Uncle Ted

The only solid male figure in my life as I grew up was my Uncle Ted.  He was my mom’s brother who was two years younger than she.  He was never married, although by most standards one would think we was a “catch.”  He was handsome and loved to laugh.  He was athletic and could outrun everyone in the neighborhood.  He would take time on the weekends to play baseball or tag or football or whatever we wanted to do.  My dad was nowhere around, but Uncle Ted was always there.  Even the kids in the neighborhood got to know him and asked me what should they call him.  Of course, I said,  “Uncle Ted,” and he became Uncle Ted to hundreds of kids who gathered in the Catholic school gymnasium across the street to play volleyball every week.  I think that made him proud.  It gave his life meaning.

My eighth grade teacher was a former nun.  She left the convent and decided to teach English at the Catholic grammar school we attended.  She was so nice that I invited her to come to dinner to our house because I thought she and Uncle Ted would hit it off, and they did.  But my mom would have none of that.  She didn’t want Uncle Ted to have a girlfriend, much less a wife.  She needed the attention for herself and wasn’t about to share that with a total stranger.  She convinced my Uncle Ted that Miss Devine was not right for him.  She wasn’t religious enough or pretty enough or rich enough.  She wouldn’t care for Uncle Ted over the years and he didn’t need the problems of taking care of someone else.   Miss Devine soon lost interest and married a pilot not long afterwards.  I think Uncle Ted and Miss Devine would have been a marriage made in heaven, but it was never meant to be because Uncle Ted would never want to disappoint his sister.

I know that my Uncle Ted truly loved all of us.  Unconditionally.  When I would come home on weekends from college, Uncle Ted never minded driving me back — 45 minutes each way — and he would slip me $20 and tell me to spend it on something nice for myself.  I hope I shoed him enough appreciation — I just can’t remember.  When we were little, I remember he would sit in our living room watching the black and white telvision and every Sunday he enjoyed The Lawrence Welk Show — a weekly wholesome entertaiment program that featured singing and dancing that today has become the butt of many jokes.  I think of Uncle Ted and his simple pleasures in life when I think of that show.

Uncle Ted’s loving approach to life actually became his downfall because my dad sensed that we loved Uncle Ted more than he.   One time my dad came home unexpectedly for dinner — he was never at the dinner table because he had to be at the Pump Room in Booth One in downtown Chicago with the latest celebrity who floated through town.  He had to go to show openings or he even had a Mothers’ Fan Club made up of more than 1,000 women who adored him, even though he had five children at home that he barely knew their names and ages.

That evening my mother had made her meatloaf and potatoes.  Uncle Ted was sitting at the table when my dad stormed in.  He obviously was mad that his brother in law was at the head of the table, eating his food and laughing with his children.  He ordered Uncle Ted to sit at the end of the table, which Uncle Ted dutifully got up and moved without a word.  Then came the worst — my sister, just three years old,  started making fun of my dad, calling him a pig because it rhymed with his first name.   Of course, as kids, we all thought it was hysterical.  We blurted out laughing as you could see the steam coming out of my dad’s ears.  His face was so red that he finally shouted, “Shut up!  Shut up!   All of you just shut up!”

We all got up from the table and left, hoping we weren’t going to get a  beating with his famous belt or thick wooden paddle.  We didn’t see the harm because the whole event seemed so surreal with him even being present at a dinner table.  Later, we heard the adults screaming and my dad said he didn’t want Uncle Ted coming around any more.  Uncle Ted again dutifully came around less and less.  And more and more his obsessive-compulsive disorder took over him.  OCD is a terrible, uncontrollable illness.  I lived through seeing how it ultimately killed Uncle Ted.

My Uncle went from being a happy, healthy 40-something year-old man to a shell of a person who couldn’t get out of bed because a piano leg was not turned straight.  No amount of medication helped, not even the experimental kind that hadn’t been approved in the United States that was flown in from England.

My mother then signed off on what was then considered to be the best medical care — shock treatments.  They tie you to a chair and put electrical shocks through you that are meant to kill off part of your memory.   I once watched a documentary on public television on the horrors of this treatment — they tie your mouth with a rag so you don’t swallow or bite your tongue.  It is so painful that you pass out.  It became so controversial that they stopped doing it in the United States. The problem is that when I went to visit him one day following a shock treatment, Uncle Ted didn’t even know where he was.  He didn’t know that was his hospital bed.  He only asked for my brother, a priest, who was too busy helping other families and didn’t have time to spend with my Uncle Ted who so desperately needed him now.

Then came the last resort — a labotomy.  Doctors decided that they would cut into his brain and remove part of what was making him so OCD.  Of course, that didn’t work either.  When my parents were divorced and he begged my mother to move in, she refused, saying that he had to learn to live on his own.  How would that be possible?  But she didn’t want his OCD to “rub off” on her children, so she placed him in a halfway house in one of the worst neighborhoods in Chicago.  I was pregnant with my first child and I picked him up from this god-forsaken place and would let him spend the day at our apartment in a nicer neighborhood of Chicago.  He would stay for dinner and then I would drive him home.  Home?  Not really.  It was a bed with a roommate whose problems were worse than Uncle Ted’s.  I remember when I visited him once he had to go to the toilet and all I could hear was him trying to have a bowel movement.  He was crying and yelling in pain.  All I could do was silently cry in the chair, wondering why his own family had abandoned him.  I was newly married with a child on the way.  I didn’t know how to help him when my mother lived in a five-bedroom house as an empty nester.  When you witness and live through such callousness or selfishness, you begin to withdraw.  You try to close your eyes and pretend it isn’t really happening or that somehow one day everything will magically get better.  Of course, it only gets worse.

Uncle Ted became so sick that my mom and brother took him to the hospital and checked him in.  I couldn’t go because I was dilated to eight with my first born and the doctors wouldn’t allow me to enter a hospital for fear the fetus would pick up an infection.  So that night I called Uncle Ted at the hospital and asked him how he was doing.  I asked him if he was OK.   All he could say through his tears was that he loved me and loved my baby.  I told him I loved him, too. Those would be the last words we would speak.

The next day my mom got a call that Uncle Ted had died overnight.  He had thrown up in his bed from all the medication and suffocated on the vomit while no one tended to him.   Is it possible that someone who was so kind and so gentle suffer such a horrible death?  You try to think did God turn away for a moment and not pay attention to one of the kindest souls he put on this planet who had so much more to live for?  Instead, how was he destined to live such a miserable life that you knew he wanted to die.  I knew those words would be his last.  Life was just too harsh of a place for someone who didn’t know how to handle life’s mean turns and people’s lack of caring.  He didn’t know how to find peace in a world gone crazy.

I went to his funeral two weeks before I delivered my first born and I cried so hard through the entire service.  The words people were saying were lost on me.  All I could think of is how Uncle Ted had suffered his entire life for no reason.  He never knew how much he was loved.  He never understood how much his kindesses were appreciated.  His life could not have been for nothing.  It couldn’t have been in vain, yet it seemed like this Air Force veteran of World War II who learned how to build planes and could run the bases so fast until his Achilles tendon gave out had lived for no purpose.  He had no wife.  No children.  No legacy.  Just the memories of two nieces and two nephews who once they would stop talking about him, his life would become dust.  He would never even know all the tears that were shed at his funeral, only that he was now at peace.

Uncle Ted was not the one.

Pope Adrian

When I was growing up, I was the double middle child — older brother, older sister, younger brother, younger sister.  The one who needs and wants double the attention.  I remember thinking how simple life was when I was young.  It only became more complicated in 1963 when I was nine years old.  I was in the fourth grade and Sister Mary Trinitas got the word that President John F. Kennedy had been shot.  She was able to get the school janitor to bring in a television and then came word that he died.  A few days later, my mother sat me down in front of the television because we were given the day off from school and she told me to watch the funeral of President John F. Kennedy.  She said it was history being made and that I would always remember it.  She was right, although then I didn’t quite understand it all.

Instead, I was dealing with shocking details going on in my own house.  We grew up in a modest Georgian house just a few miles from O’Hare Airport on a busy street.  One of my favorite things to do, especially when it was raining, was counting cars.  My older brother and I would have a contest of how many station wagons or convertibles or yellow cars or black cars would go by in a certain period of time.  I can’t imagine a child up to seven years old being amused by that for longer than a minute. We could do it for hours.

In the summer, my mother would give us an empty dishwasher liquid container.  We would fill it with water and leave a trail of drops to play hide and seek on our small block of seven homes.  You obviously had to move quickly if you were the seeker before the sun dried up the water spots on the hot sidewalk.  When I was seven and my brother was eight, we were told that my older sister was really my half-sister that her mother was not our mother but she had a different mother who died at childbirth and her little infant lived.  That was my sister, really my half-sister.  The whole story was so upsetting and the way in which it was told that my brother and I both started crying at the speckled formica table in our small kitchen when my mother tried to explain it.  I didn’t understand if she still was my sister or not.  Frankly, today I still don’t know because when my parents divorced, my older sister went to live with my dad’s mother.  My dad remarried even before the divorce papers with my mom were signed by the judge.

I remember the public park a block from our home and my brother and I would go there often until he found new friends and I really wasn’t allowed to play with the boys any more because my mom thought I was being a tomboy.  The final straw was when we played frisbee baseball and I was playing third.  I caught the frisebee on a fly and made the out, but not until my arm came straight down on a rusty metal fence we had that had sharp prongs sticking up.  It jammed right into an artery and the blood in my right arm came pouring out.  My mom rushed me to the hospital for stitches and a tetanus shot and that was the end of my playing with the boys.  I still cherish the few things we did together because I remember being the envy of the neighborhood when I could outrun, out hit and out throw all of the boys in every sport.

I remember one time when my brother and I were on a merry-go-round and the bullies in the neighborhood made it go around so fast when we were on it that my brother flew off.  I timed it to let go at about the spot that he flew off and I wound up skinning my elbow and getting hurt worse than he did.  Then there was another time when the bullies started a literal fight with my brother.  I had a bat and was hovering it over the bully, threatening to hit him.  I just couldn’t bring myself to crack his skull open, with his friends surrounding him, egging on the fight.  Instead, I ran home as fast as I could hoping that one of my parents would be there.  Thankfully, my dad was.  He put on a pair of pants – he always liked to sit at home with his boxer shorts on and when you weigh 350 pounds, that’s not a very pretty sight – and we jumped in his leased black Lincoln Continental and we headed to the fight.  My dad broke it up and then they headed over to the boy’s house.  The other boy definitely started it, although I think my brother got in a bit of trouble anyway for not staying away from them.

As we got older, my brother decided to go to the Catholic high school.  I refused to go to the all-girls Catholic high school that was run by nuns you only have nightmares about.  My older brother applied to Northwestern University’s School of Speech to become a radio disc jockey like my dad or hopefully a sportscaster, but after he received his letter of acceptance, he suddenly decided he wanted to be a priest and would enter the seminary.  It struck me as odd that my brother, the son of divorced parents, would want to pursue the priesthood, but so long as I wasn’t being pushed into the convent, I really didn’t think about it all that much then.  My mother was proud to say that she named him Adrian, after one of the world’s greatest popes.  Of course, he never went on to become pope, but he was revered in the parishes where he served.

My brother wasn’t one of those “thinking” priests that knew theology inside and out.  He was one of those outgoing priests who everyone loved because he gave of his time and himself.  He was loved by everyone who came in contact with him. He lives life hearing so many problems, yet he’s able not to internalize them and has a happy, peaceful way about him.  He probably only made one mistake in his life – and that was with our Uncle Ted.  He has paid for it every day of his life in guilt.  I may have guilt in my life, but it’s not about Uncle Ted.

My brother, no, he’s not the one.