Saying goodbye to the man who was once my uncle
I recognize the frail man holding the sign. A car window lowers and a hand drops a few coins into the man’s hand. He counts them, stuffs them into his pocket and raises the sign again.
“Homeless, please help.” The sign is simple and to the point.
Old and weathered, the man’s face lacks emotion. No smile, empty eyes.
The man is my Uncle Ronnie.
Years back he hit rock bottom and decided to remain there. Alcohol and who knows what other demons overpowered him. Now he lives on the streets.
I haven’t seen him in years. I went to Grand Junction looking for him. I wanted to say hi and maybe grab lunch or just a sandwich on a bench somewhere.
Another car stops and Ronnie accepts another handout.
He’s frail and old ” close to 70, I think ” his movements are slow, methodical. There’s no purpose in his stride. It’s his stride that so many people remember. A slightly awkward gate but powerful. That’s the stride I remember. Today, the stride is still recognizable, but it’s not the same.
Ronnie isn’t the same. I wait, trying to grab an opportunity to approach him.
Another car. I wonder if this is a good day for him. It’s morning but already hot. He has no water, just the sign.
I wonder where he sleeps and if he has friends. Ronnie always loved to read, and I’m sure he ventures to the library often. It’s cool in the summer and warm in the winter. I wonder if books take him places and help him forget what he’s become. I wonder if he cares.
I wait, unable to move. I want to say hi. I rehearse what to say. “Hey Ronnie, remember me?” Will that be insensitive? My stomach aches with anxiety.
This is my uncle. The man who took me to drag races, basketball games, showed me secret fishing holes and cheered me on at high school football games.
He was a great uncle. Now, I’m unable to locate the courage to just say hi.
Standing on the street corner, begging for money, this man is a stranger to me. I’m not embarrassed, I’m past that.
Ronnie’s old friends ask me about him. They too, show their sadness. They too remember a man full of life, energy, humor and vigor.
Like me, they miss him and wonder why he decided to halt the pursuit of happiness.
He’s alive, but he’s not living. Another car and another handout.
Ronnie’s wit was once as sharp as a scalpel. His mind vivid with imagination. A joke at the ready, a retort loaded to be fired.
A mind like mine, I realize.
I wonder what his mind is like now.
I have so many great memories of our time together. Standing as close to him as I have in five or six years, I let some of those memories filter through.
A fishing trip to the Flat Tops when he was catching all the fish. Then I noticed he stopped, wanting me to catch a fish. I finally did. We went to the 1981 NBA All-Star game in Denver, we went on a terrifying Jeep ride when we crashed into a rock after the brakes failed. No one was hurt, and we laughed.
I can’t remember when alcohol became the driving force in his life. Looking back I wonder if I could have done something.
That’s old history. Today, I’m here to say hi. But I can’t. A strange fear has paralyzed me.
Ronnie steps away from the road and wearily folds onto the ground. He again raises the sign.
His clothes are baggy and grimy. His cap pulled down low, his boots old and worn.
Ronnie was always a walker. Tales of his hiking prowess are legendary. Friends recount stories of seeing Ronnie walking, flipping a dime into the air. That was his trademark. Flipping the dime ” not a quarter, nickel or penny. He’d flip it into the air, catch it, and repeat the motion as he walked. The dime must have been the perfect size and weight for flipping.
Dimes are valuable to him now. No longer for flipping and recreation.
I wonder if he wants to see me. Will he be embarrassed? Will he remember me?
Ronnie loved the song “Whispering Pines,” a touching ballad by 1950’s country music star Johnny Horton. Ronnie once said that he wanted it played at his funeral.
Today, I wonder if I will even know when he dies.
I realize that I’m not going to approach him. I’m angry and disappointed with myself. Mostly I’m sad and depressed. I’ve judged him. And now I pity him. That pity comes from remembering who he once was. A man full of life and potential. I hate that word ” potential. What does it really mean? To me potential doesn’t equal success. Potential is fighting the good fight, living life and searching for things that make you happy.
Maybe he is happy. Who am I to judge him or pity him?
As I walk away, I turn and look at Uncle Ronnie once more. I know I won’t be back.
I don’t want to come back. I want to remember the Ronnie before alcohol took control.
I realize that I have nothing to say to this man. He abandoned his family and friends. It was his decision. I know my feelings are harsh and I’ve now turned my anger toward him.
For some reason, I reach into my pocket and find a dime. I flip the dime into the air a couple of times, then let it fall to the ground and walk away.
Dale Shrull is the managing editor for the Post Independent. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 384-9110.
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