My Uncle

My uncle emerges from the hallway leading to his garage, gazes about those of us gathered in his living room and makes a beaming, openhanded gesture. I know this bemused stance and have seen it all my life. A gentle and generous-hearted person, he is inviting us to share in his consternation. What is going on here, his expression says. And is he feigning schlemiel status or does he actually deserve it? Thus, my uncle’s familiar comic trope, which in this case both warms the heart and chills the soul. For the substance of this shared joke is currently missing. My uncle has wandered back and forth to the door several times this evening, always guided by his wife who narrates the situation. Where is his car? Sold five years ago. Whose car is now in the garage? Ours, the one we rode in this afternoon. And so my uncle turns to us, my sister and me and a couple of our cousins and asks in the style of an old-fashioned and artless standup comic: what is going on here?

My aunt says that on days that require her to be gone for some time, she has acquired a particular habit. She has a way of pulling the car into the garage, quietly entering through the back hallway – then picking up a basket of clothes and walking to the kitchen as though she has been briefly occupied in the laundry room. Thus her bittersweet adjustment to my uncle’s Alzheimer’s.

On this particular day we are all adjusting. My sister and I, two of our cousins, all gathered out of respect and love for my aunt. Had my mother’s soul not been so badly bruised, she might have been like her sister. Or so I tell myself. Meanwhile, our aunt was around our childhoods just enough to keep a sort of dream alive. Call it a dose of normalcy. Or a hope for better times. Or simply the possibility of love.

Dinner concluded, all of us sitting around the dining room table agree that my aunt is under strain and needs whatever support we can offer. On some level the man of the house would agree. If he could. If he was not currently talking to his wife in the kitchen in very audible tones, his poor hearing only slightly adding to the confusion. He wants to know when these people are going to leave his vacation cabin so the two of them can drive home. My aunt and uncle have lived here for at least 15 years.

There is much to be said for living in the present. ‘That’s quite a rig you’ve got there,’ my uncle says the next day , eyeing my wheelchair. He said exactly the same thing five minutes ago. And about half an hour before that. He also followed me down the hallway on my way to the bathroom. I have never been in his house before without a crutch, limping my way slowly about the place. His natural inclination would have been to follow, to make sure that I wasn’t going to fall. Now that I am using my wheelchair,  fear offalling is unnecessary, and in a protective sense so is he. My uncle, we all know, cannot really protect himself. One would not wisely leave him alone with a blazing fireplace, for example.

In any case, he is following me, pushing on opposite walls of the hallway as though to separate them. Samson might undo Jericho this way. My aunt is shortly on the scene. Come on, she says, let’s see what there is for dessert. My uncle protests. And in a sense, I do understand. He doesn’t want dessert. Or doesn’t care about it. He wants to be the man of the house, and the protector. I am his natural focus at the moment. And that’s all he has, the moment. My aunt would have more wisely suggested that my sister needs some looking after, or rubbish needed hauling out to the bins. But these things no longer occur to her, for they are irrelevant. My uncle could not find the rubbish bins. Or necessarily recall their purpose. At one point this afternoon he wanted to go outside in the rain, on the borderline of snow, to show me his garden hose.

In short, all the structures of his personality are in place. My uncle the protector. My uncle the helper. The bemused host who pulls people together by laughing at his domestic plight. Thirty years ago I recall standing by his workbench at his home further north along the Hood Canal. The latter being a fjord, really. Utterly natural, anything but a true canal. My aunt and uncle have always lived in beautiful natural locations. Before the current American hysteria over big government, my uncle happily devoted his life to public service. To the lands, actually. He spent decades working for the US Forest Service. Days that are long over. But not for him. Just this afternoon he told me, in a fragmentary sort of way, that first he would be here, then in a few years…and I may have mentally added the ‘few years’ part…he would be there. I understood this to mean his Forest Service postings. And more than idly going on about his history, he was attempting to include me in his life.

Anyway, back to that workbench decades ago, but not far away, here in the State of Washington. For some reason, my uncle was talking about marriage. You can’t simply compromise, he told me. If you think you’re going to meet your partner halfway, forget it. You have to be willing to go 90% of the way. At the time, his words had the ring of truth.  His advice was downright avuncular. Not to mention sound. Putting his wisdom into practice was another matter, of course. Never mind. That impulse, the instinct to pass on some advice to one’s nephew…I still see that sort of thing in my uncle. He is intact. All his best instincts are there. It’s the data that is missing. The capacity to follow through. And, yes, I suppose much of him will continue to go. But never all. I am convinced of that.

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