My Uncle Bill taught me how to skip rocks and fish up on Lake Champlain in Vermont, and by “fish” I mean I would catch and release tiny yellow perch with a pout of excruciating boredom across my face until he caught an actual trout. Then he’d hand it off to me and we’d race up the dock to the house he was renting, him giving me all the glory. “Look at this beauty! Can you believe this little pipsqueak nabbed such a big fish all by herself?!”
I thought about him a lot as I was riding south through Vermont last week. He lived in a couple different states but for a while he was near Rutland. My grandmother would drive her grey Chevy Celebrity up Route 7 to visit him and my Aunt Carol. He was the oldest of her five children, the one who took her to hot air balloon festivals in Arizona, the one who drove her cross country to see California and Mount Saint Helens. The only one she lost.
Most of my memories of my Uncle Bill are from Candlewood Lake in Danbury, CT. That’s where he had the speedboat. That’s where he would yell, “I’m letting go so you better take the wheel!” as we’d go whipping across the surface at speeds that seemed unimaginably dangerous to my eight year old self.
Losing Bill to lung cancer in 1996 was devastating for everyone. He was only 56. Way way way way way too young.
I’m circling the lake today remembering how he and Carol were always out there on their boat for the Fourth of July fireworks that were set off from the island near the Danbury Town Park. I’m remembering the sound of his gravelly deep laugh, how tall he was. How much fun it was at their wedding because Lionel Ritchie’s Dancing on the Ceiling had just been released and the videographer kept turning the camera upside down on the dance floor so it would look like we were on the ceiling too.
I’m circling the lake slowly through Sherman, thinking about how tired I am today, so tired of riding, and for a minute I have the audacity to complain. Immediately there’s Joanna cheering me on. “When you’re finished you can light the bike on fire if you want! For now, ride Jenny ride!” And I just want to smack myself for being such an ass.
How lucky I was to get so many summers with my Uncle Bill as a kid, to have this treasure trove of memories of his smiling face tossing horseshoes in my grandmother’s backyard, because not everybody gets that. I’m circling the lake somehow forgetting about Joanna’s daughter Eleanor who will never get to know her Uncle Frankie, another awesome uncle gone way way way too soon, also to lung cancer just this past January.
So how about I shut up, remove my foot from my mouth, and ride for her?
Of course Eleanor has other great uncles, just like I do, but I know that Frank would have been to her what Bill was to me. I hate that my mom and Joanna both lost perfect amazing totally awesome big brothers, idols. Frankie, the jokester who was always laughing, every single time I ever saw him. Either laughing, or cracking a joke, or trying to jump off the roof of the Contorno’s house into the pool. How impossible is it to lose that person?
I continue past Squantz Pond through New Fairfield and back into Danbury. I’m passing the Amber Room where Ericka and I went to the prom twenty years ago. It’s also where I ran the Ann’s Place 5K along with Frank’s wife Lauren back in August before I started pedaling. And I’m thinking of my Aunt Carol and Lauren losing husbands, best friends. The utter impossibility of it all.
Heading home from the lake I ride down Hayestown past Abbot Tech and over Hospital Avenue. I pass the Praxair Cancer Center where Frank, Ericka and countless others received their chemotherapy. I take White Street to Cross Street and start up the back side of Old Shelter Rock to Skyline. I’m crying long before reaching my grandmother’s house, which still hasn’t sold since she passed over a year ago. When I finally get there I lean my bike against her mailbox and collapse onto the grass.
The maple tree in the backyard is gone now. The one my teeny tiny Grams pulled a large branch from out of frustration and anger, slashing a huge gash into her leg right after Bill died. Mothers are not supposed to lose their children at any age. I cry for the pain she felt. I cry for Frank’s mom Cathy.
I started today for my uncle and I ended it for the Contorno’s, every single one of them. Frank wasn’t just a delightful human being; he was a beacon of light amongst his family and in his community. Hundreds of people attended his funeral. Nine months later friends continue to post messages to his Facebook wall. The King Street Intermediate School where he worked planted a tree and dedicated a bench to him, engraving it with Live Laugh Love. He was so important to so many people.
Losing a family member to cancer is gut wrenching and atrocious. As a family mine has had many years to grieve but the Contorno’s have only had a few months. The loss is so fresh, so visceral.
Joanna I’m sorry for complaining. I love you so much. Thank you for waking me back up to what really matters.