Monday, February 6, 2006

My Uncle

I’m Blogging from the road tonight; the result of the death of my fave uncle who passed away over the weekend. Friday afternoon I received word that the end appeared near and Saturday morning it was over.

So this morning found me wrapping things up at work, and then I made the four hour drive down to southern Illinois for the wake and funeral tomorrow.

My uncle was an interesting man. Smart, witty and a little rough around the edges he was a man’s man, which as those of you who have been readers of mine will know, is high praise in my book. He could have done anything that he wanted, and had several opportunities to leave this small burg and venture for something that held greater reward economically, but he chose to stay here. A small town business man, who took care of his clients, raised a family, and made a good living for himself, it’s easy to overlook one simple fact:

He did do exactly what he wanted, and he was a rich man because of it.

When he is finally laid to rest tomorrow I have no doubt that his town, a town that he left just about one year ago to be nearer to his kids in Kentucky, will turn out en mass to say goodbye. He was a presence here, first as a kid running the streets, then as the high school football star who liked to shoot pool down at the hall. He gave up college to marry the girl he met while life guarding and he diligently saw after his mother in his early twenties when his father dropped dead in the coal mines of a heart attack He built an insurance business, raised a family and managed to see a little of the world along the way.

People have told me that we were similar in many ways, and I guess I know what they mean. I remember when I was a kid that we’d come down here every year and I would always look forward to seeing him. I would be a bit nervous about it too. He seemed like such a tough guy…it was a bit intimidating.

For years we would have the annual arm wrestling contest. He knew I played football and would tease me about seeing if I was strong enough to beat the old man. Every year it was the same; I’d get killed. When I got to high school things began to change. I found the secret to weight lifting, and being the competitive guy that I was I had two goals. First I wanted to bench more than any other guy in the school. Second, and much more importantly, I wanted to beat my uncle at arm wrestling.

I don’t remember when exactly it happened, but it did. One year we were engaged in our annual battle and I noticed that suddenly he was playing not to lose. I could tell that he couldn’t push me over and was just holding on trying to outsmart me by conserving his energy and wearing me out until he could move in for the kill. This was new, and in that moment I could tell that my triumph was near. With every ounce of strength I engaged the battle and pinned him there in his own living room.

Talk about bittersweet.

This is what it is to be a man. Set a goal, accept the challenge, and play to win. We don’t take prisoners, and second place is just the first loser. My uncle understood this, and more importantly he knew it was important for me to understand it too. That victory so many years ago was not just mine. It was also his because in those contests he passed a little bit of himself over to me. It is a piece I will always love and cherish.

Part of being a man is also being honest. With your friends, with your family, and most importantly with yourself. The honest truth, my friends, is that I missed a chance with my uncle. The years following my youth went by so fast. My visits down here which weren’t often enough when I was young became increasingly infrequent. I’d hear news of my uncle through his sister, my mom, and I’m sure he kept up with me in the same way. The man, who taught me so much, who so many said I was like, became an update item in my mother’s conversations with me.

What a loss. We had so much that we both liked. Football, hunting, a cold beer and watching our families grow. We both turned down lucrative careers in other cities to be nearer to those we loved, and, of course, we both liked a good arm wrestle once in a while. Somehow, we let that get away from us.


Word came late last summer that my uncle had lung cancer. I put the girls and Mrs. P in the car and went down to Kentucky with my Mom and sister right away. It sounds strange, but it was a wonderful weekend. My uncle was in good spirits, and my kids got to see what a wonderful family he had raised and how close they all were. Here was family that in many way was so different than ours, but you wouldn’t have known it to hear us out on the back deck late that Saturday night, yuckin’ it up like we were old friends.

My uncle and I also got to spend a couple of hours earlier in the day alone. We had gone over for breakfast, and after we ate, the rest of the family went inside, one by one, until the two of us were alone on the back deck. We drank coffee, enjoyed the summer breeze and talked about stuff. I was nearing my deal to start working again, he was complaining about the Democrats and we both talked about investing our nest eggs. Mundane stuff yes, but also the stuff that men talk about with their equals.

We left that weekend and my uncle’s last words to me were, “I’m going to beat this” and I really thought he would. Sure, I knew the odds weren’t good, but I damn well thought I’d see him again.

Soon thereafter life got busy, I started working, the kid’s sports teams got busy, we began remodeling our house and the holidays came and went. Now he is gone. One phone call would have made a difference. It might have started a series of calls. We could have talked sports, complained about my mother (his big sister), or talked about our kids, but I kept putting it off. As I sit here tonight I wonder what in the world could have been more important.

So I have regrets. Big regrets. The truth is though, that I also have memories. Wonderful memories of a man who was in many ways a larger than life figure to me. It is these things that I will choose to hold on to. I can’t let my regrets go I can only understand them and hope I never make the same mistake again.

Although I didn’t realize it until now, I guess I was a little intimidated by him all the way to the end and I hope that wherever he is he understands that.

I also hope that someday, my nephews say the same about me.

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