There’s no small irony about what happened to my uncle, who spent his life as an automobile insurance claims adjuster.
When I told people that my Uncle Ken had been seriously injured in a car accident, invariably there would come a time when someone would ask how old he was. “Eighty-one,” I’d respond. “But that’s not entirely accurate.”
Ken was 81, but he was one of the most vibrant octogenarians I’d ever known. Scratch that. He was the most. He went to work every day. He shoveled snow. He took his dog all across Monmouth County–on schedule, even: Saturday mornings were bank mornings; the tellers eventually began stocking treats for Ken’s dog instead of lollipops. He made the world’s best stuffing on Thanksgiving.
Physically, he was the human being equivalent of a ’75 Mercury Marquis: big. Strong. Able to sustain the grave injuries delivered in the near head-on collision less than a mile from his home and still have the wherewithal to call my aunt and ask that she come quickly.
But I am speaking all of this in the past tense. Ken’s heart ultimately wore out last week, and he passed away.
As a kid, one of the greatest things I ever did was to let Uncle Ken know I liked Dr. Pepper.
When my brother and I would visit my Aunt Shirley and him in New Jersey, Ken would restlessly wait to ask if you’d like something to eat or drink. This was his style–you would barely be in the door before he asked what you’d like. It would go something like this:
Ken: “How was the drive up? Are you thirsty? Sit down, I’ll get you something to drink. We’ve got tea, soda, water, milk, juice, coffee. I’ve got Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, Caffeine Free, Mt. Dew, Dr. Pepper. I’ve got those flavored waters, the little juice boxes if you want one of those. The fridge downstairs has beer. You want a Dr. Pepper? I’ll go get you one. No, no–don’t get up, just relax, relax, I’ll get it.”
Once you told Ken what you liked, though, you can be sure that the next time you saw him, the conversation went like this:
Ken: “How was the drive up? Are you thirsty? Sit down, I’ll get you something to drink. I’ve got Dr. Pepper downstairs–went to the grocery store this morning and picked up two cases! You can have all the Dr. Pepper you want.”
And then Ken led me downstairs, where he opened the door to a cache of Dr. Pepper. To me as a child, this was the height of wonder–a miracle of sorts. I was eleven years old, but here was my own private stock of the world’s greatest soda. It magically appeared every time we went to visit, and it never ran out.
Of course, when you stopped liking something, it could get awkward. Try telling a man you don’t drink Dr. Pepper much anymore when you know he’s got forty-eight of them cooling in the fridge.
But Ken would adjust. Next visit, he’d have what you liked. And every visit, it seemed nothing was more important than to see that you were taken care of, that you had what you wanted, and that you hadn’t had to lift a finger to receive it.
So it was also ironic, then, that in his last nine weeks of life, Ken was rendered incapable of being the person he was deep inside. He suffered three broken vertebrae, broken ribs, a ruptured spleen, a fractured wrist. He was bound to his bed, unable to offer anyone anything.
Further, the stories about his medical care, which contained more than a few errors along the way, were frustrating and heartbreaking to hear. I won’t rehash them here, but ultimately the medical staff proved a larger, and more real point: the world wasn’t nearly as accommodating as my Uncle Ken’s generous spirit.
It was hard to hear those stories, especially far away in North Carolina. They left me feeling helpless and angry. There wasn’t anything to do.
Ken left us too soon. His strength and will as a human being kept him alive for nine weeks following the trauma of the accident, but when it became apparent that the likelihood of any kind of recovery was growing too small, the words of that conversation were barely spoken before Ken’s heart slowed, painlessly, and then stopped.
He was eighty-one, but he was much, much more than that: a father, a husband, an uncle, a golfer and bowler, a joker and kidder, a defender, a worker, a friend. He was a man’s man, but he taught me so much about generosity and hospitality, about what it means to help people, about never stopping, and about why it’s important to indulge people with cans and cans of Dr. Pepper.
Thursday night, my cousin Tracey and I lifted our drinks (not Dr. Pepper) and toasted our uncle. And all this week, our family has fussed over my Aunt Shirley, doing our best to make sure someone was offering her whatever she wanted, unaware that as we did so, we were rushing in so quickly to fill a deep hole in her heart, one that could only have been filled by the husband she loved, the one whose spirit and fortitude made him larger than life.