Thursday, June 14, 2012

My Uncle Tony

*I was on vacation last week, and I have some happy, vacation-y posts that I plan to write because who doesn't love hearing about someone else's trip??? (Answer:  EVERYONE.)  I haven't had time, however, to get all of my vacation photos on the computer yet, and what's a vacation post without photos?  (Answer:  Mercifully brief.)  Stay tuned.

This morning, I read an article about xoJane staff member, Cat Marnell, leaving her position at the online magazine.  If you follow anything from the xo community, you know Cat.  She's the drug addicted one, the girl who writes about beauty products while high on angel dust.  It makes for some interesting, if not voyeuristic, reading.  I actually discovered  xoJane through Cat's article about the death of Whitney Houston, an article I found to be interesting, well-written and thought provoking.  Now, granted, I find it interesting because I'm the same girl who has a TiVo season pass to Intervention.  Something about addiction and the troubles related to it just "gets" me.  My husband says it is because I'm a masochist.  And maybe I am.  I like seeing people in turmoil, maybe because it validates feelings of hopelessness, loss, etc. that I also feel.  BIG ENGLISH MAJOR FEELINGS.

So I watched Cat tumble.  I follow her on Twitter, and I clicked on all the articles and read all the stories and watched them make less and less sense.  I watched her get a second chance in a line of second chances, I watched people crop up in comments, saying things that were adoring, praising her and her exploits in ways that were just plain worrisome.  And I thought about her, and wished her the best.  But most of all, I thought about my Uncle Tony.

No one ever gave my Uncle Tony a second chance.

When I was a kid, I was scared to death of my Uncle Tony.  He was tall and he laughed all the time.  LOUDLY.  He was much younger than my dad, so he came unencumbered with a wife or with kids for me to play with.  He was just him.  And whenever he walked in my grandmom's front door, I hid behind her recliner.  She even served me a couple of meals back there.

Uncle Tony was just a string of things really--a string of failed jobs that never materialized, a string of women who came around for a Christmas or a birthday and were never seen again.  A few had kids--one had a daughter, exactly my age, who was of mixed race.  She was the first even vaguely black person I had ever talked to or spent time with.  I remember praying at night that he would marry that woman because I was entranced with her daughter's hair.  He moved around a lot.  I don't think I ever visited his house or knew exactly where he lived.  My dad never talked about him that much and he never came to family cook-outs or anything.  As a young child, I never realized this was odd.  Uncle Tony was just different.

As I got older though, I realized just how much fun Uncle Tony actually was.  He was the master of the prank gift.  My grandmother subscribed to the National Enquirer, a fact that my grandfather LOATHED and constantly made deprecating comments about.  One year, Uncle Tony purchased every single National Enquirer when it hit the newstands and then wrapped them all up in a big box with a bow on Christmas.  He gave the box to my grandfather, who opened it up to great conster--hmm, no.  Basically just a whole lot of cussing.  Merry Christmas 11 year old Morgan!  It's no wonder I never met a fucking swear word I didn't fucking like.  Under the big pile of newsprint, however, lied my Uncle's real present to my grandfather--a bottle of Jim Beam.  And that tells you a little something more now than it did when I was 11.  At any rate, far from being the kid cowering behind the LaZBoy, I grew to love any moment when my dad and his two brothers were together.  The jokes were insane.  Every Christmas Eve, I got tucked into my bed with my sides literally aching from all the laughter.

But the thing is, I grew up.  My grandfather died, I graduated from high school and moved away.  I called my grandmother, like clockwork, every Sunday.  She would give me little news bits about Uncle Tony every time I called.  He didn't grow up.  He continued to bounce from place to place and job to job.  He came to live at a house my grandparents owned, where an old aunt had once lived and died.  He went on disability.  He totaled his car.  He lost his license.  And then, well after I moved to California, he moved back in with my grandmother.  She was happy with this arrangement, as she made no bones about the fact that he was her baby and had always been her favorite.  I don't know how he felt.  How would you have felt?  I can't imagine it was good.

One Sunday I called my grandmother.  It was a great sunny Northern California day.  I had tutored that morning, teaching some kid whose parents made more money in a year than my grandfather ever saw in his life about World History for $195 a pop.  Being footloose and fancy free after my 9:00 lesson, I had driven around the coast a little before coming home as kind of a "You're awesome for being out of bed on a Sunday" present to myself.  I picked up some deli salads at the store and then headed home.  It was early Fall, and we sat on the couch and ate and were getting ready to watch the baseball game when I made the call.  I chatted with my grandmother for a while and she told me about her assorted health problems, which was always the basis of these Sunday conversations.  Then she said, "Hold on.  Tony wants the phone."

I don't think I had ever talked to my Uncle Tony on the phone before.  I thought she must be joking.  But sure enough, he came on the line.  He quickly told me that he had watched a Cal football game on TV the day before as it has been broadcast nationally.  We had watched the same one--my husband was, and is, a huge Cal football fan.  He then asked "Do you live in those hills?"  I answered that I did.  He asked if I could see the water.  I answered that I could.  He sighed loudly and said, "I do believe that is the most beautiful place I've ever seen."

This really affected me, so much so that I remember all the peculiarities of that day, of the conversation.  I lived a life, one that while I enjoyed, I did not appreciate.  I focused on my own worries, about the bills, about if my shoes were ok, if I had budgeted enough in gas money this week.  At that point in my life, my Uncle Tony literally had nothing.  His voice carried that across the 3000 plus miles that separated us.  I felt guilty about what I had and took for granted, and I felt his monumental sense of loss and what he could have had and did not.

Ten months later I was packing up my life in CA, preparing to move back to the East Coast.  I was sweeping up the bamboo floor in my daughter's room when the phone rang.  It was my stepmother.  I immediately thought that my grandmother had passed, but it wasn't that.  It was Uncle Tony.  He had died, in my grandmother's carport.  She said heart attack, but she knew better and I knew too.  Somewhere along the way, I picked up that he was a drug addict.  No one ever told me, but I saw.  A slurred word here and there.  A rolled eye.  An Oxycontin bottle in my grandmother's kitchen.  So I knew.  He wasn't even 50 yet.  And he was dead, in a car, on a hot summer day.

I want to give you a big poignant thing about my Uncle's life, about how he helped someone or impacted a life in some amazing way.  But I can't.  Here's the truth:  he was a drug addict.  His whole life.  He was a faceless, sad Appalachian statistic, one of the many, many people who struggle with drugs in my corner of the world.  He lived and he died as a drug addict.  He was not glamorous; he was the opposite.  He was not a parent, he was never married.  He did not know the joy of rolling around in bed and sticking your ass out and knowing that someone on the other side would wrap their arms around you subconsciously.  He left behind a TV set, and that was it.

I read about Cat and her world in New York with clubs and friends and all night parties.  It is a world that I cannot even pretend to know anything about.  I think I enjoyed reading her stuff because it taunted me with that life--a life that I, shackled to responsibility at such a young age, never even got a glimpse of.  And while I want her to get better, it smacks me coldly to think of all the people on Twitter, telling Cat that she is a "rock star" and pledging their adulation.  She is not a rock star.  She is a drug addict.  Like my Uncle Tony who most people would have been happy to ignore had he walked up the same aisle as them at the grocery store.

Addiction is something I live in fear of, if I am completely honest.  I know that it is in me, somewhere, to have addiction issues.  Sometimes I think I watch Intervention and its ilk just to give me enough of a jolt to where I will not go down that road.  When my cousin moved into my grandmother's house after my grandmother left for the nursing home, she found countless liquor bottles my grandfather stowed in the wall and that, presumably, my grandmother never found.  Behind the old washing machine was a veritable wall of flat vodka bottles.  There was one particular bottle of Jim Beam she found that was almost shoulder height on her 8 year old.  Yeah, addiction issues:  we haz em.  I keep an old picture of my grandfather that I found during one of these clean outs on my bedside table.  The inscription on the back reads "Old Drunk Jack at the Scott County Fair."

(Of note:  We also found a certificate given to my Uncle Tony when he graduated high school, congratulating him on never having missed a day of school, from first grade on.  He never even missed a minute of school--no early check outs, no tardiness, no nothing.  Mull that one.  It's a sad thing to mull.)

So here I sit, writing this, about a girl I will never know and a man I barely knew.  I feel sad.  Maybe that is why I am writing this.  There is certainly a rather D.A.R.E. undertone to this article, and maybe I mean that, and maybe I don't.  I literally do not give a fuck what consenting adults do in their spare time--if you like drugs, fine.  Your thing.  Do I want my kids to use drugs?  HELL NO.  I guess I implore you to try to keep that which will destroy you in check.  And no matter who we are, we all have something like that.  I dare you to say you do not.

And I write for Uncle Tony because he can't tell his story.  He doesn't have thousands of captivated tweeps, waiting to RT with glee.  But his is a story that is repeated millions of times over this country, and it is no less tragic because he is not thin and blonde.


  1. This reminds me so much of my husband's family, and his uncle. The story is so similar, and like your uncle I think his uncle will die alone with little fanfare but it's still as tragic.

    I also think of my father who hardly touched alcohol but was so addicted to cigarettes that he tried to escape the hospital while hooked up to oxygen to get a last smoke before his second quintuple bypass surgery. I too think there is an addict lurking deep inside me and this is why I have never smoked a cigarette or tried all the drugs my friends said were harmless and fun in college.

  2. It is so sad that this such an oft repeated tale.

    My cousin's wife was the same way as your father. She had breast cancer and passed away in the Fall. She literally had the most beautiful smile I've ever seen, and she was always doing it--such a happy, wonderful person. But even at the end, with the Oxygen in Use sign hanging on her front door, she was smoking. Scared us all to death. And scared me because somehow, deep down, I understood.