Last night I fell asleep with my kids again at 8 pm. It has been happening all week, maybe even all year. I usually wake up sometime between 11:00 pm and 1:00 am and get a little work done. Load the dishwasher and turn it on. Answer emails. Check Facebook. I often need a tiny bite of a sleeping pill to get back to sleep.
In the midst of last night’s insomnia I realized I hadn’t heard from my uncle John all week. I thought I had better email him and tell him he’s fallen down on the job. Where were my articles, the few off-color jokes and the occasional pictures of wildlife his wife Margaret takes on their property of vultures, lizards and spiders? I’d do it in the morning.
Usually I’ll see five, then ten, then as many as twenty seven emails from him each night a few times a week. They’re almost all New York Times articles he forwards on to me, my brother and a few other relatives I don’t know. Sometimes I get excited when I see new emails. Maybe it’s a job offer. Maybe there’s an unexpected email from a long lost friend in there. Usually they’re all from John. I roll my eyes a little and then give them a good scan. Sometimes I mark them all as read, thinking I’ll get back to them. Sometimes I delete the ones I know I won’t read (a vegetarian doesn’t need a chicken recipe, for instance) and sometimes I open a whole bunch of them in different tabs to read one after another. He sends me a lot of interesting stuff I’d never have happened upon otherwise.
He used to call a lot but I could almost never talk. My kids make it hard to talk on the phone and with John I need a solid uninterrupted hour. He fills me in on family tidbits both present and historical. He talks about things he’s read or heard on NPR. He asks after my sisters and my mother and listens to me talk about my kids and whatever is going on in our lives. I rarely have that hour. When my children were younger and would actually sleep during car trips I’d call him when we were driving to New York. He is a good listener and a champion of anyone’s struggles. He’s a tireless optimist and I’ve never heard him complain. Not once.
Thirty eight years ago when he was just 27, he dove off a boat into what turned out to be very shallow water and broke his neck and his back. He became a quadriplegic and slowly adjusted to life in a wheelchair with complete dependence on others. He married the nurse who had cared for him for so many months (a year?) in the hospital. He lived in Richmond, VA and my grandparents on my dad’s side lived in Princeton, NJ above their his and hers antique shops on Nassau Street. They left Princeton and moved to Richmond to take care of John. They’re long dead.
John loves to eat but somehow I never manage to send him anything yummy. I feel guilty and bad that I don’t call him more. I know he just wants to talk and keep in touch with those he loves. It is his life. I discovered, just recently, that he has been bedridden for thirteen years. Thirteen years in one room in bed with his phone, his computer, his radio and Margaret somewhere nearby cooking or tending to the vultures. Friends visit and call. Margaret takes long walks. She keeps bees and grows food. A long series of dogs and cats have kept them company over the years. Nimrod. Bones. Those are the names I remember.
I loved a few pictures of the vultures that spend summers in their driveway and wrote to John and Margaret a month ago to say as much. In the process I discovered that I could fill them in on what’s going on here and ask after them via email and not have to worry about not having the time to talk. Why hadn’t I thought of that before? I wrote to him last month: “I am sorry I am such a lousy correspondent. I realize I make every small thing into a huge thing and I am slowly learning to take deeper breaths and let go of things that don’t matter. You are an excellent teacher for that. You never complain. You seem to make the very best out of your life and I often think of you and I am amazed. Even though you don’t know it, you are quite a role model for me.” I meant it. He has had a life not many could imagine enjoying but he does. He has lived a full and fulfilling life in one room. It’s nothing short of extraordinary.
This morning my brother walked into our house and called for me. “I’m in the bathroom!” I yelled back. When I entered the kitchen he was crying. “I have some bad news.” I couldn’t imagine what he’d know that I wouldn’t have already heard. “Uncle John died.” It turns out that he had been in the hospital most of the week with an infection. Then he was better, no fever or anything, but he died just like that with no warning. My brother Ralph and John talked all the time for hours on end. John was wonderful to Ralph and Ralph was wonderful right back. His loss is more acute than mine. They had a real friendship.
I called Margaret after I heard the news and we talked for almost an hour. I don’t think I’ve ever had her on the phone for more than 30 or 45 seconds. “I’ll just get John for you…” is all I’ve ever gotten out of her in the past. We had our first real conversation this morning. We talked about things I never imagined we’d discuss and it was a huge surprise how easily and openly we spoke. She’s smart and incredibly attuned to, well, life. She’s strong and she will be okay. As my brother said, she has the practicality of the farm girl she grew up as, she’s an intellectual, and she’s someone who won’t take any shit from anyone. No one will take advantage of her as she ages. She will have cats and dogs, visits from vultures and bees to tend.
I am sad for Margaret and Ralph and everyone else who really knew John but I am most sorry for John himself. Margaret told me that he had two wishes. One was to be cremated, which will happen after they find the cause of death. The other was that he wanted to be revived if his heart ever stopped. In a family filled with people who’ve told me of their DNR wishes this surprised me and kind of broke my heart at the same time. When I imagine his life in bed with no control over any part of his body other than his mind I expect he’d be happy to be done with it all. But he wasn’t. Not in the least.
His heart did stop and the doctors tried and tried to revive him but there was nothing they could do. I am sorry, John, that you won’t smell Margaret’s pumpkin bread baking this fall or get to enjoy any longer all that you did so thoroughly. Rest in Peace. I will miss your emails and your voice on my answering machine. I already do.