Most of my first memories revolve around my father’s side of the family, in visits every year to Massachusetts to see my grandma, grandpa, two uncles, and a web of extended family that to this day baffles me in its web of complexity.
One thing was unquestionably consistent throughout my childhood: My Uncle Frank was terrifying.
Whenever we made the trip from California to Boston, he would greet us from the driver’s seat of his beat up, rusted station wagon, parked in the arrivals section of Logan International. Like clockwork, he’d look from me to my mom and then to my dad, and then down at the collection of luggage, and then back at me. With a straight face made from leather as best as I could tell, he’d sum up the situation in a thick Boston accent.
“John, we’re going to put you up on the rack. Your mom and dad can sit in the car with the suitcases. We’ll strap you up on top of the car.”
My eyes would widen and I would stiffen up and prepare to wail. Mom would shoot eye-daggers at him, and he would respond dryly: “What? It’s a short drive.”
My father never said a word, but I’m pretty sure he chuckled each time.
Once I was graced with the invitation to sit inside the car, I was endlessly threatened to behave. If I didn’t, Uncle Frank would use “the Claw” to set me straight. This was way before Jim Carrey did a cartoonish Evil Dead 2 impression of a claw. In my experience, my uncle’s CLAW was legit, dangerous, and laden with certain death qualities.
Dad must have let him in on the fact that I tended to be a terror. I’ll own that. I think Uncle Frank viewed his limited time with me every year as a short session of exacting the revenge my dad never felt he could. Frank always wanted to scare the hell out of me. And he did.
My entire childhood was spent fearing this guy who, in retrospect, I think was trying to teach me a lesson that my dad couldn’t figure out how to teach.
It took time to come to realize that Uncle Frank liked me. We had a good relationship, despite my absolute fear of him. As a kid, I kind of got wrapped up in the “let’s strap you on top of the car” talk, and lost sight of the countless times he took me to the corner store to buy comic books, candy cigarette bubble gum, and my to-this-day favorite thing on Earth, Richy’s Slush. We built my first snowman together. He delivered the first over-hand baseball pitch to me. I hit it unbelievably hard… with my face.
When I was fifteen, I had decided that high school was a useless endeavor. After all, I was in a band. Clearly, this is where my focus should be. I skipped class every chance I got. My GPA after the first semester was a whopping 0.94. Eventually that news made it back to my parents.
Those stupid teenage decisions took place at an unfortunate time and place in history, where guidance counselors had decided to take kickbacks from private schools in exchange for their universal recommendation to any parent with a “problem” child. My parents were evangelical Catholics who were forty five when I was born – from a different time that didn’t really translate well. And they saw me neglecting school and being into the rock and roll, and they freaked out. A guidance counselor should be a good person to listen to in these cases, right? In our case, he wasn’t.
Halfway through my freshman year, my folks shipped me off in handcuffs to a wilderness program in Idaho, followed by a boot camp-styled program in Maine, and then to a “therapeutic boarding school” in Woodstock, Connecticut. All were programs for gang members, violent criminals, drug addicts, and the like. Most were sent on court orders. And then there was me: middle class suburban white kid who valued his guitar over his text books and liked to stay out late.
Uncle Frank drove me from Boston to the campus in Connecticut; a weird mesh of buildings in the middle of beautiful landscapes, endless veal farms, and horrible smells.
The merciless dictator of my childhood changed that day.
There was no threat of being strapped to the roof. The Claw made no appearance. He was quiet. We drove through woods and farms and nothing for what seemed like ages, as tears streamed down my cheeks. He sat stoically; remorsefully. It hurt him. I almost noticed it then.
“You see, the thing is, John, your parents are trying to do the best thing for you.”
He said it knowing it was the right thing to say, while knowing it was the wrong thing to do. I swear, to this day, he was fighting the urge to turn the car around the entire time.
When he dropped me off, he patted me on the shoulder and matter of factly said: “Alright then. We’ll see you soon.”
I only saw him three times from then until now. From age 14 to 31. But we always kept in touch over the phone. I abhor lengthy phone calls, but over the years, we grew into our conversations. What started off as the rough, awkward, obligatory check-ins became honest conversations. For instance, he and I joked about how we were the only liberals in the family. And he pointed out how hardheaded my folks could be, and how – despite not being blood related – I had managed to pick up that trait.
He loved to remind me of the last time I stayed at his house – when I was seventeen and drank all of his beer and left the cans under the guest bed. Uncle Frank would go into great detail about how I had placed them all neatly under the bed, as if I hoped they would just evaporate. In fairness, that was the extent of my planning at the time.
Uncle Frank taking photos at our wedding
Three years ago, Uncle Frank came up to Alaska for the first time to attend my wedding. Here was this guy who I absolutely feared and wanted nothing to do with when I was a child – and yet the thought of him not being there to see me get married wasn’t a question. By then, he wasn’t the bearer of the Claw; he was Uncle Frank. He was the guy who helped me build my first snowman; the first adult who recognized I was being put into a situation that wasn’t a good idea; the only adult who I could talk to about my relationship with my parents where it didn’t feel like talking to a stranger.
We weren’t related by blood, and we started off poorly. But as I said my vows and noticed him over Heather’s shoulder, awkwardly videotaping the event, all I could think about was how unmistakably “family” this guy was. That’s a bit of an alien concept for an adopted only child of parents who are forty five years older than you, with a family that largely doesn’t accept you as a “true” part of the family.
I guess it took me all that time to realize that Uncle Frank was probably the only family I had, outside of my parents, who accepted me outright, immediately, and completely. And at that moment I got it.
He took a thousand photos of the wedding. Hours of video. We were college students on a nonexistent budget getting married at the Alaska Zoo, so he turned out to be incredibly helpful.
Last summer, we visited him in Boston, and he gave us all those files. We toured some Revolutionary War sites and went to dinner myriad times, and he told us about all the times I embarrassed him at Fenway.
A few months ago, Uncle Frank underwent major hip surgery. The procedure went perfectly well, but his recovery time was lengthy, and limited him to his hospital bed, and then to his home. Frank is cantankerous by nature, so I worried about him doing something like snapping at a doctor. But my parents’ reports were that he was doing okay, albeit with reservations.
I stopped hearing from him. And, like an idiot, I stopped checking in. I figured he was embarrassed to call while recovering. We’re both like that. He’d call when he was ready. I didn’t want to push it, just as he always afforded me space during my own down times in life.
He didn’t call.
In January, my mom recommended I check in. I didn’t. A couple weeks later, she said she had talked to him, and he sounded confused. I laughed it off. Uncle Frank and my mom have never really gotten along. But it did trigger something in my head that said: “Hey, give him a call. See if he’s alright.”
This past Tuesday, I got the nerve to call him. I started the conversation off with my usual sound off: “Uncle Frank! How are ya?”
There was a pause.
“Who is this?”
“Uncle Frank, it’s John!”
“From Virginia Beach?”
“Uh, no, Uncle Frank, it’s your nephew. I’m Bob’s son. Alaska. John. Your nephew.”
“Oh… My nephew. Where are you now?”
“Be nice to see one day. Hey, while the sun is still up I have to go get the car ready. A lot of snow came down. A lot of snow. The thing is, when the sun goes down it gets harder to get these things done. What’s your number?”
I gave him my number again – the one he’s used to call me once or twice a month for the last six years.
He didn’t remember me. More accurately, he doesn’t remember me, but managed to jog the fact that he has a nephew and that I was probably him.
Reports from family and doctors are the same. He’s losing his memory.
It’s a horror story we all fear, and maybe I’m just naive and always figured it was a tragic ailment that came with time that allowed those who orbited its victim to adjust to it. It’s not. I was just getting to a point where I was starting to understand and build a new relationship with someone who just forgot me. That’s a weird place to be. In effect, my Uncle Frank is still alive, but I’m gone – or all of a sudden never was.
He is slowly leaving, and his head is instructing him that I’ve already left. I’ve lost a lot of friends, family, and loved ones. This is a new way of experiencing loss that I am utterly clueless as to how to deal with. I don’t have a neat compartment to fold this one into. I just know I miss my uncle and I don’t think he’s coming back. And I don’t know how to fix that.
Just in case I ever forget, I love you Uncle Frank. I’ll keep calling, in case you remember. And thank you for everything.