My Dad’s Brother

My Dad’s brother died yesterday morning.

 When I was younger, maybe 12,  I spent a month one summer living with him and my aunt and cousins in Idaho. My cousins and I spent our days going to the nearby pond and playing in the lake that was formed from the rinsing of the trees that were cut down for lumber. I remember we had to wash off afterward because our bodies would be covered in a layer of green/brown sediment and silt.

 I also remember hot dog eating contests with my cousin David. I won sometimes but does anyone ever really “win” a hot dog eating contest? Whenever I’m sick I think “yep, summer of 1991 is catching up with me.”

A chronic insomniac, even then, I would wake up and go downstairs to find my uncle Mike pouring a pot of coffee. He always had coffee on. In fact, to this day, when I find myself wandering the house in the middle of the night, I will think of him and his midnight coffees.

There was something special about waking up and hanging out with my uncle in the middle of the night, in the quiet of this house in Post Falls, Idaho, with it’s porch- perfect for sitting and my aunt’s rose garden the highlight of the neighborhood.

It’s nice to be awake with people. It makes you less alone.

As I thought about times with Mike, or my own experiences with him, most of my memories are in a kitchen in Idaho, a coffee pot burning all night. He wouldn’t scoot me back to bed or dismiss my wakefulness. He would talk to me. We were all reading books, all the time… John Grisham and Michael Chrighton. We’d talk about that or he’d just tell me some funny story about my Dad growing up.

I can’t pretend to have known him the final years of his life. I remember that Mike was light-hearted and kind. Quick with a joke, he always made you smile. I remember one day we took a surprise last minute drive to a beach with smooth white sand, and he watched and smiled as all of us kids played until sunset. 

Last night I was thinking about this idea that it’s just nice to be awake with someone.  All my life I’d spent countless nights awake, and unlike my departed uncle, I did not keep a pot of coffee going all night. My mom likes to tell me that as a child I wandered the house like a ghost. I’d spend the hours rearranging the furniture in my bedroom or reading or watching late night tv until the Mormon Tabernacle choir sang and the screen was just a row of color bars. (only certain generations of insomniacs know about the color bars)

I used to get bored and try and wake my younger brother. I’d pick up the cat and bring her into his room and toss her onto his bed so she scrambled to get her bearings and wake him up. Then I’d pretend to be  walking by. “Oh, you’re up! Want to play Monopoly?”

Insomniacs love Monopoly. The game never ends and by the time we’ve let you purchase all the red properties and put up a few hotels, you will not have noticed we’ve entrapped you all night. It’s 4am and you either need to land on Free Parking or cash out one of your Railroads, but you will not leave us and go to bed.

I am often accused of being cheerful. I say “accused” because sometimes there is this assumption that maybe I keep a positive outlook out of naivete, as if I simply don’t know to be angry or disenchanted, as if the world looks ok to me because I just don’t know better.

I think I am reminded, as many of us are, and cruelly sometimes, that life is very short. What we do should matter, and because we cannot always do what we want to do, we should make our present state matter. Throughout my days I hear “I’ll be happy when…”

But I think “why can’t you be happy now?”

Life is happening now. It’s not happening when you lose weight or when you get another job or when you have a little more money or when your partner is doing x, y, or z. It’s happening now, when you are awake… when you are awake with someone.

It’s a series of rants, I guess. I didn’t really want this to become my Cancer Death blog. Sounds so intense. Better get back to Matt Damon fan fiction.

When someone dies you consider your own humanity and you remember the past. Life is hard sometimes, to be sure, but every day (or night in my case) is a chance to be awake with someone, and how unique and powerful is that human experience?

I’m happy I knew my Dad’s brother enough to spend a few nights at a kitchen table not alone.