My father’s brother is dying right now. I would say my uncle, but I don’t know him well and the title feels like a claim I’m not sure I’m entitled to make.
When I was a child, we visited my dad’s family in upstate New York each summer. I would swim with my cousins in air so humid my skin felt wet until the plane ride home. My grandma would pull out a musty bike from their basement, telling me to stay on the asphalt; it was a short couple of pedals around the circular driveway, but better than helping my mom stretch our bed sheets and underwear along the clothesline in the backyard.
For dinner, my grandma made things I can’t remember eating because my grandpa’s one vice was ice cream, and I knew that if I saved room in my belly, I would not be disappointed. At night, my sunburned skin rubbed against the crunchy fabric of those worn sheets that smelled like wind and grass.
If there is such a thing as savory memories, those are mine. I loved those New York summers.
But what is missing from those happy visits is my father’s oldest brother. The things I do remember about him are mostly sad and fleeting: watching him wave from the window of a state mental hospital; a black and white picture of him by the television stand; an awkward spaghetti dinner where he wore mismatched clothes to the restaurant and paced around the lobby. I recall a man who I felt equal parts sorry for, and embarrassed by, a crazy stranger with thick glasses and cigarette breath that seemed to adore my father.
If I’m being honest, he was an interruption to those visits. An interloper. I didn’t understand the injustice of it then, to lose your grip on reality at 17 never to find your way back.
If I had it to do over, I would tell my younger self to be kinder. Who cares what a bunch of strangers think at a restaurant you’ll never set foot in again, in a city you only visit once a year, in a state thousands of miles from your own? He’s your uncle.
But the self-consciousness brought on by puberty cannot be reasoned away, nor can I circle back on the years that have slipped by.
Planted on two coasts, we are as far apart from one another as geographically possible within one country. I admit that I can go months without thinking much about my uncle. But now that his life is drawing to a close I am unnerved in a way that I find difficult to express; sadness for his brothers, yes, relief that a troubled mind will finally be at peace, perhaps, but it is something more.
I was thinking about all that this past week, as my father prepared to fly to New York. Each time I sat down to really consider the loneliness of my uncle’s life the image of peanut butter cups popped into my mind. Not just any peanut butter cups, but homemade ones eaten on a fall afternoon with my best friend, Rebekah. It is crazy, I know.
It’s been seven years, but those peanut butter cups are as real in my memory as they were that afternoon—the sharp ridges breaking against my teeth, the peanut butter melting, the smooth chocolate tops. The laughter and insistence of, Okay, just one more. I’m serious; this is my last one.
What makes them so remarkable was what was happening around the edges of that moment. For Rebekah, she was knee-deep in a house remodel, caring for a toddler and a colicky baby, and a friend who showed up on her doorstep with a handful of boxes.
And, me, that friend, in the midst of a divorce.
After weeks without a working kitchen, her husband installed a new microwave above the gaping hole where the stove should be, and without skipping a beat she made peanut butter cups. She is, by her nature, more generous than me and my practicality, so I will admit to you that at the time those peanut butter cups felt gratuitous. With the clarity of time, I see them as a fragile harbinger of good to come: our days of washing dishes in the bathtub were coming to a close; my life would go on.
What those candies did, what they still do when I think of them, is remind me that I was not alone.
So, it got me thinking—praying, actually—that someone along the way made my uncle feel that way. Then, it dawned on me that it wasn’t too late, so I got to baking, and when I showed up at my dad’s office with chocolate chip cookies to bring to his brother, I realized they were just as much for my dad as for my uncle. I don’t know how much time is left, or what his final days will look like, but I hope there’s time to eat something sweet, time to remember they aren’t alone.
CLAIRE CAREY DEERING believes less is more, in writing and in life.