“Shellshocked. He’s shellshocked from Vietnam,” my mom would tell me about my uncle Mike--her former brother-in-law and the first genuine person I ever met.
I feel guilty writing about such a private person, but it was impossible not to learn from this authentic human being.
“Go see what Mike’s up to,” my dad would harp when he wanted a break from me being a squirmy 7-year-old.
The summer sun of 1990 beat on my fair skin as I crossed the alley that separated my dad’s yard from my uncle Mike’s.
I walked past his fleet of old cars and two trees, then climbed a slight hill only to jump onto a knee-high, concrete patio that housed the steps of his front door.
Should I be doing this?
The fear of crossing into a solitary person’s yard met the curious excitement of hanging out with my unique uncle.
I knocked on his black, screen door loud enough to be heard over the blaring of Paul Harvey’s voice.
Then I’d watch an adult male, wearing cut-off jean shorts, a clean, but torn, white t-shirt, circle-framed glasses, and a headband, slowly walk to his door, unlatch it, and open it.
“Oh hi, Brandon,” I’d hear in a soft, drawn-out voice; his tone offered nothing about whether I should be visiting him.
“Hey Mike, what are you up to?”
My high energy met his softness. Does he want me here?
“I’m cutting some celery.”
I’d sit at his kitchen table in an old school student’s desk--the type where a flat piece of wood connected to the arm of the chair.
Then he’d go back to chopping celery at his kitchen counter with his
back to me.
I used the silence to take in this new environment. Envelopes of junk mail were being reused as grocery lists; laundry dried anywhere it could be hung; a bike sat in the corner of his kitchen; vegetables I’d never seen lined the counter.
I took in a life free of status symbols and noticed that every item was being used to its highest and best capabilities.
“I’m making some stew,” he’d announce minutes later.
“Cool. Dad’s watching the Cubs.”
“He’s watching the Cubs of Chicago play baseball?!” he’d ask, his voice raising and his hands flailing into the air.
“Yep,” I’d smile.
“I think so.”
By now, his head was facing me and he was smiling with silly astonishment.
“Far out!” he’d yell after seconds of processing.
I’d laugh out loud. What was so “far out” about that? I’d wonder. Why was Dad watching the Cubs worthy of all this excitement and questioning?
After the first sequence of words broke any awkwardness about whether I should be there, he’d randomly drop his cutting knife, cup his palms together, and make a farting sound with his hands.
I’d laugh from my belly.
Then he’d do it with his armpit.
I’d laugh more.
The energy had direction. The levity swam through the air. We were bonding.
“Brandon, would you like some dried fruit?” he’d inquire as if it were the most serious decision I’d ever make.
He’d slowly walk to his cupboard then place some dried mangos on the desk of the chair.
I’d munch on this new type of food.
"I'm going to see the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie,” I’d tell him.
Out of nowhere, he'd drop whatever he was doing and let out a deep, “huh, huh, huh,” sound from his chest.
“These turtles,” every word came with amazement, “are teenagers and mutants?” he’d explore with a warm grin.
“Yeah. And they fight Shredder.”
“Shredder?!” he’d shriek.
“Yeah, he’s the bad guy.”
“There’s a bad guy named Shredder?!”
“Yep,” I’d kick my legs and laugh as I informed my reclused uncle about this mind-blowing world.
“Wow!” he’d whisper aloud for seconds, followed by another, “Far out.”
How could this small talk make me feel so alive? I asked my 7-year-
old self on an unconscious level.
“Should we measure you?” he’d ask.
This was my favorite part of visiting Mike. He’d have me stand against the frame of his door, heels and shoulders touching the wall, and mark where the top of my head met the frame, then put a date beside it.
“38 and ¼ inches. You’ve grown a half inch since last time.”
I’d turn around and see a makeshift chart of my growth over the last few years.
I received so much from Mike, just by him being himself.
He always purchased fundraising items from kids who knocked on his door. He kept up his mother’s house and yard until she passed in '93. He jogged and rode his bike to his job that was 12 miles away.
He was the first person I ever met who was unapologetically themselves.
I visited Mike until I moved away in 2005. I was curious about his way of life--a life that made sense to him, regardless of society’s rules. His courage to be himself, his ability to set boundaries with the world seeped into my development.
Adults around me, aware of my admiration for him and his lifestyle, warned me his life was lonely and isolated. But I strained out the positivity and called upon it later when I was presented with choices that were real and hard or accepting and unfulfilling.
I loved my uncle Mike, or “Hemy,” as his peers called him, although I never knew why. (The origin of his nickname was never revealed to me and I can only imagine what it involved.)
I wrote him letters when I moved to Phoenix and visited him when I came back. I saw his moody side, but I felt his warmth, admired his resourcefulness, loved his authenticity, and copied the nature of his rebellious individuality.
Uncle Mike passed away in February 2008 but is remembered and missed by the people who had the pleasure of knowing him.
He was a Veteran, a son, an uncle, a brother, and a very kind and genuine person.