Imagine you spliced the genes of Tom Selleck, MacGyver, and Don Johnson, and placed this superb human specimen in a pair of cowboy boots. That was my Uncle John. He was the definition of suave-not smarmy or fake, just a good ol’ boy with a genius brain, a boyish enthusiasm, and a compassionate heart.
Uncle John rolled up our little house in Harrison Township, Michigan in a black Delorean like he was straight out of Back to the Future, with a beige sports jacket, slim white jeans, and cowboy boots. He was notorious in the family for being the stylish adventurer who loved speed-fast cars and fast boats.
He was straight out of an Old Hollywood movie, and we worshipped him. As is the case with little girls who are entranced with a handsome man, we chased him, teased him, hit him, and made up stupid names for him. Like Uncle Feather. I have no clue where that originated, but that was the name we dubbed to our glamorous uncle. Uncle Feather.
His nickname for me: Buckwheat. Because of my giant rabbit teeth. If anyone else had teased me about my teeth, I would have ended up sobbing alone in my closet. But Uncle John mussed my ponytail and called me Buckwheat and I loved it.
Uncle John was the youngest, and the only boy, and was absolutely worshipped by his parents and sisters. My grandpa’s eyes held a special light when Uncle John was around. It was my first glimpse of the look a father gives his only son. The second time I witnessed that look was when I saw Uncle John hold his own baby boy. There’s a pride, tenderness, and quiet joy, when a man is in the presence of his son.
One Tuesday night Dad picked me up from catechism. On the ride home, he softly said,
“Ho-ney, you have to be very quiet when we go home. Your Uncle John was in a boating accident and…he got hurt very badly…and…he didn’t, he didn’t make it. Your mother is very sad. You have to make her feel better.”
How do you explain death to a child? All I understood was that my mother was very upset and it was up to me to make her feel better.
When we got home, I heard clattering in the basement. I walked downstairs to find my mother, standing in a pile of dirty laundry, frantically scrubbing our gym socks with Lava soap. I hugged her around her waist, and she began to sob.
At the funeral home, I remember being shepherded by my parents to the casket. He didn’t look like Uncle John. His face was bloated from the speedboat accident. He’d been in a race, and was thrown upward against the bubble top of the boat, which broke his neck. He died instantly. This was not my handsome uncle, so full of life and warmth. That man was gone.
My grandfather was never the same after that. When we would go to church with him and Grandma, every time we got to the point in Mass where they prayed for the departed souls, Grandpa gripped my hand and wept. For years. Every time. Every mass.
How absolutely incomprehensible it is to lose your only son. Your little brother. Your father. Your uncle. How does a family survive the loss of its star, that provided such warmth, energy and light?
My image of my uncle will always remain that of a nine-year old’s vantage point: a brilliant, handsome man who took risks, lived big, loved big, and laughed big.