When my parents got divorced, my mother hooked up with my father’s sister’s ex-husband, whom I’d always known as “Uncle Steve.” If you spent 15 minutes in the same room as my mother, you’d see why I accepted this as completely normal behavior.
Uncle Steve was a pot-growing Viet Nam veteran who had lost his voice in ‘Nam when a hand grenade ripped open his throat, implanted enough shrapnel in his knee to set off every metal detector he ever met, and left him dead in the MASH unit for over 3 minutes. Everyone else called him “Whispering Steve”, and I quickly made the switch myself
I’d always seen Steve as a fantastic father to his two sons, and in the father figure vacuum left by my parents’ divorce, I didn’t see it so much as losing an uncle as gaining a dad..
Steve’s brush with death in ‘Nam had given him a joie de vivre that bubbled over into every part of his life. He always wanted there to be some magic in the world for the kids around him, and made being a parent look fun, if not effortless.
He didn’t just read bedtime stories at night, he made up stories featuring me and my brother-cousins as the heroes: flying around on jet packs, battling orcs with light sabers.
He made discovery fun, and made everyone a winner. I will never forget the first time I saw the Golden Gate bridge, thanks to Steve. We were driving South on 101, and he announced that he’d give a Hershey’s bar to the first kid who could spot the bridge. We were all bouncing around the back seat of the car, craning our necks and scanning the horizon for that first glimpse, trying to be the first. And as soon as we came through the Rainbow tunnel, bam! All 3 of us saw it at the same time.
“Heh, heh: Candy bars for all 3 of you, I guess!”
Steve’s 2 sons spent most of their time with their mom, my aunt. And when they were out of town, I got the majority of his attention. We’d stay up late on Friday nights, watching Creature Features on KTVU. And when he got tired of me hiding under the covers when the zombies attacked in Night of the Living dead, he hauled me 20 miles to the nearest movie theater for opening night of some movie I’d never heard of. He bought me anything I wanted from the snack bar, and as the movie was about to start he said, “If you get up and leave the theater it will be the last movie I ever bring you to. Just remember: none of this is real, all of the actors are still alive. It’s all make believe.”
The movie was Alien, and I was 11 years old. After that, I was the horror-film king of 4th grade.
After he and my mom broke up, he remained a good uncle to me. In college, when I needed refuge from the hubbub of life in the big city, he’d let me come party at his house for the weekend. In 2000, when I decided to attend Burning Man for the first time – even though all of my friends insisted it was “so over” and “totally dead” by then – I went to Steve for help building the interactive art piece I took to the desert and placed in front of our camp. He stood at one end of the band saw, cigarette dangling from his mouth as always.
Less than half a year later, Steve was dying of lung cancer. I’d seen him at the VA hospital in SF when he got the prognosis. It wasn’t good. I made a pilgrimage up to his house, 3 hours North of SF, to spend the weekend and see him one last time. Before I went, I wrote him a letter, thanking him for all of the ways he had helped make me a better person over the years.
When I saw him, I gave him the letter, but I couldn’t stand the sight of him. He was so shrunken, so small. The cancer had eaten away at him, reduced his body to a shell of its former self. He was still bright and vibrant, but when I looked at him all I saw was his impending death.
I hung out at his house for the afternoon, then went back to a friend’s house for dinner. My mom pointed out that Steve felt like I’d already written him off, that he was already gone. I wanted to explain to him that I was just shocked by it all, so I walked the mile over to Steve’s house – remember, pot farm country: pitch black , dirt road, no street lights. It took me straight back to when I was 11, walking that same road without a flashlight, worried that a bear would get me.
Steve was asleep when I got to his house, exhausted from the day. As I walked back to where I was staying, I announced to the universe that I was ready to get on with my life – I was ready to meet her, if she was out there. The next night, back in SF, I met the love of my life, Michele, at a fundraising party for a Burning Man camp.
13 years later, we have an 8-year old son, who believes there is lots of magic in the world. He’s been told bedtime stories about flying around California strapped to a jet-pack, battling orcs with light sabers, and he still hides his head under the covers when he gets scared.
I think of Steve often, and it would be easy to regret things that were beyond my control – like him not getting to meet Michele, or seeing our long-haired son. But the truth is, I have only one regret: that I let my own fear of death stop me from looking him in the eyes and telling him how much I loved him, while it still counted.