My Visit With Uncle Ken

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My cousin called me up last week with the bad news. “Uncle Ken is dying,” she said, and we started to reflect on his life which hadn’t always been a happy one.

My 80-year-old uncle never married and suffered all his life from bipolar disorder. Of course, they didn’t have a name for it when he was young, but everyone knew that he wasn’t “right”. And even after he was diagnosed, there were times when he would go off his medication thinking that he was cured, only to have another manic episode, which meant that he would have to go back in the hospital until the medications could even him out again.

When I was a kid, my Uncle Ken was sort of the adventurous relative to my eyes. He had a little sports car, saw the world as part of the Canadian forces, bought himself a sailboat and always brought Dairy Queen soft ice cream and strawberries when he came for Sunday dinner. I saw him mostly at family functions, when he was either very quiet or passionately arguing politics with my Dad and his other siblings. The Jackson’s were a political bunch even if only from the sidelines. 

When I had my two girls, Uncle Ken would send them each a beautiful little dress every Christmas. We lived in different cities, so the times I saw him were few and far between. He lived alone in the West End of Vancouver, and over time his bouts with depression, dementia and bad legs eventually lead to his being placed in a care facility. I don’t think he was all that happy with it at first, but after a time he began to get used to it.

The call last week was urgent enough that I knew I had to get there soon. He was suffering from pneumonia, choking on food and was hooked up to oxygen. My cousin told me that when she had visited, he hardly said two words the entire visit. I thought about leaving to see him right away, but I had invited a group of friends over for a barbecue as a homecoming for my husband, so I opted to wait a couple of days. Immediately I felt guilty, not knowing how long my uncle might actually have.

But within a couple of days I drove out to the ferries to make the trip to the mainland for what I knew might be a final visit.

I hadn’t seen my uncle for quite some time, and because of his dementia I wasn’t sure if he would even recognize me. They were giving him a sponge bath when I got there, so I couldn’t see him through the curtain.

Was he conscious? It seemed so. I heard him mutter something to the nurse, but it was difficult to get a sense of his condition at first. Then the nurse pulled the curtain back. He looked very thin because he had been refusing to eat, he was sitting up, hair combed and clean shaven, and there was no oxygen tube. There was a glass of beer on the bedside table, because it was the only thing he would consume. Well, I don’t exactly blame him for that! But he didn’t look nearly as bad as I was expecting.

At first he mistook me for my cousin who looks like me, but then he corrected himself and I apprehensively sat down on the end of his bed.

The conversation started out a little awkwardly at first. But we ended up having a very nice chat about a myriad of things; his life experiences, current events, the family, and he even told me where he wanted his ashes spread when he dies. We talked about Ted Kennedy’s passing, how marijuana can’t be all that bad, and he asked me about my cat, and I learned more about my uncle in that one conversation than I had in the last fifty-two years.

In the middle of our chat, a nurse popped in to say that he was being shipped back to his care home later that day. “Thank God!” he said, clearly relieved to get out of hospital and back to his own place.

He didn’t break a smile once during our conversation, but that was okay because I could sense that this was a “rally” day for him and perhaps the inevitable would be put off for a little while longer.

When I finally got up to leave after an hour-and-a-half, we clasped hands and he said with great sincerity “It was lovely to see you, lovely.” As I walked out of the hospital it occurred to me that I could easily have misjudged the timing and missed seeing him altogether. It was only luck or maybe some other force that I don’t know about, that brought me there on that particular day.

He is back in the care facility now, but we have been warned that things could take a turn again, especially if he still refuses to eat. His depression leaves him with little will to fight and his dementia has affected his swallowing reflex.

But for the moment, my old, cranky Uncle Ken is still kicking.

October 11, 2009 – Thanksgiving – My Uncle Ken passed away at 6pm, having refused food and medication completely for the past three days. I feel like he just decided it was his time to go, and I am grateful this Thanksgiving that I had that final conversation with him.
Goodbye, dear Unc. Love, Irene

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