I was sitting in Uncle Richard’s studio one night, smelling the kerosene that came from the heater. There is nothing quite like the smell of kerosene and books – I have never smelled it elsewhere, and to this day when I smell something similar I am immediately transported to his little studio surrounded by oak trees. We had been discussing some project or another – he and I were always working on something. It might have been a musical (I started several, which I never finished) or a book (I have 1st, 2nd, and 3rd chapters of hundreds), or who knows what. We even worked on comic books. He was always encouraging me to stretch myself farther, to push the limits of my creativity.

Uncle Richard: You are a multifaceted individual. Do you know what that means?

Me: Like, a lot of interests?

Uncle Richard: Yes. A lot of abilities in different areas. You have a responsibility to each of those areas, to cultivate them. I don’t want to ever see you give up on yourself.

I nodded, and he settled further into his chair.

Uncle Richard: Do you know why I come here, to my studio?

I shook my head, but whether I answered or not would have made no difference – he was deep in thought. Ruminating.

Uncle Richard: I come here to get away from myself. And I can’t. I take me with me everywhere I go.

I chuckled, but his eyes flashed.

Uncle Richard: I’m quite serious.

Me: You don’t like yourself?

He thoughtfully shook his head. I could not believe it. This was the coolest person I knew – comfortable in any situation. If I ever had to be an adult, I wanted to grow up like him. Hell, he could have been introduced at Buckingham Palace and charmed the pants off the Royal Family. A guy who came up from nothing – literally – and had that amount of class and charisma remains impressive to me. I think he must have seen some of this on my face, because he looked dismayed.

Uncle Richard: Don’t look up to me.

But I did. I do. I can’t help it.

Me: Why shouldn’t I?

Uncle Richard: Because I am a coward.

He was growing morose – when he turned his eyes inward and started boxing with himself it was somewhat upsetting to watch. It was like Muhammad Ali vs Muhammad Ali – nobody won, but there was a lot of blood. I wasn’t sure what to say – he was smarter than I was, and anything I said he could counteract with an intellectual left hook. Besides, something was clearly bothering him. I was a skilled field surgeon in the area of the psyche by then – I was constantly picking out shrapnel from my Mom, myself, or my brother. This was one person I never expected to need my help – and in fact he probably didn’t. He was just licking old wounds. Every part of me wanted to help him, to say something as wise and witty as he always did, but I didn’t know how. I just sat there. He finally looked up.

Uncle Richard: You, though. You I admire.

I blinked.

Uncle Richard: You are fearless.

He put a hand on my head, a weary fighter taking a break in the corner of the ring.

Uncle Richard: Fearless. And don’t you forget it.

If only he knew.

 

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