Spike. Spike. Spike. I love you. I love you. Spike, I love you.
My Uncle Tom spoke the universal words of endearment quickly at first, then more slowly, enunciating each word, his mouth moving methodically beneath the mustache he had worn since before I was born.
I… love… you.
He was perched on the edge of one of the recliners in the living room of the bi-level house where he and my Aunt Cathie had lived for as long as I could remember. We were packed into the small space, strewn about the living room and dining room, seated on whatever surface we could find, including the floor. The television played in the background and we talked over and around each other, laughing and teasing, my mom and her sisters and my Uncle Tom smoking cigarettes.
The German Shepherd Husky mix cocked his head at first, his pointed ears moving slightly. Uncle Tom, his smile wide across his face, looked the dog directly in the eyes and said again, I love you.
Aunt Cathie – my mother’s younger sister – chimed in, her voice small but assertive, just like she. The youngest of three girls, she was pushy in that youngest-child way, a bossiness with which I identify closely. There is a fearlessness in being the youngest child. The parental precautions, rules, and worries are fewer. The boundaries are less clear, the lines less bright. That fearlessness manifests as audacity.
Spike. She used a special voice for her dog, a variation of which my mom also used, and which my sisters and I still use. Spike, between Aunt Cathie and Uncle Tom, snapped his attention to her. It was a crooning voice, but one he associated with authority. I love you.
He opened his mouth, paused, and then whined rrrrrhhhiiiiiiiiieeeeee ruuuuuuuuuuuhhhh rrrrrrrrrooooooooooooooooo!!!!
We burst into praise and laughter, and Spike jumped up excitedly, loving all the hands on his fur.
It was Spike, in his consummate loyalty and astounding intelligence, who first taught me to love and trust German Shepherd mixes.
It was Aunt Cathie and Uncle Tom who first taught me about the fierce and intense relationship one can have with a dog, the way that bond elevates the animal to more than just a family pet. He was part of their family, our family.
They were my family. It was Aunt Cathie and Uncle Tom who were a constant for much of my own childhood, one of the only touchstones of stability and normalcy, even if our “normal” was a unique derivation of the Standard American Life.
My mom and her sisters had a complicated childhood, and even their perceptions of that childhood were often vastly disparate. But the end result was the same. They were three mostly orphaned siblings with little extended family to speak of, and they had all striven to make lives for themselves. Uncle Tom was instrumental in that, an anchor and a jokester, he had dated my Aunt Cathie since they were practically kids, and they had been married young. He was a link all the way back to a time when my mom and her sisters were young and hopeful and had lives full of promise ahead of them.
It was he who taught me about golf and bowling. He demonstrated spousal devotion to the nth degree. He taught us to tease each other. He taught me to laugh at myself, to take nothing too seriously… except golf and bowling.
Look at that flower right there. See that white flower? He pointed at one white weedy flower in the midst of a thousand of them. We stood in the backyard behind their house on Bluebird Drive, a short street in the middle of a dozen other streets with similar avian names. It was a twenty or thirty year old subdivision with mostly bi-level homes, a few ranch houses sprinkled in, usually lining one side of the street opposite a row of bi-levels. The chain link fence in the backyard was almost indistinguishable from the fences of neighbors on either side and behind their house. It was a modest home, but was a veritable Taj Mahal in my youth.
He gripped the golf club, demonstrating hand placement and form, bending slightly at the knees.
You wanna aim for that white flower. You’ll practice like this. You can practice anywhere. Just aim for something. Doesn’t have to be one of those, it can be dandelions or flowers. Hell, it can be a piece of dog shit. He laughed. He joked constantly, indulging potty humor even if he was the only one laughing, though that was rarely the case because his laugh was one-of-a-kind contagious.
Just aim for something, and when you swing, you want the club to kinda slice just below the ball – or the flower. Or the turd. He tickled me a little in the ribs as he said “turd”.
And you want the ball to just connect with the face of your club and–
He smoothly twisted his body to raise the club up behind himself and then swiftly and deftly brought it down in a perfect arc and suddenly the white flower he had been pointing at was gone. Everything around it remained undisturbed aside from the exact, specific flower he’d pointed out to me.
Here, now pick something to aim at. He handed me the club.
Uncle Tom was rarely serious, except when he was explaining something. He was gentler to my sisters and me than he was with his son, who played sports and excelled at most everything he tried. My cousin was several years older than me, an only child, and I was scarcely allowed in his bedroom as a youngster. My memory of the room was that it was usually dark, the way the bedrooms of teenage boys tend to be. I remember very little of it except the way one shaft of light would stream in and land squarely on the dresser where the drawers were open and a few stray clothes hung out – discarded baseball pants, and untied cleats on the floor below – and numerous trophies glittered gold on top.
My uncle furrowed his brow as I awkwardly held the club incorrectly. He was not angry or frustrated, but matter-of-fact.
No, see, you wanna have your thumb point downward.
A wobbly adolescent, I was already almost as tall as he, so he could demonstrate appropriately with the clubs. He had bought the clubs for me, just as he’d bought a set for my sister Yay, my not-quite-Irish-Twin.
Iggy! Fats! I got something for ya! He called from the front door at the bottom of the stairs that led to the living room and the top of the stairs that led to the basement.
I was Iggy. My sister was Fats.
He called my sister Fats because of her perfectly round, plump cheeks as a little girl. He’d wanted to call me Egghead, but my mom wouldn’t allow it. I was an unhappy and funny looking baby, with a head that stayed bald until I became an unhappy and slightly-less funny looking toddler. Egghead would have been appropriate. He tried to shorten it to Eggy. Still not acceptable. So they settled on Iggy, the best compromise they could reach.
Uncle Tom, a man who teased us incessantly and loved us intensely.
A cigarette rested between his lips beneath his thick black mustache. He popped the trunk of the Olive Green Monte Carlo, a giant car that would eventually be passed along to our family to use, and which would ultimately become the first car I ever drove as a tumbleweed teenager, feeling my way blindly through adolescence. By the time I got it, the vinyl top would be mostly missing, the paint would be oxidized, the headliner falling down. Every time I would hit a certain bump in the early mornings on the way to the pizza place I worked at to support myself as a seventeen-year-old, the radio would die and my mix tape would go silent until I hit the next bump on the next country road and the radio sprang back to life. But when it was Aunt Cathie and Uncle Tom’s car, it was spacious and comfy, and riding in it usually meant the exciting treat of getting to go somewhere with Uncle Tom.
Two sets of golf clubs lay side by side in the trunk. One set – the one that would become mine – was in a blue vinyl golf bag, a mix of steel and royal blues with black straps, a thrift store find when he had been out running errands. I never learned to golf, really. We did not get to spend enough sustained time with Aunt Cathie and Uncle Tom for him to actually be able to teach me, and it was not an interest of anyone else in our family. This was before the internet was ubiquitous, a time when I could not just pull up a video or a tutorial and teach myself. I spent my adolescent years golfing in our yard with flowers and clovers, wiffle balls and ping pong balls.
I kept those clubs in their royal steel blue vinyl bag with black straps well into my adulthood, despite not truly knowing how to golf and having only ever been to an actual golf course with them twice. I only parted with them when I was adrift after Jason’s death, which was also when it was time to vacate our farm house so it could be burned to the ground and dozed under the earth.
Tom! He needs out. Aunt Cathie stood at the sliding glass door that led to the deck which overlooked the backyard. Spike waited obediently behind her legs. Uncle Tom signaled that Spike could join us in the backyard and the dog bounded down the deck stairs and circled the perimeter of the yard like the dutiful German Shepherd he was.
Aunt Cathie retreated into the house where she would sit on the end of the couch nearest the end table, her legs curled underneath and to the side of her. The two had met when they were teenagers, and had been the love of each other’s lives. While theirs was a relationship fraught with much of the dysfunction that defines all romantic relationships, in my childhood they were a stable example of a couple who made love look attainable and steady.
My Aunt Cathie was more aloof, less directly involved in teaching us things or playing with us. But as I got older, she became a person in my life with whom I could have candid conversations about the difficulty of learning to navigate adulthood. She helped me understand how to better communicate with my own mother, which was an almost insurmountable challenge for me as a teenage girl.
Your mother just wants you to talk to her. Surly as I was, I do not remember ever feeling that my Aunt Cathie was overstepping her bounds or telling me what to do. Talking about my feelings did not come naturally to me, at least not in the way that my mother wanted it to when I was a youngster. I needed to sit with those feelings and work through them, and when she would push me I would lash out and be hateful.
Though my mother went by Barb, her sisters called Barbara – Barbruh, two syllables shoved against each other. Aunt Cathie’s name had a soft “th” sound, like in the word lithe. And they dropped the “a” from my Aunt Alicia’s name, saying things like, Have you heard from Lisha? Theirs was a language that traced a shared history that none of their children would ever fully grasp.
When I was a very young adult living in the Quad Cities, I spoke on the phone to Aunt Cathie regularly. Needing to feel rooted in some way, I had picked up my shiny silver flip phone one day and dialed the number I remembered from my childhood, a series of 8’s and 7’s, knowing there would be someone at the other end of the line. Even if the answering machine picked up, I knew that the odds were she was at home and once she heard the hurried words of uncertain needing spill from my mouth on the recording, she would pick up the phone. And she did.
Even though it had been a couple of years since we had seen each other and I was technically an adult now and the conversation could have been uncomfortable, we spoke with surprising ease. We talked about life, and relationships. She talked of Spike and their other German Shepherd Dog, Bear. We laughed and related to one another and felt the abiding fortitude of a familial bond that was the exception, not the rule, in my life. When your family is tiny, your parents divorced, your roots scattered, you tend to float in a deep space of not really belonging. My sisters and I did not really belong in my dad’s extended family, so strained was his own relationship with his parents, particularly his mother. Although we grew up spending time with my dad’s side of the family and our cousins were very close with us, in some ways it was not until we were adults that those bonds became more firm, more like what I assume a family is supposed to feel like.
Aunt Cathie and I had a unique relationship throughout my early twenties, talking on the phone and sharing like two adult friends might do. She called me every year on my birthday, usually obscenely early. When my Uncle Tom had been a milkman, and then when he had taken on a paper route, their sleep patterns became irregular and strange. They might be up for the day at 1a.m., and they might go to bed for the night by 6p.m. My mom and her sisters were never solid sleepers, and it has only been with the loss of my own mother that I’ve been able to comprehend the insomnia of rootlessness.
Uncle Tom was diagnosed with cancer sometime before we discovered our mom’s death was imminent. It was a disease that harassed his family, and he fought it like others in his family had done before him. He became feeble and sick, and neither he nor my Aunt Cathie was able to attend my mom’s funeral. I meant to ask Aunt Cathie why she hadn’t come alone, though part of me knew that the answer would be nebulous and the question was mostly pointless. My mother and her sisters all struggled with extreme panic and anxiety, demons that passed seamlessly through the bloodline to my sisters and me. The irrational fear and frenzied nausea intrinsic to these feelings is debilitating, indiscriminately selfish. The need to protect oneself from all the made-up threats of the world, just waiting to terrorize you, is enough to make you sacrifice everything in an effort to avoid those threats.
In the wake of my mom’s death, time slipped away like water and even now most of what I am able to do is restricted to the necessities. Go to work. Try to get enough sleep. Try to remember to eat. Shower regularly. Do the bare minimum to maintain social relationships. Take care of the dog. Love my sisters. Do not let my romantic relationship fail. Go to therapy. Write when I can.
I did not write thank you cards. And I never got a chance to ask Aunt Cathie why she hadn’t come to my mom’s funeral.
At the end of February, Uncle Tom succumbed to his cancer. Fifteen days later, his wife died of a completely unrelated acute condition. In just two weeks’ time my cousin the only child was without not only one, but both of his parents.
Something in me broke loose when Uncle Tom died. A light in the world went out, and the shadowy demons of depression that had been lurking for months began closing in on me in earnest. When we lost Aunt Cathie so soon after, something in me broke completely. I’m on medication now to help keep me from going to bed immediately after work, psychotropics to keep me upright. But I imagine I will spend my entire adult life trying to understand such senseless loss.
Many years ago I lost any sense of certainty about an afterlife. Maybe there is a promised land with a deity, a place with choirs and milk and honey. Maybe there is a simple nothingness after death, a cool and quiet and dark place of peace. While I am not certain, I know what I like to believe. I like to believe that we end up everywhere and nowhere all at once, surrounded by the things and places and people we loved in life, while simultaneously surrounding with love the ones we left behind. And I can only hope that somewhere in the place beyond this world or adjacent to it or intertwined with it, my mom is with her brother-in-law and her sister, and their mom and dad, and that loved ones come and go. It is a place like a modest bi-level house where everyone is strewn about, laughing, welcoming, teasing; free of pain, anxiety, and everything but the good.