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Monday, 7 September 2009

Uncle Chuck

My uncle died. He was 74. The last time I saw him, in December, he was recovering from a hernia operation and didn't look well. But I'd heard he had made a full recovery and was up and around and doing fine. His death was totally unexpected.

I've been back in California a few days. I thought that I would be helping out with the arrangements, but they were all made by the time I landed. So I've been visiting with my friends. I did, however, email the priest to get in contact with the church pianist for the funeral.

The pianist explained that people usually want sort of upbeat music because they're celebrating the life of the deceased instead of mourning their loss. I wonder if I'm the only person in America who thinks that's insane. I mean, I know there are TV ads for zoloft and whatever that say that a passing blue mood should be medicated away, but have we so rejected sadness that grief is now banished from funerals?

I asked for something in a minor key. He said he would do reflective music.

Ok, I guess Four Walls by John Cage with it's stark depression might be a bit too much. And anyway, I doubt he knows it. I've been thinking for a while, that I should write some funeral music for organ. It's very unusual for a Catholic church to have a piano instead. So I would have been unprepared regardless.

. . .

I wanted to ask my uncle about my great aunt Tessie. All I know about her was that she was a musician and a piano teacher and she never married. Where did she live and who did she live with? There's nobody left alive that knows. My mother's entire side of the family is dead. On my dad's side, there is only my dad. Everybody is gone.

I wanted to talk to my uncle about changing my name. My younger brother has my father's name. I thought maybe my parents would have named a second son from my mother's side. Charles was the first name of my great grandfather and the middle name of my grandfather and the first name of my uncle. And it's better than Otis, which is the other name traversing generations on that side.

When I saw my uncle last time, I was going to bring this up. But he wasn't much of a talker. There was a kind of awkwardness between him and I that started when I was a teenager. I didn't know how to bring it up, so I asked him about the garage that he just built and his test equipment. He was an engineer for HP and had a bunch of old oscilloscopes and oscillators and other testing gear. Then he showed me all of his race cars and talked about how much work he had put into them and how much they were worth. He showed me my mother's bike, which he had repaired and was riding around town for short trips.

then his friend came over and he introduced me as his niece. It was an awkward moment. I had met the friend before. He started at me hard. I did not look or sound like a niece. My dad told me that he had told Chuck about me changing gender, but I don't know how my dad would explain that or what my uncle would have heard. And he was clearly unsteady from having had an operation and so I didn't say anything that would have made him look confused to his friend, nor did I correct him, I just inwardly squirmed.

So I did not talk to my uncle about his name. Nor have I talked to my family about it. I just started using it. I've performed with it twice and I use it with my email account. When I emailed the priest, that's the name he saw for me and when the church pianist called, that's what he called me. I need to say something about this to at least my brother and father before the service.

I feel like I'm doing this wrong.

All of it. I feel like I'm doing the name thing wrong. And I feel like I'm doing the mourning thing wrong. Sad music at the funeral will bum everybody out, since they all want a party or something. And despite my strange demands for somberness, I'm off hanging out with my friends. I spent a couple of nights with Mitch and went to a farmer's market and had coffee with other people and biked from Sunnyvale to Cupertino (twice) and through the Santa Cruz mountains to Saratoga and Los Gatos and back to Sunnyvale and then had a BBQ. And I was thinking I'm using my uncle's death as an excuse for a BBQ, what the fuck is wrong with me. I don't know what I'm supposed to do.

And why the hell didn't I know him better? When I sent to see him in December, I was full of dread because of gender stuff. My dad had to order me to go, because I was so caught up in myself. I didn't want to tell him and I couldn't not tell him. I went and it was ok, but it was awkward and I thought that I would just give it time.

time

My uncle wasn't married and he never talked about his personal life. He talked about cars and computers. For a while, I thought he might be in the closet about something, because that's what we do in the closet. But now I think he wasn't. I think that's just how he was. He made his life more about his activities and his friends than about his family. Which is also a bit like what being queer is about. Chosen family because blood family wouldn't understand this stuff. We surround ourselves with friends who do get what we're about and build stuff around them. And I do that too and that's a good thing to do. I just wish he had reached out more to me and I wish I knew him more. And I wish I had reached out to him. And the obvious lesson from this is that I need tot talk to my family about my life and make sure they're part of it.

I worshipped my uncle when I was a kid. He was a race car driver! And so smart and funny. And then, a distance. And then he's gone.

3 comments:

steph said...

I'm sorry for your loss.

Jillian said...

You need to grieve the way that works best for you. If they want happy music at the funeral, that's fine, but find some space where you can play what you feel is appropriate for your mourning process. While on the surface, the BBQ and hanging out with friends might seem odd, I see it as a chance to reconnect given the reminder that life doesn't last forever. My grandmother died last week. We were somewhat close when I was little, but less so as I grew up. I never told her about my sexuality or gender issues, and I have no idea how she would have reacted (though in her case, she had dementia so her mind and personality died long ago). I learned in elementary school that everyone grieves in their own way. Make sure you take time to grieve however feels appropriate for you.

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