Thursday, April 26, 2012

Family dispersion

With  my last uncle on death's doorstep, I can't help but pensively mope about what could have been. I'm filled with anger and resentment that slavery to money literally broke my family a part and as a result, there's a whole world of people that are my family that I never knew and never will know.

My family is from Detroit, Motor City. As expected, my paternal grandfather worked for Ford Motor Company his whole life. I'm not sure how it came to be that my father also worked at Ford, but in any case, that's where he ended up. For more than 20 years, he worked diligently in the IT department before anybody really knew what IT was. He traveled around the country building and repairing computer systems in Ford dealerships. Again, I'm not sure of the circumstantial details, but Ford made the decision to transfer my dad to Atlanta.

I don't blame my dad for making the decision he did. His choice was either to stay in Detroit, make what he made when he started and revert to a lower grade (Ford did things in "grades" and the higher the grade, the harder you have to work to achieve it; to go back to where they wanted would be the equivalent of a college graduate having to go back to kindergaren) or move to Atlanta and make more money and not have to lower his grade. It seems like a no-brainer, so off to Atlanta we went.

I was only four years old, so I didn't really know, understand, or even care about what was going on. I'm sure it was exciting for me to be in a whole new place. Of course, it meant that I had to quit dancing, something I may discuss in detail later, but perhaps not because it's also something have yet to get over. I suppose to most people, it's not a big deal at all for someone to get a new job and move to another city for a new and better opportunity. I've done it myself. Yet, I can't help but resent how much my family and I lost as a result, something none of us have ever quite forgiven Ford Motor Company for.

As an adult, I still can't help but feel anger for being taken away from my grandparents, uncles, and cousins. As a kid, the grandparents would come to visit for Christmas, and maybe one other time in the year, but especially when children are young, six months is a long time. Seeing us so seldom, my grandparents both felt cheated out of the grandparent experience. Who could blame them?

My father's parents decided to move to Atlanta after we had been here at least a decade, but that didn't quite go as planned. I'm positive they fantasized that everything would return to the way it was when we left; that they'd be over at our house or we'd be over at their house every day or every other day, that somehow, even though time had passed, we would still be the cute little kids they longed to see again, that my grandpa and my dad would bond by drinking beer and working on cars all weekend. One little monkey wrench was thrown into the mix.

Just a few short years after Ford Motor had moved us down to Atlanta, away from all our family and friends, away from everything we knew and cared about, they made the decision to completely cut my dad's department. He he was stranded in a still unfamiliar territory and out of work. He struggled to find a job and ended up working in a car dealership, which meant working long nights and weekends, having very little free time to even eat dinner and then go to bed, let alone spend time with his dad, his wife, and his kids.

By the time my grandparents moved, my sister and I were teenagers. We were no longer at that phase where grandma and grandpa were magical and interesting to us anymore. Callous though it sounds, it's usual for all teenagers to underestimate the value of family. Opposite of what they had hoped, life was nothing like it was before.

My mother's parents stayed in Detroit, which is only natural. My dad was an only child, but my mom had two brothers, Don and Gerry. While my maternal grandparents were certainly sad to see us go, it wasn't as if they were losing their entire bloodline. They were also not as fortunate as my paternal grandparents. We were lucky to see them just at Christmas time. Without getting into too many depressing details (as if there aren't enough already), my maternal grandfather died when I was still just a kid. I never got the chance to really know him. My mind has to strain a bit to picture his face and imagine his voice. A family member that I should have been close with, gone forever.

Then there were my mom's two brothers, Don and Gerry. Don, the one who is so ill and likely to pass any moment, never married or had children. He was, admittedly, a very strange man who preferred to keep to himself and his possessions. He never once visited us in Atlanta. Come to think of it, I don't think Gerry ever did either. However, we did visit Michigan a handful of times. Gerry had a wife, Jackie, and a son, Henry, whose age was perfect. He was a few months younger than me, so my sister and I had a cousin to play with when we were little.

Gerry also had the unfortunate condition of being one of THOSE Vietnam vets; the kind that fried himself with drugs and never quite got over the mental and emotional torture he experienced there. He was fine enough when we were little, but as time went by he got worse and worse. My mother decided that we, as a family, need not associate with him. I don't entirely blame her for that decision as sobriety was his enemy, but I do find a level of cruelty in it.

I recall being very young and receiving a drunken and possibly high phone call from him crying and saying, "You don't even know your own uncle! Don't you think that's sad? Don't you think that's terrible? I have two nieces that I barely know, who don't even send me a card at Christmas, who don't even call me on my birthday. You don't think that hurts me?"

Even though I was just a child, my heart was mature enough. I did think it was sad, I did think it was terrible, I did know that it hurt him. I don't exactly remember how my mother came to intercept the phone call, but she did. I told her what he said, and that I wanted to start sending him birthday and Christmas cards, at the very least, because no harm could come from it. She refused.

Sadly, Gerry died a few years ago, still without so much as a birthday or Christmas card from me or my sister. My mother still argues that he never sent us anything either, to which I always reply, "That's not the point." I dare not bring it up anymore, but I always regretted not knowing anything of my uncle other than the family's consensus that he was "a piece of shit."

Gerry's wife Jackie died shortly before Gerry. The family hated Jackie for reasons I can't fully piece together. Apparently, Gerry "wasn't so bad" before he met her. Everyone blames her for his addiction problems, but I can't honestly say I agree because I just don't know the whole story. Regardless, she was my only aunt, but as the established pattern suggests, I didn't know a damn thing about her.

As for my cousin Henry, I don't even know if he's still alive. He didn't even know when his parents died. He only found out after the fact when he called uncle Don, saying that he couldn't reach either one of them and he knew something was wrong. Don delivered the news. Henry wasn't even at either of their funerals. 

Speaking of Don, he was an interesting person. He smoked from the time he was a teenager, which was acceptable for the time period, until he was in his 50s. Then, one day, he quit, cold turkey. He told the family about it, and they were all shocked. All of them struggled painfully to rid themselves of dependence on nicotine and oral fixation. They all tried to share their anecdotes of misery with him, to which he always replied, "It's not hard. You decide one day you don't want to do it anymore and you stop doing it."

If only Gerry could have done the same. In fact, it almost seems like Don quit smoking just to show his brother up, to prove it wasn't that hard to quit.

Don was also an eternal lone wolf. He didn't like most people and didn't like to be bothered by most of them, a quality I can appreciate in a person. We never heard anything of a girlfriend and very seldom of a few friends, though that doesn't mean he had neither. He collected coins, Nazi memorabilia, jewelry, and weapons, mainly guns, knives, and swords. His handful of friends that we knew about were guys he bought, sold, and traded these collectibles with.

He was also a man of few words. Interestingly, he never forgot my sister's birthday nor mine. Every year, he would send a check, money order, or gift with a hastily scribbled letter that always read,

"Dear Katie,
Happy Birthday.

I used to write back thoughtful thank you notes until, as an adult, I finally actualized his penchant for brevity. From that moment, my thank you notes read,

"Dear Don,

Similar exchanges took place at Christmas time. It became somewhat of a family joke.

Don also hated doctors and it was trouble enough to get him to visit one in the first place, it was even worse to make him take medicine. His age finally caught up with him and gave in and started seeing doctors and taking medications, one of which was for high blood pressure. I'm not sure how recently, but he decided to stop taking his medications. When asked why he'd do such a ridiculous thing, he replied, "Because I felt better."

Unfortunately, as is common, he had a series of strokes. Doctors theorize he may have previously had a small stroke some time in the summer that he ignored. In any case, within three short weeks, he went from not feeling quite well to not even knowing who he is half the time. He'll eat just often enough to avoid a feeding tube, but no more than that. He was never a fat man. He had a rather large beer gut, but overall wasn't too heavy. This morning his nurse, Patty, emailed my mom a picture of him. He looks like he's barely surviving a concentration camp. Along with her email, she included the note, "We weighed him this morning. He's 106 lbs."

Sometimes he's lucid, other times he's the opposite. My mom went up to visit him and try to get some of his affairs in order. Most of the time, he knew who she was, other times he'd as, "Who was that lady?"

One of his friends, Joe, who visits him regularly reported to my mom that Don said, "What's that place they they take care of ya when you're about to die?"

"Hospice care?" Joe said.

"Yeah, I wanna go there."

Any inevitable moment now, he will pass away. Although I was never close to him, I often see him as a kindred spirit. He has a big heart, but a rough mouth. He has no patience for euphemisms and meaningless, socially imposed "pleasantries." He prefers to say what he means and mean what he says and wishes others would do the same. He's kind to animals to the point that he won't even kill a spider. From a young age, he looked at the world and realized something wasn't quite right for him. I don't know if he ever really found the right path for himself, but the path he did take certainly wasn't the usual one.

Yet again, I'm faced with losing a family member with whom I should be acquainted, but am not. It stabs me in my weakest places to know that both of my uncles, my mother's own brothers, are two people almost foreign to me and ever it shall be. It's too late. There is nothing I can do now. I can't possibly visit due to time and financial constraints. Even if I visited, in his mental state, I doubt he'd know who I am.

I'm sure it would be sad even if we had stayed in Detroit. In fact, it would likely be worse if I were close to him, but I can't deny the huge hole in my heart left by losing the opportunity to experience family the way I feel it should be experienced. All because we're slaves to money.

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