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.