I was sitting in the bathroom today, clipping my toenails. I was wearing just my house shorts–a pair of light grey sweat pants cut off into shorts. As I finished up the trimming I caught a glimpse of myself in the reflection of the bathroom doorknob. The curvature of the knob distorted my image. In the tiny tarnished gold reflection my shoulders were broader than they are in real life, my hips more narrow. I cocked my head and looked at the face in that reflection–a longer, thinner version of the real thing. I looked like a man. I looked not like any man but rather the man I am becoming.
I peered into the doorknob and I thought about my uncle Tony.
Tony was a chronic drinker, an abusive and cruel man who terrorized the people who took any role in his life. He repaid his mother’s kindness by living with her for decades as a sadist. Occasionally he made some sad attempt at contributing to the house by bringing home canned goods he bought with food stamps or bottom feeder catfish he dragged out of the Fox River. In exchange for this contribution he was given free reign to abuse, emotionally and verbally, anyone he decided deserved such treatment. He called my mother names, threatened his brothers, and was deeply manipulative of his other sisters. He took advantage of anyone who would be so stupid as to offer him a hand, and, although he might make occasional apologies, there were too many of them for any one to be taken in earnest.
I watched Tony shove my mother as they fought over whether or not I could have friends in the house. Tony told my grandmother I was having sex with my friend in my bedroom, an abject and disgusting lie, something used to debase and humiliate me. I was 17. Tony held a gun to my hand and asked me, as I squirmed and whimpered, if I thought he would pull the trigger. I was 9. Tony was best at intimidation, rarely ever acting on his threats, but it was that constant state of potential danger that was the most damaging of all. Through all the years I lived under the same roof as him, I learned to police my own habits and impulses–just because Tony didn’t hit me today, it doesn’t mean he won’t hit me tomorrow, so I better step a little lighter, talk a little softer, take up a little less space and hold my breath. The light gait I walk with now, as a 35 year old man, is the same one I developed as a traumatized child. And if, in a moment of ease, I catch myself walking solidly, it is a pounding sound I find loud, oafish, and reminiscent of Tony’s hard thumping walk.
Sometimes he was ok. Sometimes he took me down to the river and we would fish together. Or, rather, I would watch him set up his pole, watch him drink a six pack of Miller High Life. I would skip rocks and try to catch frogs. He would let me sit in the back of his Ford pickup on the way home, the sun in my eyes as I picked at the flaking paint around rust spots on the flatbed. Sometimes he would do yard work, would help Gramma in the garden or mow the lawn or do some landscaping project that was just stunning and you would wonder how Tony did it. But then sometimes he would rototil up the whole front yard and Gramma couldn’t believe he destroyed all her grass and it was “Oh Tony fer Godssake!” all over again. As I type this, the tension I can still hear in my grandmother’s voice tightens my chest as she admonishes Tony, again, and is so tired of him and his inability to control his actions, and I am so tired of myself and my inability to help her or change him and sometimes I…sometimes what? How do I finish that sentence? What do I do with all this anger?
Sometimes he would sit in the chair on the porch at night, Gramma and I on the swing my grandfather built. Gramma and I would watch for lights in the sky, counting the airplanes as they slowly glided though the thick summer air. Tony’s cigarette would glow red and I remember monitoring its flare peripherally. I liked him best on those nights: he was quiet and invisible, but the red beacon would warn me if he was moving.
When he wasn’t drunk, his long dark hair would be combed back, his face shaven. He had kind eyes and a charming smile and a mole on his face. As a young man, in pictures from before I was born, he looked like Robert DeNiro. He looked like he could have been any American boy. That boy, in those pictures? I am rooting for him. I wanted him to be better. I wanted him to change the script of my family’s abusive patterns. I wanted him to show up to a holiday with his kids and wife and smell like aftershave and tell me stories about their family vacations. I wanted him to be better so my life could have been better. Is that selfish? Don’t we all want a do-over? Do I get that self-indulgence from him?
I want to pin his shortcomings on alcoholism, a disease that runs in my family. I want to pin it on the trauma he suffered in Vietnam. But I have heard stories from my aunts about his cruel hand when they were kids. It would take decades of consistent performances to cultivate such uniform dislike from so many friends and family members. Tony worked hard to be so hated, spent so much time and effort saying just the wrong thing at just the right time. I know better than to deny a soldier his spoils. When I was a kid I hated my uncle because he hurt so deeply and consistently me and the people I Iove. Now, as an adult, I don’t hate him, but I have no love for him either. And so he has earned my indifference roundly.
The bitterness in this story doesn’t stem from the disrespect he showed for his parents and siblings, but the disrespect he showed for himself. He had emphysema, a hernia, and a blood clot in his lung. He didn’t think much of himself and told himself, I’m sure, on many occasions. I imagine self-criticism was the background noise of his life. And since he didn’t care about his body, this morning it finally failed him.
In the backyard, Tony is in cut off jean shorts and a dirty white t-shirt. His long hair is pulled back into a pony tail and he is loosening carrots from the dirt. Tony knew that if you want something to grow, first you have to bury it. So he repressed his pain and cultivated a lifetime of misery out of it. His suffering unchecked, grew and grew until his family found him restrained on a hospital bed, sedated after having altercations with security multiple times. Tony died in that bed this morning, missing the eight year anniversary of my grandmother’s death by one day. I find this coincidence to be insulting–even in death can’t he leave her alone?
I don’t want to believe the distortions of the doorknob so I turn to the mirror and search for the man I am becoming. I think about my nieces, and what kind of uncle I will be for them. I have no button for this story, no pithy aphorism to end on. There is no tidy truth here. This is a collection of memories I had to clear the brush from, wounds so old they are covered with scars, not scabs. I study my jawline in the mirror and decide the little girls in my life will not be afraid of me. I will not be the one to teach them to tread lightly.