Death of an Uncle

I was in the tub. The water was starting to cool. It was cloudy from soap used to scrub my little brother. I was the second bather again. No time to run fresh water. Some of his toys still floated around me, naked. My father stood at the sink shaving away the soapy lather on his face with one of those razors that scrapes away the whiskers instead of buzzing them off. A dim light bulb dangled down from the high ceiling on the end of a long-braided cord. A naked 40-watt light bulb, naked like me.

“Your Uncle died last night,” he said and looked at me through the corner of one eye while the other looked into the mirror.

I didn’t say anything, I just looked at him scraping the soap off his face. The bath water felt colder.

“At the hospital,” he said.

“Uncle Dan?” I pictured my favorite uncle tipping back a long neck beer bottle for a satisfying chug. ‘Good stuff,’ he always said. Once, when I was still little, I was sent to the beer parlor at the Aberdeen Hotel to fetch him home for dinner. Aunt Mary said girls and ladies weren’t allowed in the beer parlor, so I had to fetch him. It was fun.

“Yes. At the hospital.”

“Why was he at the hospital?”

“He was just getting some stuff checked out. His heart.”

Uncle Dan was never sick. He told me once when I complained about having to stay in because of the chicken pox that he never got sick, because if you got real sick you had to go to the hospital and if that happened you probably would never come out alive. I didn’t quite believe that because I had been to the hospital for tonsils and I came out alive.

“It was early this morning, so at least he didn’t go on a Sunday,” my dad said.

That’s when it occurred to me that I wasn’t in school. It was Monday mid-morning and I was still at home, naked in the tub instead of sitting in the back row of Mr. Kirkpatrick’s class working on my Winston Churchill essay.

We lived on Maryland on the top floor of an old walk up. We moved there when my dad had to stay at the Sanatorium for TB. We moved there so we could walk to visit him every day instead of having to ride the bus back and forth from the north end. The Sanatorium was like a hospital, but most of the people there didn’t seem sick to me. They wore regular clothes instead of those open back, bum showing, nightgowns and just hung around all day watching TV. They weren’t allowed to smoke. It smelled like Pine Sol and the floors were cold and hard like the air but everything was clean. The hallways were long and empty.

“Was Uncle Dan at the Sanatorium?” I asked.

“No, he was at the regular hospital.”

“Why did he die? He wasn’t sick.”

“He was having a little trouble with his heart.”

I imagined my uncle’s heart beating inside his body under his hairy chest. I pushed my little brother’s baby toys away and floated the long grey plastic battleship along the side of the tub toward the overflow drain hole.

“But I just saw him. He wasn’t sick. How did his heart attack?” I visited my Uncle and Aunt often. I stayed over lots and slept on the roll away cot they brought in so the kids could stay over. Just one at a time. They had no kids of their own so they shared us, my Evil Sister and Angel Monster brother and me.

They had a small place,  just two rooms, on the second floor, at the front of an old red brick walk up apartment. They shared the bathroom with Johnny, who lived at the back part of the apartment, but he died from cancer from smoking cigarettes and now his part of the apartment was empty. He worked at the newspaper but wasn’t old. I didn’t know they didn’t have money, my Uncle Dan and Aunt Mary. I didn’t know about being poor, even though we were poor too.

Uncle Dan worked at Eatons selling linoleum and Aunt Mary washed dishes at the Ivanhoe. They had no kids. They were too old to have kids anyway.

“It came on all of a sudden,” my dad said. “He was there for a few days for tests.”

I pictured Uncle Dan sitting at a small desk, like mine at school, bent over a paper filling in test answers with a pencil.

“He was supposed to take it easy. Stay in bed,” my dad said. “But you know your Uncle, has a mind of his own. Went down the hall to go to the toilet, because he refused to use the bedpan. They found him dead, sitting on the can. Heart, I guess.”

I looked at our toilet and pictured Uncle Dan slouched over there with wide open eyes staring into space and his mouth agape.

The water was cold now and I was shriveled. My dad had scraped away all his whiskers.

“We’re going over there,” he said. “Finish up and get yourself dressed.The family is going over to be with your Aunt. She’s not doing so good.”

I couldn’t picture that. In my whole life I never saw Aunt Mary not do good. What did that even mean? She always did good. She made fried chicken and mashed potatoes, she kept the Aunt Jemima cookie jar full of cream puffs and she always dressed nice and was clean. The only time I even saw her a bit sad was when she had her bad teeth, but she got new ones and was happy again after that.

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