Uncle Roy died last night. He was a hundred and four.
Roy and his wife didn’t have any children of their own, but he loved his nieces and nephews as much as any dad loves his kids. My father is one of those nephews.
It is hard to dredge up stories of my own grandfather. He was old before his time, and weakened by hard work and a harder life. My dad has better memories than that. He is quick to defend his pop, loved him dearly, but as far as I can tell, the true, lasting, character-building presence in his life was Gramma’s brother Roy.
Famous is the story of how Roy taught my dad how to drive, and how he punched my dad full-on in the face one day because he wasn’t keeping his eyes on the road.
There are stories of the two of them, sailing merchant ships up and down the BC coast in the years after the war, stories of Roy teaching my dad how to shoot a rifle (the marksmanship trophies were among the few possessions to make the trip from his house to the nursing home).
If you re-told any of these stories to Roy, you’d better get it right, because his mind was sharp as a tack until the very end, and he’d correct you if you didn’t.
When he was 98 years old, he drove his little pick-up from Summerland to Courtenay, and slept on a bedroll in the back so that he could be there for the infamous party. He voluntarily surrendered his driver’s licence when he turned 100, because he figured they’d be coming after it anyway, and he wanted to give it up on his own terms.
He lived in his own house well past his 100th birthday. At 99, he complained to my dad that it took him FOUR DAYS to cut his winter wood. (The rest of the world chuckled.)
When time marched on and he needed more help, my parents made frequent trips to see him and cut trees, or change a hot water tank, paint a wall. My sisters helped out. My other uncle and aunt, cousins and second cousins, family friends, and members of his own community all stepped up to ensure this extraordinary man could maintain his splendid independence.
When he moved to a residence, they packed his things and set up his room. When he fell ill, they came to visit. They checked in on him, made the staff aware of what a jewel he was, and how he deserved special treatment and reverence. Quite simply, they (all of them) were there.
But I was not.
Just as I was not there when my Nana-banana got sick with cancer. Not there when, years later, she died and my mom and my sisters joined forces to clean out the apartment. I was not even there for the funeral.
When I picked up my life and danced across the country for love and marriage nearly 12 years ago, I never considered these moments. I imagined vaguely a time when I would have to return home to help my parents in their old-age, but I never thought about the in-between. The now.
It feels wrong. It feels like a cop-out to avoid the dirty work of loving your family. It’s easy to send birthday cards and school photos, easy to say “I miss you” and to plan 3-week summer vacations. It’s not so easy to sit shoulder to shoulder sorting through years of dust and souvenirs, treasures kept for reasons only their keeper knows. It is not easy to take the garbage to the dump, or the papers to the lawyers, or squeeze your daddy’s hand even though he is a grown man familiar with loss.
If I feel so far away it is because I am.
If I feel guilty, it is because I am.
“Gravedigger” (Dave Matthews)