The phone rang in my hand and it was a Maryland number, my Uncle Bob’s house number, so I quickly answered it excited to talk to the man who had made my life make sense every time he was in it. When I was little he was my whole world. Every morning that I got to spend at my grandmothers corner kitchen table with him, eating kielbasa and scrambled egg beaters, was like sitting with Super Man. He always smelled of fresh brewed coffee and aftershave. I still love those smells and smile inside when it wafts passed my nose. I loved giving him kisses on his cheek, the rough-scruff of the I-shaved-but-its-beens-a –few-hours always tickled my lips and cheek as I dove in for the biggest hug in the world from him before he left to go to work. His hugs were the type of hugs that made even my fully grown 5’9’’ feel still the little girl of 5 years old inside. With that same inside smile, I answered the phone, and waited to hear his slow drawl saying “Tina Darlin, hello”…
On the other end of the phone came the very abrupt voice of his common-law-wife telling me that she was fulfilling her promise to me. Before I moved to Albuquerque I went to dinner at the Red Horse Inn and had a delicious steak dinner that would turn out to be the very last time I saw the man who was the father to me growing up. When we hugged goodbye she promised to let me know if anything ever happened. When he and I hugged he promised to always love me no matter where life took me…. The phone in my hand stated making noise I couldn’t understand. The words came across the phone line but they were not registering within my mind as my heart plummeted from my chest. I tried to ask why and what but the her words were not reaching me anymore than the blood I needed to circulate in my brain was, but I tried to speak, I tried to utter some semblance of words to form the questions attacking my mind. She explained that he hadn’t only died but he had also already been laid to rest in his hometown of Staunton, VA… a month ago. The floor beneath me felt solid thankfully as my legs buckled and my left arm reached out to catch my fall. I was trying to hold onto the phone in my right hand and fight the impulse to throw it at the bedroom wall. I was drowning in the tears of comprehension but flooding through was an anger for this family-fracture arresting my soul and all I could see was the this-must-be-a-horrid-joke-moment reverberating inside my heart… the one lying on the floor next me staring back at me waiting to be held and comforted by something…someone…
As I continued to listen and she relayed how many months he had been in the hospital dying of pancreatic cancer all I could do was hug myself, alone and sitting on the floor, oblivious to the 5 children running outside the bedroom door and the fact that my husband was still not home from yet another bender. How could she not call me when he went into the hospital? How could not one person pick up the damn phone and tell me the man who had loved me like a daughter and healed every broken piece of my heart growing up was dying?! And then the next onslaught of questions blasted my brain. How the hell could HE not tell me?! Why did he not ask for me?!
I remember that last call in May, after Serenity’s birthday, and he sounded his normal I’m-getting-older-self, we exchanged the same “you will be here forever” statement that I always truly meant. He knew differently though and didn’t let on at all. It has taken me years to find my solace within the devastation but I hold to the knowledge that I will forever remember him has the Super Man at Grandma’s kitchen table, as the tall, strong, gentle man who made me golf left-handed so I could “expand my brain” and as the man who incessantly sang Christmas songs in July with the voice of Frank Sinatra. I will never know what the illness did to him and I know that is how he wanted it to be for me.
The beginning of a very long night and what turned out to be the beginning of life changing event came directly following that devastating news. I had to call my mother that night after I pulled myself together, as no one had told her of his passing either. I could hear her frail body hit the floor even 10 states away. The phone had dropped from her hand and I listened to her sob for what seemed like eternity. I couldn’t hang up the line. I wasn’t going to leave her alone in it like I had been. I told her I was catching the next flight from Albuquerque and before I closed my eyes that night (morning by then) I had booked my flight and had only to figure out who would be able to take care of the kids while I was gone.
The next morning as I sat up in my still half empty bed I was wrestling with the hole inside my heart and the searing anger that yet again the man who was supposed to be there for me in times like this was out there, somewhere, sleeping off his latest blackout. As I got the kids dressed one by one I remembered every birthday that Uncle Bob always remembered even though he had not got to meet any of his great-great-nieces and nephews. He was the first one to send a card of congratulations and always a $20 dollar bill to “buy your precious something sweet”. And the realities started to flood in one by one… he wasn’t going to meet them…ever…he would never get to hold the sweet little boy who would carry on his middle name, or be able to tell me how much my girls reminded him of me when I was little… all these years that I had stayed in Albuquerque and never a flight back home to visit (except the one time when I was pregnant with my first and I had been bruised and battered but did not want to ever have him see me like that). Albuquerque had become my trap.
The next time the phone hit my ear it was to call and talk to the grown up boy I had loved so many moons ago. He shockingly had answered my whimsical lets-see-what-happens email months prior to him through the classmates.com website that I had been using to reconnect with friends from years ago. I was slowly finding pieces of myself again with each friend from years past and there was a drive inside me growing again….to live again… away from all the pain and anguish and guilt that enveloped me while surrounded by the violence, booze, and throat punches. We had been talking almost daily by this time. I would sit in the car-wash bay next to the Daycare center that I ran, with my blue tooth tucked in my ear and arms curled happily around my knees as I teeter-tottered back and forth smiling through our catch-up conversations. This particular morning through weepy words I explained that I had to come back to Maryland to be with my mother and attend the court proceedings for my uncle’s estate and will that was being contested. We talked about what all I wanted to do while there after not being back for so many years and how I would be bringing my youngest son with me. As we discussed possible hotels and places to rent cars, he exclaimed “Duh, I have an extra room you two can use and it’s free!” I laughed thinking he was joking and he corrected me, explaining he didn’t mind at all. Even in the wake of the horror of what had happened there was an innocent voice inside me that said, “YES!”.