Uncle Ben

by Heather Talbot

The day of my Uncle Ben’s burial service is hot and humid, typical of early July in Ohio, except for the wind, which blows in like a blast furnace. We arrived at my parents’ house late the night before and I am exhausted from the two-day drive from Utah to Ohio. Sweat runs in rivulets down my back as I unstrap my four-week-old baby boy from his car seat. My husband Cory unbuckles our three-year-old daughter and she runs around the car to grab my hand, shy and unsure, especially around so many people. Our older sons, eight and ten, restless from the long drive, run off to play with their cousins. My baby’s warm body against my chest feels oppressive in the heat, but also serves as a form of protection.   He is my shield against a certain amount of social obligation. I am relieved when he needs me to leave the crowd to feed him, change him, or soothe his cries.

*****

Growing up, I didn’t know much about my Uncle Ben. What I knew I learned from being silent. From a young age, I learned that silence was the secret to invisibility. I was a talkative child, but I knew how to be quiet when it mattered. The most fascinating conversations happened when no one knew childish ears were listening. Sitting on the kitchen floor, coloring or playing with the cat, I could be overlooked by the adults who forgot I was there, and I learned about my Uncle Ben. Ben was a drifter. He had a gift for working with horses; he travelled around the country finding work and refuge at racetracks and ranches, staying a while, then moving on. With his wife, Ann, he lived out of tents, trailers, tack rooms, or nowhere at all, sleeping under the stars. Homeless by choice, two free spirits, going wherever the wind blew them. Ben rarely let anyone in the family know where he was. He was a gregarious, charming, black sheep in self-imposed exile.  Ben occasionally showed up out of the blue, “just passing through.” I only clearly remember meeting Ben once when I was about eight years old. He was tall and thin, scarecrow-like, with greasy, shoulder-length blonde hair and a moustache. My family gathered around him in the kitchen as he told story after story. I can’t remember any of those stories now, but his stories seemed bigger than life, like tall tales to rival Paul Bunyan. I was enchanted.

Ben was not a part of my day-to-day reality, but he was a frequent guest in my vivid fantasy life. I was fascinated with the idea of Ben. His life was romantic and adventurous: he went wherever he pleased and did whatever he wanted.  I knew almost nothing about him, so I recreated his life as I chose to imagine it. I saw him as a lovable vagabond, free to roam, free to be impulsive, free to experience the world on his own terms. I wanted that life too. But those dreams were permanently stalled when I was nineteen. I found myself pregnant, single, and terrified into responsibility. Six months after my son was born, I met Cory. Three months later, we were married. I tried to tether myself to reality, but I mourned a carefree young adulthood. I was a balloon on a string, torn between the stabilizing anchor of my family and the freedom of the sky. I wanted both. I wondered about the things I would never do. Maybe I would have studied abroad or backpacked the Appalachian Trail or lived off Ramen and peanut butter in a tiny apartment in New York or Chicago.

Ten years later, when Uncle Ben died, my mom and her siblings travelled to West Virginia for a memorial service with some of his friends and his wife, then brought his ashes back to Ohio to be buried. My mom insisted on waiting for me and two of my sisters, who also live out of state, to arrive for our planned family vacation before holding the burial service. She needed us there for support, but maybe even more, she needed to believe that Ben was someone more to us than just a name, more than a blurry face in old photographs.

Many of the people at the funeral—my aunts, uncles, and cousins—I hardly know. Some have lived across the country from me all of my life. I’ve only ever seen them a few times. But some lived a few small-town blocks from me my entire childhood. I avoid them all. I feel a familiar tightening knot in my stomach which adds to the feeling of being off-kilter and out of place. Some days the knot is smaller, more easily ignored, a slight discomfort. But today, like more and more days recently, the knot is thick and heavy, debilitating.

Today, in the cemetery, my chest beats and burns as if Hitchcock’s birds are pounding their militant wings against my chest, and my head aches with a dark emptiness. Depression hovers, closing in, feeding my anxiety. It is hard to see clearly, to think rationally. It is emotionally and physically painful to be here, to hear people talking and laughing and crying, to see people so at ease in their own bodies, with their own thoughts. I think of the way my relatives probably remember me. As a child, I was a confident, sometimes overly confident. I was frequently accused of talking too much; my nickname was Miss Chatterbox. I liked to have my space and time alone, to read, to imagine, but I also loved to be with people, to be the center of attention. I miss that girl, mourn for her. She slowly faded into the depression and anxiety that became my frequent companions in my early adolescence and never left. Eventually, she disappeared. The child these people knew is gone. I want to be alone. I want to talk to my grandmother. Though she died years before I was born, I feel closer to her than anyone at Ben’s funeral. I want to be alone by her grave and talk to her like I used to when I was a kid, when I felt no one else would listen, when I felt no one else would understand. She was the one person I could talk to when the darkness started to come.

Whenever the depression descends, it chokes out all light. It clouds my sense of reality. The people around me seem distant and hostile. I interpret their every action as hurtful and disingenuous; I sense pity or sarcasm behind every word. I can’t see anything lovable or worthwhile in myself, so I know that no one else can either. When I sink into this darkness, I don’t recognize my thoughts for what they are: a delusion, a trick of a broken mind. All my suspicions, my self-hatred, feel justified, so I push everyone away. I lash out at them like a caged animal, making sure no one will find out how I sometimes lie on the cold tiles of the bathroom floor with the shower running, drowning out the sound of my cries as I beg God to let me die.

*****

Ben’s life was nothing like the fantasy I created for him. His wife, Ann, was schizophrenic and often off her medications. Typical of many people with mental illness, when she felt better, she stopped taking it. And, I imagine, because of the way she and Uncle Ben lived, she didn’t always have access to the doctors she needed. My mom told me that they separated at some point. Ben left Ann in the care of friends, but he went back to her. My mom once asked him why, and he told her, “If I don’t take care of her, who will?” I didn’t want to think about this part of Ben’s life. It didn’t fit the story I wanted to tell myself. I didn’t want to admit that I knew nothing about Ben, really. He was make-believe to me, a character in the story I wrote for him. But his actual life was much different.

When my grandmother was sick, dying of cancer, Ben came to her one night, asking for money. He was impatient and persistent. My mom overheard and confronted him.

“What do you think you’re doing? Can’t you see how sick she is? How weak she is? You can’t come around here begging for money. You need to grow up and take responsibility for yourself.”

My mom can’t remember exactly how he responded, only that he was angry. After he left, my grandmother came out of her room. My mom apologized for the fight, for upsetting her. Grandma just said, “It’s okay, Linda. He needed to hear it. Someone had to say it.” Over the years, Ben asked my other uncles and my aunt for money whenever he saw them. He never once asked my mom.

When I picture Ben now, I think of a story my mom told me after he died. He stopped by our house late one night to say goodbye after one of his visits, “just-passing-through.” Ann was not with him. He was alone. He carried an empty gas can. It was snowing, and my mom begged him to wait until the storm was over, but he told her, “No, it works better in the .”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I walk along the side of the road with a gas can, and people assume I have a car somewhere down the road. They pick me up and take me at least as far as the next gas station unless I can talk them into taking me farther. If it’s snowing or raining or really cold, it works better.”

My mom tried to get him to take warmer cleaner clothes or even a bar of soap, but he refused.

“If I’m dirty and I stink, I can find a place to sleep at night, by myself, safe. People stay away. My stink protects me.”

I picture Ben along the side of a rural stretch of road, the snow falling around him, an empty gas can for a car that doesn’t exist in one hand, the other hand raised, thumb in the air, his back to the wind.

*****

Sitting on a creaky metal folding chair at the cemetery, I need to be alone. I sit through the service, distracted and anxious. I rock my baby, willing him to wake at just the right moment, to be ready to nurse when I need to escape. He miraculously accommodates. Just as the service ends, he begins to cry. I bounce him gently in my arms and tell my husband, Cory, that we need to go back to my parents’ house so I can nurse the baby. I struggle to both hold the baby and hold down my dress as it whips frantically in the wind. We can’t stay and mingle. We need to go. Now.

Cory talks to me while I feed the baby. He recognizes the panic, the beginnings of a deeper fall. He sees what I can’t see. Quietly, he tells me it’s okay. He tells me that I will regret not spending time with my relatives later, when the darkness has passed. He tells me I can get through this. I wipe my tears off the top of my son’s head. I want to run away. Cory doesn’t understand. He can’t feel this ache. He doesn’t know this pain. I wonder if anyone really does.

I sometimes wonder if Ben had bipolar disorder. My mom described times when he spoke in a rapid-fire ramble, making little sense. Other times, he sunk into a prolonged melancholy.  But maybe that’s another fantasy, a way to believe that someone else could understand. When I was thirty-seven years old, I was diagnosed with Bipolar II Disorder. For nearly two decades, I had taken anti-depressants on and off. I now know those particular drugs exacerbate bipolar depression. When I changed medications and started going to therapy, my depression lessened and became controllable, but it’s still there, lurking in the shadows.  As my emotional state stabilized, I mourned for a life I felt deprived of, the mother and wife I wished I had been during those twenty years when, during depressive episodes, I alternated between emotionlessness, rage, and hysterical outbursts. I don’t want the person I am when I am depressed to be a part of me. But it is. But it’s not all of me. It is a piece of jagged glass in a complicated mosaic, but I fear it’s the only part that people see.

*****

After I nurse my baby, we go to a reception at my Uncle Greg’s house. There is a display of sketches done by Ben, hauntingly beautiful renderings of horses. A hot breeze blows through the garage where the pictures and other memorabilia are set up, twisting the paper anchored to easels, almost tearing it with the force. I try to study the drawings, to get a glimpse of the man I never knew, but I am assaulted by aunts, uncles, and cousins wanting to catch up. My mom is showing off the baby, and my daughter is clinging to the skirt of my dress. Whenever anyone talks to her, she tightens her grip and hugs tighter to my leg. For some reason, people seem to think if they speak to her in a higher pitch, she will suddenly want to be their friend. I withdraw from each conversation as quickly and as politely as I can. I am afraid I am not always polite, but the ache inside of me is stifling, pressing down on me, pushing me away, and my daughter is nearly in tears.

I take my daughter to an isolated corner of the yard. Cory finds me and asks me who people are, and I tell him, memories of sleepovers and late-night games of hide-and-seek spilling out. I feel safe here, at a careful distance. Cory suggests I go and talk to my cousin Brandy, one of my closest friends as a child. She was the cool one, and I was always game for anything she suggested: playing pranks on my brother, questioning the Ouija board late at night, running around town flirting with boys. But now the thought of talking to her terrifies me. I am sure she will be disappointed in me somehow; she will be nice to me but pity me when she walks away. I avoid eye contact, but she walks towards me anyway.

My conversation with Brandy is awkward. I feel exposed, sure that she and everyone around me can see my every flaw. She seems glad to see me, and I can’t help but smile a little as I watch her curly red hair—the hair I was always envious of—bounce like suspended springs as she laughs. But I don’t know what to say. My throat is as dry of words as it is of moisture. I know I am failing to meet the basic requirements of human interaction. At last, Brandy gives me a hug and says she needs to go, and I feel relieved as she walks away, but I feel sad too. I wish we could laugh ourselves silly, like we used to do. But it’s too late. A woman I don’t know approaches me, and my throat constricts. She introduces herself as a cousin of my mom’s. She points to my daughter, who we adopted from South Korea, and wants to talk about her own granddaughter, also adopted from Korea. I focus my eyes on my daughter while we talk, watch her running around with her cousins, see that she is starting to feel comfortable at last, and I am able to get through the conversation. As long as I focus on my daughter, I am okay. After my mom’s cousin, whose name I have already forgotten, walks away, I tell Cory that it’s time to go.

*****

When my grandfather died in a car crash, no one knew where Ben was. They tried to track him down, but had to bury my grandpa without him. When he came home months later, my mom was the one who told him what had happened. He broke down in my mom’s arms, sobbing and inconsolable. When my grandmother’s cancer advanced, and they knew she was going to die, Ben made sure that someone knew how to contact him, made sure he could be there.  And then he was gone again.

The last years of Ben’s life were painful. He had CREST syndrome, a form of scleroderma which causes skin and other organs to lose their elasticity. Skin tightens and grows rigid. Movement becomes restricted. Lungs, heart, and kidneys harden and become crusted with scar tissue. CREST is incurable, but it can be managed if treated early enough. Ben did not get help until it was too late. As his skin hardened and it became difficult for him to walk, his spirit remained free, but his body was not. He was trapped. But for a long time, he told no one, choosing to remain apart and unattached, unwilling to tie his burdens to anyone. By the time my mom learned of his condition, he was in end-stage renal failure. He was going to die. He was living in a small town in the small wedge of West Virginia nestled between Ohio and Pennsylvania, had been there for a few years, finally rooting himself, no longer a tumbleweed rolling with the whims of the wind. No one in the family knew he was there, just a few hours away. When my mom drove to see him, he was living in a tiny shack on a hillside, the windows boarded up, the electricity cut because Ann was afraid that aliens would get in through the wires.

In Ben’s final months, my mom visited him as often as she could, and they talked on the phone regularly. My mom felt like she was finally getting to know him. His friends would call her to ask if she could talk him into going to doctor’s appointments and taking his medications. Ben wanted to move back to Ohio, closer to his family, but by then, his doctors said he was too sick to move. So, he asked my mom to bring his ashes back to be buried near their parents. I think of how he spent his life––tossed by the wind, not tied down to anything, carrying his burdens alone.  I don’t know if he was running away from something or just thought there would be time to go back, but his time ran out as it always does. After a lifetime of walking away, free and alone, in the end, he didn’t want his ashes scattered by the wind, but to be anchored in the ground of his roots. I’ve spent my life running away inside of my own head, pushing away the people who want to help me heal, to set me free from the darkness, while keeping me safely rooted in their love. Unwilling to tie my burdens to those who would travel with me through my pain, determined to travel alone, I couldn’t see that by shutting people out, I was trapping myself in darkness, shutting out the light.

*****

As we leave the reception, I try to sneak away unnoticed. But my Aunt Annette calls me over, and Cory nudges me toward her. I resist the urge to pretend I don’t hear her, sure I’d never get away with it. Annette is bossy, brash, impossible to ignore, and she knows it. Her daughter, Brittany, no longer the little girl I used to babysit, is seven months pregnant with her first child. Annette asks if Brittany can hold my baby. Brittany suggests that instead I let her husband, who has never held a baby before, hold my son. I am nervous, uncomfortable, unsure, but this man is about to be a father. He needs to be comfortable holding a baby. He needs to know that he can do this. So, I decide that I can do this for him, for Brittany, for their child. I smile, ignore my own discomfort, and gently hand my baby to him, showing him how to cradle the baby’s head, encouraging him, trying to make him feel comfortable. I breathe deeply and the knot in my stomach loosens, the darkness is pushed back for just for a moment. The darkness will return. I will have to learn, in time, to face it, to be brave enough to let others in to face it with me. But for now, for a moment, I am calm. For a moment, the wind stops blowing.