I’m here today because of the love and advice given to me by a wonderful, compassionate, inspiring person who isn’t here any longer.
I lost my uncle two weeks ago.
Oftentimes, moments that leave us completely shattered also render us speechless. That hasn’t been the case for me, not now. Instead, I’m caught amidst an upswelling of words, words desperately seeking a way out. If you’ll allow me the space, this is where I’d like to share them, starting with some of my favorite memories.
Uncle Doug, my mother’s little brother, was always an important figure in my life, but initially that was simply because of my love for his sister. When our family tree was chopped in half 16 years ago, however, he and I became much closer. In thinking back to that era, I’m reminded of a line of John Denver’s Wild Montana Skies: “His mother’s brother took him in, to his family and his home, gave him a hand that he could lean on, and a strength to call his own.”
Before the dust had settled from the divorce, Uncle Doug invited me to his home in Maryland, under the pretense that I, with my twelve-year-old’s design skills honed by Geocities, could design his business’s website. It was my first week away from home, and it was a transformative experience. While I was there, Uncle Doug took me out on long drives, playing sentimental Tom T. Hall songs and music from a recent backcountry trip to Newfoundland. We talked for hours, about everything and nothing. He gave me space, on his family’s five acres, to get a glimpse of myself again.
Other important memories come from two years later, when, once my family had moved to Kentucky and welcomed horses into our lives, Uncle Doug came to help us build a run-in for the love of my life, a fussy little colt named Frankie. It was a fast weekend visit — Uncle Doug needed to get back to his family’s business — but he made time to shower some unconditional love on my sister and me. I enjoyed seeing the evidence of the friendship he and my mother shared, and vowed, along with my sister, to emulate their bond.
I didn’t see him very much after that. There were occasional trips and reunions (including one when he deemed once-snarling young hound dog Ohana a “princess” and she happily sat on his lap), but no longer could the man who’d shared my mother’s aptitude for road trips — who could jump in the car with a tiny backpack at a few minutes’ notice and emerge twelve hours later — make the voyage.
You see, Uncle Doug’s health was deteriorating. He believed it all stemmed from football injuries (and the resulting back surgeries), but he also talked about years of strange illnesses.
Our relationship became phone-based. For a decade, my mother talked to her brother every day, often for an hour or more at a time, sharing details of our lives and listening to his thoughts and feelings. My sister and I talked to him, too.
As relationships do, ours evolved over the years. When Frankie was young, our conversations consisted of debating the virtues of various animal training methods. Later, we talked about our shared love of the outdoors. He was a big-picture thinker who soaked up new information wherever he could find it, and I loved talking about ideas with him.
In his every interaction with us, Uncle Doug seemed to insist that, much like his own children, my sister and I had hung the moon. She was the world’s greatest singer. My writing was going to change the world. We were going to do amazing things, just like his beloved sister.
When you’re young and so confused and self-conscious, having someone think you’re wonderful feels both ridiculous and special.
In time, I grew up. I headed off to New England, proudly making my own way and becoming my own person. When an undiagnosed illness that had sentenced me to bed for ten months sent me home for surgery, it was Uncle Doug who listened to my mother’s worries with an understanding ear. Dispensing with the maddening advice that I needed more fresh air or exercise or even rest, he brainstormed with her about what could be the problem. Ten days after I arrived home, on his suggestion, I was tested for Lyme Disease. Two months later, I was given a new lease on life.
I’m still not sure by what miracle he suspected Lyme. He’d had at least one bull’s eye rash in his life (around the time doctors were first documenting Lyme Arthritis), and struggled with Bell’s palsy during his last year. Seeing my improvement, my return from death’s doorstep, he wondered whether Lyme could be part of his story, too. After so many years of medical treatments, his biochemistry would have made detection of Lyme difficult, and we will never know the answer now.
Thanks to Uncle Doug, I’d won my first battle, but the war was far from over. When I was home with my fourth relapse, I cried about several years’ worth of shin splint-like pain to my mom. The next evening, without having heard my story, Uncle Doug described the same pain. Suddenly, I had a new data point, and it helped me put together the puzzle I’d thought was solved. This unhealing shin splint wasn’t caused by a long-forgotten workout; the culprit was one of Lyme’s friends, bartonella.
Since treating that coinfection, I’ve been healthy for nearly one year. I’d so wanted to be able to return the healing favor.
Uncle Doug and I talked frequently during my recovery. He was the last person I got to talk to in the airport, when I was heading for Spain. This past fall, he was so thrilled that I was going back to school, but then he was equally excited to hear that I was helping Mom with her business and pursuing art. When I got into the Kentucky Guild of Artists and Craftsmen last week, he insisted that I was going to be world-renowned.
In our last conversation, he gave me advice for my debut art show, which will open tomorrow, just four days after the 54th birthday he’ll never get to see. For him, I’m working on a large-format piece, the largest original piece I’ve ever created.
On my blog, I’ve shared the photo I’m basing the felted piece on before. At the time, I’d captioned it “Top of the World.” These days, the felted rendition is going by the second part of that lyrical line: “Looking Down on Creation.”
In Loving Memory
Douglas Alexander Ramsey