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The first memory I have: hands. Not the hands of my father, or of my mother.. They were bear-like hands, worn and callused. I remember them reaching down to rest gently on my face, with all too much tenderness for large hands. Those hands have been in my life ever since, always there to touch my face and let me know they were there: the hands of my uncle.
Jasper Ignatius Lapinski. My uncle’s real name. No words can sum up how much he hated it. He told me once that he felt it “stuck out like a wart on the face of his family” (whose names were all simple like, Mike, Jane, and Emily). I never really knew what that meant, but I assumed it meant that he despised his name so. When I was born, he would not have it any other way than to be know by as ‘Uncle J.’ No extra letters, just J. He would absolutely freak out if I called him by anything other than Uncle J or simply just ‘J’. He was a guitar player in a band, so it fit him perfectly. Eventually he legally changed it, in the same year that IT happened.
IT happened unexpectedly, as it always does. IT started onstage. Uncle J was with his band, playing a gig in a local bar, as he did almost every Saturday night. His large fingers moved swiftly over the strings of the guitar, playing some rock and roll classic that’s been done to death. I was 13, sitting in the audience with my Shirley Temple in hand. This was the first time I had seen him play anywhere than in our family’s living room. Boy, he really knew how to keep a crowd entertained. He and his band had the crowd singing along, clapping with them, even some playing air guitar discretely…..or not so indiscreetly. Even I was getting into the rock and roll, through the cloudy vision of music that had been put in place by Hannah Montana and The Jonas Brothers.
Without warning, the music stopped. I looked up to see my uncle, doubled over in pain, clutching his stomach. Since they had been friends since high school, his band immediately dropped their instruments and microphones and rushed to his side. No one knew what was wrong. I saw the look on my mother’s face: pure terror. Uncle J had had health issues in the past; multiple minor surgeries, monthly doctor’s visits, etc, but nothing extremely serious. But the look on my mother’s face, it suggested something else. Something was going on that I didn’t know about. 911 was called, and he rushed out of the bar within minutes. The rest of the night was a blur. I listened as my father made arrangements for me to stay with the neighbors while they were at the hospital. I stayed quiet in the car on the way home, and quiet at the neighbor’s house only saying ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’ when needed. Whatever it was that my family was keeping from me, whatever the huge secret was, it sat and stewed in my mind all night, never allowing me one second of rest.
Weeks passed, several trips to the hospital, too many nights spent at a friend’s house. The constant asking of ‘Why can’t I come?’ I never got an answer. Not until May 26th of that year. It was a Friday. Uncle J was out of the hospital, and he and Aunt Shawn were coming over for dinner. Normally you’d think was a normal thing, right? Wrong. In my family, family dinners only happened on birthdays, Thanksgiving and Christmas. But today was no one’s birthday. It was not a holiday of any kind. But it was a day I would remember, for sure. My uncle and aunt arrived exactly a 6pm, their prospective time of arrival. That was the first inconsistency. My aunt was notorious for always being at least 5 minutes late to anything. But today, they were on time. Uncle J walked into the house, without the familiar guitar case he usually carried. 2nd inconsistency. My uncle went nowhere without his guitar; it was permanent fixture, like a wallet or a watch.
But this time he didn’t have it. Something was really wrong. My father called us all in to the living room, and we sat lounged on couches and chairs, talking about insignificant things like the weather, or the Lions’ last home game. Suddenly, Uncle J interrupted with “I think we should tell her now.” I knew the news was coming. I had to brace myself for it. But the beating of my heart couldn’t keep up with the amount of blood my brain would need to process the coming shock. I was about to be told something I absolutely did not want to hear. My vision became blurry. I stood up, dizzy, and ran outside.
I waited. I waited for something to happen, for someone, anyone, to come out and tell me that nothing was wrong. That it was all a joke. I was waiting for the punch line. I heard the screen door slam. It was raining, and I was under the tree in the front yard, trying not to get wet. I was thankful for the rain; it hid the tears. “Sam,” he started, his voice closer than expected. He’d come and sat down next to me and I hadn’t noticed. “I can’t not be honest with you.” IT was coming, whether I wanted to hear it or not. “Sam, I have cancer. My body won’t respond to the treatments they‘ve tried, and the doctors have told me that I might be able to fight it off, but maybe not. They don’t know.”
I lost it. The only thing I could think of to do was to curl up in his arms, there in the rain. “It’s going to be okay, kiddo. I promise, I won’t go just yet.” The very thought made me shiver. Losing him was something I didn’t even want to imagine. He’d always been like a brother to me. A 37-year-old, crazy, nerdy, extremely adult older brother. I told him everything. He knew about the boyfriends, the best friends, the drama, everything. And to lose the only person I could honestly tell everything to? Unthinkable. But all I could do was hope.
September 14th, two and a half years later. It was a Tuesday night. 11:34 pm. I was finishing an English paper when the phone rang. I answered and heard my aunt’s voice immediately. “He wanted to talk to you,” she said. I heard heavy breathing through the receiver. “Hey, Kiddo.” I could tell he was having difficulty speaking without losing his breath. “Just wanted to talk to you, see how things are going. Tell me what’s going on, tell me everything.” He was always like that. Didn’t care about his own problems, only cared about everyone else’s. He and I were similar in that respect. But I didn’t even know where to start. So I just started talking. Everything that had been going on at school; my massive amounts of homework, extremely hard classes and all the pressure my father put on my to do well. I told him about how Joseph had broken my heart, and was now chasing after someone else, just like always. I ranted about how I felt like my friends were abandoning me, and how that had led to the scars on my left arm. But it all seemed so insignificant. That’s when I said it. The trigger to the most important lesson my uncle has given me. “I wish it was me and not you.”
There was silence. Then breathing. Then more silence.
“Don’t let me ever hear those words come out of your mouth again,” he said with a level of anger that surpassed anything I had ever heard or seen, even though he was struggling to speak. “My job here is done. I lived my dream, created the band, was successful. I built my family, married the woman of my dreams, and now my dues here are finished. Something up there is pulling me away from Earth, and I have to let it. Your job here; it’s not finished. You have so much left to live for. Don’t give up yet, kiddo. The best is yet to come.”
I heard him take a breath, and then there was silence. My aunt gasped, and the heart monitor changed to one flat tone. This was the end. The phone call ended, and I sat there, staring at it in my hand for nearly 20 minutes. I couldn’t believe it. I was dreaming. No, I was dead. This was all a part of the afterlife, some crazy, delusional dream that occurred between heaven and h*ll. Whatever it was, it wasn’t real. This is something that happened to other people, not me. Not to the one person in the world who I could tell everything to.
I stayed up all night. I went to school the next day, since I am not one to show fear. Person after person told me the same thing that I didn’t want to hear: “I’m sorry.” No, you’re not sorry. You don’t ‘know what it’s like’ or ‘understand’ at all. Cliché phrases wouldn’t bring him back. Nothing would. He was gone.
A few weeks later, a few weeks of pushing people away, saying it didn’t bother me, and trying to forget, I got an e-mail. It came from an address I didn’t recognize. I clicked on it to open it, expecting it to be junk mail. Instead, a picture popped up, one that I hadn’t seen in years. It was of us, my uncle and I, hands clasped as we walked down a set of abandoned railroad tracks near the old farmhouse they lived in. My 7-year-old looked into his, and his warm brown eyes into mine, with the same humor that he always had. One tear fell from eyes as I saw the second photo directly underneath the first. It was a portion of the original, but it was close-up of the one part that I knew the best. Our hands.