It all started with a horseshoe. The golden horseshoe he wore religiously on his right ring finger.
It now rests in a small jewelry box that it rarely leaves — from time to time, I take it out and put it on my index finger, feeling the curves of the horseshoe with my other hand, remembering a different time — maybe even a different life. Sometimes it feels so distant that it’s just a story we’ve told ourselves of some mythological being that never actually existed, but he did. All six-foot-seven-inches of him, tilting his neck to the side to get through doorways not built for men that are larger than life.
There are people in this world that are glue; without being given a choice in the matter, they take on the enormous responsibility of holding a family together. Sometimes they don’t even realize that they play that role, and I’m not sure whether he knew it or not, but as far as I could measure, things went to hell in a hand basket when he got sick.
Years have passed and I’ve had to emotionally distance myself from how much I miss him — even writing these words brings tears to my eyes that I’m still not quite ready to cry.
This behemoth of a man was my uncle John. We tend to make heroes of our dead, yet with him, he truly was a force of nature — not a flaw-free one, but no heroes are. He was the judge and the jury, stubborn as hell, overly opinionated, but he taught the rest of us how to not just merely exist on this plane, but truly live. Years have passed and I’ve traveled thousands of miles in every direction across the globe, and I can attribute this to the man that taught me that we don’t get to have a say as to when our time is up, but we can decide how we spend our days up until that moment. Some would argue that I’ve taken that to the extreme and lived slightly recklessly (as well as my husband, who has the same outlook as I) — I’m 29, we have no savings, our credit could use some TLC, but we have lived.
I’ve wondered throughout my twenties what it would be like to sit down with my uncle as a now-adult over a cup of coffee, just for an hour — what would he say to me? What would he want me to know? In a 5-dimensional world where we can travel to moments in time just as we’d travel to locations, that would be possible, but in our 3-dimensional prison, it has yet to be.
In the meantime, my time travel exists only in memories.
He bought the farmhouse that his parents (my maternal grandparents) bought in 1986. As a young man, he lived there with them as he went through the police academy, and then remained there after my grandfather died of Lou Gherig’s disease in 1993. Twelve acres of farmland was too much for my grandmother to manage on her own, so my uncle took on that role. Eventually, my parents sub-divided off of the land, up the hill, overlooking the farm in the valley. It was an idyllic country childhood that I grew up from quickly at too young of an age.
In 1999, my uncle went to the ER complaining of a migraine; none of us thought too much of it. The phone rang a few hours later, and I watched as my dad walked into his and my mom’s bedroom, where my mom was running on the treadmill. I couldn’t hear what he said to her but I stood in the doorway, watching, waiting, feeling the energy. She stopped running immediately when he came into the room. As he stood at the side of the treadmill, I watched her eyes sink into his face, and it was as though every muscle in her body went limp, and her face fell into her hands. My dad held her and I quietly stood there, confused, watching my mother shatter.
“Stage IV glioblastoma” became a part of our vocabulary; those three uninvited words were unwelcome and unforgiving. It was at nine-years-old that I discovered the power of words — these three words became a reckless driver on a dangerous highway, and like many that have experienced those words before and after our family can relate, we were merely along for the ride.
The doctors said that my uncle’s stage IV glioblastoma would take him within six months. Somehow, he found a way to survive for five years. Within that time period, our lives slowly began to crumble.
I used to run away to a tree stand. It was the place that I could feel at home and stable when life was anything but.
I grew up in the country of New Jersey. Not the Jersey Shore, not Montclair, not smokey skies or busy streets. Long, windy country roads ran through the woods near the Appalachian mountains, glorious green fields filled with daisies and tiger lilies, pine trees and maples filling the air with their scent; it was home. My house was on the hill looking at Sunrise Mountain, and my uncle’s was in the valley right behind.
There were actually three tree stands. I assume that either my uncle John or my Poppy built them all for hunting, but by the time I got to them, they hadn’t been used for that in quite some time. Two sat at the edge of the woods, and one was deep in the woods down by the creek. One of the tree stands lined the woods and faced the Appalachians, which I loved — I would sit up there for hours and just stare at the mountains pressed up against a blue country sky, sitting against hay fields. That one was relatively easy to climb up into. It had a couple 2x4s nailed into the tree to act as a ladder, and then I just had to swing my legs up over a branch or two, and I was in.
The other that lined the woods was much higher up, and I loved the height. There wasn’t a ton of sitting room up there, just enough for my butt, and I’d either swing my legs over the side or put them up against a branch to stretch out. I’d smoke the Virginia Slims that I stole from my mom (sorry ma), and read poetry up there, looking over the hayfields and the farm, into the valley, and watch across the street as Father Lavolsi fumbled around the parish grounds doing odd jobs here and there, always dressed in his best cassock.
The third was deep in the woods, near the creek. That was my go-to place when I really needed to run away and get lost. Definitely the most dangerous of the three to get to, I’d climb up, never looking down at all of the rocks that would surely split my head open if I had one missed step or if the wood eventually rotted. I didn’t worry about that then, but the older version of myself would smack my younger, and tell her she was being unnecessarily rebellious and to stop being such an asshole. She wouldn’t have listened, but it would have been worth a try.
I grew up in these woods, along the edges and deep within. I swam in the creek, observed the beauty of nature, and cried. It was my safe place. It was my home. Thousands of miles and several years separate me from it now, and that makes me ache. I know that I will never live there again, I will never be able to run out the front door and down the steps, across the yard, down the road, and into the fields that have always held my peace. It’s so strange to feel such a debt to a place; I could never give back what it gave to me. All I can do is close my eyes, feel the crunching of branches and leaves under my feet, listen to the water hurry through the creek, and gaze at mountains I will not see again for a long time, and thank the universe that I had such a peaceful place to find myself when the rest of my world was loud and broken.
Towards the end of my time living there, someone else bought that section of land and posted “No Trespassing” signs. The little rebel I was, I was not about to let anyone tell me what to do, so, I, of course, trespassed. Somehow or another, they figured it out, and one of the last times that I went there, the ladder leaning against the tallest tree stand was sawed in half. I sat with it and cried. It was the end of an era, the end of safe introspection. The world was waiting, and I could no longer run away and get lost in the woods.
Years later, when my husband and I moved back from Hawaii, against my better judgment, I drove up to that place. The highways turned into exits, the exits turned into main streets and the main streets flowed into back country roads. The mountains kissed the skyline, gravel kicked up into the undercarriage, and the smell of wood burning stoves carried through my open windows.
I got closer and closer – there was the field Sean proposed to me in, right alongside the tree stand that lined the woods. There was the creek I used to swim in on July days. There’s the bridge I jumped from into the swimming hole; I remembered walking up the hill fully clothed and in my work boots, drenched, but thrilled. I slowed near my woods but didn’t dare stop to walk around; I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to leave it if I set foot there.
A tear rolled down my cheek and kissed me on the side of my lips – sometimes I forget that all of this still exists when I stay away long enough.
And there she was, sitting at the top of the hill, overlooking the mountains. I pulled up to the house that built my foundation. It had been years since I saw it; I kept my distance from it — I thought the further away I went, the less it would hurt. I went far enough away from my roots that I didn’t need to hear the echoes of cries from that house. If walls could talk, would the house tell stories of the laughter that happened there in the early years? Or would it cry, remembering the last days? Did it feel a pang run through the pipes and up the walls when the moving vans pulled in? Her front door was now painted a boring forest green. The swing that overlooked her wasn’t in the garden anymore. The basketball hoop that sat beside her, the one that I perfected my three-pointer on, was only a ghost.
At first, I only stopped in front of her – I was only going to pause for a few seconds – but I couldn’t contain myself. I had to pull into her driveway once more.
I pulled in, only a few feet, and got out of the car. I couldn’t contain the flow of tears that erupted from places I usually contained. I held my hands to my face and let out the kind of cry that most of us rarely allow ourselves to cry. I looked at her, blurry from tears. The windows had drawstring blinds, hiding her from sunlight. There were no flowers in the gardens. She was a shell – and I think she knew it too.
I saw a shadow move past the living room window, and with that, got in my car, pulled out of the driveway, and never saw her again.
As I drove away, I remembered the harsh transition from the early years of my life there — this idyllic childhood I lived, to what it felt like for my body to age seventy years, seemingly overnight, while my family fell apart.
In the early fall of 2002, I was practicing my tap-dance routine for the play I was in, The Music Man. Somehow, I managed to twist my ankle. It swelled up immediately. Within days, I was at the orthopedist, where I had to be held down on a table as they stuck a needle in my ankle to pull out 10 cc’s of fluid. Hours later, it filled back up. Within days after that, I began to experience gastrointestinal symptoms like abdominal pain, nausea, and diarrhea up to a dozen times a day. My orthopedist began to realize that there was more going on here and sent me to Goryeb Children’s Hospital in Morristown Memorial.
There, my doctor scheduled an endoscopy and colonoscopy — on the same day that my uncle would need another brain surgery to remove another tumor. It had been over three years since his diagnosis, and it seemed that we’d no sooner see a tumor removed when another would pop up.
To make things easier for our family, my doctor performed my procedures at the same hospital where my uncle’s surgery was taking place. He was three floors up from me having brain surgery during my endoscopy/colonoscopy.
The night before his surgery and my procedures, my parents invited everyone from the valley up to the house for dinner, (which I somewhat resented at the time, as I had to drink the colonoscopy prep in front of all of our family and neighbors — which my grandmother mixed with Ginger Ale [I don’t recommend this concoction]). With my childhood crush (and neighbor) looking on, I drank a gallon of colon prep, was in and out of the bathroom, and toward the end, threw up pretty close to where he was sitting. (Cue the teenage horror.)
The next morning, we were up bright and early to make our way to the hospital, and I blacked out in the shower from being dehydrated and learned lesson #1 of living with Crohn’s disease: no hot showers after colonoscopy prep.
That day I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease with extra-intestinal manifestations of inflammatory arthritis, and we learned that my uncle’s tumors had grown “fingers” and were far-reaching into areas that were inoperable.
I learned that there are some things in this world we can’t fix.