I said I'm getting old -- 46 in a few weeks -- to my Great Uncle Walt, who was wearing a blue windbreaker and lying on his bed in the rehabilitation center he ended up in again a number of weeks ago. I wasn't surprised to see a fleeting look of benusement pass across his face. Uncle Walt in in his 90s, meaning that he must have been around my age when I was born.
In the 1940s, he was in Iwo Jima and made signs, a good use of his natural talents. Until he retired several years ago, Uncle Walt worked for an ad firm, designing all manner of displays, often for liquor companies -- he's why I know about 'Johnny Walker' and 'Black & White' and a host of other beverages; he used to, in the days before 'branding,' give us all kinds of freebies (magnetic black and white Scottie dogs, sponges) bearing those clients' names prominently. We'd sometimes come upon Uncle Walt's work in our local Safeway. I could always recognize his distinctive sort-of "Asian" writing, his puns and plays on language, and the cut-out shapes strung together like parts of a Calder mobile.
In his heyday, Uncle Walt made t-shirts and gave them away, stuffed into wine bottle boxes (they're just the right size for a rolled-up item), as Christmas gifts. After he retired, he made clever invitations and cards. I regret that my necssary preoccupation in caring for Charlie over the past 17 years meant that I neglected to store away Uncle Walt's creations in any kind of organized fashion. Now, I might come across one of his cards when I'm sifting through a box of Charlie's schoolwork from 2003 or reading a philological article on Pindar in a Classics journal.
Uncle Walt ended up in the rehabitation center back in August, after my parents got a 5.45am call from him. He first went for surgery at a hospital on Pill Hill in Oakland, near where the hospital where I was born. (Neither the hospital he was at nor the one where I came into this world with a nun in the operating room -- a detail I never knew till I was in my 30s -- have the names they did back in the day. Hospitals, like everything else, have become a business.) He went back to his condo after that first rehab stay. He drove his car and, after my aunt and cousins discovered him with low blood pressure the next day, went back to the ER. And then, home. And then, the ER and the hospital and the rehab center, and now it's November, the week before Thanksgiving.
Earlier in the morning I had bought two char siu baos (the steamed kind) on my way back from dropping off Charlie's lunch at his school. The word is that Uncle Walt hasn't had much of an appetite and prefers Chinese food. I'm not sure if he'll eat the baos. Alas, there was no way to make sure they were hot as the rehab center is a half-hour from our house in no traffic, which never happens; it took me a good hour-plus to get there in non-commute traffic and rain. And, the baos were in a biodegradable off-white clamshell container, not the pink boxes tied with twine that Uncle Walt used to produce after stopping by Chinatown.
Still, I wanted to bring them. We had been to the sevice of an uncle on my dad's side this past weekend and then a very dear friend's father passed on Monday and Jim was able to attend the funeral and to tell me 'Danny Boy' was the closing tune. I sat in the wheelchair beside Uncle Walt's bed and commented and interjected into his stream of consciousness talk about Aunt Karen's persimmon tree, Google buses, an upcoming lunch to celebrate Thanksgiving and December, his friends and their ailments and children, the rain. I thought about how, the first time Jim and I had visited Uncle Walt in the rehab center, he was sitting up and watching an A's game and Jim had gotten him to talk about Bay Area sports history (the Oakland Oaks).
Aunt Karen's partner had been talking to Uncle Walt when I walked into the well-heated room. He had brought an apricot tart and Uncle Walt had eaten a piece.
Uncle Walt isn't my uncle 'by blood.' My grandfather, my mother's father, was adopted. Uncle Walt and his late wife, Great Aunt Mardé, had no children. He loved taking photos and he must have piles of albums in his condo. My sister and I like to joke we can't remember a time when Uncle Walt wasn't pointing his camera lens at us, the first grandchildren to be born.
No surprise I can't stop taking photos of Charlie, for whom Great Uncle Walt is Great Great Uncle Walt.