He died in July of 1980 when Norin and I were on our honeymoon in Tahiti, but I didn’t know he was gone until we returned home two weeks later. “Johnny died” my mother whispered over the phone. I was sitting on the burgundy Victorian sofa in the living room of the house I rented on Colby Avenue in West Los Angeles just over a year ago. The heavy black phone receiver, slick with mid-summer sweat, pressed against my right ear and chin. I knew this couldn’t be right, she wasn’t saying Uncle Johnny was dead, he was just at our wedding. I haven’t even gotten the proofs back to show he was there, he and Jerry.
They were so happy that day, happy to be invited, part of the family. I wasn’t sure I wanted them to come, but I invited them in the end, and they eagerly accepted. Johnny and Jerry were longtime lovers, together since I was about three years old. That wasn’t why I wasn’t sure I wanted them to be there. I didn’t know if I could trust my mother not to make a scene, and I was even less sure about them.
Alcoholics can’t be trusted in situations where wine flows freely, and I knew their MO. I didn’t want anything to upset this magic moment in my life, embarrass me in front of my new husband. Revealing all the weirdness and damage in my family wasn’t the way I wanted to be introduced to his friends and family. Damage control is a fact of life in families of alcoholics. It’s no wonder I chose a career in risk management.
My throat clenched when I asked, “When, what happened?” Grief, sheer grief waited for her reply. He was my favorite uncle, the one I knew since birth, the one who gave me the tiny braided gold ruby ring he found that I never took off until it had to be cut off. What ever happened to that ring, I wondered? Uncle Johnny was the one who spit on his palm, rubbing it hard against my right long-haired forearm, the arm now holding the slick phone receiver, knotting it up so tight I had to clip the little balls of hair with tiny scissors. It took a few months, but it grew back, and more. Norin walked in from the kitchen, his tan bearded face and hazel eyes questioning, concerned.
Thank you cards lay on the coffee table in front of me, stamped and ready to go in the mail. I bought them in Moorea and filled them out by candlelight on Rangiroa, where they turned off the electricity in the huts at nine o’clock each night, sunburned skin keeping me awake in the heat. Theirs was in the pile.
She quietly said, “He was in a motorcycle accident the day after you left. He was going fast and ran into a tree, smashing his head. He didn’t die right away, but we knew he was gone, and we took him off life support a couple days later. He was cremated and we spread his ashes at Point Dume, where we spread your fathers.”
I remembered that day. We were all standing on the south side of the cliff, flowers in hand, citing the 23 Psalm. David, my brother, opened the box as a gust of wind came up and blew most of my father’s ashes into our faces. Never anticipated that, although knowing him, we should have. I saved some in a red and gold tin so he would always be with me, knowledge I never had when he was alive.
Grief, then anger derailed my sensibilities. I heard the heartache for her youngest brother in her voice, knowing he was her favorite, too. Containing my anger I asked, “You cremated him and spread his ashes while I was gone? Why didn’t you wait for me? Why didn’t you call me? How am I supposed to believe he is gone? Did you save any of his ashes for me?”
All the air in the room was gone, my throat closing tighter, holding back tears that had nowhere to go. She said, “We didn’t want to ruin your honeymoon, you deserved to have your happiness, and there was nothing you could do about it anyway. We wanted to save you from the pain for a little while. We didn’t save any of his ashes. We didn’t know you might want them.”
I knew she was right, but I didn’t know how I would or could ever believe he was gone. I felt hurt and betrayed. Without seeing him dead, feeling his cold skin, knowing his soul was released from his carcass, I couldn’t believe he was free. That’s how it was with my father just five years before. I couldn’t believe he was dead until I saw him in the West Los Angeles VA Morgue, pale gray translucent skin, cold and firm, eyes closed and finally at peace. How would I get through this, where is the other side of this pain, I anguished?
I was driving to work the next day, grief always finds me when I’m driving, but I wasn’t expecting answers. The transition overpass from the eastbound Ventura Freeway to the northbound Glendale Freeway is my favorite view in Los Angeles. It looks like you’re flying, going over the hills and straight up into the sky.
The Beatles song “Blackbird Singing in the Dead of Night” came on the radio as I started up into the air. The car glided smoothly into open space when I felt Uncle Johnny, my blackbird, his spirit soaring in front of me, guiding my heart in the knowledge he was gone and he was free. We were only waiting for this moment to be free.