As of June 8th, 2019 at 11:52 in the morning, I’m an uncle.
This is a big deal in my life, and not just because Luca is the first kid born to any of my siblings. The idea of the Uncle has always hung over my head the same as the idea of the Father—not God the Father, nor God the Uncle for that matter, but all the imperfect men who raise us and teach us bad habits.
I’ve thought about being an uncle and a father one day just as much as I’ve thought about being a nephew and a son. See, I have two older sisters; I’m the youngest of three. They’ll both be aunts to my kids one day, but to theirs I’ll be the only uncle. The blood uncle. And we’re only gonna get one shot at this.
It’s not my job to raise them, but it is my responsibility to not disappoint them.
I only had two uncles growing up, and they were both disappointing. My family might not be alright with me writing about them, but it’s part of my story, part of who I am, and to neglect talking about such things would be to ignore an enormous amount of my own growth as a man, a brother, a son, a nephew.
I didn’t know either of my uncles very well.
Tommy. The youngest sibling, like me.
Johnny. The only brother (after Tommy died), like me.
They were both my mom’s brothers (my dad was an only child). Tommy died when I was very young, and Johnny died just a couple years ago. Tommy was the fast-living, young-dying kind of guy that our society loves to idealize. He was a homosexual, and in defiance of the conservative household he grew up in, Tommy plunged himself into alcoholism, drugs, poetry—anything that made him feel a little less like dying.
He lived at home with my grandmother, his mother, until he was in his forties. He had trouble keeping jobs, but because of little-to-no overhead he still had plenty to spend, and he made a habit of procuring a slough of expensive items: paintings, furniture, glassware, and all manner of decor. I ended up with a few of these relics; they live in my house with me.
There’s a picture in one of my mom’s photo albums of me as a little kid standing next to Tommy, who is crouched down to pose for the picture, smiling with his clean-shaven face and blonde hair so fair it was almost white. I don’t remember what he was like, but my mom said he “adored” me. I wish I could’ve known him better. I wish he hadn’t drank himself to death.
The only memory I have of Tommy is visiting him at the hospital. His liver had failed him, and his esophagus was practically dissolving. He was on his death bed; he just wasn’t gonna make it, and I’m not sure he would’ve wanted to at that point. I remember standing there in the dark room with my family as he lied on the hospital bed unconscious, just looking at him—and yet, in my vague memory of that experience, there were two Tommys in the room with us. One was dying on the bed, and the other was standing right next to me telling me it was gonna be okay.
I knew Johnny better, but only because he lived longer. This is the uncle who estranged himself from his family and lived in other places and worked other jobs, and did everything he could to keep away from everyone who loved him. He was cruel to his sisters on more than on occasion, and yes, that’s the word I’m going to stick with. Cruel. The apex of his cruelty was during the time they all had to come together as siblings and move my grandmother into a nursing home. That’s never easy, and he only made it harder for them, his sisters.
My mom and my aunt. Two sisters. I have two sisters.
He was the uncle then. I’m the uncle now.
He wanted nothing to do with his own kids, or either of his ex wives. He tried to forget he had sisters, or nieces, or nephews, or any kind of familial responsibilities whatsoever. His anger issues kept him isolated, and sometimes unemployed. He was just that kind of guy. Angry. Cruel.
But when I got a little older in my late teens, I developed some anger issues too. I lost sight of who I was for a few years, and it’s that burning fire in the furnace of my existential cellar that’s forged most of the iron of my human experience. I’m not proud of it, and sometimes I still have trouble controlling my emotions, but the absolute rage I felt for years was just a phase. It came and went, like uncles at holiday dinners.
The same can’t be said for Johnny, and that made my mom worry about me. She grew increasingly concerned—the way only a mother can be—that I would grow up to be just like him. I know this because she told me. Often. It got to a point where I was regularly compared to him, which I don’t think was ever fair considering I was a moody teenager going through an emo phase and not a grown man who had made decades of mistakes and estranged himself from his entire family.
No, I’ve never exactly seen the resemblance. But I digress. We’re past it now.
To be fair, he was on her mind a lot in those days because that’s when they were dealing with all the business with the nursing home and selling my grandma’s house—they were talking with regularity, which means he was cruel to her with regularity, which means she was crying with regularity. My dad hated his guts. We all did, in a way.
So it makes sense that I started to dream about Johnny. A lot. In one dream he’d made a fortune and remarried; his new wife was super young and attractive, and she was making moves on me—whatever the hell that means in dream interpretation.
The other dream is the most memorable one I have of him. I find myself homeless, living on the streets of some big city, walking aimlessly, perhaps begging. It’s cold and rainy, and the all the lights from the busy streets and crazy traffic reflect everywhere in bokeh reds, yellows, and greens. I walk with a crowd from dark corner to dark corner until a hand reaches out and stops me. It’s my super rich uncle Johnny, and I realize this is us in an older era. I’m practically in rags, but he’s wearing a top hat and a cloak, and walking with a silver-tipped cane. He finds me amidst the crowd, and I know him to be my benefactor.
He tugs on my shoulder and leans in close to whisper in my ear. As he speaks I can feel his warm breath on the side of my face: “Get out of your head, boy.”
That’s one sentence I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forget.
My aunt died of cancer a few years ago. She fought it for a long time, and it was a hard thing to watch. But instead of coming ASAP to spend time with her at the side of her deathbed, Johnny sent flowers. Sure, he showed up eventually… But seriously, who were the flowers supposed to be for?
A year or two later Johnny found out he had tongue cancer. The doctors told him he would have a particularly rough go of things, so he opted out of treatment. He opted out the old fashioned way, with a shotgun. In his small town, in his small house, alone with his brains painted on the wall behind him.
Both of my uncles were disappointing. Both left me with such dark ideas of what it means to be a man in this world, but the older I get the more I realize how broken they were, how wrong they were. They wanted to blame their problems on everyone else in their lives, but at the core of it their choices were their own. They made their beds, and now they’re fast, fast asleep in them.
I’ve thought a lot about them over the years, about the kind of uncle I want to be one day. Well, now I am one. I have a nephew, who is the first baby I’ve ever held. He’s beautiful. He’s perfect. I have a feeling he’s going to teach me so much before I can ever return the favor, but maybe I’ll get to do for him the same things my uncles did for me and help him realize the kind of man he wants to be, whether by showing him who to be or who not to be. Maybe I’ll get to leave him some family heirlooms to remind him that despite his roots, nothing in his past can define who he becomes. Yeah, maybe one day I’ll catch up. Maybe one day I’ll be good enough for him.
In the meantime, I’ll do my best not to disappoint.