I have an uncle and when you stand next to him, you feel invincible against the sea.
We both live in New England to have some space from our families. He tells me countless times how his mother (who he insists he is not related to) continuously ragged on him… “Easily led, easily led.” She is the same person who spoiled me rotten throughout my childhood, but somehow I understand him. After his first year of college, he went home once during the summer and never again. His father tried desperately to hold the family together. I understand him too.
My uncle is smart. He understood math. He graduated from college early. He had wanted to be a professional baseball player but graduated with a degree in physical education. He soon realized that his monthly income as a gym teacher would not be all that impressive. He could make the same amount in two weeks by fishing.
I sometimes judge people on their reaction when I tell them he is homeless. It speaks a great deal to people’s impression of fate vs. free will. Victim of circumstance vs. one’s personal agency in a situation. He fished for 30 years before developing MS. His wife became an alcoholic. The housing crisis happened. I was told his crew had to actively keep him off the docks for some time. Sympathy is not just a virtue but a reflex.
For a long time, I had only seen him at funerals. First his father’s. Then his mother’s. He showed up better dressed both times than I can ever remember. I wrote a song called Shoreline. “The gulls fly inland for the winter; I was thinking that maybe, you should too.”
When I first moved to Boston I was apprehensive about contacting him. He has a tough exterior and a mouth to match. But he knows I burn easily and he told me to wear sunscreen before I went to visit. There is someone in there who still cares.
I arrived in Rhode Island and met him at a mini-mart, where he was clearly a locally recognized character. He introduced me to the store owner, who let me take a beverage for free. He introduced me to Mr. and Mrs. McCay, a lovely couple in their 60s. Mr. McCay also has Alzheimer’s. We went down to the dock where my uncle once was king. “I fished on that boat… and that boat… I didn’t fish on that boat… But I fished on those boats…” He mentioned “Bleak Island” and the Rhode Island Sound.
I asked, “What is that?”
“It’s the Rhode Island Sound.”
“Yes, but what is it?”
He sighs. “Never mind… don’t worry about it.”
We had a wonderful lunch full of lobster and fish and bloody marys and craft beer. It was the best seafood I had eaten in a while. We got in his car to drive back to the mini-mart and it didn’t start. I panicked while he kept his cool.
“But how are you going to get home?!”
He laughed and lit up a blunt. “I’m home. How are you going to get home?”
When I told him about mom, he still cared. He went down with me to visit her–twice. (The seven hour car ride was hell to endure–for both of us.) He saw her once for her birthday and another time for Thanksgiving. To be honest, he spent most of his time on the couch watching television or outside smoking pot. But one day at 6am he got up and was making a turkey dinner. He and his brother, Reynolds, exchanged phone numbers. He watched his language around the neighbors, just like I had asked him to. He started calling my mom somewhat regularly.
I wonder what will happen when I leave New England. If he will accept my offers for train/bus tickets to Phila or if I will be resigned to visiting him on my way to Boston once a year. Either way, I hope we never stop feeling invincible against the sea.