This morning it seemed that something was different, I could sense it even in the air I breathed, something had changed. I couldn’t get my Uncle Tom off of my mind. He has been dying for some time now, but this week the end was imminent. When my phone rang and my parent’s phone number flashed on the screen, I knew, I knew what was different, Uncle Tom was gone.
My Uncle Tom Kelley served in the Navy and he visited us everywhere we lived around the world. He always came bearing gifts, stories, games and laughter. I have memories of my Uncle Tom in every home I lived in as a child and young adult. The first home I lived in that he never visited was in Oklahoma, during the first year of my marriage. Despite that fact that he never crossed the threshold of that home my memory of him from that home is vivid.
It was there, more than ten years ago, that I called him just to talk and he responded, “Kayla who?” My heart skipped a beat as I ponder what exactly that meant. I prayed it was just his age temporarily stealing a moment of his memory. At first he tried to fake it, pretended like he didn’t hear who I said was calling, but it was clear he couldn’t pull up his memory of me. Years of visits, phone calls and letters were slipping out of his history.
The last Christmas I ever spent with him was before he got the official diagnosis, Alzheimer’s, but the disease had already stolen him. He was already another man. Quiet, reserved, withdrawn, all qualities the complete opposite of my outgoing, vibrant and generous Uncle Tom. The great story teller could no longer remember the characters of his life time of stories. I’ve miss him all these years even as he was still breathing. He hasn’t known me for a long time now. We have been losing him piece by agonizing piece. It has been a long farewell filled with many grieving stages and years.
I’ve heard the ache in my mother’s voice as she slowly lost her big brother. I’ve felt helpless. He was physically miles away and I was even farther away in his memory. Nothing could dig up his memory of the laughter that we shared and the memories that we created. I have to be the keeper of the stories for the greatest story teller I ever knew. Stolen from his memory were the games we played. He won more card games then he lost because of his incredibly sharp mind. He memorized the cards that had been played and sometimes knew, even before I did, when I had a winning hand.
My Uncle Tom had the gift of gab, as if he was born and raised in Ireland. I guess his heritage ran thick in his blood. His eyes glowed when he was recalling a story from his adventurous past. Every day sounded like the most glorious journey when it was retold by him. He could make the mundane sound like it should be made into a major motion picture. When we travelled and toured with my Uncle Tom he walked a few steps in advance of us, as if the excitement to show us the next stop on our walking tour pulled him forward. Laughter boomed from his voice and his personality sparked from his smiling eyes.
My Uncle Tom loved the most unlovable stray cats and helped all of his family out. He was always ready to come to the rescue. During some difficult years in my life when my money often ran out before the month ended, he always knew exactly when to deliver help. He never asked, he never offered, he simply sent me checks that would miraculously arrive in my mailbox just as I had run out of money. Generosity was not a chore for him; it was part of his spirit that made him uniquely my Uncle Tom.
The emotion that even the mention of his name brought up has been raw, as if every day we were losing him again. I went to see him this August. I found the man who stole my Uncle Tom’s future in his place. For a moment, here and there, his eye’s connected and they smiled. I needed to say goodbye. I needed to let him know that his stories would be stored and treasured in me forever. The exploits of he and his siblings, the McFenney brothers, the adventures of his Navy life are locked away and stored in my vault of treasured items. Now the memory of how his eyes lit up the room, his excessive generosity, the way he was entertained by adventure and filled with mischief will be with me long after his departure.
His family is the keeper of his memory. The lives that he has touched are too vast to count. He lived life to the fullest and I don’t believe ever experienced a lonely day. He stopped faking that he knew who I was a long time ago. His stories dried up, as one by one, he forgot his history. Now Alzheimer’s has stolen the last memory left, the very essence of how to live, breathe, eat and drink.
My theory is that he lived his life so fully that he used up all of his words so completely that he ran out early. It just seems that he ran out of storage space for his memories before his very own story ended. Alzheimer’s is more like a kidnapper, he isn’t a robber that steals life over night. Alzheimer’s takes his victim hostage and at an agonizing slow pace steals a tiny bit of life at time. He is a very cruel and heartless capture. There was no ransom that we could pay to set him free from Alzheimer’s. Only a long goodbye and finally now his capture has given us the opportunity to mourn his final breath. (I read this as his eulogy at his funeral)