“When should I come down?” I ask my cousin.
“Get down here as soon as you can,” she says. “The sooner, the better.”
I book my flight that night.
“But he looks fine on Facebook,” says my mother.
“That’s not the real story,” I tell her. “Pictures lie.”
When I arrive, my uncle Don is pale but upright. He is whistling like a tea kettle, but he can’t hear himself. I start to hyperventilate. He sounds like me, the noises I make when an asthma attack is beginning. Except this is not asthma. This is end-stage cancer, metastasized to his lungs.
“There are more dark spots on his lungs than clear spots,” my cousin tells me. The cancer is everywhere.
It could be a month. It could be a week.
“It’s a cliff, really,” the hospice nurse tells my uncle. “One day you’ll be out to lunch with a friend. The next day, you just won’t be able to anymore. You’ll need more morphine. You’ll sleep more. We’ll keep you comfortable. And then, you’ll just be gone. We might need to have someone come to turn off your pacemaker. Because it can be painful when your heart is ready to go, but your pacemaker won’t let it.”
My uncle appreciates his nurse’s matter-of-factness. He is a Navy man, a brilliant defense strategist, a no-nonsense guy who worked for the Pentagon during the Reagan years. He’s testified before Congress innumerable times. He’s smart and forthright, and he doesn’t like fuss. Death doesn’t scare him. He’s had a full and happy life, with the one painful exception of the loss of his daughter, Jill, who died young in a car accident, and the recent loss of his beloved wife, Peggy.
“If I thought Peggy and Jill would be there, that I would see them again…,” he trails off. He does not believe in an afterlife. He shakes his head.
“I think you’re going to owe me a fruit basket on this one,” I reply.
“I sure hope so,” he says.
My uncle likes to keep journals and lists: of great meals he’s had, of trips he’s taken, of movies he’s seen. Once, on one of my many visits to Virginia to see him, he and I had gotten into a splendid and lively argument about who had starred in a certain movie he’d quite liked.
“It was Julia Roberts,” I remember him saying, with great authority.
“Nope,” I had said. “It was most definitely Kyra Sedgwick.”
“I’ll bet you anything it was Julia Roberts,” he had countered.
“You’re on,” I had said.
A week after that debate, a gorgeous fruit basket full of pears and apples had arrived on my doorstep with a note: “You were right. Love, Don.”
This is what I have always loved so much about my uncle: he has no trouble being proven wrong from time to time. His ego is not attached to a need to be right—a rare virtue these days. In fact, he often seems to enjoy being proven wrong, perhaps because it means he’s learning something new.
I have four days to spend with him. My cousins and I read the newspaper together in companionable silence at the kitchen table, then hold our breath as Don wobbles in the kitchen, determined to make us pancakes for breakfast as he has always loved to do. We all watch the birds outside the bay windows or golf on TV. We make fires in the fireplace. We set up an old projector and watch slides of family vacations, which pleases him greatly.
One night, my cousins and I take him out to eat to his favorite Italian restaurant.
For years, he has jokingly pleaded with me—his messy jeans-and-tees niece—to wear more dresses. He likes his ladies in proper dresses and heels. His generation of men came home to wives in A-line dresses and shiny pumps. So, I surprise him by wearing a purple rockabilly halter dress and 40s-style peep-toe heels for our restaurant outing.
I twirl for him like a toddler playing dress-up. “What do you think? You always say I never wear enough dresses. I wore this just for you.”
“Huh,” he says, squinting. “You’re really something.” His expression is inscrutable.
I am not sure if “something” means I look nice. I suddenly feel ridiculous, a 44-year-old woman twirling in a polka-dotted purple dress for her dying uncle.
At the restaurant, my two cousins, my uncle, and I have the meal of our lives. They know him there. He is an A-lister. The manager greets him by name and pumps our hands vigorously before seating us at a round table in the heart of the room.
My finest meals have, not coincidentally, been with my uncle and my cousins, all of whom are foodies. My cousin Marci dosed my uncle with extra morphine before we left so he would breathe easier for the meal.
He seems to enjoy his food, but he can’t eat very much. His appetite is waning by the day.
Halfway through the meal, emboldened by the wine, I reach for his hand.
“You realize I’m never going to be able to explain to you how important you’ve been to me,” I say. “I’m not sure who I’ve been to you, but I know who you’ve been to me. I’m not your daughter, I’m not even exactly your niece—I don’t know who I am to you. But you’ve been a second father to me. And you’ve given me hope when I didn’t have any left. I don’t think you’ll ever realize it.”
His eyes mist over, and he rubs them under his eyeglasses. “Well,” he says, “thank you. I don’t…thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” I say. I kiss him on the cheek and return to my fancy ravioli. No words will be enough. I am angry, suddenly: at the English language, at cancer, at my own messy overflowing emotions.
He is becoming more withdrawn. It’s strange to see him like this, my normally extroverted uncle. He says he is not in pain. But there is a quiet, barely perceptible struggle in play. I can see it in his eyes. Conversation is becoming difficult for him. His lungs are not cooperating.
Then it comes: the morning when I will hug him and wish him the goodbye that is the last goodbye. We look at each other across the kitchen table in the morning light.
We stay quiet. There is more I could say; there is more he could say. But we don’t say it.
He must leave the house before I do. He has an appointment, and my cousin Mike is taking him.
Fifteen minutes. Ten minutes. Five. Two. He is putting on his shoes in the living room.
I am glued to my seat in the kitchen, willing this goodbye not to happen, tears rolling down my face. My cousin Marci smiles kindly at me.
My uncle returns to the kitchen.
“Well,” he says.
“Well,” I say.
I hug him as hard as I can without hurting him. His shoulders are sharp, his abdomen distended from the toxins building up in his body.
“I love you,” I tell him.
He doesn’t say it back. I don’t know why. Maybe he hasn’t heard me. Maybe he has.
He says something, but I can’t quite hear what it is. I just remember his frail back turning away.
I cry at the kitchen table.
“I know,” Marci says.
Two weeks later, he is gone. He passes away as we hoped he would: he simply does not wake up.
My heart breaks, reading the text from Marci. There was no pain for him. The pain is ours.
I like to think he is pleased right now, pleased that his odd, introverted niece—the one who couldn’t get life right, the one who still hadn’t gotten it together by her forties, the one who forgot to send thank-you notes and couldn’t find a proper job and wore terrible clunky shoes and old jeans—was right again, just like she was about Kyra Sedgwick. I like to think that Peggy and Jill were waiting for him, just as I’d argued they’d be.
My cousin Mike sends me the memorial service details. My cousin Marci tells me to feel free to write something for the occasion.
That night, I wash the dishes and wonder what I will say. I take out the trash. I pause to stand on my rotting front porch, careful to avoid the place where the wood is the thinnest.
The stars are showy tonight. I look up and hope he is there. I get the feeling he is.
“I think you owe me a fruit basket,” I whisper.