esterday, I got a call informing me my Uncle Tom was seriously ill. He’d suffered a stroke and the prognosis wasn’t good. His left side was completely unresponsive, and his right side had minimal movement. He was breathing through a respirator and had a feeding tube attached to his bed. Although his body was giving up, he was still alert inside. He responded to family by squeezing their hands and writing on a pad. But over all there was little to be hopeful about.
The news took me by surprise and flooded me with memories of my youth.
My uncle Tom is my late father’s younger brother. I loved being around him in recent years because his gestures and mannerisms brought my father back to life. Though the brothers shared a number of family traits, their lives were very different.
My father raised a large family in the countryside and earned his wages making brakes and mufflers in an auto industry factory. My uncle was a lawyer who later became a judge, an upscale promotion his lifestyle reflected.
I was very young when I learned the position uncle Tom held in our family. The gifts he got for us as kids were the highlight of our holidays. The excitement of my older siblings as they huddled around the packages he’d sent them conveyed their value. His status was just below that of Santa.
It was in this way, that I learned he was rich.
One of his presents was an exotic musical instrument known as a zither. Resembling a tiny harp, it came with instructional sheet music you slipped beneath the strings. My older siblings lorded over the object for days before it finally ended up on my lap. I held it like a precious object. With the sheet music under the strings, I could pluck out the tunes “Old Man River” and “Go Tell Aunt Rhody.”
I was proud of my accomplishment and fancied myself a musician. But when the sheet music ran out, so did all our enthusiasm. And it was simply too sophisticated for us country kids. The toy instrument demanded discipline and focus, something in very short supply in my family. Before long, it simply sat on a shelf.
My first recollections of my uncle’s house fortified his status. He lived on the shores of a lake. It had a water’s-edge terrace that led to a dock. There sat a table and chairs with a fringed umbrella. I imagined my uncle and his wife drinking lemonade from iced glasses with tall straws. A speedboat was docked in the water, and it rocked gently with the waves from the lake.
Inside the house, a giant swordfish was mounted over his fireplace and a glass cabinet held African carvings of giraffes and zebras. His basement was decked-out in plush red and black with a cocktail bar and billiards table. We kids ran around the place as if we were at an amusement park. My good-natured uncle put up with it all.
Since my family never traveled, being at his house was as close as I ever got to being in another land. And when we were back home, it made the small zither oddly more valuable, like a small piece of his world I had in my own home, a talisman of the world I could someday see.
I try to imagine him now, immobile inside a body that has all but shut down, his access to life limited to the small sliver of his hearing and the grasp of one hand. I fear he is not long for this world, but I am grateful he opened my child’s eyes to the existence of a universe bigger than my own.