Wednesday, November 10, 2004

A visit with Uncle and Auntie

We call my mom’s brother Uncle and his wife Auntie - that’s with upper case U and A - like titles of royalty. Which is just fine when you know how regularly both husband and wife golf and sip tea with Sultans and political elites. They are wealthy and well-travelled, counting an artic cruise to see the aurora borealis as one of the highlights of a very full life. Their three children - my cousins - all doctors, have married and settled in the UK, making England pretty much their second home.

When we visited last weekend, I was not prepared for what I saw. It was almost one in the afternoon when Auntie greeted us at the door with a wan smile. Her gamine look once compared with Audrey Hepburn was lined and tired, although that stately poise was still there. It was her voice, almost a whisper, and her slow, measured gait that told us she hadn’t been well.

I glanced over her shoulder and saw Uncle at the table. He was hunched over an empty plate, peeling a banana with a paring knife. I placed my hand on his shoulder and bent down to catch his eyes. As I spoke he lit up momentarily, but just as quickly switched off and turned his attention back to the banana. He was blank again as the rest of us called out to him. Mum put both arms over her brother’s shoulders to say hello. Auntie told us that Uncle wouldn’t be able to hear nor recognize any one of us. Early stages of senile dementia, my brother had warned us.

“So how are you keeping, Auntie?” I asked trying to sound chirpy. She looked at me, her pause like a shroud, at once impassive yet revealing.

“Like that,” she said with a hint of a shrug.“I’m not what I used to be.”

“But you still look okay, Auntie. Do you get a lot of visitors?”

“Had a stroke, a mild stroke. Saturday Irwin’s coming back for a short visit.”

“Must be over 20 years since I last saw him. Will you all be traveling back to England then?”

“With Uncle like that? Besides it's too cold for him. When he sits, he doesn’t want to be moved. He can’t hear. The last time, we couldn’t get him to come out of the plane.”

We talked awhile before I decided to take a closer look at the house, the scene of fun and gaiety and happy reunions when Grandma was alive. Some Christmas cards have arrived early, looking forlorn among yellowed family photos. There in the hall stood the Steinway Grand Piano. Auntie said it’s out of tune and that no one played on it anymore.

I went to the front door and found it scraggy and worn, its veneer stripped. Outside, the lawn was trim but weeds were creeping up along brickwork and fences. The porch wall had buckled and a huge crack ran up one side. At the other end of the big house, brackets that held a gutter to the wall had come undone, separated by another large crack. A garden pond in the back patio was dry, its neglect betrayed by patches of mold and broken sockets where spotlights used to be.

I felt depressed in this familiar yet unfamiliar place. Time is ruthless, age its punishment. Before we left, we prayed for Uncle and Auntie. We asked that the Lord would watch over them in the autumn of their lives, that His presence would fill the spaces the fleeting years had left in their wake.

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