• Posted: Apr 27, 2014 15:07:22
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I hadn't seen my uncle in years. But there he was, by pure chance, on the same ward as my father, the alcoholics ward of a VA hospital. He smiled when he saw me, a big grin. I hadn't expect that. I think what I expected was more embarrassed discomfort, similar to what my dad presented, or perhaps hostility. But no, he smiled and even got up to grab my hand. I was the one who felt discomforted. I just never knew my uncle to smile much. And though I'd tried at times to get to know and appreciate him, I'd almost always found him to be distant, preoccupied, worried, as if something dreadful was about to happen, and angry. Yet there he was now, jumping up to warmly shake my hand in one of the strangest of strange places, with him an inmate.
Yes, he was an inmate, just as my father was, checked in and undergoing treatment for acute alcoholism, not an uncommon problem amongst veterans of any war. But they all, they all have their individual stories of how they came to view alcohol as a curative elixir for whatever troubled their souls, as an ultimately unhealthy subduer of emotions and thoughts that wouldn't go away. And of the two of them, I think my uncle's story made more sense. I think it made more sense because he accepted the truth of it, whereas my father never did, not to his dying day.
Take a look at the image on the left above. That's the image that reminds me of that day on the alcoholics ward of the VA hospital when my uncle shook my hand. It reminds me because I'd once seen a similar image on the bookshelf of my grandmother's reading room. It was an image of my uncle, my father, and their two brothers, all arm on shoulder in striped jackets and straw hats, doing "the old soft-shoe", 1890's style, perhaps to a song like Bicycle Built for Two. That old image of all four of the brothers was taken not much before the oldest of them died in a car/bicycle accident, a tragedy that changed everything for all of them. For one thing, it laid the seeds of my dad's drinking when he overheard his own mother commenting to a consoling neighbor that "she'd wished it had been the other one", meaning him, as he'd been on the same bike ride and in the same accident, leaving him with a plate in his head. And my uncle's life changed too, when he, out of sympathy for his grieving mother, decided to dedicate his life in an attempt to head off any further pain or disappointment she might be made to feel, a quest at which he couldn't possibly succeed. Hence, the seeds of his drinking. That worried look I so often saw on his face as I grew up was, in fact, him worrying what next disappointment his mother might be forced to endure, while at the same time realizing he might, yet again, prove powerless to head it off.
That smile my uncle had on his face for me on that day on the alcoholics ward was genuine. But I don't think it actually had anything to do with me. I think it was more due to him finally, under care within that ward, beginning to believe that it wasn't up to him to save my grandmother from the pain of living, but that instead it was up to him to find worth and joy within his own life, and within those around him. In other words, he'd found reason to forgive himself his inadequacies relative to his continuously dissatisfied mother. And since she'd been dead for more than a decade by that time, there now was really no one to contradict that self-forgiveness. By contrast, my father never found convincing reason to forgive my grandmother, his mother, for the selfish disdain for him he witnessed in her, nor did he ever find convincing reason to forgive anyone else, or even himself, should they offer or present the least bit of criticism threatening to unsettled his self-confidence.
I visited my uncle later, after he finished his stay in that hospital. The second image above reminds me of the apartment he chose for himself back then: stark, sterile, stuffy, make-shift, and closed off from the world. I don't know how he lived there. I would have found it overwhelmingly oppressive. His one bit of intellectual challenge was a picture of Jesus. And later he added a TV, upon which he watched religious shows. He still smiled when I'd visit, but he died in an old worn La-Z-Boy recliner holding a small gold cross sent to him by one of those TV shows, and nothing else.
Forgiveness is an obstacle we each must hurdle. It keeps us from moving on. It layers us in hate, guilt, and pointless preoccupation. It weighs upon us and weighs upon us and weighs upon us. But surmounting that obstacle is not an end in itself. It merely frees us of its burden. There is more only if we learn how to see it, appreciate it, and take advantage of it all.
Sadly, my uncle never did.
Sunday, April 21st, 2013