My uncle, who I’ll simply call “H”, had quite a life. From a difficult upbringing to drugs and alcohol, he lived life recklessly quite often. He was a mass of contradictions, full of absurd humour, strange beliefs and opinions, genuinely intelligent observations, sometimes a dash of bitterness. He could be the most thoughtless person at times, and other times he was the sweetest and most sentimental man.
Growing up, watching him destroy himself with substances, I assumed that he wouldn’t live long. He aged his body well beyond its actual years and that showed. By the time I became an adult, I assumed that he would never achieve any sort of sobriety and he was just on borrowed time, all the time.
But then, the better part of a decade ago, he did work hard for and achieve that sobriety. It was shocking, and I was really proud of him. He stuck with it all the years since, and I continued to be proud of him. The idea that he would simply burn himself out slowly slunk away, I began to think that he could live a long time. Because of that, I took time for granted.
I had my share of issues with him, while he was drinking. We argued sometimes, we didn’t get along all the time, I felt he took advantage sometimes. He wasn’t in a good place and it showed in how little he cared about much in life and how much he took it out on people around him. When he went to rehab I visited him, we walked and talked for a while, it was a good visit. But I never saw him again, scarcely spoke to him on the phone. I took for granted that he’d be around because I thought he was well.
Thursday afternoon my mom told me he had collapsed and was unconscious in the hospital. That was all she knew. There wasn’t a ton of information and we were all scrambling to find out what we could. Eventually, we learned there had been a heart attack and that nobody knew how long he had been down before he was even found. And it didn’t look good. He lived a 13-hour drive from us, but mom and I got up early the next morning and drove 8 hours to the city he’d been transferred to.
Our concern the entire drive down was whether we were going to make it in time. So it was encouraging when we arrived and saw him looking, well, peaceful. He looked like he was sleeping with a ventilation tube. Good colour. He didn’t seem uncomfortable. The nurse told us he was being cooled and sedated, that they’d remove everything in the morning and we’d go from there. I felt like maybe things weren’t as grim as they’d first seemed, I felt there was some hope at that point.
It was more crushing then to find out the following day that he had not done well when they tried to wake him. Damage to his brain was catastrophic. We waited for a scan to be sure, but the doctor felt that if he made it through he’d likely carry on in a more or less vegetative state. All of us, his siblings, children, nieces and nephews; we all knew that he never wanted to live that way. He had made that very clear. And so the decision was made to remove his breathing tube, monitor and control pain, and let him go.
It was a difficult, emotional and exhausting 3 days. I spent the time, I held his hand, I spoke to him and I told him everything I could think to tell him. My mom did too. Thank everything for video chat, because my siblings a thousand km away could also say their goodbyes. I don’t know what he could hear, but I hope he heard us.
There are things that I regret. I regret that I didn’t speak to him more often. I had tried a number of times over the past few years to pay for him to visit us, he didn’t want to be a burden and didn’t want to travel alone. It never happened. I didn’t have time to drive and collect him either, until now when I finally could’ve visited. I did visit, just not the way I would’ve ever hoped to.
I don’t know that he ever understood how valuable a person he was. How important he was to people. He lived a very minimalist lifestyle, and he often seemed to have felt that the less he had, the less he had to lose. But as the consummate and eternal hippy he was, he knew how to pick up and go, and he perfected this sort of nomadic existence at times. He went where it suited him, finally settling down, in the end, to be close to his daughter in the town he loved.
When I was little, we didn’t even live in the same province. He lived in BC, we lived in Ontario. I know that he and his girlfriend and step-daughter came to visit us when I was quite young, maybe 4 – I don’t remember really anything of that visit. My first real memory of H is when my mom left my step-dad, and she had suffered a breakdown and gone into the hospital. My other uncle and aunt had me flown across the country to stay with them. It was the week before my 7th birthday. When I was sent back home, I had a layover in Vancouver and I was travelling all alone. He came and picked me up at the airport and took me to Stanley Park. We walked around and talked and looked at animals. I used to be able to get strangely close to animals, I was quiet and gentle; I remember seeing a squirrel that had the saddest looking tail. Like a Charlie Brown Christmas Tree™. Sparse patches of fur sticking out in random directions, and I felt sorry for it and wanted to pick it up. I got within a foot or two of the squirrel before my uncle snatched me away and told me it would bite me, and reassured me it was probably just fine.
We moved to BC the summer I turned 11, and we stayed with H and his family in the Kootenays, southeastern BC, for the summer. When it became clear we wouldn’t be able to find affordable housing in the area, we moved up north – but for a time, my mom planned to settle there. We had this rustic summer halfway up a mountain, where we stayed in a cabin on the property and hiked around with cousins and drank out of mountain streams… it was so different laid back compared to what we were used to, coming out of bustling southern Ontario. He had an old VW Bug, and sometimes he’d let us hop on the fender and ride up the driveway with him when he came back home.
Growing up, before moving west, I always heard the “H jokes.” Mom adored him and his sense of humour, and was always telling us about what joke he’d told her or what he said or did when they were kids. Because of that I loved him before I even really knew him, he was up on a pedestal in my mind already. When I told him he needed a haircut, he asked me which one. He gave nicknames and changed song lyrics to make people laugh. Over the years his jokes evolved to the point where we didn’t even get them, we puzzled over his “You know, I can walk onto any bus, pay my fare, and just get off,” joke for actual years before his daughter explained it.
After I moved out and mom moved to Vancouver with my sisters, I saw him here and there when I’d visit. We usually had a good time. He came to stay with me a couple times when I lived in Calgary, without great results. When I was pregnant with my oldest, who was modest even as a fetus and wouldn’t show us what gender he was, H insisted to me that I “should name that baby Herman! It’s a good family name!” I laughed and said “What if it’s a girl?” He said “Herman. You can name a girl Herman!” I said “I’m not going to call my baby that, sorry.” He said “Fine, I will though.” And from then on, my oldest was Herman.
All the “what-ifs” are on my mind now, of course. What if I’d visited, what if I’d called. I can’t ever have that time now. Did he know I loved him regardless? That he was special to me before I even met him? That I was so proud of him for what he’d accomplished? I don’t know. I told him, I hope he heard.
Even though we are all in different places and couldn’t all make it for various reasons, the whole family pulled together and I think that H would have loved that we came together because of him. He loved his family.
I’m saddened to know that life was so difficult for him in so many ways, but happy that he’s free of all of that now. No pain, no struggles. Free.
I’m going to miss him, but more in the sense that I know now I can’t talk to him or see him if I want to. The time is gone. I can’t “get to that later.” I’m going to miss hearing about him and his jokes and antics. I’m going to miss being able to have a conversation, or hear about what’s going on in his life. I’m going to miss the potential for everything.
He was a flawed person, but worth more than I think he knew. Loved more than I think he knew, and truly one of a kind. He will be deeply missed.
Just keeping the memory alive, so he’s never truly gone.
Love you How.