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.”
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.
When I first moved to New York, Rob came to have dinner with me and my mom on my birthday. He bought me “The Grapes of Wrath” from the Strand, told me it was one of his favorites “And you know about the Strand, right?”
I did but I remember being impressed with how well he knew the city. I wondered how many other cities he knew as well. He was always on the move. In Philly one day, New York the next, flying to San Francisco after that. Always something interesting. Always something important. Always making a positive influence on the world. Always trying to make a difference.
I find myself thinking about memories of him in a different way now that I know that there will be no more. I don’t like it. There is a subconscious desire to sum up our relationship in some way, to find some sort of meaning in his death. I haven’t felt up to it.
I do feel a bit like I’ve been avoiding it. But that will change soon enough as I head down to Philly for his memorial service this weekend. It will be good to be with my family but I am certain it will be unbearably sad. He left behind two lovely girls and an amazing wife. A loving family.
For me, there is a little regret that I didn’t know him better. As I grow older, I can imagine that the age difference between us might have faded away and I wonder if maybe someday we would have grown closer. Maybe we would have made a film together.
But life does go on for it must. And regrets don’t help anything.
I started writing an idea for a screenplay a few days after he died. I guess I needed something else to focus my brain on. I needed to escape to a world where he’s still around, still a hero. It’s comforting even though it’s a fantasy.