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My Uncle Rob


November 10, 2011

My Uncle Rob died of a heart attack last Wednesday night. My phone buzzed early the next morning. It woke me up but I missed it. When I rolled over to check it, I saw an e-mail subject: “condolences.” The phone call had been from my mother.

In the five seconds it took for me to call her back, I braced for bad news. Her voice was crackled when she told me. “Rob died.”

What?

He wasn’t sick. He was 49 and had a heart attack. He didn’t seem unhealthy. It was a total shock to everyone. A hard punch in the gut. Suddenly nothing was important.

I thought instantly about the last time I saw him: a Chinese restaurant parking lot after dinner for my grandmother’s birthday at the end of May. I watched him get into the car with my Aunt Sarah and cousins Marina and Amelia. He’s leaving behind a wonderful family.

I now found myself standing in my living room still on the phone with my mom. Nothing to say except, “That’s so sad.” I don’t understand how this could happen.

It was raining when I stepped out into the street an hour or so later, which felt appropriate. I let it rain down on my as I trudged to work. All day I felt like a zombie.

Memories flooded back one at a time. Riding the BART in San Francisco. Ping pong in New Jersey. Rob showing off a short doc he had made on gun violence in Philadelphia.

He was always a tech guy. He had the latest and greatest electronics: a new cell phone, digital camera or tablet. Lately he sported a green old-fashioned handset in his jacket pocket that plugged into his cell phone. He was concerned about brain cancer from cell phones. He gave me one last Thanksgiving.

I did not know him for that long as an adult and would not describe our relationship as particularly close. But he was always great to talk to and I almost always remember the conversations being over before they felt finished. We had a lot in common, a lot to talk about. Now it feels like a lot was left unsaid.

He had a love for movies that I share, though his were made with much more of a purpose, stopping handgun violence or promoting a park.

Last year, he was talking up a water purification system that ran on solar power and could purify any sort of water, and also provide power. It was a futuristic looking trailer contraption that looked like a space shuttle. It was the coolest invention I’d heard of in a long time, the kind that could really make a difference.