His name was Tom, and I didn't want 75 percent of the people who clicked on this diary to just tab back two seconds later after discovering this wasn't about black anything. Fewer reads that way, but there's a reward if you get to the end:
You get to meet my Uncle Tom, which is a lot harder now since he died 15 hours and four minutes ago as I write this. He never took care of himself much, so when we heard he'd been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, it was sort of the best kind of death you can hope for: quick and regretless.
I graduated from high school in 1999 and invited him to the ceremony because he happened to be visiting his mother -- my mother's mother -- and how do you not invite a relative in that situation?
Have to admit I was kind of looking forward to having him just not be impressed by all the rich people. Here this guy had been homeless and considered dead (or not worth looking for) since 1979 -- found on the streets I guess an hour or two from where his parents lived about fifteen years later -- and he was going to attend a prep school graduation?
Mostly he just sat there clapping politely with us as people I didn't like got awards and a few people I did like got more awards. He spoke up once when someone won an art award, and my grandmother and I -- on either side of him -- hushed him up. Felt kind of dickish to do that, but I barely knew the guy, so it wasn't like I was shushing a respected elder.
At some point that weekend, after one of the four or five ceremonies they hold at those things just to make sure everyone has a chance to unsober up every several hours and put up with more $100,000-bill waving, he started talking about how he guessed since I was graduating from a school in Rhode Island, that sort of made me a Rhodes Scholar. At the time, I wanted to inform him that the Rhodes Scholarship was a separate program, but he was also handing me a $50 as a graduation gift, so I shut my mouth and thanked him.
And wondered how in the hell a guy who begged for change for 15 years gets ahold of a $50. Now, granted, you don't get more low-maintenance than this guy, but maintenance still costs something.
Now I can't ask him. He died at 3:30 a.m. Monday, Nov. 25, 2013, at the age of 69. His father was a general in the United States Army, and his mother is in assisted living and nearly blind, and she's insisting on writing his obituary.
Hell of a thing to be at work for three hours, proofreading Canadian English, and get this email subject:
Uncle Tom has diedThree hours and three minutes after the workday began. Productivity eased up a bit there for the next half hour, what with processing the death of a man I spent maybe 24 awake hours with total over eighteen years.
My mother went to see him once after he got diagnosed with cancer. He was in or out of the hospital depending on when his friend Kim -- that's her real name, and if you know me, you know I don't use those -- came to see him and suggested he go back in because he was having trouble breathing. Pneumonia and lung damage from smoking for however many years probably didn't help.
My mother told me her mother's writing the obituary, and I instantly understood why.
To have your child die -- however old you are -- just kills you. Her husband died in 1998 of pneumonia and lung damage from smoking for however many years and generally avoiding death. Missed that funeral -- overslept for the cab that would have taken me to the airport from Rhode Island -- and that ate at me for years.
I don't know how a 93-year-old legally blind woman writes an obituary for a son she didn't really know for some years. Background -- born on this date, graduated from high school, worked odd jobs, survived by mother, sisters, brother, friend Kim. I worked obits for four and a half years, and not one in ten of the dead were survived by parents. Usually it was cancer patients or diabetics. But she's going to do it, and anyone who notices a typo is going to shut the fuck up or taste knuckle.
Pardon my French.
My grandparents took a lot of videos of their vacations and such with their kids, which made for really interesting vacations to their place because who doesn't want to watch his mother, 6 at the time of the video, cavorting and generally trying to get her parents' attention?
Really, seriously, it's fun. I didn't even realize she hated it.
There's a moment or three in one of the videos, for which they always did voiceovers because otherwise you're watching a silent movie with no movie stars, where my grandfather -- working without a script, I imagine -- says, sort of resigned to it as a factual and unavoidable matter:
And there's Tom and his father.You can imagine him shifting in his seat as he tries to find something else to describe, but there's just nothing. It's the beach, but the rocky outcropping is in the way, so you can't describe the sand, and flowers are nowhere in the world at the moment, so you can't talk about daisies or anything.
Gotta fill time. So there's Tom and his father, and let's move on to talk about people who ever kept an office job for more than a year.
But when he surfaced, roundabout when I was 16, there she was mothering him, slowly removing the stitching holding a hood to a shirt because he mentioned he didn't like the hood. He'd never taken it off because why bother? But now he was back and she could do some things for him -- things he would sincerely never have done for himself because why bother?
The first time I saw him outside of the movies -- sort of weird to talk about a homeless guy that way, but it's the literal truth -- the tops of his knuckles were all full of puss because he'd cut himself and then not take care of the wounds and eventually the body just says oh hell with it why heal again? So she drained those and his fingers got back to looking less like science experiments.
When he was born, she had to care for him almost as much, and she was alone with him on account of my grandfather was serving in the Army in 1945. My mother says they had those first two years to themselves, and I know how tired I get after five hours alone with my daughter, so she must have reached her breaking point more than once. But you do what you have to do, and she raised him and then he went off on his own, and you can't make people do the things you want them to do, and sometimes doesn't matter how good or bad home was. They just go off on their own.
But all in all, he didn't make bad life decisions. He never laid anyone off or got put in prison or anything that I know of. My mother said she'd never give him money because he didn't do anything responsible with it, but I don't think he ever did drugs or bought sex.
He just kept breathing, not interfering in much of anyone's life except for a quarter or whatever, and telemarketers get paid to be far more annoying than that, and they want far more than a quarter.
He just wanted to be warm.
My Uncle Tom was born in 1944, and back then, special education was functionally a disgrace. EHA, IDEA, ADA, all those laws and such didn't exist. This was 17 years before Lt. John Kennedy became President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
My mother thinks he had one mental problem or another, and I'm in no position to say otherwise -- 24 hours in eighteen years -- and so I would ... like to think the boy born in 1944 and the same boy born in 1981 (hypothetically) would not have had similar lives.
Maybe testing, or specialists, or a weekly session with a therapist. Maybe vocational training. Maybe enough people who cared about finding what he wanted and helping him make a living out of it. He cleaned for a living, and most people who do that don't do it because they're just that amazing with a scrub brush.
But he never seemed bothered by a thing. He got shushed in public by some teenager he barely knew, and he didn't do anything about it. He just sat there like a polite member of the audience and clapped for the next person, and so on.
Very calm person. I think I heard him excited once or twice -- hard to tell because his teeth were so bad you sometimes didn't know what he was saying -- but he never yelled around me. Never got angry with anyone around me.
He got all the health care he wanted when he went for it, thanks to Tricare and DoD benefits. Any hospital would have looked at him and seen the man didn't have two pennies to rub together, but he had health care. Doctors and nurses tended to him. I think they opted mostly for comfort-based care on account of no margin in chemo or whatever.
He died in peace, just like he lived.
In your average introduction to philosophy course, you'll be invited to contemplate this wonderful sentence>
The unexamined life is not worth living.I used to really hate the presumptuousness there, but now that I think on it a bit more, I think it's playing coy.
The unexamined life -- what is that? How does a life actually go unexamined?
How do you not know anyone? It's not possible.
Let's say your mother gave you up when you were born and put you in a hole and people dropped food for you and nobody knew you were anything.
Eventually, you're going to get to thinking about just what kind of a life you want to have here with these food scraps and whatnot. You're going to try to get out of that hole and do something. Anything.
You're going to think and act in your best interests.
BOOM. Examined life. Worth living.
The unexamined life does not exist. Every life is worth living, whether you're on Wall Street or the Wall Street sidewalk.
My grandmother visited her firstborn son seven times while he was in the hospital with terminal lung cancer. My mother says she -- my grandmother -- didn't think it was enough.
How much time is enough with your 69-year-old dying baby boy?