I remember the moment I heard that my Uncle Rodney was about to die. I'd just come home from watching Detroit drop the second game of the World series with my friend, Amit, and his brother-in-law, Amit. My wife looked grave when I entered. "Your mother called," she announced. "Your Uncle Rodney has lung cancer."
I'd oddly enough just been reading about lung cancer. I knew what that meant.
"So, he's going to die," I said, blankly. Then it hit me. "He's going to die," I croaked.
I cried the rest of that night. My wife held me.
Before then, I wasn't a terribly emotional guy. But I worked at home. Alone, all these memories would come knocking, and, out of nowhere, crying jags would come calling. All those memories. All those moments I shared with my uncle.
Uncle Rod doing crazy stunts on his motorcycle.
Him sitting five-year-old William on his lap and letting the boy "drive" home.
My mother and father divorced when I was five. My mom had to move in with my grandmother. Uncle Rod and Aunt Elaine still lived in the house. Uncle Rod occupied a lot of memories where my father should have been.
Me and my uncle playing football in the backyard.
Me riding on that motorcycle.
Me burning my leg on the bike's exhaust pipe when he let me down. Me screaming. I can still remember the look of horror on my mother's face. My entire family running to my side.
Uncle Rod filled a lot of voids in my life. A surrogate father, of sorts. An uncle. Only 17 years my senior, an older brother I'd never have. He was a kid when I was a kid. He was reckless, irreverent, fun and funny. And he loved me. The moment I realized all this was at the funeral parlor. There was this picture. Me, four, standing. Him, 21, crouched down, an arm around my tiny shoulders. And he's looking at the camera with such affection and love and pride. And it hit me. All that he meant to me. All that I meant to him.
He was reckless, irreverent, fun and funny. Me? I was an only child of divorce. I was an integration baby who never really felt like he fit into any world he stepped into. I read. I drew. I was debilitatingly shy. There were times when I was paralyzed by fear around other people. One time, at my cousin Lisa's party, I stayed in the kitchen, drawing, while she and her friends yukked it up outside. No amount of prompting could get me outside. That never would've happened to Uncle Rodney.
He was reckless, irreverent, fun and funny. He was someone to emulate.
My love of Reese's peanut butter cups is his.
My love of Prince.
My love of profanity?
And the next time I found myself surrounded by a bunch of strangers, I would never be shy and withdraw. I would be reckless, irreverent, fun and funny.
I drove onto the campus of Muhlenberg College, determined to be just that. And I was. It was my senior year of high school. The college was honoring "gifted, minority students." Basically, they were trying to add a bit of color to their alabaster student body. I was the only one from the Pittsburgh area to arrive. Kids were mostly from Philly, New York, and New Jersey. Bill would've never gone. Uncle Rodney would've had a blast.
That's who I became. I was reckless, irreverent, fun and funny. I helped my hosts sneak a beer keg onto the dry campus. I openly mocked the school for suckering us into going for that weekend and said there was no way I was going there. I actually hooked up with the girl I'd targetted and came home with numbers from a number of the girls in attendance (I'm still trying to figure that one out).
My natural tendency is still to be withdrawn in crowds. But, with the help of channeling my uncle's spirit, I can still be irreverent and funny (I gave up fun and reckless years ago). If you ever meet me, you'll know where it comes from.
My uncle was a diabetic. He contracted the disease while pretty young. I think of diabetes as a war of attrition that you can never quite win. Sooner or later, it drags you down, takes you over, and withers you to bone and dust.
My uncle ultimately gave up. He fought by succumbing. His diet was horrible. He continued to drink. He refused to stop smoking.
Just after my thirtieth birthday, I went to Cleveland for a music conference. I stopped by Pittsburgh to see the family before heading back down to Atlanta. I walked into a family skirmish. My Uncle Rodney had given up. The doctors were willing to give him new kidneys, virtually curing him, but he just wouldn't take care of himself. He wouldn't monitor his diet, wouldn't stop drinking, would not give up smoking. He was tearing the family apart.
He was going blind.
He wouldn't leave the house.
I took him for a walk. Only I could get him out of the house. He was no longer reckless, irreverent, fun, funny. He was old and broken. And I took him by the hand and took him out of the house.
We talked and we smoked and he cried. I just listened.
No more bike rides. No more playing football. Just a slow, withering creep towards death.
The news was always bad. Always given with a sigh of resignation.
Your Uncle's totally blind now.
Your uncle's on daily dialysis.
Your uncle's about to lose his foot.
My uncle was there for my first ever book reading. My whole family was there. My friend from high school, Bob, dragged his mother and aunt and another friend from high school, Giac, along. There we all were, standing in this small, metaphysical bookstore in Sewickley while I talked about a science fiction protest novel and how it was inspired by my Uncle Bob, their brother, who'd died tragically a decade before. An inauspicious beginning to a literary career that still ain't about much. But it meant so much to have those people I love there. My Uncle Rod sat in the corner behind me, blind and small, but there. Getting my back. You can see his leg above.
"Your Uncle Rodney has lung cancer."
He wasn't the man I'd remembered. He used to be a coal miner. He and Uncle Richard used to work on cars. The Uncle Rodney I remembered did motorcycle stunts, took me to Prince concerts, threw a football, snuck me a Molson Golden for my graduation.
We sat in my old '74 Oldsmobile Omega. I'd graduated from high school and was going off to the college of my dreams and he was proud of me. That beer still tastes sweet.
This Uncle Rodney was an emaciated shell. A mere lump in the bedsheets with a stump where his right leg had been. There were all those tubes, all that beeping. He was in a drug-induced stupor, his hands cuffed to the railing to stop him from tearing out all the tubes that pocked that shell.
I was 36, but I was really that scared, five-year-old boy who moved into his grandmother's house. I sat up on the counter, cowering and terrified. I sat there staring at him, dumb. His partner, Carol, asked me to talk to him. I shook my head, mutely. I just couldn't do it.
We had that discussion no family wants to have. It was complicated. My uncle never married Carol, so she legally couldn't make that decision. My family didn't care. It was her decision. But we still had to talk about it. I didn't think I had a place in that discussion, but they asked. It killed me, but I said that life support is no life and that we had to let him go.
On my next visit, it hit me. My uncle's dying was not about me. It was about him. He couldn't talk. I really didn't know how there he really was. He writhed, but was he really there? When someone asked him a question, there would sometimes be a nod. But what was that? Was it him? A spontaneous, non-related muscular action? What was it?
What did it matter, really? This was about him. I had to do something for him. He had to know how much he meant to me.
Uncle Rodney loved Prince. Because of that, I loved Prince. Uncle Rod took me to my first concert--you guessed it, Prince. 1999. I pulled out my iPod, put on that album, sat on my knees next to his bed, put one ear bud in his ear, and put the other in mine. And we listened to that album while my Aunt Elaine sat at our sides.
I wish I could say that a miracle happened. That he sat up and thanked me and we sat there talking and laughing and telling each other how much we meant to each other. But those moments rarely happen. It didn't happen that day. Prince would have to do. I left the hospital with my aunt, bawling.
Outside the hospital, my aunt tried to hug me. I shrugged her off, saying, "I'm OK." Then I realized. My uncle's dying was not about me. It was about his partner, Carol. It was about his siblings. They used tobe eight, and now they were about to be five. And the one dying up there in that hospital room was the next to youngest. And he was about to die way before his 54th birthday. I hugged my aunt, and we cried. And I listened to her talk all the way back home. I got in my car on my way back to DC, promising to be back soon.
I never got to have that last talk with Uncle Rod. I couldn't make it back in time.
Life is nothing but a collection of moments. We drone on from day to day, living our live-a-day lives. But when it comes down to it, those moments--those moments of joy and pain, agony and bliss--those are the things that we cling to. Those are the things that we hold dear. And we share those moments with those we hold dearest. And we should hold onto those moments. Those are the dearest gifts are loved ones give us. Those moments are the very things that make life worth the journey. And we need to thank our loved ones every day for the gift of those moments. What better gift is there?
That was part of my eulogy for my Uncle Rodney.
"Will was just talking about moments," my Uncle Richard opened after my speech. "I just wanted him to know that Rod told us about you playing that Prince for him. ... I just thought you should know."
I lost it. My wife put her hand on my back, my cousin Danielle hugged me, and I cried like a baby.
Funerals are sad and tragic, of course. People cried and wailed and held onto each other. The preacher preached, solemnly, as we stood by the casket on that chilly, December afternoon. I looked around as everyone bowed their heads in prayer. I saw my family, the people who raised and love me. On one side was my wife; on the other, my mother; the two most important women in my life, the two women I love more than myself (and believe me, that's saying a lot). And then it happened. I smiled. I was ... happy?
At that moment, on that chilly, December afternoon, I realized my wife was right. It was time for us to have a child. The following October, Poohbutt was born.
My eulogy was about moments, the most precious gifts our loved ones can give us. And, during my eulogy, I told everyone about the most precious moment my Uncle Rod had given me.
It was on this day, 26 years ago. February 28, 1983. I was 12-years-old, and Prince was coming to town. Prince was my obsession. But I wasn't going. I'd never been to a concert before, and I just knew my mother would never let me go see that midget sex pervert (after all, he was the one who forced her to explain to her 10-year-old William what "Head" was--Uncle Rod laughed the whole time).
I did my morning paper route with Chopin's "Death March" playing the entire way. I was de-pressed. The most important event of my life was happening that night, and I was going to miss it.
I came home that morning, dragging my paper bag and bottom lip. For some reason, my mother and stepfather hadn't gone to work, yet. Mom ho-hummed, "Your Uncle Rodney has an extra ticket."
"Do you want to go see Prince tonight, William?" she smiled, coyly.
I think I screamed the whole day--to the bus stop to school back home all the way to the Civic Arena.
You know it was great. Vanity 6 was there. They sucked, but what other chance does a 12-year-old pubescent boy with raging hormones get to see grown women in their underwear? The Time, my second favorite musical act at the time, were great. My uncle was great. My cousin was there, and her best friend, Tina, who I had a huge crush on. I stood on the floor, but she stood on the chair behind me and kept her hands on my shoulders for balance. Sure, it was the most intimate we would ever become. But I was 12. I had a crush. It was great!
And the greatest of all! The greatest musician of all-time! Prince! Of course, he was great.
In fact, though I've been a music critic and have gone to more concerts than I would've thought humanly possible, that concert, 26 years ago today, on February 28, 1983, was the greatest concert I've ever been to.
Thanks, Uncle Rod.
I love you.