Posted on May 23, 2010


Originally published October 13, 2004

On Sunday, I attended the dedication ceremony for a tree planted in memory of my uncle Pat, who died in January. I’ve tried to write about Pat before in this blog, but I was too angry to write anything worthwhile. Pat was my father’s twin, his mother’s favorite, youngest boy in a family of eight, a rake and a charmer. He had amazing cheekbones and vivid blue eyes. He read voraciously, thrillers and mysteries mostly, fat mass market paperbacks that littered every set of rooms he ever lived in. In high school, Pat dated my mom’s best friend. They moved to Oregon together, and he worked at the London Fog factory. As a little girl, even though I knew that it had something to do with raincoats, that sounded wild and exotic. In my mind’s eye, I saw him perched on the slope of a gurgling volcano, shrouded in a cool mist.

By the time my parents divorced, Pat was back home, beginning the long slide into alcoholism. It runs in my father’s family, a thing I would never write if I thought they might read this. My grandma always said that Pat reminded her of her little brother Ned, reputedly a charming and beautiful man, his own mother’s joy. Ned died of cirrhosis in his forties. My mom has said that my dad’s mother went to a treatment facility for alcoholism more than once. I’ve never asked him about it; I think he would say no, but it’s probably true.

After moving home, Pat lost a series of jobs and eventually his license. Ten or twelve years ago he drove (illegally) to California, to start over with his little sister. Things deteriorated more out there; he lost the job his sister got him. She had to kick him out after he frightened her kids with his drunken rantings. He moved around, never telling anyone where he was. We think he lived on the streets for a while. Pat was an outdoorsman, who loved to fish. For a couple of years he lived in a motel for transients, never leaving except to go to the package store across the street. Eventually, another sister decided to take him under her wing and fix him, this time in New Hampshire. By then he was ill-suited to normal company, grizzled and thin, uninterested in niceties like hygiene. This sister couldn’t help him either, and he ended up spending the summer of 2003 in a tent in a state campground, drinking every day.

Then, he came home. He drove my dad and his wife crazy for a little while, and then got a good job for the first time in years. Within a couple of weeks, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Three months later, he was dead.

Pat died in bleak, ugly January. His funeral was extraordinarily sad. At one time or another, each of his siblings had made a huge effort to save him from himself. But Pat wouldn’t, couldn’t, be saved. A week after he died, his high school girlfriend contacted my dad and said that she had Pat’s son, now in his early thirties. I was electrified; the son of my father’s twin would be the next best thing to a big brother. But she chose to break off contact before we even had a chance to find out his name. We don’t know what, if anything, he knows about Pat. He’s in Oklahoma somewhere. I think of him pretty often.

So, last Sunday everyone gathered to dedicate the witch hazel planted in Pat’s memory. Trees for my grandparents are planted in the same park. It was a beautiful day, the kind found exclusively in my hometown in October, where the trees are so vibrant and the sky is so blue that sorrow seems impossible. A new baby, Patrick, made his first appearance at the ceremony. He is the firstborn of his generation. He is fat and beautiful and didn’t cry at all. He was the only one.

I was angry at Pat because he caused so much pain to people I love. And because he’s my father’s twin and my mother’s classmate, and his mortality cast an ugly light on some issues I’m nowhere near ready to face. Finally, I was angry because if a smart, handsome, adored son of my family can become a skinny, dirty, toothless wreck living on public land, almost any bad thing is possible.

At the ceremony, after the piper wandered off alone in accordance with custom, I found myself standing next to my uncle Tim. We were both admiring the tree, a slim young thing with coppery leaves. It was a really lovely service, I said. He had organized it. He turned to me, smiling, and I saw that tears were still running down his cheeks. I had been feeling peaceful, but a monstrous anger swept over me suddenly. What good was a stupid tree to people who had lost their brother? How could my father be comforted by white winter blooms when his twin was gone? How could a tree repay anyone for the lost promise that was Pat?

My uncle sighed. We did the best we could, he said. I don’t know if he was talking about the tree or about Pat, but I guess at this point, it’s irrelevant.


Here’s what I read at the service. It’s an Irish song (minus one verse)

The Parting Glass

Of all the money that e’er I spent
I’ve spent it in good company
And all the harm that ever I did
Alas it was to none but me
And all I’ve done for want of wit
To memory now I can’t recall
So fill to me the parting glass
Good night and joy be with you all

Oh, all the comrades that e’er I had
They’re sorry for my going away
And all the sweethearts that e’er I had
They’d wish me one more day to stay
But since it falls unto my lot
That I should rise and you should not
I’ll gently rise and softly call
Good night and joy be with you all