I was just a baby when my mother's little brother, Bob, tried to take his own life. He was 18. My grandpa was the one who found him, lying unconscious in a haze of exhaust and carbon monoxide. He pulled him from the garage, saving his life. As I grew up, my brothers and I spent a lot of time with uncle Bob. He was fun to be around. He would strum a song for us on his guitar, making the words up as he went along. He also was a gifted artist and he would draw funny pictures to keep us entertained. We thought he hung the moon. He married one time, but it did not last. He supported himself by painting signs for businesses, and spent his spare time drawing or singing and playing the blues on his guitar. He lived in a rat hole apartment behind a bar. He never was much of a drinker, but he used drugs, lots of them. When I was 12, he overdosed on some pills. After that he was never the same. He would disappear for weeks, months, years. We did not know if he was dead or alive. Occasionally, one of his musician buddies would call and say they had seen him here or there, but he never stayed in one place long.
When I was 19, my mother died suddenly, leaving me and my two brothers, ages 11 and 13, sick with grief. By some miracle, we were able to find my uncle for the funeral. The pain in his face was evident as he played his guitar for her one last time. Soon after the funeral, he took off again.
I was in nursing school, studying abnormal psychology, when I began to realize what was wrong with uncle Bob. He wasn't weird. He had a mental illness. Classic symptoms of Bipolar Disorder, Paranoid Schizophrenia and Anti-social Personality. It all started to make sense. The next time he was home, at my suggestion, he went to a doctor, started on meds and started Vocational Rehab training. It seemed that he was finally on the right track. Then he quit taking his meds, and disappeared again. This time he was gone for a very long time and no one had seen or heard from him. We thought he was dead.
Then my grandpa was diagnosed with lung cancer. The day after he was diagnosed, there was a knock on my grandparent's door. My uncle had come home. He told me that God had told him it was time to come home. Three weeks later, he played the guitar and sang "The Old Rugged Cross" at grandpa's funeral. His last tribute to a man who loved him, but never got over the fact that his only son was different. Three weeks later, Bob was gone again.
Five years passed. Grandma sold the home that she and grandpa had built themselves and lived in for 40 years. I worried that if Bob came home, he wouldn't know how to find us. One day, I came home to find my grandma sitting at my kitchen table, crying. Scared, I asked her what was wrong. "Bob", was all she could manage to get out. I thought he had died. But the reality was actually much worse. For the past two years he had been living 300 miles away in a large town. An old hospital had been renovated into tiny apartments for the indigent, the elderly and people with non-violent psych problems. This was his home. A concerned friend had managed to find my grandma's phone number and call her. The news was bittersweet. Now we knew where he was, but he was in bad shape. A heavy smoker most of his life, he had throat cancer and he was dying. He was 53. We learned that he now had a "voice box" to help him speak. All I could think was, "He loved to sing, and they took his voice!!"
My grandma went and lived with him in his tiny room for three months. She never left his side. The other residents began treating her as if she was everyone's mother and they looked after her. Bob had never seen my little boy, so I brought him with me when I came for my first visit. He played the guitar for him and drew him pictures, just as he did for me so many years ago. I thought my 2 year old son would be scared of Bob's mechanical voice, but he didn't blink an eye. He showed me the artwork he had been working on, and asked me if I wanted to join him as he pulled out his box of markers, pens and pencils. I sat by him, and together we began to draw. I told him that I loved him and that I had missed him. With his eyes still staring at his drawing, he said, "Me too".
Three months later, it was clear that he was losing his battle. My grandmother and I sat at his bedside and administered enough Roxanol and Ativan to kill a horse, but it did nothing to ease his pain and anxiety. Tumors were restricting his airway and he fought for his breath, clawing at the air wildly. We would sit in bed and hold him, talking or singing softly to him. When he finally drew his last breath, and his body went limp, we wept in relief.
During those long nights, I had had plenty of time to think about my relationship with my uncle. The times he hurt my feelings or let me down, the times he would not speak to me, the times that he was certain that our family was trying to poison him. Then I thought about all of the friends that he had made in this town. Time and time again, when they would come to see Bob, they would pull me to a quiet corner and tell me that Bob always talked about his sister's kids and tell them all about us. He would talk about my mother and how much he missed her. "How was it that these people were able to draw him out and get him to reveal his true feelings?", I thought to myself. All of a sudden, the answer was clear. They did not judge him. They accepted him for who he was. No high expectations, no disapproval. They just let Bob be Bob. To them, he was the guy who played guitar and sang for a meal. He was the quirky artist guy who gave away his art for free. He only had two shirts, but, hey man, if you needed a shirt, he'd give you his other one.
Once I saw him through his friend's eyes, I began to realize that I had judged him instead of looking at him for what he really was. He was my Uncle Bob: childhood playmate, singer/songwriter, guitar player, artist. He was a kind man. And a good man.