My Uncle J.L. died last night. He died of liver disease and while I don’t know if it’s documented, I’m sure it was caused by a life of imbibing and poor diet. Although he kind of dropped out of my life some 20 years ago, I have, and will continue to have fond memories of him. J.L. was “that” uncle in our family. I don’t mean the “that” that’s synonymous with bad. He was the uncle that was always cutting up and never took life too seriously. And that might be why he died, because he didn’t take his disease seriously enough early enough. My hopes are that he wasn’t in much pain. The doctors and hospice caretakers indicated to my mom that they’d keep him comfortable.
I didn’t say goodbye to my uncle in person. I still don’t think I’ve said goodbye to him. I never really knew where he went when he stopped coming around, and while I don’t think it really bothered me, I still wondered. Did he make road trips to Wyoming? Did he hole himself up in an old house somewhere out in his old stomping grounds in Houston? Did he have a woman in his life?
I remember my uncle coming to visit on the weekends when I was an adolescent. We’d get into his old, nondescript 1970’s orangish-goldish boat of a sedan and go to Crossroads for night crawlers. J.L. would invariably buy a six pack and slip me a comment about the cute twin daughters that worked the cash register. Then we’d go back to the pond at the house and spend a couple hours fishing. J.L. was the one who actually fished. I just kind of stood by as the trusty, doting sidekick and took in all of his stories and whatever else came out his mouth. I looked up to him because he had a long, bright yet dull orange biker ponytail and a deep, raspy tone in his voice that either told you he just didn’t give a shit, or that he loved you with all of his heart, depending on which hemisphere of his heart he kept you.
J.L. was the uncle who made fun of me for having Kiss albums, but was probably proud that I at least liked rock music. He was the uncle who was excited when I got the annual Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. He was also the uncle who always went out of his way to remind me of how lucky I was to have parents who were smart, who loved me and wanted me to do something with my life.
I went through a phase in my pre-teens where having gelled and spiky hair was the trend. Whenever J.L. would come to visit, he’d always look at me and say, “now that’s a cool haircut!” in that giving and familiar voice that always trailed with his smoker’s chuckle. I’d blush with equal parts of embarrassment and flattery. Whenever he’d leave to go back home, he would always tell me that the next time I saw him, he’d have a haircut just like mine. He never did.
One of the last memories I have of my uncle J.L., 20 years later, is my mom giving him a haircut. At his request, she sheared off his ponytail and gave him a clean haircut. I was there for that haircut. That was the last time that I saw him.
I’ll miss you, J.L.