Posted on January 31, 2014 by David Bradley
They were a harsh-looking people, gathered around the grave, and not many of them, either. It was a hot summer afternoon, but they all looked as if they’d been scourged by too many winter winds. They stood silent as a minister said words over my uncle, final words for a man he clearly knew better than I did. He’d been a favorite of mine when I was a kid, the one romantic wanderer in my life before I had any idea what that was or how I’d be attracted to them. He was the oldest of my mother’s four brothers, old enough that he’d signed up as soon as he got the news about Pearl Harbor; smart enough that he’d been sent straight to Officer Candidate School; cursed enough that he’d led a squad of tanks face to face with Rommel somewhere in North Africa. He buried the memory of that fiery defeat somewhere deep inside, refusing to disinter it until he was confined to his deathbed for a second time. I remember my mother coming home from one of her final visits when he was dying, crying to me, “After everything he did in his life, why is that what he has to go back to now?”
And he had gone through plenty in those decades, things that caught my temperament. He’d been, I thought, a maverick, a buck on the run, something between Fitzgerald and Hemingway, always moving, never rushing. He came to our house one Thanksgiving morning, no advance warning, with a case of champagne and three dozen oysters on ice, dressed in full riding gear. It was as if he’d stepped out of one of the Currier & Ives dishes my mother nailed to the kitchen wall; a minor, beloved character from a forgotten Dickens epic, standing there in our suburban kitchen in his breeches and half chaps, his eyes twinkling, cheeks aglow, hairline receding and his King George beard salt and peppered. So alive—so alive. My father scoffed at him after he left and my mother, I realized, was embarrassed by her brother. Any time his name came up in conversation, she mourned his lost promise. He’d been the one, she made clear, who had been destined for greatness. She’d been so proud of him, once upon a time. But something—the war, or his wandering, or maybe just plain laziness—had taken him off the rails.
She saw her oldest brother bursting in on a holiday morning, fresh from riding to hounds in the Virginia countryside, hours away from his small farmhouse, the guest, she supposed, of equally eccentric friends that she knew nothing about, and to her that meant he’d been some kind of clown, a jester in a court he didn’t really belong to. She saw nothing but odd behavior, something unruly and in no way translatable to the way we lived, something stuck in a past she’d set aside many years before. He’d gone to war and never really came home. When he was young, he played on the town baseball team, sang like Bing Crosby, could’ve been a college professor or anything else he’d wanted to be, she’d tell me. But, after the war, he had not wanted to be anything. He’d just given up, according to her.
And that’s where I saw myself in him. He was a man with an artistic heart, the uncle who had bred hunting dogs, and kept a rope swing in his barn, and, one summer, had lay dying in a becalmed bedroom just off their country kitchen, a collapsed lung and really no hope of recovery—and then he recovered, a Superman who beat cancer and rolled on as if it had never happened. He was Santa Claus and Sergeant York and Dr. Doolittle, and so much more, all wrapped up in one fascinating, pipe-smoking, belly-laughing wonderment. My own father was hard and, I thought, mean. He was always wanting me to be doing some thing that I had no interest in doing. My uncle never asked me to do anything. He had, I felt even then, an appreciation for boys being boys. My father demanded that I help him flush his Buick’s radiator on bitter cold winter afternoons. Uncle Bill wanted to hear about my adventures in the woods behind my house; pulling sunfish from the creek; collecting box turtles with the local Springer Spaniel. The man who’d felt the eyes of Afrika Corps Panzers on him on the blackest of nights always asked me about my adventures. I was primed by E.B. White and Jean George and my first exposure to Mark Twain for a life gamboling outdoors, and he was a man who had known that love in a different time. He’d grown up in the wilds of West Virginia, between the wars, just 18 years old when Zeroes had roared out of the Pacific sun, and before he knew it, the world was overrun with atomic bombs and extermination camps and the cries of men in his command burning alive. Through me, perhaps, he heard an echo of everything that he’d left behind, and I imagined that he sang some version of the years that stretched out before me.
I knew no one at his funeral. Like my brother and sisters, who were separated from
me by two miscarriages over five years, my cousins seemed from another generation.
I was a child of the 1960s who grew into the luminescent ‘70s; they were the final
gasp of the 1950s, reminiscing about Howdy Doody and the Mercury program. My siblings
were all married now, with young children of their own, spread up and down the East
Coast. My parents and their generation were locked away in Florida retirement ramblers,
spending oceans of wheat cents they’d saved during their lives on half-acre lots,
paying builders’ fees for kidney-shaped swimming pools in vain efforts to lure their
kids south on spring breaks. My father spent his time now patching mosquito nets and
scrubbing the deck of his red and white bowrider. He’d spent his last three months’
salary on that boat but couldn’t bear to pay for the gas to cruise it around the canals
of his development. He and my mother were probably sitting in the great room at that
very moment, watching reruns on TV, the shades lowered to block the tropical sun,
as I shifted my weight and fought a hangover graveside.
We stood there, my wife and I, newlyweds surrounded by a handful of strangers and half-forgotten relatives who’d only known me as a child.
I felt their eyes on me, the enfant terrible, now fully grown. I’d imagined myself a prodigal son, but was, in fact, just another rough face in a host of blank expressions, weak with self-consciousness, nearly choking on my own ego.
My uncle had been an old man when he died, or at least I thought so then. The people standing around us had all grown old beside him. I looked for uniforms, medals on the chest of an old Army buddy or two, before it occurred to me that there were none of them left to mourn him. His sons—my cousins—were focused on the ceremony, on the business of the day, and on the neighbors that they had known all their lives. A pair of cemetery workers, one with dirty hands and torn jeans, stood behind us. And, finally, there was a woman, a decade younger at least than my uncle, who arrived late.
She wore a scarlet dress, modestly cut, but still not the kind of thing I’d expected to see at a quiet country funeral. The heels of her pumps cut into the cemetery turf, throwing her off balance as she approached. I thought she’d collapse. I imagined she’d hidden behind the tinted glass of an Italian sports car, smoking Dunhills from a long cigarette holder, waiting for a comfortable moment to surreptitiously join us. From where I stood, across the grave from her, it wasn’t clear if her hair—long and permed—was blonde or grey; her eyes were hidden by dark sunglasses. She stood alone. No one acknowledged her. When the moment came for the casket to be lowered, she stepped forward and, with dignity and—there is no other way to describe it—passion, kissed the polished cherry lid.
There was to be a reception, or a wake, whatever Presbyterians call it, but I’d planned
to skip that. When the final words had been spoken and we’d taken our turns tossing
handfuls of dirt into the grave, as the older people weaved through the headstones
toward the church’s tiny banquet hall, my wife and I retreated. The woman in red was
already pulling out of the parking lot. In one hand she held what appeared to be a
Merit or a Camel, and she gripped the steering wheel of her Subaru hatchback with
It was more than a year later before my mother was able to make the trip north to see her oldest brother’s grave. The occasion was the wedding of his oldest son, my oldest cousin, in the same church where the funeral had been held. After the ceremony, before the reception, I walked her to the grave, now adorned with a granite block. I thought it would be an emotional moment for her, but she held it in. They were a tough old generation. She’d missed all of the third grade with a kidney infection that her parents were told would likely kill her. By the time she was 16 years old, all she’d known of life was the Great Depression, World War II, and that bedridden year waiting to die. Years later, stationed in Europe and pregnant with me, she’d been unable to make the transatlantic trip home for her father’s unexpected funeral. She’d learned to drive a car when she was 40 so she could take a job, and she raised four children on her own when my father took duty in Vietnam in 1970, all so they could make enough money to pay our looming tuitions. She spent weeks nursing her own mother as she died of lung cancer, and took the telephone call when news came of another brother’s suicide. She’d learned to take the pain of things as they came. They all did.
We stood there in the fading October sun, looking down at the headstone, and I had nothing to say. I thought she’d come up with something pretty, or meaningful, or she’d put her head on my shoulder and cry, at least. Tell me I was a good son. But she didn’t.
Instead, she took a deep breath, released it, and swallowed the pain. It occurred to me that she did that a lot. Most of the time I didn’t even notice how things hurt her.
I can never remember the name of the neurological disease that destroyed my mother. It was something I’d never heard of before, not Alzheimer’s and not Parkinson’s, though in many ways it mimicked them both. In the beginning, it was tremors in her hands, blank spots in her memory, an odd imbalance in her walk. By the end, after nearly ten years of ruthless debilitation, it left her unable to function in any recognizable way. In her final days, I wasn’t sure she could even hear my voice. There were days it annoyed me. I’d drive home, alone in the car, grousing at her for inconveniencing me, and grumbling at myself for not being able to help her.
I sat with her one day, after she’d been diagnosed and the worst, while not there yet, was visible, a darkness growing on the horizon. It was coming, and there was nothing anyone could do to stop it. She sat in a chair specially made to lift her to a standing position, where we could have her walker waiting. Her hands, grown hard and bony, flexed in and out of fists. She didn’t want the TV on. She didn’t want to listen to music. She couldn’t read, now. She stared at nothing. She saw what was coming, clearer than I did.
“Are you scared?” I asked her. I thought I was brave for asking.
“No,” she said. There was a pause. “I worry about your father.”
“He’ll be fine—we’ll all be fine,” I lied. I had no idea where things would take us. I tried not to check the clock, though I doubted she would have known if I had.
“I don’t have any friends,” she said.
“I don’t, either,” I said.