Just so you know, this is a sad story and if I manage to tell it right, it may be a tear-jerker.
I would imagine that most people, when growing up, have a favorite relative. Mine was Uncle Ernie. Ernie was my mother’s brother. When I was growing up in Pennsylvania, Ernie lived with his family in Ohio, about a 2 and a half hour drive from us. Back when gas was cheap, that little bit of distance meant nothing and Uncle Ernie and the family would visit regularly. I guess we were just kindred spirits: both being born under Sagittarius (his birthday was the day after mine) and both with some Madison blood running through us, him more than me, of course.
Maybe part of it was that UE treated me like an adult. Always. Outside of his nickname for me (Sha Na Na), everything else was on an adult level. It wasn’t a ‘hey, your uncle from far away is here, come sit down and be nice’ type of relationship. I was always first to the door when UE showed up. When I was far away from home at Penn State, scared and a little depressed, I didn’t call home, I called UE. He was always my rock.
To be truthful, I never really knew what UE did for a living. I know that he and his family had a nice house in a nice neighborhood, but at the age I was then, you didn’t ask because you really didn’t care. What I do know is that at one point, UE was reaching out to the youth and doing some ministry work. We had a black and white picture of him hanging on the wall. He was standing in front of a brick wall full of graffitti with the most serene look on his face.
As close as we were, I never got the full story on how things fell apart. I did know that he was now living in PA and when I saw hime, something was missing. Unfortunately, UE had found crack. Times were tough for him but they only got tougher. My rock, my hero had been replaced by a crackhead. That doesn’t mean that we didn’t still love him and allowing him and his “girlfriend” to move into our home was a testament to the fact. Did I mention that UE was also a diabetic? Diabetes and crack do not mix. Between the drug and the disease, UE withered into a shell of the man that I adored. He became weak to the point of most days, he would just hang out in his comfy chair and watch TV. His bones became brittle. My mother accidentally broke a bone in his hand just by putting her hand down on his. It was scary. More than that, it was sad.
UE stayed with us for a while and yes, I think a few things went missing. We overlooked this as our love for him clouded our vision. He stayed with us most times and we protected him as best we could. He came in and out a lot. We thought our house was crack-free. We were wrong. One day my mother came to me with a light brown piece of glass. She told me it was a crack pipe. It was the first time I had ever seen one. It was the last.
At that time, I was working about an hour from home. On one particular morning, I had forgotten to tell my mother something, so when I got to work, I called home. UE picked up and I asked to speak to my mom. We chatted briefly and then hung up. I cannot put into words the feelings that arose when my mother called me back a few hours later, noticably upset, telling me that UE had died the night before. I said it couldn’t be. I had just spoken with him this morning. She had to be wrong. But she wasn’t. It turned out that it had been my brother that picked up the phone and I mistook for my uncle. The shock was unimaginable. Tears started pouring from my eyes before I could even try to stop them. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was so sad that my best friend had died. I was so angry because I knew it was the crack that killed him. I was still too confused to wrap my head around the fact that I didn’t just talk to UE this morning. I had to leave work.
All people deal with their grief in different ways. Some of my family (read my brother and myself) drinks. And that’s what I did. I called my lifelong friend and drinking buddy, who knew UE and was like family to him also and let her know what happened. We both left work and went to grieve, to try to make sense of things, to comfort each other.
I didn’t get to say goodbye to UE, none of us did really, but I know that he wanted to say something to us. He wanted us to know he was thinking of us. He wanted us to know that he was okay. He did. It doesn’t matter who believes what, but he did. The photo that we kept on the wall of him, that I looked at every day, changed. The area around UE’s head in the photo now had an angelic glow. It was like someone was holding a bright light right behind his head. It was amazing and it was comforting. I knew UE was in a better place without pain and more importantly, without drugs.
Funerals happened (not only UE, but in the span of less than 2 years, him, both of my paternal grandparents and my father), time passed, wounds healed. I look back with warm smiles on times gone by and I rage on. I rage on because that’s what they would have wanted. I rage on because I know that they’re all looking down on me at this very moment and they’re proud of what they see. I rage on because it’s important for people to know what drugs can do to you. I rage on for my family who has passed and my family who still lives. I rage on.