An Object Lesson in Dying

My uncle died December 17th, 2016.

In the days after receiving the news, my family shared (bled?) their memories and photographs of him on Facebook. The outpouring of their feelings made me feel compelled to share something too, but plagued as I am by a writer’s insecure temperament, I’m still struggling to get the words right.

If you’re not one of the handful of people I already told, you probably didn’t know I had an uncle. If you are one of the handful of people I told, you likely never heard me mention an uncle by name. TL;DR We weren’t close.

Talking to relatives and friends of Doug, the oft-repeated refrain is “I barely knew him,” which leaves me plenty of latitude to reconstruct another man in my memory.

Restrained is the best word that comes to mind when I think of Doug. Gluten-free, dairy-free, always passed on dessert at Christmas. He never shouted, rarely laughed and used one arm to hug my brother and me hello and goodbye at family gatherings. In his middling age, even his skin looked strained, stretched across bony cheeks.

Doug’s healthy diet and routine exercise made it even more shocking to my family when he got sick. Pancreatic cancer doesn’t discriminate against the the thin and and mild-mannered, which of course we knew, but still — if this thing happened to him, then what hellish disease was waiting to sic itself on us in 20 more years?

Technically, the cancer didn’t kill him; blood loss was the official cause of death.

Pancreatic cancer originates in the pancreatic tissue, but unchecked cancer spreads to surrounding organs — the spleen, the liver, the stomach, (according to the Mayoclinic website), eventually conquering healthy cells, and making your muscles soft like clay. Or, maybe it was The Chemo that was responsible for weakening his muscles, killing off the nasty cancer cells, but regrettably taking some of the good red blood cells with it (pop culture and Chicken Soup for the Soul books have given me enough source material to substantiate this theory). Whichever the scientific cause, the effect was this: after 5 weeks of battling the cancer, his legs buckled, and on Thursday evening, as Doug was preparing his [last] meal, he slipped and fell onto the tile.

When my father and his mother assayed Doug’s residence, they found an immaculate ranch home, decorated with souvenirs from places further-flung than most children of the midwest are lucky enough to travel to: Mexican pottery, Native American sand paintings, Chinese embroideries. They found crystal and Fiestaware for 12 (tags still on), in a kitchen they had never been invited to dine in.

They did not find a will.

For more than a decade, Douglas Roberts spent 11 months of each year 500 miles away from that ranch house, working out of a small Virginia apartment as a government contractor (the true nature of his work we discovered only after his death; rather than your everyday “IT guy,” Doug was a lauded data-architect!). Last Spring, he transferred all the Ks in his 401K from a Fidelity account into private investments; Doug was getting ready to retire to his dream home.

Doug’s death, though untimely, was not a total surprise. Pancreatic cancer has a 93% death rate (in the medical profession, they they say “7% survival rate”). Doug was diagnosed before Thanksgiving. The doctors gave him weeks to live.

There are many possible reactions to this type of news, but they usually fall into one of two categories: denial or acceptance. In Doug’s case, acceptance might have presented as: spending the rest of his savings to do another trip around the world; calling his old friends to tell them he was sick & he loved them; or penning a will to decide which of his family members would inherit his art collection.

The day before Doug died, he bought a new pair of Italian leather shoes, ordered a $4,000 recliner-chair, and got his hair cut. After receiving the diagnosis, he passed on hospice care and opted to live his final days in the ranch house. He refused to take his pain medications until the very end… because the pill casings contained a few grams of lactose sugar.

Was I in the denial or acceptance camp? When I heard the news about my uncle, I could think only of television show I had finished a few weeks earlier. In one plot line, a pretty, 30-something female surgeon (supporting character), gets diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. In her final weeks, she holes up with the town drunk Frank Gallagher (main character), takes a trip to Costa Rica, and then drowns herself in the sea.

I knew about the 7% stat before my dad quoted it to me.

Tonight I googled for quotes about storytellers & liars, hoping someone else could more eloquently state my theme: a eulogy reveals as much about the deceased subject as it does its writer.

While not exactly the same sentiment, I came across another applicable passage:

Every life is inexplicable, I kept telling myself. No matter how many facts are told, no matter how many details are given, the essential thing resists telling.

My second-cousin Kurt was the one who found my uncle, face-down on the dining room floor. Kurt got Doug to the hospital, where he held on for a few more hours before finally fading away.

If Doug is the quiet type, Kurt is Doug’s perfect foil. On Christmas Eve he mixes a Rusty Nail (Drambuie and scotch, with a few ice cubes) and insists we eat off of Doug’s lurid Fiestaware as he recounts his final moments with my uncle.

They took a trip to the mall, and Doug, “stubborn son-of-a-bitch” refused a wheelchair, instead choosing to limp from the parking lot to the shopping center and back.

24 hours later in the hospital — minutes before Doug passed, Kurt snapped a picture of him on his cell phone.

Conversation halts. My father says he doesn’t think he wants to — never wants to see that picture. The rest of us stare deeply into our eggnog.

I don’t ask to look at it, but I can see it — healthy, smiling Doug, and then imagine him into a hospital bed, paper gown cloaking his frame.

His hair is the same as I remember it, perhaps with more flashes of gray, and his skin is grayer too, like it’s soaked in blue light.

My mind returns to this pre-mortem photograph again and again over the next few days. Does he look like he’s in pain? I can see his ears, his widow’s peak, trace the 4 wrinkles that cleft his forehead, but I can’t go further than his brow line.

Does he look like he’s in pain? I haven’t been to a wake since grade school, so I google “corpse.” You can find pictures of dead bodies on the internet but they look like props, off color and awkward.

For the past 4 months I’ve been fumbling for an end to this essay. Perhaps, if my family had opted to hold a memorial service for Doug (my grandmother didn’t have it in her to plan another damned party) I could get some closure.

Perhaps — I would’ve stood in front of my relatives and delivered the speech I’ve fantasized about giving since my eighth grade graduation, as I sat listening to our class president (not valedictorian, ahem) run through the inside jokes she had with her gym class, like when a volleyball hit Hannah in the face, and Daniel forgot one sneaker on the bus, and so on, thinking, “I’ve got better material than that.” Giving Doug’s eulogy, I would’ve brought tears to the eyes of my family, of people who’d never even met him; the kind of in memoriam that morphs into a prophecy on how to live life. And I rack my brain for The Linchpin Anecdote, the one that will, in just a few sentences, sum up everything there is to know about Doug’s Life.

Cycling through the conversations I can remember with him: visiting Japan; ceramic frogs; rice milk recipes; none of which seem important, all of which lasted no more than 3 minutes each, what stands out to me is how physically uncomfortable Doug looked, as we talked, always standing an extra foot away from me, frail and pinched. In trying to reconstruct my uncle’s life, I keep ending up here, at his body. His inscrutable body.