The night I left Steve and my Uncle Derrick died, there should have been thunder rattling the trees. But the predicted storm never came and instead it was a humid 70 degree night filled with the heady scent of cherry blossoms.
My Uncle died at 9:10, far too young, frail and surrounded by his family . I was on the phone with Steve at 9:11, shivering from a sudden chill, telling him goodbye until the click told me he had hung up on me.
I had wanted to be friends, but maybe like his mama said, you can’t have it both ways. You have to make an ultimatum. So I did.
And I thought about what my Uncle Derrick would have said if he were still around, once my momma came in and told me what had happened.
He was always irreplaceable in our family. When my grandmother would start to rant about something, she’d always say to her son Ned, “Ned, Listen! Listen! You listen, and Derrick understands.”
Because he always did understand. He could translate any tangled emotion, any underlying motive, with a simple sentence or two. He could dissect the minutest amount of meaning out of a person’s stature, or their speech.
I could hear his voice in my head that night, a low rumble in his broad chest as I recalled it being before the cancer took his weight and his build away. I could see his tall figure, leaning over the table at my grandmother’s, where he always seemed to be when I picture him, or lingering in the kitchen at his shore house. He would be giving me a job to do while we talked and I could almost hear his high dry chuckle as he said:
“You haven’t eaten in 24 hours, and you’re wondering whether or not you should break up with this guy?” I could see his round face, the almost-tilt of his disbelieving smile. “Are you happy?” And if I answered I had been crying for the past 24 hours too, he would say, “Then you’re not happy. So dump him.” Then his laugh again, a good-hearted twinkle in his eyes as he turned his head to talk to someone else. He always seemed like he was just about to laugh, no matter how serious the conversation around him. He kept the situation light.
I considered other things he might say. He would hear I was planning to not go to work the next morning and he would say: “Over a guy? What are you doing? Get up. Get dressed.” And if I tried to get away with wearing jeans, he’d say, “don’t wear that shit, look nice for your job, come on.” If it weren’t about Steve, even, if it were because I were mourning him, he’d say: “Don’t worry about me. Go on. Do your job.”
He was of a large and matchless character.
He would take my cousins one by one when they were of college age, and sit down with them in the kitchen. “You’ve got someone over and you want to impress them. You’ve got ten minutes to make a meal. Go.” My cousin Derrick junior would make scrambled eggs in ten minutes, and my Uncle would nod in approval. My cousin had passed the test.
There were times I thought he was harsh. There were times I hated him. I know there were times my cousins did too, and yet we all loved him.
There was a time we were all down the shore and we were far too old to be taking orders, but he announced we were watching a movie. “It’s educational,” he said, and sat us down in the living room. On Golden Pond came on the screen and we all groaned, “Just watch it, it’s a classic!” he said and he was right, although we all wanted to be gossiping like teenagers on the beach instead. We learned something though, which was what he wanted from the start.
He loved history. Any trip he made, he would stop to show his kids something new. I was lucky enough to be part of the group sometimes, like in the cranberry bogs of New Jersey some ten or more odd years ago. And he always knew about everything it seemed, no matter where we stopped.
Then there was how he celebrated. There was the Polish holiday called Dyngus Day. The point of the holiday is to spray water on people you know, shouting: “Happy Dyngus Day!” But with my Uncle, this became a war. Every Easter Monday, my cousins and I would celebrate at the shore house with water guns. We learned quickly, even at the tender ages of eight and younger, to sleep with them under our pillows, because if we didn’t, you knew that Uncle Derrick would be up first, squirting you in the face at 5 am, saying: “Get up. Help make breakfast.”
I remember hearing he took my Aunt Carol down the shore to celebrate their anniversary in the fall, and how he always made sure to make their anniversary something special. I remember thinking how I wanted to find someone that was that romantic someday, that made a big deal of important events.
Focusing back in my room, still holding the phone at a little past 9:30, I stared at a lone black shoe on my bedroom floor and recalled a conversation with Steve where he talked in grumbling tones about the fact that girls buy pointless shoewear and why would I wear something so impractical anyway? He never once said: those shoes make you look hot, even after I said: “Because they make me look good.” No agreement.
I laughed to myself that spring night, thinking how foolish I had been. Uncle Derrick would have told me so, maybe not in so many words, but he would bolster me to get back out there and try again.
My Uncle Derrick would replay family videos on an endless loop in his house because he was so full of love and pride for his children. He loved his wife and his kids and even me, the random cousin from his in-law’s family, as if I were part of the fold. He would rag on us, sure, but he loved us.
He taught us how to be strong. He taught us about life in all its richness, its ups and downs. Even in his short time on this earth, he taught us enough to last our individual, hectic and seperated lifetimes.
“How old are you?” he would say in the theatre of my mind if he heard me pining over my ex. “23? Forget it. This wasn’t the right guy,” he’d say in his brisk but oh-so-wise manner, and shrug. And laugh again, five perfect chuckles hanging in the air at my grandmother’s townhouse, or in the shore house in the midafternoon light.
My Uncle Derrick died on March 21st, 2012, when the fickle spring weather was leaning summerward and the cherry blossoms were in full, beautiful bloom.
This was written for my real life uncle….names have all been changed but left similar enough so my family could pick themselves out.
I will miss you, Uncle D. You were a bright and shining star in the firmament of our family. You will be much loved, and even more missed.
But because I believe in a beyond, I know we’ll see you again someday.
58 years and 11 months old.
Died March 21st, 2012 at 9:11 pm.
And yes, I coincidentally called my ex-boyfriend to break up with him at the exact moment my uncle died.