My cousin Christopher has a story he likes to tell. I've heard it more than once. When he tells it, his eyes glisten and he reminds me so much of his father, my uncle, who had once been a stranger to him. I listen, every time, enthralled.
A resident of Washington, D.C., Christopher was in London, England, for work. One night he was walking to his hotel and saw a fast-food restaurant blasting fluorescent light onto the street. Turned off by the awful glare, he wondered who would ever eat there. As he passed by, he looked in and saw one person sitting inside. The person looked up. It was my uncle -- Christopher's dad.
This is fitting. My uncle always did appear most unexpectedly. Arriving at my mom's -- often late, sometimes surprisingly -- he'd walk in the door with a grin and a case of Ontario microbrew, quickly launching into tales of travel and eccentric people, peppered with anecdotes about Kansas hot sauces and traditions of North American Natives. We listened. We listened some more. During a silence, my mother would ask him how long he was staying. It was never long.
As a kid, I idolized him. He was a writer and a storyteller and I wanted that. As a young woman, as a published writer, he made me mad. He didn't see me -- my skills, my talents. I stopped listening to his stories. I put a wall up and pretended not to care.
But then he had a stroke. And the first time I saw him at my mom's afterwards, this resistance broke sharply, shockingly. He was frail, a man who had entirely lost his former outer self. When I hugged him, I apologized for the tears.
That summer, it wasn't just us he'd come to visit. Sure, we were part of it, but my uncle has always been a man in love with place. In the 1950s, he left Canada for a stint at Bible college in Iowa and never looked back. He's always lived in the U.S. -- criss-crossing the country from a log cabin in the New York woods to a mountain home in Utah -- without ever giving up his Canadian citizenship. And nearly every summer for the past 20 years or so, he's returned home to what he calls The Island. He wasn't going to let a blood-clot to the brain stop him.
His body half-bent to the ground, trailing one useless arm he'd nicknamed Lumpy, he and my aunt had made the long difficult journey to Ontario so he could go once more to Manitoulin Island.
This is the place his father had loved. Born there, my grandfather moved to the Bruce Peninsula to keep his wife happy in her childhood home. His own bad heart kept him from visiting much but the family had spent a few beloved summers on the Island when my mom and uncle were kids -- summers now lodged in my uncle's mind in a singular, perfect way.
My uncle and aunt live in Oregon now, in a small bungalow in a seniors' subdivision, far from their mountain home that was filled with books and pets. Most of my uncle's books -- some rare editions -- have been sold. He still loves telling a tale but needs a lot more time for delivery. He's stopped writing. In his study, dusty binders full of Island research and writing line a shelf.
Before the stroke, my uncle's mind was on more than walking the Mormon Trail, (a three-month journey that he wrote a book about), and touring breweries in Britain with his friend, the writer William Least Heat Moon. Since the mid-1980s, my uncle had been intermittently stabbing at his past with a pen. In the centre of this mental depth sat The Island.
I've come to Oregon to look at the work. This is the idea, anyway.
It takes me a while. First, I don't know how to be around him. He's a stranger, this old man who can't cross a room without assistance, who falls asleep mid-story, his lips still moving while a finger lazily inflects. We go through a few pages at a time, slowly. I feel something growing in me: impatience, a desire to get away.
While he naps, I retreat to the boxes in the garage and start digging through them. I look at old stories, reviews of his book, articles about the time he burned the American flag as part of a lecture in the 1960s and the story hit international news.
And then there are the journals. I glance at them. Finally, when he's awake, I haul a box into the living room.
What's that? he asks, groggily. I hand him one. He buries his nose in scrawled stories of drinking with Heat Moon.
Are these journals private? I ask.
Nope, he says, without looking up.
Can I read them?
Yep, he answers.
So I do. The island shimmers into invisibility and, beyond it, I see some of who he was: a sharply intelligent man with so much talent, who wrote often about being frustrated with his inability to commit to steady writing, who became a father at a young age, who broke the rules and turned a fine phrase and struggled always with balancing the need to write, the business of being published and the responsibilities of teaching and being a husband to his second wife and a dad to two more. A yellowed letter from his ex-wife explains how it's best if he doesn't see Christopher, the baby he'd written about as though enchanted. Later letters show the revival of their relationship after Christopher made contact in his late teens.
As pieces of his history emerge, I realize that the not-knowing has gone both ways. My uncle, more a talker than a listener, eager for approval and adventuresome to a fault, is so much more than I ever thought.
It seems he's shown up late and unexpected yet again.
Lauren Carter lives in Orillia, Ont.