and uncle kept brushing the cockroaches away before they crawled on me while he respectfully asked things like, “Can we go home now? She wants her mother!”

They wouldn’t let me go, but accepted twenty dollars from him to send a hospital worker to the Kodak Distributing Plant to buy x-ray film. Really. They had no x-ray film at the public hospital in Mexico City in the early 80’s.

The x-ray showed a six inch hole in my femur at the area of pain. The doctors changed their earlier diagnosis and decided this was a contagious condition and put guards armed with rifles (machine guns?) around my cot, forbidding me from leaving and insisting I must get surgery right away to cut off my leg before the whole of Mexico was infected with whatever disease I harbored.

My uncle asked if I might be moved to the private hospital in Mexico City so I could be more comfortable. They refused. They said I could go home if a private plane came for me with a doctor and a nurse on board.

Yes. International incident.

Friends at home started calling political connections while my mother borrowed a credit card from a friend to buy a one way plane ticket home, just in case I could make it to the airport.

In the end, a doctor at the hospital who had studied in the US told my uncle he had to get me out of there or I would likely die. She called a meeting with hospital administrators to plan my surgery and left me a brown paper bag for the plane.

Uncle smuggled me out of the hospital by tying a red bandana around my right knee that I used to move my leg like a self-working marionette. He instructed me to give each guard a kiss on the cheek while I told them, in Spanish, that the doctors said I could go and thanked them for fixing me.

They were dazed by having a seventeen-year-old blonde girl speak to them in Spanish and kiss their cheek. They let me go.

As we heard the police sirens chasing after us, Uncle Rudy drove as fast as he could to the airport while Aunt Mary navigated by a large, paper map. In Spanish. With coordination from my family in NY, way before cell phones, he got me onto a plane to the United States.

The doctor’s parting gift? An envelope with hypodermic needles filled with narcotic pain medicine that I had to punch into my right thigh every two hours or risk passing out from the intense pain which might turn the plane back to Mexico.

Not a pleasure trip.

From time to time over the years when I visited from my home in Colorado, uncle Rudy aunt Mary and I would retell this story. Slowly. Remembering the fear, the close calls and then we would drink to my leg, which is still very much attached to my body, thanks to my uncle’s quick wit under pressure and a series of miracles once I arrived at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.

I’ve known Uncle Rudy for fifty-two years. That’s a lot of time to make memories together.

7. My brother, sister and I were invited to attend plays with my uncle when we were kids. Many were experimental. One play made it into my journal when I was eleven or twelve. It stated that I was shocked to see a naked man standing on the stage FOR NO REASON. I wrote that uncle said I could close my eyes if it made me uncomfortable and if I hated it I could take a nap. According to my entry I forgot the man was naked after a while and wrote a detailed description of the story.

8. Uncle Rudy taught me to write and conjugate verbs (I am. You are. He is. I am. You are. He is. I am. You are. He is.) after my complete and total amnesia. An early form of a date-rape drug erased all memories from the first eighteen years of my life. I had to relearn how to walk, talk, read, write, think critically and figure out how the world worked.

He took me on a rollercoaster ride, before I had any idea what it was. It was a ride of confusion that turned to terror as the car spun us through the sky. I was so shaken by the experience of having gravity challenged that I cried, vomited and almost passed out while he called to me from the next seat that it was almost over. After they cleaned me up, I called him a “liver,” the meanest word I knew in my current vocabulary, which I documented in my post-amnesia journal.

Years later he told me how the doctors thought the ride might spark my memories. He realized seconds into the experiment it was a terrible mistake but couldn’t stop it. His eyes would get teary as he apologized again and again. (I was. You were. They thought.)

9. I closed on my new house last month, just after uncle passed, and was rearranging the platters in the dining room hutch when I noticed that the platter they made for me had a crack in it. No problem. I could glue the crack before it broke. No problem. I would baby that platter for now on.

I glued the platter with a super glue, then wiped it clean. Success! While it was drying, the platter got caught in my sleeve, fell off the table, hit the floor and shattered. Shattered? Dust from the break hung in the air like the aftermath of a volcanic eruption.

My pain was immediate; so were my tears. “No.” I wailed. My most valuable possession, destroyed.

My favorite person died and now my favorite reminder of him died, too.

I sat on the floor willing the pieces together. It’s ok. I have super glue right here.

No, it couldn’t be glued. There were too many fragments. Too much dust.

I could save some of the pieces as a reminder. No. Uncle would hate that I kept a stash of broken pottery.

The platter was officially dead. I put the pieces into an old box, deciding to use the broken bits in the bottom of my plants to help with drainage. Uncle would like that. He had a passion for growing and propagating plants.

Uncle Rudy lives in the past tense. I live in the present tense where the only way to connect to him is to look backwards. It's dizzying and then unfortunate that he isn't here to talk to me about this major change in both of our lives.

I can imagine Uncle counseling me on being so affected by his death. He'd say, “You think my death is a big ending?” then I'd hear his laugh. “You’ll see. This is nothing compared to what’s coming next.”

I would sit and wait for the punchline. What's coming next? Something worse than his death or something different?

He'd laugh again then say, "You have so much to learn." He'd throw his head back, laugh louder and bang the table for punctuation as he gasped for air: too much laughing is bad for breathing.

He'd regain his composure, look into my eyes and point to himself. “This ending? This is just one step up a very long ladder.” More laughing and head bobbing.

And then? Then he would proclaim the conversation finished and transition to the next thing.


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Living the Life of Holly

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