“Someday your child may cry
And if you sing this lullabye,
Then in your heart
There will always be a part
Only two days after my birthday, on Easter Sunday, April 10, 1994, we received word that Uncle Wes had died, there in his bedroom. My grandma called to give us the news that she would be flying home the next day.
By the time that following Saturday had arrived, my mom and grandma had somehow managed to arrange a memorial service for Uncle Wes at the small rural church my grandparents went to. Dan, my manager at Pizza Hut, worked it out so I could have the evening off to go to the funeral. I went in for an afternoon shift instead.
It was really more of a wake than a funeral, I suppose. The entire family had gathered together to mourn, but the atmosphere that day was anything but somber. The group was only used to coming together on joyous occasions like the Thanksgiving dinners of my childhood, so the mood present was one of exuberance rather than weariness. Perhaps we were all stifling our feelings of grief, perhaps it was a relief for it all to be over, having been such a long time in coming, or perhaps it was just a comfort to be around those familiar to us. Whatever it was, we managed to release our pain for a few moments and simply enjoy the company.
The potluck dinner we had after the service in the church’s newly constructed fellowship hall certainly added to the strange feeling of festivity. Relatives I normally saw only once a year struck up polite conversations with me about school, and I, also wishing to be polite, glossed over my recent troubles with trigonometry and declared everything was well. Habit being so strong, the men of the family even began talking about the chances their various favorite teams had of going all the way this year; they adapted such conversations quite easily from the winter sport of football to the more seasonal sport at the time, baseball. As always, my father took some good-natured ribbing at the expense of the Cubs, and we all had a good laugh in spite of ourselves.
The service itself had been much more solemn, however. A photo of Uncle Wes had been blown up to gigantic proportions and placed in a gaudy gold-trimmed frame at the front of the chapel. Flowers of all colors surrounded the picture, which stood in lieu of the body. There was no coffin.
At the ceremony, a preacher who had never known Uncle Wes spoke to those of us who had, praised traits he had never witnessed and recounted stories which we knew by heart but which he had not been present for. Then after a moment of silence soft music began to play. The song that came across the speakers must have been my mother’s choice, but it was definitely one that Uncle Wes would have loved. It was a Billy Joel song, one quite popular at the time, entitled “Lullabye (Goodnight My Angel).”
I was not sad that day. I had written Uncle Wes off long ago as already dead; his brain just hadn’t given into the hard facts of his disease until then. But that song affected me. It was one I was fond of, that I played often on the jukebox nights I had to stay late and close up at work. I shifted in my seat in the uncomfortable hardwood pew and brought my finger up to my eye to adjust my contact lens.
My aunt Liz was sitting behind me, and she took my movement to mean that I was crying. I did not correct her mistake and graciously accepted the tissue she offered me.
I could not play that song ever again in the eight weeks I remained at my job at Pizza Hut, and to this day when I hear it, my contact lenses give me trouble.
There was no coffin that day, for there was no body. Uncle Wes had written out his will before he died, and it appeared that in his optimism he had only left it half finished. Though he would now never be able to complete it, the barest hint of a list that he had outlined was clear about his wishes for what he would have done with him after he passed away.
He wished to be cremated and his ashes sent to the wind. One half of his ashes were to be scattered there in Florida at a place called Christ’s Garden at Kesha, at a small footbridge in this beautiful wooded scene near the home he and Dan had shared with their birds.
Dan was to retain the rest. He did not come to the funeral, because I assume he was not welcome there. He and the ashes disappeared from our lives forever when my grandma boarded her flight for home the day after Uncle Wes was cremated. He was still completely untouched by sickness that day; in my weaker moments I wish that the disease he had finally caught up to him shortly afterwards and that he died horribly, in pain and alone. But I know that he is probably still alive out there somewhere, in possession of an urn that contains what used to be a member of my family.
But Uncle Wes was never simply ashes to me.
* * * * * * * * * *
My aunt Liz was only a member of the family for a few more months after that day.
She and my Uncle Scott, the youngest of my mother’s siblings, lived in Colorado where he worked as a dealer in a casino, and they had only come home for a short visit when Uncle Wes died. They returned to Colorado a few days after the funeral and Uncle Scott went back to work.
His job quickly came into jeopardy when he himself began to gamble after hours at the casino where he worked. He continuously lost in high stakes poker games until eventually he owed some very bad people a great deal of money. Uncle Scott had to hide out with my grandparents in Illinois until they could raise the money to pay his debts for him.
Later the marriage between Liz and my uncle Scott fell apart when he fell into an affair with a young woman named Heidi in Colorado. She was only two years older than I was when he got her knocked up. My uncle got divorced rather quickly to marry Heidi, thus beginning a vicious cycle of him moving back and forth from Colorado to Illinois and back, from Liz to Heidi and back.
My friend Miller also got a girl pregnant that year, our senior year of high school. Her name was Shonna, and they had been dating for a while. I had gone out on a date with her myself only a month before she first met Miller and they started talking. When he decided to ask her out, he came to me to make sure it was OK first.
I heard a rumor about Shonna being pregnant long before Miller would admit to it I couldn’t believe it and confronted him about it as he paid for his meal at the counter of Pizza Hut one night, still a favorite hangout of ours even after I quit. His energy pooled at his feet again that day when I asked him, but he quickly regained his composure and denied it all.
In February of our senior year their son Nick was born. He is now six years old and a big fan of the Nickelodeon cartoon Blue’s Clues, something I made fun of him for the last time I saw him. Miller and Shonna were married the summer after we graduated from high school. The wedding was mostly just a family affair; I was one of only three friends invited to help celebrate the occasion. Yet the wedding was the same day as a local Star Trek convention, and I left the reception shortly after it began to go seek the autograph of John de Lancie.
I fell in love all over again with Amy T. my senior year of high school. I had left my job at Pizza Hut for a clerk position at my local bookstore. The job offered less pay, especially without the tips I had been earning before, but I had lots of down time and lots of reading material to fill that down time with. Often on nights when I closed the shop, I would stop by her parents’ pizza place while she was working to be with her and pretend to play Lethal Enforcers, a video game they had at their restaurant.
In the fall semester of my senior year, she informed me that her parents were going to have to shut down the restaurant because it had never really managed to compete with its rivals in town. She would be graduating a semester early and they all would be moving to Texas so her stepfather could work at a cable company with his brother.
I was devastated the night she told me and drove her around in my car listening to Sarah McLachlan songs. When “Hold On” came on, I pulled over, stepped out of the car and asked her to dance. While we danced, we kissed.
To her these were friendly kisses, and she moved away from me, despite all my pleas for her to stay, in December.
Amy T. returned to me in early May as my date to the prom. Since she was no longer a student, she would not have been able to go if she didn’t go with someone still enrolled, someone like me. My girlfriend at the time did not mind, as any feelings I had had for Amy had passed quickly with the months.
But Amy’s boyfriend Dave did mind. He called me from Chicago, where he went to college and where Amy would be joining him in August, to warn me. He said he had heard I was going to make a move on “his girlfriend” and that it “would not be advisable.” I laughed at him.
Amy T. will be getting a new last initial when she and Dave are married on June 9, 2001 in Hawaii.
I broke up with Kelly after two months of a relationship because I wanted to move on to Jenny Stedlin. I broke up with Jenny Stedlin after two months of a relationship because I wanted to move on to someone else. Jenny took the news much worse than Kelly had, crying so intensely that it seemed to me the tears literally poured out of her eyes. I never really saw much of either of them again after we broke up.
Jenny Stedlin did eventually get to find out why I didn’t like to talk about my new car, however. Together we went to see a movie one night on a date, making the same drive to a nearby town that I had with Molly only months before. The movie we saw was called Philadelphia; the subject matter hit a little too close to home for me. I cried in the theater and told her why on the way home. But I still moved on to what I thought were greener pastures only a few weeks later.
I continued “moving on” after two months until well into my senior year. Halfway into that year I met a girl named Erica, whom I fell in love with instantly but did not begin to date until August, four whole days before I went off to college. In the three months we maintained a long distance relationship, I thought about marriage on a daily basis. But on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, only the second Thanksgiving my family would have without Uncle Wes, she broke off the relationship. This time my eyes were the ones pouring forth tears, and all moving on stopped for a while.
Now I have moved on for a final time and find myself thinking of marriage every hour on the hour as June 9, 2001, also the date of my wedding, comes ever nearer. All my friends who have scattered to the winds in the years since high school will regroup for this day, and we will reminisce about the old days, actually believing it when we say that it was the best time of our lives.
* * * * * * * * * *
My uncle Wes in life was an activist for the cause of AIDS awareness. On Sunday October 21, 1990, he was profiled for his local newspaper, The Fort Pierce/Port St. Lucie Tribune, in a cover story entitled “The Trauma of AIDS.” He and Dan were both interviewed extensively on their lives, how they coped with being infected with the AIDS virus.
The front page article outlined his previous hospital stays, twice for pneumocystic disease, an infection of the lungs, and once for the “parrot fever,” as the paper called it, he had contracted from the birds he and Dan raised. The article displayed my uncle’s positive outlook on his disease when he stated that he considered himself lucky. He had the insurance needed to cover his extensive medical bills while many others could not cope with the mounting costs of healthcare.
Uncle Wes was characteristically caring in the article, breeching the silence we had been sworn to in my home to share information about AIDS to a community that was at that time shockingly unaware of the causes, effects, and prevention methods for the deadly disease. The article also demonstrated his willingness to give rather than receive by detailing his role as treasurer of a local group called Treasure Coast Community AIDS Network. He attended the group’s first benefit dance despite being gravely ill with his bird disease at the time.
My uncle displayed in the article the charm and humor in the face of adversity he carried with him throughout his life. He told the interviewer that he used to say that he felt people viewed him “like a leper” at times, but then he decided against using that terminology because he didn’t want to demean those with leprosy. Reading that one-liner, I can imagine him delivering it with a totally straight face.
The article spoke of the over 89, 000 people who died of AIDS in the United States from 1981 to 1990. Ten years later, in June of 2000, that number had risen to over 430, 000, according to the Center for Disease Control. According to estimates from the United Nations, by the end of the year 2000 almost 22, 000, 000 people had died of the disease worldwide.
I wonder how Uncle Wes would have felt knowing this information. How would he have reacted to know that, six years after his death, AIDS would be the fifth leading cause of death among all American adults aged 25 to 44, that in African-American males that age, it would be the leading cause of death? What would his reaction be if he had been at the CDC’s conference in Chicago during early February of 2001 to hear that, one in ten young gay and bisexual men living in a major metropolitan area were living with HIV?
My guess is that these numbers would dishearten Uncle Wes, as they should anyone who reads them. But if there was one thing that he longed for as he died of this disease, it was to not become just another statistic.
* * * * * * * * * *
I named the car I received from Uncle Wes “the Lovechicken,” after the song that made my band in high school semi-famous. By the time I received my vanity plates, the band had broken up. It would prove difficult to explain the meaning of my car’s personalized plates to everyone I met from then on.
I drove the car to Cape Girardeau, MO, for the first time in April of 1995, where I had been accepted to college at Southeast Missouri State. Despite one bad semester of math, I had received an academic scholarship that would pay for everything from tuition to room and board, even including books. That weekend my mom and I drove down so I could sign up to take classes in the fall, something that my academic advisor could have done without me present. I was so clueless about what to do next that he had to tell me everything to take. My “aunt” Sara went with us too. She was a friend of my mom’s that we called my aunt all weekend because she thought that otherwise someone might think she and Mom were lesbians.
On the two-hour drive down there, my mom received reassurance that SEMO was right for me from a white bird that flew above us as we crossed the bridge from Missouri to Illinois.
Was it my Uncle Wes reincarnated? Was it my uncle reaching out to us from the afterlife? I don’t know; in fact, for me the verdict is still out if there even is one. But the only way I’ll find out is if I someday find Uncle Wes there, and it does no harm to believe anyway in the meantime.
I drove the car home a lot my first semester at SEMO to spend more time with my girlfriend Erica. After Erica broke up with me, I drove home less. Shortly after the break-up, I drove “the Lovechicken” up to visit Amy K. at the college she and Denise went to. She hooked me up with a friend of hers named Leah for the night I was there; I slept in Leah’s room and slinked out when the sun came up.
Once I was on my way back to school at nine o’clock on a Sunday night when the car suddenly started slowing down and acting like it was going to die. Luckily I made it to the next town and was able to stop in the parking lot of a Hardee’s. I sat in the restaurant reading for an hour before my grandpa showed up in his truck to take me on to school then tow “the Lovechicken” home to get it fixed.
Another time I was on my way home at about two in the afternoon one Friday when the hood of the car started blowing out smoke as I was driving down the middle of the highway. I pulled over to the side of the road and dragged my suitcase out of the car, afraid it was going to burst into flames. A state trooper who had been driving by took me to a nearby gas station, where I sat for six hours waiting for someone to come pick me up. I had to call my girlfriend as soon as I got home and grovel. It was ten o’clock when I called; we had had a date planned for seven.
We traded the car in the next summer, and I never had the chance to experience the cushions of the backseat. The new “Lovechicken,” a blue 1991 Buick Century, has lasted me five more years of trips from Cape to Florissant where my fiancée’s parents live or to my own parents’ house in Centralia. Now that I’m leaving this place behind and getting married, I’m thinking of trading it in on a new car, since it is now ten years old.
* * * * * * * * * *
When I was a kid, I thought Uncle Wes was a marine biologist. This belief was solely based on a comment my grandmother made during our first trip to Sea World. Uncle Wes had stopped and talked to a lady who had been one of our tour guides there, and my mom and grandma thought he might be checking to see about job opportunities. I thought he was going to ask her out.
This belief was also spurred on by the fact that I never once saw Uncle Wes working. In all the memories I have of my uncle, I do not once recall ever hearing about how he earned a living. I do remember once, upon receiving the Dalek figurine I later put in my locker, wondering how he got the money for it. He always seemed to be totally free to spend time with us when we came to visit, and his trips up to see us always seemed to come at the drop of a hat. It was as if he had been thinking about us one moment and driving to Illinois the next, without a worry about the cost or what his boss might think.
After he died I learned he had spent some time working as a DJ. I only learned this fact, however, when my brother and I received an expensive sound system from him in his will. It has a CD player with a six-disc changer; giant black cartridges containing CDs fit into a slot in the front like videotapes go into a VCR. The four huge speakers blew people away when I brought it to my room in the dorms my sophomore year at college, and now that my brother is attending school at SEMO, he blasts music out of his room.
In Uncle Wes’s will he left tons of records, a throwback to his DJ days, to my mom, but he made sure to exclude the disco records he owned. For a long time they sat in the garage at my grandparents’ house; my mother did not own a record player.
My uncle’s sound system was slightly trashed when Nate and I received it. The record player that had accompanied the stereo was broken and someone had put crazy glue on the eject button so that the CD cartridge could not come out. We had to pry the button loose with a screwdriver and, from then on, reach into the stereo with a pencil to get the cartridges to eject. There were a few CDs in the case when we finally got it out, one of which (REM’s greatest hits CD Eponymous) I still own to this day.
But Uncle Wes wasn’t a DJ when I knew him; his records all dated back from his time in Chicago. And he never was a marine biologist, although it is somewhat of a coincidence that this field is the one my fiancée has chosen for a career.
Uncle Wes’s job didn’t really ever matter much to me.
* * * * * * * * * *
So what did matter? What was he, then, to me?
He was first an endless trove of love and treasure. He could be counted upon to treat me like an equal at certain times, talking to me with the same level of maturity he would use with the adults surrounding me. Other times he would indulge my childish wants, giving me a handful of quarters at a restaurant so I could play video games while I waited for our food to arrive.
Then he became a shadow lurking in corners, having been forced there by my ignorance and fear. He was a ghost to me, for I had pronounced him dead from age 13 on. He was gay and he died of AIDS, and for the longest time these terms were how I defined him.
But he was also someone whom I shared much in common with, much more than a love for bad British sci-fi. I found out, after my mother dug through his records to see which to keep and which to get rid of, that many of the groups he had been listening to for years were ones I was just coming to love. Had I been more open to him, we could have explored our mutual interests in some of the songs that give titles to these essays.
Above all else, he was someone who taught me a great deal about acceptance with his death and the regret that followed. Someone who gave me love endlessly, who received nothing but scorn in return when I should have loved him more.
I hope to someday go to where his ashes were strewn, where I will burn a copy of these essays and scatter their remains there as well. I will perform this act as an apology to Uncle Wes for how badly I treated him in the last days of his life. For it is time for me, and my family, to purge these ghosts of guilt forever and leave only the memories of Disney World, comic books, Dr. Who, and of a man who always gave more than he ever received.