“Maybe you’ll stand. Maybe you’ll give and break to find another way and make things better. Maybe you’ll find a life you can live and learn to love along the way.”
— Isolation, Alter Bridge.
Though Moe and I had planned on it during my vacation the week before, there was a miscommunication, so we elected to go kayaking and fishing the following Friday. I had literally been talking about kayaking again for years, eager to feel that sort of energetic peace I get when around bodies of water in general and eager to kayak specifically, and finally I was going to follow through. Moe had offered that we fish, too, and despite not having fished for some time and my unexplained disgust and refusal to eat anything aquatic, that sounded appealing as well.
So that Friday I got up early, went through my often enduring waking up process, and headed his way. After shooting the breeze at his house as we (mostly him) prepared the fishing poles and lures and all that, we got some drinks, I got a fishing licence, we loaded up his two kayaks and then left for a nearby, private lake.
Being on the water was fucking spectacular, as expected — for some reason, staring at the reflections playing on the disturbed surface induces a calming, cleansing, almost psychedelic state in me. Being surrounded by trees enhanced the cleansing feeling, too. It didn’t bother me much that I probably wouldn’t catch anything, it just felt good to be out in nature. We weren’t even out there for long, either, when, in the midst of talking with Moe, I got a violent bite.
Was I snagged on something?
Pulling back, the pole bowed so much I thought it was going to snap, but the aggressive movement made it clear as day that I indeed had a catch. As I reeled it in, afraid I was going to lose it as it swam beneath the kayak, Moe started paddling towards me like crazy. He pulled it up, mind blown, mind blown even further that I didn’t seem as mind blown. In his estimation, it was a large-mouthed bass of roughly five pounds. We didn’t bring anything to take it home with, however, and both of us had left our phones in the car, so I couldn’t even get a photo.
My immediate thoughts? Dad will be proud.
Hours later, when we returned to solid Earth and prepared to leave around nine in the evening, I finally got a chance to check my phone. I thought about texting my father about the fish, but it turned out that he had already texted me.
His text read, simply: Check your texts.
This seemed silly, for to follow his instructions I would have to have first, well, followed his instructions. To make matters more perplexing, his text was the only text. Even so, I knew what it was about, no matter how much I might try to convince myself otherwise, and my heart kind of sank. It was about my mother’s older brother. My uncle Fred. The ever-lingering concern as of late.
Cue flashback sequence.
When they were growing up, my mother once told me, she would be amused to see him sit on the edge of his bed in the morning, half asleep, chin propped up by a fist like those statues called The Thinker. She also always joked that he looked like a monkey, so one year, I think it was for Christmas, I did a pastel work of a monkey in The Thinker pose as a gift for her. I liked the inherent contradiction in the image — not to mention the fact that it served as a pretty good metaphor for how she perceived her brother in general.
He was a fairly hairy guy, so I’m sure that had something to do with the monkey thing, but she also saw him as rather un-evolved in certain ways. He wasn’t too social, wasn’t great with girls, and he was rather inept at taking care of himself. She told me once that when he finally got a place of his own he had to call their mother, as he hadn’t the foggiest idea how to do laundry.
The fact that he was catered to in his youth by his parents, my mother has often said, did him no favors. Fred being catered to by his parents didn’t do me any favors, either, as it turned out.
It’s not too complicated. Fred was the first child. Clearly, he was also a son, and being the firstborn son made him the golden child in his parents’ eyes, which stuck my mother in his shadow, where she grew quite cold about it, and understandably so. Her revenge was sought in an indirect fashion called transference. In other words, when it came to be that her first child turned out to be a son she took out her vengeance on him — me — as a sort of involuntary stand-in for her brother. She inverted the value system that her parent’s cradled. Her parents treated Fred like the golden child; as I grew up, mom treated me, well, like shit. It was only when she retired and became a grandmother that our relationship changed, and I like to see all that bullshit as being behind us now.
Despite her critiques of her brother, however, mom also frequently remarked how Fred was remarkably intelligent. Though he never confirmed it, she was also convinced he had a photographic memory. And to me, he was always the super-smart guy around — at least that’s the way I saw him as a kid.
I remembered how he always visited on the holidays, though typically having forgotten to get everyone gifts in the style of an absent-minded professor. He’d spend most of his time drinking coffee and reading one of his sci-fi novels while simultaneously watching the Sci-Fi Channel. Sometimes he would go and play a game on the computer. If I had questions regarding science or technology, he was always the guy to ask.
For a short period he was married, though my mother always said marriage never suited him and suspected the cold bitch he’d ended up with was only in it for the money. After the divorce, he got a dog, a rambunctious dalmatian, and since the dog’s death in the late 80s or early 90s, Fred has lived alone in his house in Cincinnati, where my parents maintain he originally moved to escape his mother. He was diagnosed with COPD several years back, quit smoking and ultimately retired.
From as early on as I can recall he was always complaining about his job at the time. What the job was, how much he made, where it was located — none of that ever seemed to make a difference. And I’ve always understood that, understood it all too intimately, but I assumed that retirement would be his time to shine. That he’d live it up. Be happy. Without a job, he could live by his own rules. Read his books, watch sci movies, fish, shoot his guns, and so on. He lived serving other people’s interests his entire life, but now his life could be his own.
After he retired, though, things just seemed to get worse. As time went on, he turned into a hypochondriac, constantly thinking things were physically wrong with him when it became increasingly clear to others that, aside from his COPD, his issues were largely psychological and self-inflicted. He complained he couldn’t drive because he couldn’t catch his breath on the way to his truck, for instance, and despite the fact that he was clearly having an anxiety attack, he denied it. He finally went to a psychiatrist, but stopped shortly thereafter. Despite him constantly going to see doctors, he considered them all useless quacks who knew diddly dick.
He came down for the holidays increasingly infrequently. He often wouldn’t even answer my mother’s emails, texts or calls. He also refused to let my mother come down to visit him; she suspected it was because he was embarrassed what she’d think when she saw the house. Though I forget how it happened, mom made friends with his neighbor, who she described as a kind lady who also cared and worried about him. The neighbor visited him, though he never let her in the house, either, and they shared suspicions that Fred had become a hoarder. She sort of became Mom’s secret contact, her secret agent, someone with whom she had a covert alliance and through whom she could keep an eye on her declining sibling.
When the neighbor informed my mother that she would soon he moving to Florida, Mom became understandably worried that without her help she would just discover he had died one day, likely some time after it happened, and be left to sort through a house packed to the brim with junk.
Then something amazing happened. Out of the goddamned blue one day, Fred actually called Mom. Stranger still, he openly declared to her that he needed help, as he just couldn’t live like this anymore.
When I heard this from her, it was a relief. It brought a smile to my face. I was actually proud of him. After all, this couldn’t have been an easy thing for him to do. I mean, imagine it: you spend countless years making money, buying a house, building a life you’re in control of, loathing the mere thought of asking anyone for help as you’re convinced through this suffering life you have, if nothing else, gained some sort of independence and autonomy, some liberty, some true, goddamned personal freedom — and then, suddenly, you are forced to face the fact that you just can’t do it alone anymore. Your life has become a hopeless, unmanageable, dilapidating bag of festering shit and you have to summon up the courage to swallow your pride and ask a trusted loved one, someone who has been trying to nurture and sustain a bond with you for years to no avail, for help. Allowing degrees of vulnerability you’ve likely never expressed to flower as you show that person — mom, in this case — that you trust her more than anyone else.
Mom later told me she suspected that the real reason he called her was because someone had reported him to Health and Human Services and he needed her help so that he could make a more convincing case to them that he really didn’t need help. While this killed my buzz, it seemed to present a far more likely scenario.
Yet again, cynicism wins.
He was in the hospital when Mom first came down, and without telling him, she went into his house. Uninvited. And it was horrid. His nesting instinct had gone awry, gotten stuck in overdrive.
He was indeed a hoarder.
She’d brought their German Shepherd down with her. It was roughly a four-and-a-half hour drive and, particularly given the fact that she had never driven that far before alone, she needed the company and sense of security the aging pooch could provide. As they entered the house, the dog was afraid to move, refused to enter the place.
My parents are very clean and orderly, at least with respect to the majority of houses I’ve been to in my life, so the poor pooch was not acclimated to this kind of environment. Not in the fucking least. The same was true of my younger sister, Linda, and mom’s story about the dog immediately reminded me of it.
When my youngest sister was very young, my mother had brought her to our cousin’s house. I forget if mom was feeding their animals while they were away or what the exact circumstances were, but my sister felt so threatened by the cluttered surroundings that she clung to my mother’s leg the entire time. Unsurprisingly, my sister’s house, now that she has helped build a family of her own, is perhaps even cleaner than our parents’.
Once my mother cleared a path for the dog, she actually submitted to entering the mouth of that maddening house. Mom then cleaned a room and left, if I remember correctly. In any case, she returned home enlightened, now at least aware of her brother’s living conditions and capable of beginning the process of acclimation to the epic mess she was going to have to deal with when he finally shed his mortal coil. And, hell, she even got a head start on sorting through the garbage heap that she was doomed to inherit as well.
When he finally conceded to allowing her to see him at his house, which in his eyes was the first time she saw the place, mom was somewhat acclimated to her surroundings, psychologically prepared for what it looked like — and so was spared the inevitable double-whammy, for it immediately became apparent that she was not at all psychologically prepared for what he looked like.
He was deathly skinny and had long hair and beard. Her overall description made me imagine an unkempt, severed Jesus head atop the pike of a stick figure’s body clad in baggy clothes — though to be fair, I wasn’t there.
She continued to go down there once, twice a week, cleaning the house, doing all she could to help him get better. However much she persisted, he wouldn’t eat or drink, save when he tried to get her to stay, and couldn’t even make it the short distance to the bathroom before having an anxiety attack and calling it quits. No wonder he couldn’t make it to his truck to drive down to us for the holidays.
He was in and out of the hospital and she tried to get him into assisted living, but he resisted. He just kept getting worse. He started calling mom at three or four in the morning, usually over a disturbing, vivid, paranoid-fuelled dream he’d mistaken for reality. From the hospital, he was put in a nursing home, where he swiftly graduated to a hospice, which was thankfully also in the hospital.
Simultaneously, my parents continued going through the house, which is an ongoing chore for them. He hadn’t opened his mail in some time. There were bills from years ago, gift cards we’d sent him, even presents, all unopened. There were bags of new clothes and appliances he had bought, dropped, and left unopened on tables, on the floor. Packets of batteries were everywhere, some corroded despite being unopened. Bags of rotting, unopened food. Plastic bags that were disintegrating as soon as they were touched, they were so old. Since he had the aforementioned difficulty making it to the bathroom, he had also evidently taken up the habit of pissing in empty Evian bottles. There were guns and ammo buried in every room. At one point, Mom had gathered up some clothes for him to bring to the hospital. Once they got there, she discovered there were bullets in one of the pockets.
This old hoarder house was armed to the fucking teeth.
There were also the pills, some for various conditions he thought he had, others for anxiety and depression. Some he had taken for awhile before stopping, others he had never opened.
Then there was the locked room. What could be in there? I thought it, too, but my sister, Eve, the middle child, was the one who actually verbalized it to Mom one day when they were discussing the room:
“Whatever happened to his dog’s body when it died?”
My parents burst into laughter.
My two predictions were the dead dog (though mostly in jest) or that it was a porn room. When the door was ultimately opened: porn it was. Magazines, DVDs, even a box of VHS tapes. There was a dildo and other sex toys. Not to give the impression that the porn was limited to the porn room, mind you, as they found when they started bringing bags of stuff they’d excavated from the Cincinnati hell house back home to go through. Dad was reading something in their upstairs bathroom, a magazine of Fred’s, and found an interesting makeshift bookmark in the process. It was a signed photo of a stripper calling him by name and thanking him for “cumming.”
Still, it beats finding a dead dog. I mean, I guess.
A few weeks ago, upon visiting my parents, I was out by the fire pit in the backyard when my mom slowly approached me and told me she wanted to talk to me about something. She knew Fred had a lot of money, but she had no idea how much until she started dealing with his finances. She said that what she wanted to do was give us all a cut and that I should use mine to find a place nearer to home.
I tried not to get too excited, particularly given the guilty feeling it gave me considering how I might profit from the death of a loved one, but I couldn’t help but imagine the ease this would give me. I didn’t have to worry that I’d find a place near my parents place but not a nearby job, so I’d have to commute between there and where I work now, a good distance away — or find a job but not a place, which would be equally shitty.
What if my car broke down?
In any case, that would elicit unbearable anxiety, particularly in the winter months. That’s why, as much as I’ve wanted to move, I haven’t.
It would be a far easier transition knowing there was some significant cushion in my bank account. With the money, I might even be able to buy a trailer, and after paying it off I’d only have the lot and utilities to worry about. I’d never have to move again or worry about not having a place to live — and family would be nearby. And I could finally quit this job and find another.
Still, I knew all that was uncertain. I considered his outstanding bills. The nursing home would have cost a lot. Then the hospice.
Then I went kayaking and fishing with Moe and left my phone in the car. When I saw my father’s text, I was hemming and hawing, wondering if it would be rude to Moe to call him then and there, and Moe sensed it and urged me to call. I did. Dad answered. I told him I got his text but no others. Mom later said she tried to send out a group text but might have done it wrong. In the moment, though, Dad cut to the chase, his voice low energy.
He passed away on the morning of Friday, July 27, 2019. According to Mom, he had been getting worse. No longer merely confusing dream with reality, he was faithfully believing in false memories and having blatant hallucinations.
It was frightening to contemplate what it must have been like for him. I read Fred’s story, at least the last quarter, like a fucking horror novel. A cautionary tale. I interpret his life like I would a bad dream. A goddamn waking nightmare. It saddens and terrifies me, how he ended up. It was hard not to be bothered by this on an intimately personal level, too, considering mom had for so long treated me like his premature reincarnation.
If there was a message for me in his story, it was clear as fucking day:
This is what could happen. You cannot let this happen. You cannot leave your sisters the kind of stressful fucking mess that your uncle left your mother. Clean your apartment. Pay your bills. Delete your porn, or at least hide it better. Try to get your shit in order, not so as to be someone else but so as to be yourself, and get on the right path lest you deteriorate the way Fred ultimately did.
What the fuck is the right path, though? I mean, where exactly did it all go wrong with him? Where did his life narrative go off the fucking rails and end in delusion and death? Fred had freedom, intelligence and money — all shit that I’m rather shy on — and yet it didn’t make him happy. Didn’t put a dent in his machine of misery.
The following day, my father messaged me. Evidently, Fred had told Mom that he wanted to sell his two houses (in reality, he only has one) and buy a house near the water so he could go fishing. The last time my father had spoken with Fred he’d explained how he’d love to be by a river right now, fishing.
Then, on the very morning he passed away, I go kayaking on a lake, which I haven’t done in years, and fish, which I haven’t done in far longer, and I catch a five pound bass. He couldn’t help but wonder if Fred was channeling me.
Maybe Fred hitched a ride with Moe and I, finally living up his real retirement.
I truly hope so.