People often chuckle here, but it was actually pretty bad. We were visiting my grandparents for the holidays. My Uncle Tom owned a go-cart, and on Thanksgiving Day, we decided that it would be fun to take it out for a spin. We all traipsed down to the local middle school parking lot and got ready to ride. Not many kids get to have private go-cart rides, so we were all pretty excited. While my dad was driving with my sister, my cousin, brother and I plotted a special trick. There was a trailer in the parking lot used for extra classroom space, and we saw there was a space between the trailer and the main building. Wouldn’t it be cool to drive the cart between them and come out the other side?
I was the first to try it. As I sped toward the space, I realized it wasn’t wide enough. I tried to turn around, but the turning radius wasn’t there, and I crashed into the foundation of the trailer. They actually thought I broke my neck because of the force with which I hit the wall and how far back my head snapped. I was lucky, though. I only broke my right leg, my left thumb and completely shattered my upper jaw on the steering wheel.
All I could think before I passed out was that I totaled my Uncle Tom’s go-cart. I felt horrible.
Several hours later, while awaiting the first of several surgeries to reconstruct my face and put pins in my leg, Uncle Tom came to see me. I was scared because I thought he would be really mad at me for wrecking his cool toy. I still remember him walking into the room. That moment will forever be frozen in time in my mind.
His arms were full of flowers and more balloons than I had ever seen and the biggest stuffed penguin possible—it was taller than my little sister. But his face was what I was worried about. When he saw me, his face fell. The absolute destruction of a man.
“I’m so sorry, Uncle Tom. I broke your go-cart,” I said in my best version of garbled speech.
“My go-cart? I’m sorry my go-cart broke your face!” It hurt to laugh, but I couldn’t help it.
And then he said something I’ll never forget. “You matter more to me than any stupid go-cart. I would break a thousand of my things if it meant you were fixed. I can buy another go-cart if I want. I can’t buy another you.”
This past Thursday, my Uncle Tom passed away of pancreatic cancer. I wish I had a thousand things to break.
It’s hard to tell people what the passing of a relative means. Some people are really close to their extended families. Others barely see them. So of course the first thing people ask is “were you close?” It makes sense to ask, but it’s a hard question to answer. How do you explain the nuances of a relationship with a yes or no answer? So I won’t answer. I’ll simply tell you what life was like with my Uncle Tom.
Tom was the clown of my mom’s family. The only boy with four sisters, Tom played the role of brother quite well. He and my mother were close in age—only a year apart—and when we would travel across the state to see my grandparents, seeing Uncle Tom was always a highlight of the trip for the whole family. I remember one year, we went to dinner at his house and in his bathroom there were decorative soaps that looked and smelled exactly like chocolate covered cherries. He convinced me to take one out to my mom and sweetly offer it to her. I was horrified when she popped it right into her mouth, but Uncle Tom thought it was hilarious. My mother conveniently has no recollection of this event.
Tom and his wife never had any children of their own, but he always got lots of promotional materials through his job. Growing up as the nearest set of nieces and nephews always netted us some serious swag—hats, t-shirts, cups, anything really—and often we got to sample new products not out on the market yet. I remember one year he got so many jam shorts from Tropicana that he outfitted my whole family AND my brother’s entire T-ball team. But it wasn’t just the stuff. He would take us for drives and sometimes would take my brother and me to the movies by ourselves. A solo trip with Uncle Tom was a special treat. He would always have some sort of gift for us. He was generous to a fault.
That continued into my adulthood. The year my brother, cousin, and I all got married, Tom got divorced. Instead of taking his things and putting them in storage, he offered them to us. Ten years later, I still serve dinner on his kitchen table. And every time the bench tips, I remember the same thing happening at his house. And some days, when I am sad, I look at that table and I think about the day I told him about my own divorce and how I saw in his eyes that he knew what that felt like.
It was an incredible honor to have my son serve as the ring bearer when he remarried. He told me that someday it would be me, and he was calling dibs on being my ring bearer to return the favor. He might even cry during the pictures, too, if I was lucky.
He was one of those people who express love and appreciation without ever saying any of it. All of my siblings and cousins have their own stories about how Uncle Tom spoke simply and plainly into their lives. Usually it was accompanied by a joke or a clearing of the throat or a dismissive wave. But the things he said and did mattered. And they stuck with us. When I was in grad school, I worked in the academic support center for student athletes. I remember one day hearing Larry Fitzgerald (now in the NFL) complain about an English assignment he was given. I told him about my Uncle Tom: how he played for Temple and then went pro; that his career was cut short by too many concussions; but that he had an education and went on to do well for himself instead of washing out in life. I don’t know if I ever told Uncle Tom that. But every time I see Larry Fitzgerald catch a pass, I like to pretend that he remembers what I told him about my uncle and that it makes him work just a little bit harder and be just a little bit more grateful. And every time I watch him on television, I think about Tom, and how he could have been bitter about the cards life handed him, but he never was. Even when things got really bad, he had an unmovable optimism. With a slight lift of his shoulders, he could dismiss a problem because, you know, *shrug*…life and all.
It’s just a go-cart. It’s just stuff. It’s just a job.
It’s just not going to be the same.