[from No Touching #5: The Home Issue, Winter/Spring 2008]
In memories and daydreams of him, I always imagine the late afternoons. I see him stopping in his tracks to tell me something important. I see him playing with his kids. I see him leaving to go fishing, or making that stupid stomach-patting gesture while delivering a mock Brooklyn-style “Howyoodoin” that grew funnier each time he did it. In memories and daydreams, it’s all laughter and fun.
The good times roll on, and the sun never sets, and in those memories and daydreams it’s always just the beginning of our one last chance at that one perfect summer.
Psychologists use the term Acute Distress Syndrome to describe what happens to young children when their relationship with one or both of their parents changes drastically and without warning. The short-term effects, studied mainly in cases of parental death or calls to military service, tend to follow a three-phase arc marked first by fits of violent protest, followed by bouts of despair and mild depression, and finally settling into long-term loss of interest in or feeling of detachment towards the departed’s former place in the child’s world.
Research on the long-term effects of divorce on children has been surprisingly limited, which is at once both strange and surprising considering the sad and brittle state of marriage in America these days, but grown children of divorce have at the very least been clinically proven to exhibit greater propensity towards fear of abandonment and an adult life defined by difficulty in maintaining interpersonal relationships over extended periods of time.
There is no real cure or treatment for any of this, but most experts agree that the best thing for the child in lieu of the actual parent is a sort of substitute figure to latch on to, lest TV and movies end up doing all the parental heavy lifting.
So after my own family decided to call it a day, when everyone disappeared and an Illinois Circuit Court judge declared it was now just me and my mom and every other weekend’s worth of my sister against the world, I was probably a prime candidate for the onset of whatever those impossibly brutal long-term psychological effects are. This was where my mom’s brother Mark came in to the picture.
I should get one thing out in the open here: this uncle Mark of mine was by far the coolest guy in the world. Ever. He played guitar in a band. He knew everything about how cars worked. He had all kinds of funny stories. He worked all these weirdo jobs and knew everyone around town. He drove a Toyota pickup that had a sleeper cab and somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,000,000 miles on it. He told me jokes that were hilarious when I was that young, even funnier now that I actually get them. He was short and called my cousins and I “kiddo.” He was a wizard with a camera, and to this day he remains the only person I’ve ever known that could pull off the gray-tweed-beret-with-thick-glasses-and-a-moustache look.
Yeah, he was that kind of awesome.
The spring and summer we spent so much time hanging out was also around the time I started playing Little League baseball, and Mark made a point of coming out for as much of it as he could. He was staying with my grandmother just down the street from where my mom lived, so it was always easy enough to ask him for a ride to practice or to a game. At the time, I didn’t really know why he was living there, just bits and pieces I’d heard about things not going so well at his house. I was still young enough to not understand what the adults around me were talking about when they talked about how he was doing or what happened last week; all I knew was that Cool Uncle Mark was here and it was always good to see him because he was teaching me a lot in a very short time about how to really play baseball.
Things like don’t be afraid to swing for the fences, and don’t be ashamed to look stupid trying, either, and while you’re at it go ahead and throw at a kid if he’s giving you lip. Things you don’t generally hear from league-sanctioned coaches.
I would often ask him why he cared so much about watching my last-place team lose week in and week out and seeing me swing at pitches that were over my head or drop easy fly balls, but all he ever came up with was some vague non-answer about it being a good way to spend the afternoons.
“You’re helping me out here, kiddo,” he once told me. Looking back on it, I think what he meant to say was that we were helping each other. The simple answer would be that I, impressionable young boy of the broken home, needed someone to show me what it means to be a man in this world; the more complicated answer would involve him needing someone to show him that he, grown man on the other end of a similar deal, still knew just what that meant.
I didn’t know either way, but I didn’t care. I didn’t need a father figure then, not really. All I needed was someone who would tell me it was okay to throw baseballs at other kids when the situation called for it.
And then one day it was time for a new game.
“I’m gonna show you how to play chess,” he said. “Anyone can play games where you gotta run. You wanna get anywhere, you gotta be able to win with your brain too.”
“This game,” he went on, “will teach you more than you’ll think it does. It’s not just about capturing all the pieces, it’s about protecting your most valuable ones, too. You see these two?”
“Your king here, he’s the end of the game, but the queen here, without her this king is useless to you. You lose either of these, you’re out. Finito. Game over. Queen loses the king, she’s got nothing. King loses the queen, he might have time but soon enough being alone’s gonna wear him down.”
“Don’t look at it like capturing and retreating,” he continued. “Look at it like building a home and protecting it. You find a way to be safe, and once you’re safe you got a real good chance at being happy. Use your other pieces to protect your queen but let her protect your king too. It’s a lot easier if you have them both and if they work together.”
He paused for a second, lifting his glasses and rubbing his eyes a little before getting back to the rules of the game. It would be years before I realized he wasn’t talking about chess at all.
I thought of every knights-and-castles-and-kings-and-queens movie and TV show I’d ever seen and immediately made the obvious assertion.
“I thought kings were the most powerful people.”
It was a few minutes before he stopped laughing at this.
“Someday kiddo,” he said, “you’re gonna learn the queen always holds the real power.”
And so we would play, and he would win, and we would play some more and sometimes I would win, although more often than not I suspected he let me just to keep me interested.
“You know,” he would often say to me, “I’m gettin’ tired of winning all the time.”
For hours this would go on, the two of us trading stupid jokes and he explaining to me in no uncertain terms why the move I just made was either extremely brilliant or, more often than not, extremely stupid.
The only exception to this was on Tuesdays. On Tuesdays he would keep an eye on his watch through the early part of the evening. “Almost seven,” he would finally say. “I gotta go somewhere for a little bit. We’ll play again tomorrow.”
And we would put away the chess board and I would walk back home and he would wave as he drove off in that old blue pickup of his. The sun would set and I would wonder why no one ever talked about where Cool Uncle Mark had to go all those Tuesday nights.
When you grow up in a big South Side Irish Catholic family, one thing you gradually come to realize is that despite their huge numbers, you don’t really have a lot of relatives. It’s more like you have many slightly different versions of the same relative.
Everyone, for example, is a Democrat. Everyone. Some of your relatives will tell you the party’s going straight to hell and needs to be shaken up or risk ruining the country just the same. Some will tell you there’s never been a better time to hang left or bleed blue or whatever it is they like to say, but everyone is still a Democrat.
And everyone’s still a Catholic, practicing or not. And they’re all still Sox fans, whether they’re painting their faces or just answering small-talk questions at parties. And everyone loves a cocktail, whether it’s a few drinks after work or a few too many on the way to it.
And when you’re eleven years old, you’re just barely old enough to talk to your relatives about most of this. Republicans are dumb, church is boring, Sox rule; these things the young Irish boy can recognize.
The thing you can’t see, at least not until you get a little older, is the last part, the part about the bottle. As an adult, you learn to either embrace or expel the demon alcohol; as a child you just watch while your relatives put away ungodly amounts of the stuff at family functions, so much so that people joke about having more kids so everyone might start bringing enough gifts to the Christmas party to make a stack higher than the cases upon cases of beer lined up along the back wall of Pat and Dan’s basement.
At eleven years old, you can’t recognize how badly someone is slurring their speech or how they can hardly stand on their own. You don’t understand why everyone is getting so mad at Cousin X or Aunt Y. You see these people once a year, and as far as you know that’s just how they always are.
You don’t know what D.T.’s are, or what Step Three means, or what the wagon is, or why so-and-so asked could we please move the family party to some time other than Saturday night. All you know is that when Cool Uncle Mark tells you he’s not feeling good for the fourth time this week, you think to yourself that maybe he should see a doctor.
Independence Day, 1991. Fireworks exploded in the sky over our crummy little suburb. That much I remember.
What I also remember is walking the short distance home from the high school. Seeing the lights flashing in the alleyway behind my grandmother’s apartment building and thinking it was the police coming to bust that kid across the way from her who for some reason always had the most ridiculous stash of illegal fireworks imaginable.
Seeing the crowd gathered back there and wondering just what the kid got caught with. Remembering from somewhere that police lights were blue and red, not red and white like the ones illuminating that block of West Park Avenue. Seeing then that it wasn’t a police car but an ambulance parked right next to Mark’s blue Toyota pickup.
My mother took off straight for their apartment. “Run home,” she told me before she bolted in the other direction, but I didn’t go, not just yet. I still can’t explain why or how, but I knew who that ambulance had come for. I knew why that gurney was unfolded and unattended. I wanted to go inside but I knew what was waiting in there, and more importantly I knew who wouldn’t be waiting in there anymore.
She told me later that what took him was your average bad liver — bad liver and a broken heart, just like the song said. He’d been fighting the sickness for a while, she said, but it got the best of him and there was nothing anyone could do. I didn’t say much to her just then. All I could do was hug her, go to my room and shut the door.
I stayed up well into that night, alternately crying and staring blankly at the White Sox posters pinned to the wall above my bed. Even at the tender age of eleven, the irony and stupid metaphors weren’t lost on me. His was the first death I was old enough to grieve for. What I needed most right then was someone to tell me things would be okay. Someone who would show me that life would go on and the sun would rise again.
Someone like Cool Uncle Mark . . . and I’d just lost him forever, my most valuable piece so ruthlessly trapped and captured by an invisible opponent. Finito. Game over.
At his wake, I was talking with one of his friends. Places they used to hang out, funny stories about him, the kind of pleasantries people tend to tell about a man while he’s lying dead at the front of a room.
“He went through a lot,” this friend started, “but he’s . . . he’s safe now, I think. And I think he’s happy too. Wherever he is.”
Safe. Happy. Sounded nice. Sounded familiar.
I wanted more than anything to believe him. Maybe in death Mark could find the peace and comfort that in life had always stayed just out of reach, but I couldn’t say one way or the other. Even now, so many years later, it’s hard to imagine things like heaven and paradise and the sweet ever after when memories and daydreams just keep painting the same picture of he and I hunched over the table in my grandmother’s living room, the two of us nothing more than subtly detailed silhouettes against a setting sun. Captured pieces stand at attention alongside the chess board while the air hangs heavy with world-weary advice masquerading as dirty jokes, and with the passage of time our friendly games of chess are no longer games at all but quiet testaments to a looming darkness and the fragility of life as Mark and I both once knew it.