Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The Lion Sleeps Tonight — A Mini-Series (1 of 2)

04-08-06 Update
Upon returning from my Uncle’s funeral, I decided to make this post a Mini-Series because of all that happened during the brief but eventful 36 hours I spent this week in my hometown of Anderson, Indiana.

I have completely updated this first part with much more in-depth information and amplification of my original thoughts, hurriedly written last Tuesday afternoon before leaving Nashville, so if you had previously read it, I would definitely invite you to give it another look.

The second part is a series of anecdotes about the trip itself; the adventure the trip up turned out to be, and of course the funeral, and the subsequent wonderfully unexpected re-connection I had with my Uncle Jake’s legacy.

Mortality Memorandum
I thought it a bit too unfeeling to subtitle this post, Another One Bites the Dust, but it would be pretty accurate from the standpoint of reality, especially given my recent awareness on the subject.

You see folks, I’m getting old; or so I’m being forced to accept. Not because my body is slowly, and more consistently beginning to betray me — that’s really the least of my worries. No, it’s not that I feel that much older, but rather, it’s that everyone else just seems to be heading that direction. Life has taken a sharp turn toward the mortal side for me over the past couple years; coincidentally I suppose, since I began writing this blog.

For it was only after writing tributes to my two mothers, Annie and Maxine, that I became cognizant that most of my aunts and uncles on Annie’s side had passed away; people whom I had grown up with and loved dearly, yet had completely lost touch with, both figuratively and actually. Somehow, in my mind they were all still in their fifties; healthy and wise, and some, just a bit wacky.

Imagine my surprise when I realized — naïve as that notion was — that it was I who was now approaching fifty years of age. It is I who is now on the backside of the hill. What a freaky notion that is! What a sobering realization when the very pillars of your life; the people upon whom your childhood, your family structure, your memories and notions of normalcy, begin to disappear one by one.

Moreover, it was only after I chronicled the history of my family’s fight with Early-Onset Alzheimer’s disease — the family curse, as it were — that we learned it had claimed yet another victim, my youngest brother, Alex.

What was once to me, a glassy pool of calm and happy reflection, my memoirs, my blog; a joy to write and connect to myself with, has now in many ways become a whirlpool, sucking me down with the undertow of my own mortality. At least that’s the way it feels sometimes.

And while it hasn’t soured me on writing in any way, it has definitely sobered my outlook. I think I’ve become a bit more realistic — perhaps a bit less idealistic — about life and the fleeting nature of youth. I’ve come to realize that while it’s a fine thing to feel young at heart, it doesn’t mean that you are young; and just because you still feel like a kid it doesn’t mean that you have all the time you did when you actually were one.

Time is marching on, my friends, and if you need any evidence of that fact, just take a good look around; if you’re honest, you’ll see its power. It’s not difficult to observe the way time is affecting everyone and everything else.

Another ripple in the pond of my life reached shore last Friday. My Dad’s younger brother, Jacob — my Uncle Jake — passed away after a long period of declining health. Jake suffered a massive stroke last Wednesday and hovered near death before his life finally ran out on Friday morning, March 31st.

His funeral is tomorrow and I’ll be on my way, driving up Anderson, Indiana within a few hours. I’ll be one of the pallbearers at the gravesite, an honor I’ve never before experienced.

This is the first funeral I’ve attended since Maxine’s in May of 2000, but what I dread the most is the probability that it may become a recurring exercise in my life.

Uncle Jake would have turned 78 later this month. My Dad, the eldest amongst his siblings at 83, is the only one of my Mamaw’s four children who didn’t inherit her enlarged heart, a defect that not only claimed her own life, but that of her youngest child, my Uncle Norman, who died in his mid-forties. Norman, Jake and their sister, my Aunt Kate, each developed enlarged hearts in adulthood and have battled the related heath issues associated with it for most of their lives. It was the cause of a previous stroke Jake suffered a few years ago, and was ostensibly the reason for the recent one that took his life.

Ironically, it will be other kinds of health issues that will keep my Dad and his sister from making the trip to Indiana for Uncle Jake’s funeral. For Dad, his wife Helen, in addition to recovering from abdominal surgery a few months ago, is still suffering from back and leg-related issues that have kept her in considerable pain for nearly a year. He just couldn’t bear to leave her while she is both barely mobile as well as in need of his emotional support.

At age 76, Aunt Kate is, as I write this, scheduled to be in surgery herself for a hip replacement, so there was no way she could make the trip from her home in Nevada.

So it’s up to my brother Jack and me to represent our branch of the family tree. Jack, who was extremely close to Jake, and whom for several years was, along with his wife Marnie, our Uncle’s primary caregiver, will deliver the eulogy.

“Big” & “Baby”
Jake’s eldest son — who I’ll simply refer to as “Big AJ” (since he and I have the same name), is eight years my senior. He was born the same year as my brother, David. Because he, David and Jack were all about the same age, they used to run around together and have always been close. Meanwhile, Big AJ’s only sibling, younger brother, Danny, hung out with Alex and me.

So why, you ask, would my Dad and Uncle Jake each give one of their sons the same name? Amazingly, even I never thought to pursue the question until just a few years ago. My Dad’s explanation made total sense. It was to pay tribute to another of their brothers who bore the name but died in infancy. Had he lived, my original namesake would have been the second-eldest child in the family, between my Dad and Jake. And because of that, they both desired to honor him in this way.

Uncle Jake took the first opportunity, naming his first-born son after the big brother he would never know. Eight years later, when I came along, my Dad followed suit. However now, with two AJs in our very close-knit extended family, some sort of distinction was in order.

It was at this point that Uncle Jake instituted what would be his most enduring influence upon my life, or such was my opinion for a very long time. He dubbed me “Baby AJ” distinguishing me from his son, who was referred to as “Big AJ” in the same context. From the time I can remember the meaning of words, that name irritated me to no end; and everyone called me that.

I guess I wasn't a very good sport, particularly later, as it was becoming evident that I would be the small-of-stature person I in fact became; I really didn’t appreciate the constant reminder.

My Dad has told me of many instances in which, even when I was of pre-school age, whenever someone teased me about being small, I would immediately rush over and begin pummeling them with my tiny fists.

But after years of annoyance, even briefly into adulthood, I guess finally realized that I just needed to get over myself and accept it. Besides, Uncle Jake was always the teasing sort. It wasn’t just me; he gave nicknames to everyone. My Brother Jack was "Johnson;" David was "Butch." I guess it took a little time and emotional growing up for me to realize that the moniker my Uncle had bestowed on me was never malicious. That’s not the kind of man he was. No, there was much more to him than that.

In fairness to Jake and the effect he had on my life, I have much more to be grateful for.

Hangin’ out in The Lion’s Den
From the time she was institutionalized in 1966, until her death two years later, my Dad would make the 100-mile trip up to Logansport State Hospital nearly every weekend to spend time with my Mom.

Logansport was a mental institution, which unfortunately was the only type of facility in those days capable of treating Alzheimer’s disease patients in advanced stages of dementia. During that time, more often than not, Alex and I stayed at Uncle Jake’s house, usually for the entire weekend.

The atmosphere there was always oriented toward sports. There was always a game on in the den. Be it the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds in the summer, or Da Bears and Colts in the wintertime, Uncle Jake fed us, played with us, and taught us to love sports. He was the most rabid sports fan I have ever witnessed, cheering on his favorites: Pete Rose, Ernie Banks, and especially the legendary Chicago Bears middle linebacker, Dick Butkus.

“DID YOU SEE THAT??” He’d scream after another bone-crunching Butkus tackle, “BUTKUUUUS!!!!”

I watched my first Superbowl with Uncle Jake: the hallowed Superbowl III, as Joe Namath and the NY Jets upset Johnny Unitas and Jake’s beloved Baltimore Colts; the game that is credited for ushering in the modern era of the National Football League. GAWD, he hated Namath!

I remember Jake’s wild, fiery eyes. He was a hooter; he was a hollarer; he was a man who lived his experiences to the hilt. He smoked Winstons and drank Schlitz beer. He was kind-hearted, but the man had a temper; he could be sort of mean when he was in a bad mood. However you always knew, beneath the façade that barrel-chested, Tasmanian Devil of a man had a heart of pure gold.

I’ll never forget how my eyes grew as big as saucers that New Year’s Eve, at midnight, when he pulled a 12-guage shotgun out of a locked hallway closet, took it out on the driveway and fired a shot into the air to usher in 1968. “How cool is THAT?” I thought. “He’s got a REAL GUN!!!”

We had a lot of fun in those days, which is surprising considering how disrupted our family was by my Mom’s illness. Uncle Jake took care of us. Whenever Dad needed to drop us off, it was never a burden. I never got the sense that we were anything but welcome in his home.

Uncle Jake was a lion, the king of his jungle, and everyone gave him his space and due respect. When the lion roared, everyone listened. But tonight, the jungle is silent.

Sleep well, O King.

Next: An Unexpected Legacy