Thursday, March 18, 2010

A Death In My Family

My cousin called me yesterday and left me a voicemail. "Hey Andrew, it's Katy. Give me a call back sometime tonight if you can. I don't know if anyone else called you tonight... Um. Uncle Jerry died. We don't know much yet, but... If you want to call, I'll be up for a few more hours." And that was it.
I don't know much about my uncle, Jerry—I know that he was an alcoholic, loved hunting, and never spoke much. He was really mysterious, though never serious about anything. At every family gathering, he would be the one quietly brooding away in the corner of the room, watching the goings on, and sipping at his vodka (he drank beer for a long, long time until he found out he was diabetic; then he switched to vodka and gin, since there's no sugar in those). Despite his being hidden away, he was always the easiest person to spot in the room—what with his giant horn-rimmed, Elvis Costello-esque glasses, fisherman's hat, coffee stained khaki paints, flannel shirt, and hunting vest. I used to wonder if even owned any other clothes.

He lived directly next door to my great-grandparents (his parents) in an old, nuclear-style ramshackle house in a poor section of Joliet. It wasn't that he didn't have any money—I'm pretty sure he did—but he was a cantankerous old miser. He didn't live extravagantly (in fact, his lifestyle was the polar opposite—if one were to see his house and living conditions, one would think he lived in squalor), and, besides drinking and hunting, didn't have any hobbies.

It was strange that, besides his sister (my grandmother) and brother-in-law (my grandfather), nobody really knew anything about him. The kids in my generation of the family especially knew nothing about him—in fact, he made stuff up about him and passed it off to each other as fact. For instance, he used to wear his giant coke-bottle glasses with a variety of differently colored rubber bands that connected from arm of the frame to the other, wrapping around the back of his head to ensure that his glasses would never slip off. The first time I saw the red, green, and blue rubber bands under his thick, curly hair, I thought they were wires; I ran to the other room and informed my cousins (who are 4-6 years younger than me) that Uncle Jerry was, in fact, a robot. I was probably ten at the time. When I asked him how it was that a robot like him could drink beer and not short circuit, he informed that he was actually drinking fuel and that it made him keep going.
His wake, from what I've been told, is going to be this upcoming Tuesday. That's all I've heard.

Much like his life, his death has mystery swirling all about it—nobody is saying anything other than the obvious. From what I've heard so far, it seems as though my grandfather was trying to get a hold of him on Wednesday and when Uncle Jerry failed to return any of the calls, my grandparents went to his house and found him dead. The other fact that has been shared is that his wake and funeral will be closed-casket. All of this leads me to wonder...

There are two possibilities here, I think. One is that Uncle Jerry finally dealt with his depression by getting drunk and shooting himself. However, I cannot think of any reason why he would do that now instead of years ago. Furthermore, he never seemed like the type of person that would do that. The second possibility is that he died days before he was found and, by the time my grandfather discovered him, he had already decomposed quite a bit. The latter seems more likely to me.

Nothing is being said though, one way or the other.
Much like many of the characters in the books I will be reading along this Pulitzer Journey, his death presents a few inner and outer conflicts in my own story. Let me share a bit of background: I haven't spoken to anyone (save for my two younger cousins) on my mother's side of the family in five years now. There was a major falling out between my immediate family and my mother's parents when my sister, Gail, began having trouble with gangs and drug and alcohol addiction. My grandparents didn't want Gail around and barred her from all family gatherings—something that my mother still hasn't forgiven them for. The final straw was when Gail gave birth to a black baby and my grandparents told us that Gail was no longer considered part of the family—the completely disowned her. My mother retaliated and told them that if they were going to remove Gail from the family, they'd have to remove her and my youngest sister, Morgan, too. So, they did. They kept me around for a little while more, but when I confronted them about the entire situation, that was the end of me too. They wanted to come visit me at college whenever I had any spare time, so I told them, "If you don't have time for my family, I don't think I have any time for you." That was the last time I heard from them. As a result of my grandparents, the Browns, removing us from their lives, we no longer felt welcome at any family gatherings, so we were disconnected from everyone. My uncle's death is the catalyst that is going to make me face these people, my estranged family, for the first time in five years.

The first conflict this brings up is with my mother. Allow me to be entirely candid—my mother, though I love her dearly (as every Irish boy should their mother), is a horrible woman. She is bitter, unforgiving, mean-spirited and entirely insane. She's one of the few people I've ever met that can make anybody's misfortune entirely about her; for instance, when I called to tell her about Uncle Jerry, her first reaction was "I wonder why nobody called me..." This woman is so bitter toward her parents that she actually becomes bitter against her husband (who is a dentist) when he treats them in his office. She accuses him of "choosing sides," "aligning with them," and even "plotting against" her. When I go to this wake, I will almost undoubtedly have to face the same accusations from her. And it's not that I really care, but I just wonder how I should react when I do face the firing squad that she will be.

The next conflict is obvious: my estranged family. My cousins, Katy and Laura, have been my only contacts from that area of my life. For me, this will be a homecoming, of sorts. For the past five years, this sort of reunion has been my fear—I didn't want a death in the family to be the catalyst to a reunion. However, because of my unwillingness to bridge the gap between my family and me, because of my fear of my mother, that's what has happened.

But, perhaps something good will come from this. Perhaps Uncle Jerry's death was not in vain; perhaps, even, he died for a cause. Perhaps I will go to his wake, pay my respects, and be allowed the opportunity to reconcile with my family. Perhaps the old adage will prove itself true, that even in death, there is life.


  1. Fantastic writing Drew and again I am so sorry for your family's loss. This post seems like it came right from a novel. Perhaps someday you should consider writing one based on your life.

  2. I am very impressed with your honesty, your clarity, and your ability to see this situation in all its complexity without (from my outside perspective) being unfair to the many different sides involved. I hope that your encounter with the family is something worthwhile -- if not a perfect reunion, then at least something that helps you connect with elements in the family that are worth connecting with, and who are ready to be "family" for you.