A Final Visit, or Seeing Your Roots Shrink
On April 20th, my mother sent me and my sister, Tracy, the following message on Facebook:
Got some bad news a little while ago. Uncle Pete found out last week that he has lung cancer. He’ll be getting more tests and chemo starting this week. Auntie Pat said he’s having a hard time breathing. Dad’s going to visit them this week & if I feel up to it, I’ll go too. We’ll keep you guys posted, if you want us to.
I didn’t respond to it because I didn’t feel it was proper to do so in a message to both me and my sister. The reason why I didn’t feel it proper was because my reaction was, That’s sad, but I have no relationship with the man, so….
I know that’s cold. I know that’s probably not the appropriate response, but it was the honest response. I am not close to my family. My mother and father, yes. My sister, somewhat. Everyone else? Not really. Especially on my father’s side.
My father is nine years older than my mother. Born in 1941, he’s the youngest of three children. Growing up, Sundays were the day we went to his parents’ house. We called them Mémé and Pépé; my mother’s parents (long divorced before I was born) were Grandma and Grandpa (or, truth be told, Gramma and Grampa). Sundays at Mémé and Pépé’s meant playing in their spacious yard on a nice suburban street, and then having supper and dessert. Uncle Pete and Auntie Pat were often there. The whole place felt old. There were no other kids. My mother is my father’s second wife and my sister and I were the babies of the family. The house was decorated in a 1950s/1960s hybrid. They didn’t have cable TV. When music was played, it was always old, boring music. Uncle Pete liked us, and I faintly remember playing with him when I was very small. My sister was his and my aunt’s goddaughter, and I guess they kinda took it seriously…?
Auntie Pat pretty much hated me. At least it seemed that way. She’d often walk in on me when I was in the bathroom when I was little. After this happened a few times, I locked the door and was promptly yelled at. I was a kid who yelled back, which made me even more popular. She’d bestow gifts (mostly lame ones) on my sister and ignore me, except to yell. We have it on videotape. Uncle Pete was meek, quiet. He’d ask me general questions but didn’t seem very interested. A nice man, yes, but….
I remember when I was around 12 or 13, we went to Mémé and Pépé’s (which was really just Mémé’s now, because Pépé died when I was 11), and Uncle Pete and Auntie Pat had moved in (Uncle Pete actually owned the house). They’d bought a riding lawnmower. He let my sister, who’s four-and-a-half years younger than I am, ride the mower in his lap. I wanted to ride the mower. I wanted to so bad.
“Uncle Pete!” I called. “Can I ride the mower? Uncle Pete!”
This went on as my sister got her ride. I never got an answer. I was never even looked at.
It’s amazing the shit that stays with you, huh?
Anyway, contact between me and my uncle and aunt grew far less. When Mémé died (I was 16), I saw them. When my father’s sister, the eldest child, Auntie Juliet, died of breast cancer (I was 17), I saw them. I think they were at my first wedding in 2000. I saw them at least one time after that, Courtney was pretty small. Other than that, I didn’t see them. I didn’t care to.
I didn’t know my father’s side of the family well. The old school Canadian-French, Catholic family just didn’t talk. They didn’t tell stories. Even my father didn’t say much in terms of his family or growing up. Really, most of the stories I heard from my father when I was growing up had to do with the prices of things then versus now. My Auntie Juliet and I never really had a relationship. My Pépé adored me but he had his first stroke when I was 8 and died when I was 11. I don’t really remember him well. Mémé loved me but she didn’t tell much in terms of stories. And considering Auntie Pat, who is a loud-mouthed, foul-mouthed woman, from the bad side of town (my mother’s side of town, truth be told), hated me, Uncle Pete and I really had no relationship.
So why respond with negative feelings?
About a month later, my mother told me that the cancer was bad and Uncle Pete might not have long to live. He asked my father to see “the kids and grandkids.” My first reaction was, Fuck that shit.
But I thought about my father. The only family he has left that’s not my mother, me, or my sister is Uncle Pete. And I knew that Dad, meek, mild, devoted Dad, would like me to go. I couldn’t bring Courtney, she didn’t remember Uncle Pete and I wouldn’t want to bring her into that—to me—unknown situation. I wouldn’t bring Genevieve. At 19-months-old, she would be a handful. It so happens that my sister and her fiancée and her fiancée’s daughters were coming up from Florida this week and so plans were made to pay Uncle Pete and Auntie Pat a visit. What will most likely be our last visit.
I wasn’t looking forward to it. To face a dying man I hadn’t seen in, possibly, ten years, who I wasn’t close to; to face a woman I pretty much despised (have I told you she gave me a free sample of Avon’s Musk for Men deodorant as a Christmas present when I was 12?); sounded like a nightmare. But I love my father. I knew it would mean a lot to him.
To solidify plans, I called Wednesday night to confirm that Thursday we would go. As I spoke to my mother, Dad was in the background saying something.
“Daddy says you don’t have to go if you don’t want to,” Mom said. “He doesn’t want you to feel like you have to go and he knows you’re not good in these kinds of situations.”
My social anxiety is well-known in my family. I stopped having birthday parties when I was six.
I told her I would go. I’d go for him. I’d go so my sister wasn’t the only one going. I’d go because I’m an adult and should go.
So yesterday morning, my sister and I climbed into Dad’s minivan and he drove us to Mémé and Pépé’s—er…Uncle Pete’s and Auntie Pat’s—house.
Auntie Pat greeted us. She’s old now. Shorter than I remember. Still big, though. She hugged Tracy and then hugged me. Uncle Pete sat at the kitchen table, in the kitchen I ate in so many times as a boy. The house looked different, of course. But the layout hadn’t changed. He didn’t get up, but hugged Tracy and shook my hand. Old school.
He asked how I liked teaching. I said I loved it. It allowed me to be creative and to play, and I left a mark. Nothing was mentioned about writing. That was fine.
Soon, I sat at the table with him, brought out the iPad, and showed him pictures and videos of Courtney and Genevieve. He hasn’t met Pamela. He saw her now, too. Uncle Pete is still quiet. Auntie Pat still loud. My Dad actually began reminiscing with him, and Tracy and I heard stories we’d never heard before. One story made me laugh so hard I almost cried. We talked.
We didn’t visit long, only about an hour. But something happened in that time. I saw the love and happiness in Uncle Pete’s eyes. Auntie Pat wasn’t a bitch anymore, she was an eccentric old lady, and I am fascinated by eccentric old people. The discomfort I felt at first went away and I was happy to be there. Not just for Dad, anymore, but for Uncle Pete and Auntie Pat.
It was a good visit. Uncle Pete didn’t look or seem sick until the very end, when we were about to leave. He stood up for the first time and he had trouble, obvious pain. He hugged my sister, held out his hand to me to be shaken, and I shook, and then I hugged him. It surprised him but he hugged me back, hard.
Soon were in the minivan and drove away, goodbyes said.
Uncle Pete might have another year or two, apparently this round of chemo seems to be doing something. But he may have another month or so. Or less.
I can’t say that I am now going to go around and visit other family members, because that’s not true. I’ve never really fit in, and I really don’t have much to say to anyone. But I’m glad I went. I’m glad to hear the stories that the Gauthier brothers told.
And I’m happy that my father and my uncle were able to be together with me and Tracy one last time, laughing, happy.