He was gay, but not the stereotypical flamboyant gay man that you see portrayed on TV, there was no birdcage. I was just short of 18 when I found out that he was gay. I had never bothered to consider that he could be, it never occurred to me that he was anything but my uncle.
But my middle sister must have been thinking about it because she asked him. We were in San Francisco on a youth group trip and he had dinner with just the two of us. One moment I had the cool uncle who bought a beer for me at dinner and the next, he was gay. He laughed when she asked and answered that he was.
Suddenly I was posed with a dilemma as I had grown up hearing gay jokes in school. I may have even told some. I never heard them around the house, but I knew that it was something that many people frowned upon. I truly cannot remember if I spent much time thinking about it, although I know that I found it to be disconcerting. Regardless of my discomfort I reminded myself that he was my uncle and that I loved him.
And that was the end of my concern about it, it really was short lived.
It was January of 1987.
Sometime in 1989 I learned that my uncle had tested HIV+. Now my uncle became gay again to me. I remember as a 20 year-old boy who was trying to figure out who I was that I knew that my uncle was going to die and I felt sad for my father and my grandfather.
For a long time he didn't show any signs of the disease. He had trouble gaining weight, but he was always skinny. As the opportunity presented itself I would go back to SF to spend time with him. He was so similar and so different from my father. It was fascinating to me to see in some ways the man my father could have been had he not had 4 children to take care of.
Sometime around 1993 the virus decided that dormancy was not for it and the little buggers began their assault upon my uncle. It was slow at first and he fought it. We are a strong willed family and he wasn't anxious to give up. I began to do what I could to speak with him even more than I had. I really looked to him for some guidance and support. He gave me what advice he had to offer and set me straight about a number of things.
My happy go lucky uncle was dying.
I began to see little things that I hadn't noticed before, aspects of his personality that I had never been exposed to. I don't know if they had always been there or if the disease brought it out, but they reared their head for me, pretty and ugly alike.
It became more and more apparent that time was not on his side and out of necessity the drugs he took to sustain his life were increased. And now I got to speak with a drugged and not always lucid 49 year old. I didn't like it, but I didn't blame him.
In February of 1994 my uncle died of complications caused by the virus, he wasn't even 50.
Due to dumbluck, karma, kismet or whatever I got the call from SF saying that he had passed away and I got to due the honors of telling my grandfather that his youngest son had died. A short time later my mother and I let my father know that his younger brother had died. In practically no time it seemed like I had decimated a family.
No one blamed me, no one yelled at me. It wasn't my fault, but I felt empty and hollow. I had "stabbed" my grandfather and my father. I did it carefully, I tried to be tender, but the words cut them both.
My grandfather cried and I could do nothing.
Fast forward to 2003. It is August and my grandmother has a major stroke. We know that within days she will die. For all intents and purposes she is already gone, her body is a shell, more like a three dimensional picture. My grandfather held her hand and sat with her, but the look on his face said that he knew.
At her funeral he leaned against me and I realized that overnight he had aged. My poor grandfather had buried a son and two wives and time was catching up with him. It made me very aware of his mortality. I was 34 and a father and I felt like a three year-old boy. Suddenly all of his weight was leaning against me and even though I felt strength in the muscles, he felt frail.
And for the second time in my memory my grandfather cried.
Fast forward to April of this year, 2004. My sister is pregnant with her third child. On April 17th my parents left for New Jersey so that they could be there for the birth of their newest grandchild.
On April 28th my father was admitted to the hospital. Within hours he was on a ventilator and my BIL and I were discussing whether he would survive. It was touch and go and there were concerns that if I waited for any length of time he would die before I could get there.
And suddenly I realized that I might be stuck telling my grandfather that his oldest son had died. It was so unfair, I was going to be placed in a position of being concerned about whether telling him could kill him. It was bad enough telling him about my uncle, and now 10 years later I faced the prospect of history repeating.
But this time there was no other child and no wife to lean on, just a 35 year-old grandson.
Life is funny that way. So I rolled the dice and lied to my grandfather and my other grandparents about having to take a sudden business trip. It was April 30th and I caught an early morning flight to New Jersey. I got on a plane not knowing if my father would still be living when I arrived and the knowledge of all of the responsibilities left behind. Three grandparents, a pregnant wife, three year-old son and two younger sisters.
Ahead I had my mother to take care of and my sister and her kids. I was incredibly thankful for my BIL, not just because he was a doctor but because I felt some support, that there was at least one person in New Jersey that I could rely upon to help with the family.
It is June 30th now.
My father beat the odds, roll out the cliches. He survived when so many of the docs were dubious about the possibility. And now I worry about him and my mother coming home in time for the birth of my new baby. The due date is July 22, but my wife expects that we have about 2 weeks to go. She is carrying the baby, so I suppose that she should know.
I am looking forward to seeing dad come home. I am not ready to give him up and I don't want to rob my children of knowing their grandfather. What a wild year it has been. There is something fitting in seeing my folks arrive in time for the beginning of a new life.
I love you dad. Get mom on a plane and come home, please.
This was deeply moving. So sorry about your uncle. 49 is too short a life. And no parent should ever have to bury a child. Life can be so short. Very sad.
Here's hoping your parents make it home for the birth of their new grandchild.
Loved your story, thank you! I have seen many deaths too, my father died when he was 49 and my husband passed away when he was 40, 2 of my friends died at age of 24 (one commited a suicide)and one at age of 18... Death is a sore subject for me but your story sure was a help. TY
Death can be hard, but it is not something that can be avoided so we do what we can.
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