So, I mentioned that I read David Rakoff's essay about his terminal illness. It was published in 2011 and Rakoff died the following year. Some years earlier, I had seen him speak on a book tour. I have no recollection of how I arrived at the event; I'd never heard of him before that night. But his easy manner had humour and grace. I liked Don't Get Too Comfortable and I was saddened to hear he had died. I took comfort, though, in his tales of medical misadventure. He seemed to manage it with more equanimity than most.
I come from a big, Catholic family. The bad news is that there is always fighting. The good news is that there are enough people that I can hate half of them and still fill a restaurant with those left onside. I recently found out that my favourite uncle, the youngest of my mother's siblings, is dying of cancer.
Growing up, I moved around a lot. I couldn't tell you how many places I've lived in, or even how many schools I went to (as a number of them were alternative education and seemed awfully like unwashed children staggering around, fatigued by the vegan diets, rather than actual schooling).
We lost touch with family for a while. At my father's 50th birthday party, approximately half the guests had no idea that he had an older child (me) who shared the same hair colour, rosebud lips, and dimpled chin. Several people asked me, "How do you know [your father]?"
My uncle always took the time to visit us, at least every year. And some years I know that my mother and I were very hard to find. Though he and my mother do not get along, he always seemed to want to help her. When we moved somewhere snowy, he arrived with leather shoes for my mother (she didn't have any) and a duffle coat for me. There were many other occasions where he was aware of our needs more than we were. He'd always had girlfriends, but never any children of his own.
I haven't spoken to him since I found out. Any way I imagine that phone call, it still seems the stuff of interpersonal clumsiness and nightmares. I want to write him a letter, but I don't know how to say anything other than, 'I will miss you and be so, so sad when you're gone. I wish my son could get to know you and rely on you as he grows up, the way I did.' I don't yet know if my uncle has come to terms with his terminal diagnosis and, indeed, how little time he has left. It seems somewhat insensitive to make him confront that and then emphasise how much his health affects me.
Something I now notice reading the Rakoff piece is the fear in his final paragraph:
We like to think that the empathy broadcast with the swooping, downward intonation of the "aaawwww" is an evolutionary comfort; something we are programmed to welcome and offer freely ourselves. As a comment on something that has already happened, it probably works. But as an anticipatory tool, it does not soften the blow, indeed it does the opposite. It leaves you exposed, like grabbing onto the trunk of a tree for support in a storm only to find the wood soaked through and punky and coming apart in your hands. The sweetest bedtime-story delivery is no help when the words it delivers are a version of " . . . and behind this door is a tiger. Brace yourself."
And I'm left wondering how you say goodbye when no words will do.