The mid-morning text began, “Cuz, it’s bad.”
Earlier this week, one uncle with whom I share no relationship was found dead in his bed in Missouri, surrounded by the few personal items he’d been able to accumulate over his long and unhappy life. He died old and alone with one cousin and the police breaking in after Meals On Wheels couldn’t get him to answer the door.
At the same time, another uncle was in the cardiovascular intensive care unit of a hospital maybe six miles away, sinking fast.
I’m sad that the first uncle met such an ugly end, but I want to talk about the second uncle, Uncle Jerry, and tell you the only story you’ll ever need to hear about him — though there are many.
More than 20 years ago, after my father died, I went out to Bloomington to clean out the house. (You will never know a person so well until you’ve sifted through their earthly remains, but that’s another story and let’s stick with this one.) I then drove to Joplin to hang out with my favorite cousin and her folks, Uncle Jerry and Aunt Julie, who had kind-of adopted me even before my father died.
They didn’t have to do that. My parents’ divorce sent us kids scattering with our mother, who didn’t want us to hang out with my father’s side of the family because of their “bad influence.” Even she, however, couldn’t make the case that my Aunt Julie was a bad influence, so every chance I got, I’d sneak off on my bike to go visit.
Uncle Jerry (in that family photo above, he’s the one in the middle with the straw hat on his knee) could have treated me like the stray dog I was. We were related only by marriage, and my side of the family brings with it massive baggage and some legitimately not-nice people.
Yet I never felt anything but love from him. Even after I stopped riding a bike and started driving, the Riley home was often my destination.
And later, after I moved out east, I’d go out to Joplin and stay at their house, eat their food, and tease Uncle Jerry for his foul language. (I once kept a running count and swore I’d charge him $1 a cuss word. He got up to around $300, a debt I’ve yet to collect.)
On this particular visit, the one I want to tell you about, I’d loaded my VW to the gills with my dad’s stuff, and as it sat groaning in his driveway, my uncle suggested I’d put too much in there and maybe I should ship some stuff. I didn’t want to, but he knows cars, so I did just that.
And then my son and I — he would have been maybe 9 — took off for Connecticut. We took the southerly root, through Kentucky, and there on a hill I slammed into a car driving by a man named Mr. Ellington. Mr. Ellington was a big ol’ bubba, overalls and all, who’d run out of gas and was attempting to coast down the hill to a gas station at the bottom. All this, he told me later. I saw the back of his station wagon just as I crested the other side of that hill, and hit him doing maybe 70.
We did a 360, and his car flipped over. Yet we all walked away. Can you imagine?
An ambulance heading the other way crossed the median to help us, though we didn’t really need much. I kicked my door open (it was stuck), brought my son out, and we sat down on a guard rail watching the life fluid drain from our car. A nice state police officer gently told me that even though that was dumb of Mr. Ellington to try to coast like that, the accident was my fault — rear-end collision and all. I didn’t argue because we didn’t have so much of a scratch on us, any of us, though my car was totaled. The nice state police officer then drove us to a rental car place, where I picked up the cheapest model so we could we drive to the nearest hotel, and I could tuck my son in for the night.
That’s when the what-ifs hit me.
I am the person you want in your foxhole. I hold steady. I don’t even sweat, but once the pressure is removed and the crisis abates, I fold up like a house of cards.
I called the Rileys, of course. I still don’t know why, though I probably wanted sympathy. My uncle answered the phone, listened to my reassurances that we were better than OK, and the first thing out of his mouth was, “Do you want me to come git ye?” I explained that I was in KENTUCKY, some 12 hours away, and he insisted, “It wouldn’t be a long drive,” because he drove like a bat out of hell and could probably have made it in 8.
Only then did I start crying. His offer to come get me sounded so wonderful. I was a grieving daughter out there by myself in the godless Northeast. (That wasn’t actually the case, but that dark night in a strange hotel made me think that way.) Maybe I should go live with the Rileys and get my life together. That was the flicker of a pity party. Mostly, I cried because that’s what I wanted to hear, someone who loved me and didn’t ask questions. I said no, thanked him, told him I loved him (to which he replied, as he always did, “Well, alright.”) and hung up.
That profane and profound man is in the CVICU. That is my Uncle Jerry. If you pray, please remember him. I’m 1,300 miles away as I type this, but I leave tomorrow for Joplin. I need to go hug people who look like me. I need to go remind that man that I love him. Maybe the best we can hope for that ol’ unreconstructed hillbilly is a soft landing. If that’s the case, please imagine the softest landing possible for my Uncle Jerry. Thank you. I will talk to you next week.