My Uncle Charlie recently passed away, which reminded me of a story.
Uncle Charlie (not to be confused with my other Uncle Charley) was married for many years to my mother’s sister, Bette. Mom and Bette were the closest siblings in the 9 sibling family, and since they lived only a mile away we often walked to their house for visits. As my parents chatted over coffee and cookies, the six of us kids would play in the yard or game room. This was back when people had actual yards and “game room” meant board games and other toys most people today have probably never heard of.
I enjoyed these visits except that both Uncle Charlie and Aunt Bette were rather heavy smokers. By this time my father had stopped smoking (other than an occasional pipe) and my mother, like me my entire life, never smoked. In retrospect I suspect we all took in enough secondhand smoke to damage us for life. It was smoking that killed my Aunt; after a night of horrendous emphysema-induced chest pain she fell asleep sitting on the couch next to my Uncle and never woke up.
After a few years Charlie married a neighbor whose husband had also died. The new couple were married for another two decades before Charlie’s seemingly continuous pulmonary and cardiac issues finally did him in.
For many years before he died Charlie and Mary (his second wife) would routinely go out to dinner with my parents and two other couples, followed by a card game called Uno. Those other couples have departed one player at a time, so dinners were slowly becoming the prelude to a shorter chat and an early night. Nonetheless, everyone still cherished those dinners.
“You have more shrimp than me,” Charlie says to my Dad.
“Huh,” Dad replies without looking up.
“Look. I counted. You have 13 shrimp and I only have 12! Waiter!!”
After a careful explanation from my Uncle, the perplexed waiter would diligently rush back to the kitchen and, likely after an eye-rolling exchange with the cook, bring back the missing shrimp. For every dinner since, everyone would wait while my Uncle counted up anything reasonably enumerated. Shrimp and scallops were counted, peas and french fries were not (there are limits, after all). Once secure in the equity of the servings, dinner would begin and everyone would have a great time.
This competition, if you want to call it that, wasn’t limited to food. My parents and all their friends have achieved ages well beyond the official actuary definition of “average life span.” As such they tend to enjoy more medical benefit opportunities than the rest of us. Both my Dad and Uncle Charlie are veterans of the second World War so are eligible to receive medical attention from the Veterans Administration, aka, the VA.
“Hey, where did you get that?” says Charlie as he points to my Dad’s blood pressure monitor.
“The VA gave it to me.”
“What? I have high blood pressure and they never gave me a monitor.”
“They just asked if I wanted one and so I took it.”
“Well, I want one too.”
Next time at the VA, Charlie complains to the doctor that my Dad got a free VA monitor and he should get one too. And he got one.
“Is that a pill splitter?”
“Um, yes,” says my Dad, slowly trying to come up with a way to change the conversation. A pill splitter, in case you don’t know, is a simple box with a razor edge in it used to cut medicinal pills in half. It helps ensure you get the correct dose. It saves you approximately a half-second over simply cutting the pill with a sharp knife.
“How come they gave you one and not me?”
And so it goes.
Of course, all of this is now moot.
I moved away from my hometown many years ago, and while I visit as often as I can I rarely had a chance to see my Uncle. The last time was a couple of years ago when I gave a lecture at the local museum. Charlie and Mary arrived as I was signing copies of my books after the event but went back to my parents house, where I joined them to catch up. Not long after that his condition deteriorated until his body finally gave out.
I wasn’t able to make it up for the funeral, which is best because I don’t do funerals well. I still picture the open casket of my Aunt Bette, Charlie’s first wife, and it’s best that I couldn’t make it to find out whether his would be open or closed. I much prefer to remember people as I knew them – vibrant, funny, and always on the outlook for the one missing shrimp.
David J. Kent is a science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.