My Aunt Arlene called today with her son to inform my mom that Arlene’s husband Dan died yesterday. This was unexpected and very sad news. As you know, my aunt has metastic breast cancer and has already survived for more than a decade since her diagnosis. My uncle was a difficult man. He served many years as a Chicago police officer. After he retired and my aunt retired from nursing they moved to las Vegas, Nevada. They lived there until very recently. This spring they moved down to Florida.
They bought a “summer place” near Area 51. He and my aunt signed up to be part of an emergency response team for when the aliens arrive (again) on this planet. Many Americans believe we are not alone in the Universe. Not everyone can claim relation to people training to be part of the “meet, greet, and defeat” effort. My aunt and uncle aren’t the only family members with UFO fascination. I have relatives who tell me that we should keep some strawberry ice cream in our freezers. The “grays,” as the aliens we often see depicted in “news” about alien visitors are called, apparently like strawberry ice cream. It’s better to feed them what they like than to feel like you are about to attend a Soylent Green reunion.
Dan was contentious. He had an opinion about everything and most of his opinions were unwelcome. A colorful background is, however, not entirely unwelcome in my wacky family. We put up with his negative attitudes toward everyone and everything because he sometimes could be very funny (and because he was part of the family).
My mom tells the story of when he took out his service weapon and started shooting at her stainless steel mixing bowls in our backyard. One of our neighbors realized these were live rounds ricocheting off of the bowls and dropped to the patio in his backyard. He crawled on his stomach to the back door and hid in his home.
My brother recalls the night he was pulled over for underage driving in my dad’s business car. He called Uncle Dan, who came out to get him out and helped smooth things over with my dad. My dad already had a healthy dose of “Boys will be boys” delusions, but the men closed ranks and my brother survived to become one of the best men I have ever known.
We all remember some inappropriate comments my uncle made when I married into a Puerto Rican family. My dad had issued an order that there would be no disrespect, but Uncle Dan was a law unto himself. He announced at the wedding reception that people should check their cars’ hubcaps on the way out of the parking lot. My ex-husband and his family did not deserve to be disrespected. I was upset about this incident for a long time. Uncle Dan has been terrible to others in our family, too.
When he was last in Chicago and saw us, I took my mom, my aunt, her sister-in-law, and him for a ride in my car. Uncle Dan shouted out the car windows at the minorities walking the street. I was appalled, but not terribly surprised.
Uncle Dan was injured in the racial violence that overwhelmed the Democratic National Convention in 1968. He told us true stories of drug crimes in the big city. He recalled when the police who responded to a call for help in a housing project building became trapped in an elevator and how residents dumped their mattresses down the elevator shaft and set fire to them to kill the police. He once walked a plane crash site near O’Hare and helped to identify the remains of deceased passengers. He was a hard man. He had to have guts to do his job.
When I spoke to my aunt last month he was in the background yelling. That happened quite a bit. “Arlene, you’re talking on the phone so much that you’re sucking all the air out of the house,” he yelled because she did not want to end the call. But he was her rock through tough times. He held her hand as they waited in doctor’s offices. He was there in the waiting room when she emerged from so many treatments that you could never count them all. They walked the paths around the little lake in their community and picked out the birds that stopped there to drink on their migrations south. He was thinking of getting her a puppy because she was cheered by one brought in to see her during a recent chemotherapy infusion. When the doctors told my aunt it might be time to stop treatment, it was Uncle Dan who said, “Hell, no. We’re fighters.” When she lost strength in her legs due to the destructive power of cancer in her bones, it was Uncle Dan who dragged her to her feet. And when he could not, he got the fire department to come and help her up.
A man will be judged for the many things he does. Anger and bias and bigotry were part of the same man who called my aunt from the phone when their favorite talk radio show was on because he wanted to share it with her. As I contemplate this loss and all that it will mean to my aunt, I am forgetting nothing, but I am honoring the part of him that had a tender heart for a woman who will miss him terribly. Farewell, Uncle Dan.