Eirik Rogers talks about having, and losing, an uncle who could never progress past childhood.
When I was a small boy, our family flew from our great lakes home to visit my father’s family in California. It was there that, at the age of seven, I met my Uncle Chuck – the most wonderful guy in the world. He laughed at the things I found funny, talked in a way I could totally relate to, and seemed interested in doing everything a seven-year-old liked to do. He was also brave; as a diabetic, he thought nothing of sticking himself with needles and even smiled when he did it. I was in awe of him. When it was time to leave two weeks later, I kissed my Grandparents goodbye (it would be the last time I ever saw my grandfather). But it was my Uncle Chuck that I would really miss.
The next time I would see him was when I was 13. Relatives from all over the country came to town for my Bar Mitzvah, and while we could not house everyone, Chucky and my Grandmother stayed with us. I was thrilled with the idea of seeing my fun uncle once again.
But things were different. Chucky seemed too childish – too “seven” – for me to relate to as easily as I had almost six years ago. It was the first inkling I had that something wasn’t quite right with him. I was still a kid, despite the mantle of adulthood my reformed Jewish synagogue was about to confer upon me. But Uncle Chuck, while physically a man, seemed somehow even younger. I was on the verge of my teens, while he seemed barely beyond play age.
As the big day was coming, our house was full of packed items that would go to the temple. Despite the obstacle course of boxes, I was convinced I could wend my little body through it until, while running, I inadvertently hooked my toe into a stack of catering dishes and brought the porcelain tower down, smashing most of them. My mother screamed at me, my grandmother scolded me and I felt awful. But when Chuck parroted them, got right in my face and also joined the enraged cacophony, it was as if someone threw a dagger right at my soul. I ran upstairs, crying.
Several hours later, when the flames of those tempers died down to the glowing embers of mere disappointment, my mother sat down with me in my room. I was still crying about how Chucky – who was my buddy, my friend – could suddenly channel the anger around him and direct it in a concentrated spit of venom at me. My mom was about to give me a little lesson about Uncle Chuck.
She explained that, in addition to diabetes, Chuck was born with a heart defect. He was a “blue baby” and while the defect in his heart was surgically repaired, the lack of oxygen to his brain retarded his mental development. In the vernacular of the day, he was considered mentally retarded. Today we would use the more palatable term mentally challenged, but in truth he was never really challenged; he lived quite comfortably in his world and those around him fully obliged.
When those dishes came crashing down, so did a piece of my childhood. And when I stood on the bima two days later, ostensibly to become a man under Judaic tenets, the real journey had already begun. All my friends were with me on the passage to adulthood. But my Uncle Chucky had to stay behind, forever locked in a world of toy cars and coloring books.
I was 22 when he died from complications of his heart disease and diabetes. I went to the funeral. But I had already said my goodbyes to him gradually over the years without even realizing I was doing so. He slipped away with my childhood, and that’s where I left him. To my sadness, I suppose I never looked back.