It has always been a source of great disappointment to me that my memory is so bad. Often times when I am hanging out with old friends, they will mention a litany of incidents that would be featured front and center in a normal person’s Greatest Hits reel but have disappeared into the abyss of my mind never to be seen again.
Not so with this one.
It’s the moment I transformed from a boy into a man. And the moment had a soundtrack and a sunset going for it so it’s no wonder it’s seared into my memory like a brand. Maybe everyone has a “coming of age” memory… here is mine.
My uncle died in a plane crash.
He was a hero to me. Bigger than life and he died exactly how someone like him is supposed to die, screwing around doing crazy stunts in a small plane with a friend at his side. The problem was that he had a wife and two small children and a sister and a mother and two nephews and the news of his death was like a scream inside our hearts. I’m sorry I can’t put it better than that, but that’s how it felt.
My parents, grandmother, my brother and I flew overseas immediately to be with his widow but because the funeral wasn’t going to be for a week, my parents and brother had to fly back to the States to take care of work-related things until the service.
Which left me alone to take care of my grandmother, aunt, and my uncle’s two beautiful kids.
And I did.
I found a selflessness I never knew I had. I held them when they cried and I did the shopping and I mowed the lawn and I visited with the countless people that stopped by to grieve. A bright light had gone out and there was nothing left for his friends to do but to gather and mourn.
I guess I should tell you that my uncle lived on the grounds of the airport he owned and on those grounds sat a pub that he also owned. And frequented nightly. The sense of community I felt during that week was something I’d never experienced before and haven’t since. My uncle had built something special and everyone knew that it had come to an end. They sat on their stools and could clearly see that in a few years, the airport would be a strip mall and the friends that they saw on a daily basis would become ghosts.
So they toasted my uncle and cried.
As did I.
My uncle was just as cool as I’d always imagined him to be. And then I left the pub and went back to the grieving widow and the children who’d had their dad stolen from them.
My uncle had been the one to take me parachuting when I was an exchange student in his country. I would have never done it with anyone else but him. I was terrified as I sat with one leg hanging out of the plane, waiting for the tap on the shoulder that told me it was time to leap. I looked back at him and he was smiling and I knew I could do it. Again, I wish I was a better writer and could tell you why but I keep having to delete the words because they seem too hollow to explain it. If he was smiling, then it was going to be fine.
So I took the plunge into the unknown.
Now I was sitting in the living room that he would never again walk into, taking care of the people most important to him. There wasn’t a fucking thing in the world I wouldn’t have done to make those people hurt a little less. It was the first time in my dumb self-absorbed life that I felt something bigger than myself. For that week, I was the man. They had simply to ask and it was done.
I felt honored to be doing it.
The last night before my parents returned to help out, I sat alone in my uncle’s bar and put some money in the jukebox and watched the sun set. The entire horizon exploded into red and Bono sang “Where the Streets Have No Name” and I cried. My tears had never felt hot but they burned down my face like lava creeping down a mountainside because it was sinking in. It was all sinking in like the sun was setting. All of it. The joys and heartbreaks, bricks and mortar, triumphs and tragedies, not just clichés but the real stuff life is made of. I couldn’t even imagine the pain my grandmother was feeling at that very moment having lost her son. It felt like an ocean of grief. I was dreading the funeral and finality of it all. The hurt that was going to be on display.
I’d like to say that I was sitting there with one leg hanging out of some metaphorical plane looking back to find my uncle at the bar smiling, but that’s not what happened.
What happened was the funeral was brutal and my uncle’s airport was eventually turned into rows of take-out restaurants and hair salons.
And I went back home a man.
I guess I hope that you don’t understand and that your “coming of age” story was very different.