In the last two or three months, three people I’ve known have died, and I found out about a death of someone else I knew from back in 2012. It’s odd.
The first death that blipped on my radar screen was a guy I went to elementary and junior high schools with. We weren’t close friends, but we were in many of the same classes and we’d talked and hung out with the same people (when I was invited to hang out with anyone). Another former classmate had been tagged in an elementary school class picture, one of the years I wasn’t in their class, and a discussion with a lot of people I hadn’t seen in a loooonnng time started. Being nosy, I read through the discussion to find out that this guy died in 2012. Not just died, but committed suicide. I still remember him, small, blonde hair, blue eyes, and always kidding around and laughing. Now he’s gone. Weird.
Then a former co-worker from my school died. He retired last year and had been sick on-and-off in his last year or so at work. I’d known him since I was 14, when I was a student at the school. Nice guy. Not unexpected since he was an older guy, but sad.
Two weeks passed and another former co-worker, one who worked at a bookstore with me, died of cancer. He’d been fighting the good fight for a while now, but it was still very sad, considering he was in his early-50s.
And last week, a woman I’ve known since high school died unexpectedly. She was a friend-of-a-friend in high school, and a family member to my ex-wife afterward. I last saw her about two years ago when my daughter still bowled. She was a year younger than me.
And I already wrote about my dying uncle.
I know at a certain age, death becomes more prevalent, but isn’t 36 (almost 37) too young? I don’t know. But it’s got me a little freaked out. And I’m ready for this trend to end now.
On April 20th, my mother sent me and my sister, Tracy, the following message on Facebook:
Got some bad news a little while ago. Uncle Pete found out last week that he has lung cancer. He’ll be getting more tests and chemo starting this week. Auntie Pat said he’s having a hard time breathing. Dad’s going to visit them this week & if I feel up to it, I’ll go too. We’ll keep you guys posted, if you want us to.
I didn’t respond to it because I didn’t feel it was proper to do so in a message to both me and my sister. The reason why I didn’t feel it proper was because my reaction was, That’s sad, but I have no relationship with the man, so….
I know that’s cold. I know that’s probably not the appropriate response, but it was the honest response. I am not close to my family. My mother and father, yes. My sister, somewhat. Everyone else? Not really. Especially on my father’s side.
My father is nine years older than my mother. Born in 1941, he’s the youngest of three children. Growing up, Sundays were the day we went to his parents’ house. We called them Mémé and Pépé; my mother’s parents (long divorced before I was born) were Grandma and Grandpa (or, truth be told, Gramma and Grampa). Sundays at Mémé and Pépé’s meant playing in their spacious yard on a nice suburban street, and then having supper and dessert. Uncle Pete and Auntie Pat were often there. The whole place felt old. There were no other kids. My mother is my father’s second wife and my sister and I were the babies of the family. The house was decorated in a 1950s/1960s hybrid. They didn’t have cable TV. When music was played, it was always old, boring music. Uncle Pete liked us, and I faintly remember playing with him when I was very small. My sister was his and my aunt’s goddaughter, and I guess they kinda took it seriously…?
Auntie Pat pretty much hated me. At least it seemed that way. She’d often walk in on me when I was in the bathroom when I was little. After this happened a few times, I locked the door and was promptly yelled at. I was a kid who yelled back, which made me even more popular. She’d bestow gifts (mostly lame ones) on my sister and ignore me, except to yell. We have it on videotape. Uncle Pete was meek, quiet. He’d ask me general questions but didn’t seem very interested. A nice man, yes, but….
I remember when I was around 12 or 13, we went to Mémé and Pépé’s (which was really just Mémé’s now, because Pépé died when I was 11), and Uncle Pete and Auntie Pat had moved in (Uncle Pete actually owned the house). They’d bought a riding lawnmower. He let my sister, who’s four-and-a-half years younger than I am, ride the mower in his lap. I wanted to ride the mower. I wanted to so bad.
“Uncle Pete!” I called. “Can I ride the mower? Uncle Pete!”
This went on as my sister got her ride. I never got an answer. I was never even looked at.
It’s amazing the shit that stays with you, huh?
Anyway, contact between me and my uncle and aunt grew far less. When Mémé died (I was 16), I saw them. When my father’s sister, the eldest child, Auntie Juliet, died of breast cancer (I was 17), I saw them. I think they were at my first wedding in 2000. I saw them at least one time after that, Courtney was pretty small. Other than that, I didn’t see them. I didn’t care to.
I didn’t know my father’s side of the family well. The old school Canadian-French, Catholic family just didn’t talk. They didn’t tell stories. Even my father didn’t say much in terms of his family or growing up. Really, most of the stories I heard from my father when I was growing up had to do with the prices of things then versus now. My Auntie Juliet and I never really had a relationship. My Pépé adored me but he had his first stroke when I was 8 and died when I was 11. I don’t really remember him well. Mémé loved me but she didn’t tell much in terms of stories. And considering Auntie Pat, who is a loud-mouthed, foul-mouthed woman, from the bad side of town (my mother’s side of town, truth be told), hated me, Uncle Pete and I really had no relationship.
So why respond with negative feelings?
About a month later, my mother told me that the cancer was bad and Uncle Pete might not have long to live. He asked my father to see “the kids and grandkids.” My first reaction was, Fuck that shit.
But I thought about my father. The only family he has left that’s not my mother, me, or my sister is Uncle Pete. And I knew that Dad, meek, mild, devoted Dad, would like me to go. I couldn’t bring Courtney, she didn’t remember Uncle Pete and I wouldn’t want to bring her into that—to me—unknown situation. I wouldn’t bring Genevieve. At 19-months-old, she would be a handful. It so happens that my sister and her fiancée and her fiancée’s daughters were coming up from Florida this week and so plans were made to pay Uncle Pete and Auntie Pat a visit. What will most likely be our last visit.
I wasn’t looking forward to it. To face a dying man I hadn’t seen in, possibly, ten years, who I wasn’t close to; to face a woman I pretty much despised (have I told you she gave me a free sample of Avon’s Musk for Men deodorant as a Christmas present when I was 12?); sounded like a nightmare. But I love my father. I knew it would mean a lot to him.
To solidify plans, I called Wednesday night to confirm that Thursday we would go. As I spoke to my mother, Dad was in the background saying something.
“Daddy says you don’t have to go if you don’t want to,” Mom said. “He doesn’t want you to feel like you have to go and he knows you’re not good in these kinds of situations.”
My social anxiety is well-known in my family. I stopped having birthday parties when I was six.
I told her I would go. I’d go for him. I’d go so my sister wasn’t the only one going. I’d go because I’m an adult and should go.
So yesterday morning, my sister and I climbed into Dad’s minivan and he drove us to Mémé and Pépé’s—er…Uncle Pete’s and Auntie Pat’s—house.
Auntie Pat greeted us. She’s old now. Shorter than I remember. Still big, though. She hugged Tracy and then hugged me. Uncle Pete sat at the kitchen table, in the kitchen I ate in so many times as a boy. The house looked different, of course. But the layout hadn’t changed. He didn’t get up, but hugged Tracy and shook my hand. Old school.
He asked how I liked teaching. I said I loved it. It allowed me to be creative and to play, and I left a mark. Nothing was mentioned about writing. That was fine.
Soon, I sat at the table with him, brought out the iPad, and showed him pictures and videos of Courtney and Genevieve. He hasn’t met Pamela. He saw her now, too. Uncle Pete is still quiet. Auntie Pat still loud. My Dad actually began reminiscing with him, and Tracy and I heard stories we’d never heard before. One story made me laugh so hard I almost cried. We talked.
We didn’t visit long, only about an hour. But something happened in that time. I saw the love and happiness in Uncle Pete’s eyes. Auntie Pat wasn’t a bitch anymore, she was an eccentric old lady, and I am fascinated by eccentric old people. The discomfort I felt at first went away and I was happy to be there. Not just for Dad, anymore, but for Uncle Pete and Auntie Pat.
It was a good visit. Uncle Pete didn’t look or seem sick until the very end, when we were about to leave. He stood up for the first time and he had trouble, obvious pain. He hugged my sister, held out his hand to me to be shaken, and I shook, and then I hugged him. It surprised him but he hugged me back, hard.
Soon were in the minivan and drove away, goodbyes said.
Uncle Pete might have another year or two, apparently this round of chemo seems to be doing something. But he may have another month or so. Or less.
I can’t say that I am now going to go around and visit other family members, because that’s not true. I’ve never really fit in, and I really don’t have much to say to anyone. But I’m glad I went. I’m glad to hear the stories that the Gauthier brothers told.
And I’m happy that my father and my uncle were able to be together with me and Tracy one last time, laughing, happy.
Something happened recently that made me question myself. I won’t go into specifics but it made me really question myself. I came out stronger, I think. And a better person, I think. It may have even been one of the last real steps to me becoming–gasp!–an adult.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not going to sell my action figures or relinquish my love of comics books, superheroes, space fantasy, Muppets, or Mister Rogers anytime soon. But for the first time I feel…well…like a man.
Let me explain, if I can….
As a teacher, I began telling my students to grow up to be the kind of person they want to be. If they see themselves as a good person, then work their asses off to become a good person. Everything else will fall into place. Now, as I reread that, it looks a little hippie-dippy to me. The best way I can explain it is this….
When I was a kid, I hated to be asked the age-old question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I hated that question because I didn’t know. I was 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, fucking 10 years old! How the hell would I know?! (An aside: This is one question I will not ask children until they are teenagers. I’m more interested in what they want to be now. Childhood is such a short period of time, why sully it with a glimpse into the grown-up darkness that awaits?). So I’d give them some bullshit answer that would shut up the grown-up and get them off my back.
“A baseball player,” I’d say, though I never played Little League, didn’t watch any sports on TV, and generally despised competitive athletics (I still do).
“A police officer.”
“A weather man.”
In other words, I’d give the standard answers that adults expect. The only one that really came close to what, in my heart of hearts, I’d hoped to do was be an actor. I’ll explain why I think I never pursued it another time, perhaps.
But around the time I was 9 or 10, I began to get a glimmer of what I might want to do as an adult. Not a job or career, but a general way of being. I knew that I either wanted to help people or entertain them. Those were the two things that I decided I wanted to try to do.
Now, my choices were limiting, because even as a 10-year-old, I knew I couldn’t work in medicine. I’m too squeamish. And I knew I’d make a horrible police officer (although I think I’d make an excellent detective, but I could be full of shit). So that left…what?
For awhile, I thought I would be a comic book writer and artist, until I decided to focus solely on writing when I was 13.
Fast forward 23 years. I’ve had many bouts of wondering what was happening in my life in the last few years. Turning 36 last August was hard. In age, I was an adult. I could no longer blame my stupid actions on being young and naive. Maybe naive, but certainly not young. And I wasn’t where I wanted to be. I had a job—a career—that I really liked, that I’m really good at, but…it wasn’t the career I wanted. But…I liked it. Loved it, even. Not the paperwork, and certainly not the politics, but the interaction with students. The knowledge that I’ve made a difference in lives. I mean, I have students who have given my cards and notes and vlogs telling me how much my classes, how much my work, has meant to them!
And yet…I was so sad. Because I wasn’t writing full-time. Or working on movies. Or comic books. Because I wanted, in my mind, more.
So one day I was talking to some students after school. This was about a year ago. The two were best friends and one was leaving to go to another school. And I told him that I would be there if he needed me. And then I said:
“One of my favorite writers, Harlan Ellison, has said that his definition of success is ‘achieving in adult terms that which you longed for as a child.’ I’d add to that that if your childhood self met your adulthood self, would he be happy? Would he say, ‘That guy’s pretty cool. I wouldn’t mind becoming him.’
“When I was a kid,” I continued, “I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, but I knew that I wanted to either entertain people or help them.”
And before I could go on to whatever I was about to say, one of the young men said, “And you do both every day right here.”
“Yeah,” said the other. “You’re a success, Mr. Gauthier!”
We laughed and talked a few minutes more before parting ways for the day, but it stuck with me.
This year, I began telling students not to worry about future careers. To have an idea and work toward it, but to decide what kind of person they wanted to be, and the career would present itself.
So I went through a little bit of a fire this year. It made me question myself, and the way I got out was by realizing who I wanted to be. I’ve known since I was a boy. Now it was time to actually be that man.
I’ve always wanted to help and entertain. I’m a teacher and a writer. In my classroom, I help and entertain. If I can make a student laugh, or cry, if I can make a student feel, then I can make them care enough to learn what I need them to learn. In my stories, I can help people escape their lives for a little while, make them laugh, cry, or frighten them. I may try stand-up comedy at some point. I may try acting. I know I’ll write a comic book. I may even try screenwriting. And while I’m still hungry to make the creative part of my life my sole profession, for the first time I’m truly happy with the part of my life that pays the bills.
As a result, I’m a better teacher. I’m a better writer. I’m a better father. I’m a better husband.
I’m a better man.
Harlan Ellison, one of my heroes, turns 80 tomorrow, 27 May 2014. I will leave my usual birthday greeting on his website, and go back to lurking. But I now lurk as the man I know I want to be, not the guy who’s unsure of himself.
It feels pretty great.
I’d done this before.
The first time was fifteen years ago, when I was twenty. Back then, things were different. The idea of my having a child was hilarious, terrifying, and exciting at the same time. I didn’t know that I would soon leave college to take care of the baby and to pursue a writing career, something that I thought would take off if only I could sell my first story. My girlfriend, nineteen, lay on the table. We looked at the screen in the small room in a house that had been turned into the ultrasound office. We needed to know the sex of the baby. We were poor, to put it mildly. We wanted to know what we were having so we could plan. Even then I suspected my relationship with my girlfriend wouldn’t last, but upon seeing the baby on the monitor, I knew the love I felt for my daughter, Courtney, would always remain.
A few days ago, I found myself in a different small room. The woman lying on the table was my wife Pamela. I didn’t know she existed fifteen years ago, nor did she know I existed. Things are different. I’m thirty-four (with a -five waiting for me in August). I have a career now, two, actually. I like to say that by day, I’m a high school teacher, by night, I’m a writer. It doesn’t exactly work that way but it’s close enough. My first publication, a short story called “Icarus Falling” is thirteen years behind me. It didn’t light up my fledgling writing career. Actually, few people even noticed. My writing career wouldn’t really begin until 2003 with my fifth published short story, a little diddy called “The Growth of Alan Ashley.” I still like “Icarus Falling.” I still love “The Growth of Alan Ashley.” I’ve been teaching for five years and have been publishing for thirteen. I have three books under my belt, one of them dedicated to my daughter Courtney. Her mother and I were married in 2000. We were separated by 2004 and divorced a year later. We were still in high school when we started dating. It happens. We’re a cliché. I met Pamela in January 2007. Somehow, it’s worked better than I could ever have imagined.
As I stood near Pamela looking at the new baby on the screen, my heart melted, just as it had the day before when I watched my fourteen-year-old go up to get trophies at a bowling banquet. The ultrasound lady asked me and Pamela if we wanted to know the sex. We looked at each other with dopey grins. “Yes,” we said.
“It’s a girl.”
I’ve heard those words before. It brought joyful tears fifteen years ago and it brought joyful tears the other day.
This is Pamela’s first child. I’m happy to be the one who gets to share this with her. I’m happy I have Courtney to share this with, too. It’s strange. For a long time, I didn’t think I’d ever have another child. For a long time I didn’t want one. Courtney is beautiful, intelligent, funny, and truly someone I adore and admire. I have done–and will continue to do–the best job possible for her. Now to know that there will be another young woman who I can be there for, to retell stories, to share first times with, is amazing to me. How’d I get here?
This is great. This is wonderful. I’ll always find something to bitch about in this life, but I’ll also always relish in the happiness my girls bring me.