Recently, while Evelyn and I were Walmart shopping, we got news that my uncle, Chuck Wilson, had passed away from an apparent heart attack. My Aunt Linda called to let us know. I was shocked, but not overcome with emotion.
Chuck and I basically grew up together. He was my uncle through adoption. My maternal grandparents had adopted him, making him my mother’s brother. However, he was three days younger than me, which was a family joke all our lives. For much of our growing-up years we just claimed to be cousins because it was easier than trying to explain how one could have a younger uncle.
We got along famously, although we could not have been more different. Chuck was the perennial outdoorsman while I preferred to doodle with pencils and paper in the comfort of the great indoors. Chuck was on baseball teams and bowling teams (in fact, he once bowled a perfect game and was featured on the sports page of a local Trenton, NJ, newspaper). The only sports I was drawn to were professional bowling and men’s gymnastics (mostly watching them on TV, although I did bowl some on a church league). We both liked to fish, ride bikes, and engage in archery.
In our earlier years we were both slender, but Chuck was slender and TALL. In photos of the four of us who were the kids of the family (my sister, Kris; my cousin, Kathy; Chuck, and me) Chuck stood head and shoulders over the other three of us. As the years went on Chuck overtook me not only in height but also in weight, even though I’ve done my share of packing on the pounds. As a result his activity slowed down gradually over time until he simply stopped altogether.
As I said, when Linda (I never really called her Aunt Linda) called to let us know, and Evelyn and I were pushing an already half-filled shopping cart, the first thing I felt was shock. Sure, we all knew that Chuck had been battling diabetes and his obesity wasn’t helping. Sure, we all knew that his lack of activity and self-care wasn’t helping. But he was always someone who managed to come out victorious in spite of himself. And so, even though the signs were all there, no one felt the need to be concerned about them. At least, I didn’t.
I should probably clarify. This entry isn’t about Chuck. It’s about me. Chuck’s death was a shock. My own reaction was a total surprise: I didn’t cry.
You would think, wouldn’t you, that when someone you’ve known all your life – someone you grew up with – someone who shared the same attic space in the Seaside Park, NJ, vacation house with you – someone who laughed with you and played pranks on the girls with you and celebrated Christmas with you – that that would be worth evoking a tear or two? But … nothing so far.
Why haven’t I cried?
Earlier this week the news broke about the death of Alex Trebeck, the beloved “Jeopardy!” game show host, from pancreatic cancer. I have watched “Jeopardy!” about as faithfully as I could and, over the years, have come to admire Alex for his vast knowledge and easy wit. I received the news via a phone call from daughter Karlyn who, I’m sure, expected me to break down in a sea of tears because she knows the high esteem in which I hold Alex. In fact, I’m sure she was waiting for it, because she sounded almost disappointed that I simply expressed sadness, but no real emotion.
Why didn’t I cry?
You say, “Well, Alex Trebeck was a celebrity. You didn’t really know him.” But I cried when Jim O’Brien, the effervescent, easy-to-love weather man on Philadelphia’s Channel 6 was killed in a parachuting accident. I’ve cried over other celebrities’ deaths and the deaths of other people I don’t even know. It doesn’t make sense. How can my expressions of grief be so arbitrary?
I think it was Kris who suggested that distance may have had something to do with the lack of emotion upon Chuck’s death, in the sense that, after he and Linda moved to South Carolina, it was like the former bonds were broken (or at least severely stretched to the point that the emotional connections were different). We didn’t call or write as much as we used to. We certainly didn’t visit much in our later years (I think we may have been down to see Chuck and Linda twice since they moved away, and because of Chuck’s health, they didn’t travel very far from home either). And so, with distance came a lowering of our sense of connection so that when he passed, he was already positioned far away from us.
There is also the element of preparedness. This doesn’t hold in every case of loss, but in some cases, just knowing that someone is close to death prevents feeling deep emotion when it happens. Knowing that Alex Trebeck had been fighting cancer for the past two years made the announcement of his death less of a shock. Knowing that Chuck had been in ill health for a long time may have lessened the impact of his passing.
All I know is, I didn’t cry. And I’m kind of mystified – and ashamed – about that.