I’ve just returned from another sojourn to Seattle, this time a happy one to celebrate my father-in-law’s 89th birthday. Seattle proved welcoming, with 80 degree days and windless nights. Perfect for short sleeves and dining alfresco.
Ade had regained his strength from an earlier setback and was once again ready to dine out, go shopping, visit the bank and try his hand at the casinos. A fine celebration all the way around.
Until we got the call about Uncle Bob.
Bob was the last remaining of Ade’s wife’s six sisters’ husbands. Did you follow that? He’s my father-in-law’s brother-in-law.
My only exposure to him over this last thirty years has been this image of a dirty old man who greeted me at Christmas with a bear hug and then ground his pelvis into my crotch. I learned to embrace him with my elbows locked and my torso turned sideways.
Every family has an Uncle Bob, right? Mine is Cousin Pete (or Re-Pete) as we call him for his reiteration of his favorite stories and his sometimes breaching of personal space norms. You live with it, right? No family is perfect.
In later years, my contact with Uncle Bob was escorting him to the casino with Ade. He started with martinis at 9:00 a.m. and by noon grew adept at pinching my ass or my breast as I was positioning his walker for him. His language was foul and bigoted, but I cut him some slack as a 90-year old who was having to adapt to a world changing faster than he was.
I didn’t know much about his family, except that the kids never came over for the big family gatherings and his wife was a sweet and exceptionally devout woman for whom the church played a central role in life.
Uncle Bob had been taken to the hospital for an unknown illness that was soon determined to be a fibroid piece of flesh that had wound its way around his intestine. Surgery was successful and they sent him home. But three days later, it was evident that the surgery had taken too much of a toll and his organs and systems were all shutting down.
We spent the day with him on Wednesday, by which time he was no longer conscious or tracking any activity around him. Frail and cadaverous in the bed, I couldn’t even recognize the face that had leered at me across the blackjack table.
One of his daughters was there, stoic and silent, making sure the blankets and air conditioner were correctly positioned, and that she’d dissolved the necessary pills and painkillers in a little water. She wasn’t crying, and neither was her mother.
Strength, I thought. Momentary strength that a caregiver has to find in those last hours, in order to help usher a loved to the exit and to not cause extra grief to the rest of the family and friends.
He died while we had tuna sandwiches and lemonade on the back deck.
Calls were made: to the coroner, the mortuary, the hospice service that had provided the hospital bed, the agency that had sent sweet young men from Nigeria to act as 24-hour caregivers. (I hope they didn’t have to put up with too much racist ranting from Uncle Bob before he lost consciousness.) Cell phone calls reached the rest of his children and the neighbors.
It was only then that the stories started.
“I was worried about how to keep him from driving,” his wife whispered. “But I did not pray for this. I promise you, I did not.”
“After everything he did to you? After he broke your arm? You would have been justified,” the daughter said.
Aunt Phyllis cast her eyes down.
“After he shook Carol so bad when she was one month old that she was unconscious? After he beat up Rick so badly that he hasn’t been home for thirty years?”
The dam was broken, and all the stories came out. Beatings. Violence in language and fists. Controlling his family to the point of enslavement. Children leaving home at fourteen, just to save their lives. Two of his children living within a half-hour drive of the house but would not come by or come to any funeral service.
I’ve known Uncle Bob for thirty years and never knew any of this. Family secrets.
And at that makeshift eulogy on the back deck on the day he died, no one had anything good to say about the man, not even his gambling partner, Ade. “I don’t know why I stayed friends with him,” he said. “I guess I always hoped he’d change.”
Some family secrets shouldn’t be secret at all.