Sometimes when I’m alone I like to think about the past. I think about people who have entered and exited my life. I think about the times when I was at my happiest. I was a happy child. I was very non-judgmental. I tried to find the fun in every situation. I found that adults were very drawn to me. I started talking at a very young age, so I was easy to communicate with. I would talk to practically anyone.
I remember having many conversations with my Uncle Eddie when I was a child. I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ house in those days, and Uncle Eddie still lived with them. He had a collection of spare radio parts which I found fascinating. I would play with the moving parts and buttons and he would explain what each part did.
He also had a collection of vinyl records and a very old turntable. He would let me take his most precious records out of their sleeves and mount them on to the table, with only the slightest bit of assistance when putting the needle down.
I looked forward to spending time with Uncle Eddie nearly every week. He always had a new gadget to show me, or a new record to test out. At the age of six I felt like Uncle Eddie was my closest friend.
I never wondered much about my Uncle Eddie’s life outside of the radios and the records. I never wonder why he still lived with his parents. I never wondered why my Nana made him sleep with his bedroom door open. I never wondered why I never saw him leave the house, why he never had any friends over, or why he didn’t have a job. At least, I didn’t start to wonder until a few years later.
My visits to my grandparents’ house became more and more infrequent over the years. When I was about 9-years-old I found out that Uncle Eddie was the oldest of all my dad’s siblings. It got me thinking about why a man older than my dad would still live with his parents.
Children always understand more than their parents give them credit for. They hear whispers and under the table conversations. Before they can add, the can put together bits of a conversation to come to conclusions that are not that far from the truth. By the time I was 13-years-old I had finally solved the equation.
Uncle Eddie was a diagnosed schizophrenic. He manifested when he was about 20, and he started to self-medicate. He became addicted to a variety of drugs, which only exacerbated his illness. Consequently, he was never able to hold down a job or a place to live. He stopped taking the drugs, but he never gave up chain smoking. I remember hearing loud coughs in the middle of the night, but I never saw him smoke.
As I became older I found myself wanting to spend less and less time at my grandparents’ house. After I became fully aware of my Uncle Eddie’s past, the image of his life very became very saddening. I became scared that my parents or I could one day end up in the same situation. I didn’t want to think about it.
I avoided conversations with him. He would try to show me his latest radio kit or vintage record, but I would usually just brush him off. I could tell that this would affect him. His brow would crinkle in disappointment and he would shy away. As much as I was depressed by his lifestyle, I was even more depressed and sickened by my own behavior.
At the age of 15 I had a bit of a falling out with my father and his side of the family. I didn’t see Uncle Eddie again until my grandmother was on her deathbed.
When my grandparents died I became worried about who would take care of Uncle Eddie. My aunt told me that all of my grandparents’ assets were liquidated into a fund for Uncle Eddie. My aunt and uncles set him up in an adult community. My great aunt, who suffered a similar affliction, spent a lot of time in a similar community, and I got the impression that it enriched her life.
After hearing this I felt a bit better about my Uncle Eddie’s situation. He would be out of the house; he might make new friends. The fund that was set up for him was not sizeable, but it would be enough to take care of his food, lodging, car and healthcare.
I sort of forgot about him through the rest of college.
The winter after I graduated my aunt invited my mom, brother and I to a holiday dinner. We decided that it would be nice to see everyone.
I was surprised to see Uncle Eddie there. He had gained a lot of weight, his hair was disheveled and his shirt was not buttoned properly. He had a blank, bordering on melancholy, look on his face. Schizophrenia is a degenerative disease, and he had slipped a little further down the slope. At first I felt the same stab of sadness that punctured me when I was thirteen. But then my eye wondered to the woman that was sitting next to him. I had never seen her before. She was wearing a similar façade. I asked my aunt who the woman was. She turned out to be my Uncle Eddie’s new girlfriend.
My mom had been divorced from my dad for nearly seven years at that point, and she had yet to secure a significant other. I feeling began to well up within me. I looked at my Uncle Eddie with joy.
We engaged in some very small talk, mostly about NPR and smoking. He told me that he was trying to quit again. He said he hadn’t attempted to quit again since about 17 years earlier. I would have been about 6-years-old.
After the meal we exchanged a few presents. My aunt always loved to buy me clothes, and she is the one person that knows my taste. The rest of my family gave us checks. My last gift was the most unexpected. Before I got up to get dessert, my Uncle Eddie walked over to me and handed me a small package.
“I remember how you used to say you loved watching movies with your dad,” he said.
I opened the package and inside was a Blockbuster coupon for one free rental.
I stared at the card for a moment. I was very silent for a few moments, which may have come across as disappointment. He gave the same crinkled eyebrow look and began to shy away. I practically screamed thank you at him before he turned away. In those moments of silence I was trying to fight back a waterfall of tears. The emotion caught up with me and became lodged in my throat. When he began to shy away some of that emotion came out.
The rest of the night I had to fight from breaking into tears. I kept thinking about his condition, his fixed income and my cold disposition. He fought through all that to buy me something that linked to a conversation I shared with him as a child. That small blue card was the best Christmas present I have ever received.I still have it with me to this day. I keep it to remind myself not to judge too harshly. I keep it as a reminder of true kindness.