it's a long one, and it doesn't explain the title. Years of procrastination, worry, and I admit, indifference, led to only ever hearing stories of one of my favourite people to ever be around: my uncle Pete. He lived six hours away - spoiler alert: using past tense - but only two hours from all of the other people I'd ever visit west of Ottawa, so the opportunity was always there. But for years I didn’t know what I would say if I went there; It'd been too long and too much had happened. One night I tried to pop by and he growled through the screen door at 11 o'clock saying he was too sick for visitors and to try again next time I was in town.
Nearly ten years had gone by since the better days.
One year after the screen door growl incident I gave him a call and learned that his little house on the old side of Guelph was just too messy and he was embarrassed to have me see it and judge him for it. That wolf was really just scaring me away from his self-consciousness. I heard dozens of other strange, but oddly comforting things over the next few hours and it reminded me of what it was like to be around Uncle Pete a decade earlier. Just being a kid and having him casually swing by Grandma and Papou’s house for a family dinner. He'd be out having beers on the patio with the other uncles and aunts’ boyfriends, and us young ones were all down in the pool seeing who could dive the furthest and laughing about the Playboys we’d just discovered under the couch in the den. ‘I’ll take the 40 over 40 one cause it’s got way more pages.” I was always a logical thinker. And a trailblazer, since this was probably before MILFs were a thing..
A week later I was sitting in Pete's apartment - lovingly, Rathole #5 - a rather large downgrade from the house I'd last waded my way through, learning about all of these things after I'd finally decided to make a visit, half-confident that he'd be around anywhere from 2-20 more years. I didn't know what we'd actually talk about; there'd been a lot of family tension in the recent years and I'd hoped to stay out of it more than I actually did. Pete kept apologizing for saying the news anchor was a babe, or for saying “God, man, they’re good people, but fuck they’re crazy sometimes, y’know? Sorry, I shouldn’t say that. But it's true. That's family. Sorry. Don't repeat that." Hahah, I loved it, and had to keep reminding myself that he was still trying to filter himself a bit because he mainly remembered me from being in early high school, and forgetting that now I was probably thinking “man, that news girl is a 10, and I oughta show some memes of dirty movie screenshots really get him laughing. He eventually realized a filter was just unnecessary around me – I was glad but surely wouldn’t let him roll the joints after that.
We managed a two hour conversation with nearly zero talk about family, and spent most of the time telling stories of what our twenties were like (and still are..thank you to everyone who thinks otherwise, ya dicks). Then we had to run down the list of who was with whom and whether they still are and – for the most part – why they aren't. We laughed at fools forever. He’d made his mistakes and he was still paying for them by having kids who didn’t want to see him, fading health, other family who weren't allowed to know he was sick, and old friends who dismissed him with the “yeah, that’s Pete; he lost his way a long time ago.” I was proud that a few of those people had an August change of heart. There's always time until there isn't, and I was lucky to share some of it.
Except for when he casually mentioned aliens and I had to check to make sure I wasn't stepping on his oxygen tube. I wasn't, but he couldn't tell anyway because he's blind in one eye. That's how I ended up getting two thirds of our pizza. Placed it in the periphery.
I left thinking, thank god I came here (lower case "g" to spite whoever took him), because I wasn’t too late and I knew I could keep coming back to relive his old times and learn all the things that made him who he is. This was a promise I made to myself after my Papou died in 2006 and I'd never asked him to tell me one single story. Luckily when Pete's nervous he tells all the stories, so I got a good taste of what my shyness had cost me years before with his dad.
I only saw him one more time. The day before he died.
It would've been the very day he died, but he went through half the hospital's morphine supply. Each new syringe seeping in for a quiet minute before "oooh, theeere it is! Now how 'bout that. Oooohhey, Kary, you know what I really couldn't stand about you?" The room erupted.
I found myself wondering how he could be so cast-aside for so long, yet I still wished I’d lived some of the times that he had, and he really didn't regret that he did it his way. Sure, I take 20% off the top for storytelling liberties, but he still takes the cake as the most lived life I've known. "Why'd you love Vancouver so much?" 'Ah man, the fresh air! Well, and the great pot and the nude beach I'd always walk home from hammered while the hookers chirped me for stumbling around, but then said 'nah, just kidding, we love ya Pete, get home safe!'"
I snapped back to my last visit as he coughed and laughed like he did when he ate his pizza too quickly while chirping the Jays for blowing a lead against the Red Sox. I snapped a pic of the screen to remember exactly when we had that conversation. It meant something. He tried to pay me for the pizza later and I first said no, but then said hell no, because he was trying to give me $100. I said Pete! I scammed you and ate 2/3 of that pizza on account of your stupid eye!
He said brother, I want you to take your girlfriend somewhere nice and make her feel like I do now.
As fate and fuck the world would have it, I booked time off work a month later for a bachelor party weekend and panned to make a little detour to say hi and smoke catch up again. It turned out that I'd booked off the wrong weekend for the party, but the right weekend to say goodbye to Pete. On my way down the 401 to his house I got a text that said he'd relocated to the hospital. "Serious condition" they told me. "Hot nurses," he told me later. I changed the subject. “So Pete, those ten guys in that photo who all came to visit last time, were they all high school friends?" “Hell yeah, we used to run from the cops together all the time. It was a thrill. Except for Scott who got caught. Boy he took a beating.” But those were the days. We’d be slingshotting snowballs at cars and running through the streets. A few bloody noses, but fuck was it worth it."
These were stories I never heard. I'd only gone from being a kid and asking him for his beer bottle caps for my collection - back when he was the first one to call me "Dude" - to wondering why he stopped showing up at family gatherings. In just over a year, several people died and disappeared from the kitchen poker table. And then that was it; it was never the same. People got married and had new families to be with, we changed locations to ease the burden of hosting, and it just all faded out. Luckily I've still got my cousin Kyle. He reminds me a lot of Pete and he refused to let things get in the way of us getting together, no matter how many people left or gave bullshit excuses. Even if there were just four of us. He's the new anchor of our family yet forty years younger than the last. Wouldn't Pete would be proud.
Back when things were good, at my favourite family gathering I was fifteen and had finally become a regular invite to the poker table, a few months after I’d started learning to play guitar. Pete brought his whole drum kit to jam with me. He was the most patient and encouraging leader ever. He backed me up for hours. And afterwards he gave me his drum sticks and pissed my mom off by saying, practice on anything. Hit whatever sounds good. Just play.
And man could he ever. He’d beat those things as revenge for the snowball-throwing bloody noses and the people who shut him out as a dropout, a user, and a shitty father. Which he was. He knows that. I’m not sure how long that has to affect things for, but if it’s one week or one lifetime, I still get it. But sitting on those old leather couches beside the drum set in Rathole #5, it didn’t matter. I loved him. I just wanted to carry him to his stool and put the sticks in his hand and say "Muddy Water, Champagne and Reefer, lead us in, Pete." Don't lead us out.
May 6, 1955 to August 15, 2017, and forever.
*all photos provided by friends and family