The Changing of the Guard

I got home from ferrying children to various and sundry activities, birthday parties and events to my husband’s cryptic
announcement: “Your Uncle Keith called. He will be by tomorrow after church. He has a surprise thing to ask you, and some things to give you. It was all very mysterious. I asked how he’d been feeling and he said he’d tell you about that too.”

“Oh!” I pondered all of this. “Well, it certainly sounds mysterious. But I will love to see him. I hope he’s okay.”

Uncle Keith is my daddy’s oldest brother. My daddy of near epic proportions, idolized since childhood, and mourned since he went to heaven at 56-years-young, just 12 hours after the birth of my third daughter. He and my mother gave my sister and I the childhood that fairytales are made of.  I missed hearing him preach. His laugh. His encouragement. The love of family and history that we shared.

Into that gap was the rich history of our extended family and all of my daddy’s brothers and sisters – Uncle Keith, Uncle Hubert, Aunt Margaret and Aunt Nancy. The stories. The family get-togethers, the myriad of inside family jokes that no one else would ever understand.

But Uncle Keith is the oldest uncle. He encouraged my writing from day one. As a single mother, I lived with he and Aunt Wandnetta (“Aunt Neato”) for six weeks until Eden and I found a place of our own after our move from St. Louis and my parent’s home to Joplin. He circled possibilities in red pen in the paper and presented them to me every day when I finished teaching. He reminds me of my dad in some ways, or at least he is a tenuous thread to all that I loved about daddy, because you see, he loved him too.

I had eaten gallons of homemade ice cream and countless burgers from White Castles with Uncle Keith and the rest of the clan. I watched him express rare emotion at my daddy’s funeral, along with the rest of my aunts and uncles.

My daddy valued family. Therefore, I had grown up stitching my young life into all of theirs, and so now, I valued them too. More deeply than the silly press of daily, ordinary life would show.

So when the doorbell rang, I was shocked to see folks who seemed older than I had frozen them standing on my porch. “Uncle Keith! Aunt Neato! Come in! We’re just making omelets, sausage and coffee cake. Want to stay?”

“No, no,” my practical aunt remonstrated. “Thank you dear, but we’re here on a mission.”

“Okay…” I hugged them and my voice trailed off.

They wandered into the kitchen with us, but Uncle Keith seemed agitated. Joy puppy was relentless in her playful barking, but we finally migrated out of there into the family room. My husband graciously agreed to finish up in the kitchen.

“Where are all the girls?” They wanted to know.

“Well, only Em is home. It’s Ellie’s turn with Mimi, and Eden invited Elexa to go with her for lunch and ice cream since the older girls got a sleepover there last night.”

Uncle Keith and Aunt Neato smiled. We exchanged brief small talk and I inquired for the hundredth time of Aunt Neato why I couldn’t get my bread to turn out like hers. Turns out, it might be all in the shortening.

I sat on the couch next to Uncle Keith and he began by handing me a gift bag, lime green and turquoise, printed with flowers and bedecked with curling ribbon on the handles.

“What’s this?”

“You can look at it later. I have some things I want to tell you. To ask you.”

“Okaaay…”

I looked at his tall, fit, bony frame and in his profile, again saw my dad. We both teared up.

“How long has it been since Don’s been gone?”

“Fourteen years, Uncle Keith.” I sighed. “I miss him every day.”

“I do too.” He cleared his throat. “That’s what I want to talk to you about it, in part. When your aunt and I pass on, (big pause, and Aunt Neato chimed in, “And that’s likely coming right up.” She is matter of fact and reminds me they’ll both be 80 in May.) we’d like contributions to be made to the Sigler Scholarship fund at Ozark Christian College – the one we set up in honor of your dad when he died.”

I nodded and my tears spilled over.

“I want to pass something on to you. Seems like you’d be the logical one to take up the mantle.”

I smile because Uncle Keith is still a proper English professor, even though he’s long since retired.

“Okay,” I chirp for the third time. “What’s up?”

“I think you should now be the one to write the letters of encouragement to the scholarship recipients and the thank you notes to the donors instead of me.” He falters. “I haven’t done as well with it as I’d hoped.”

We look at each other and we are both crying.

“Baby,” Aunt Neato says lovingly, “just get out what you want to tell her.”

My husband has settled in his usual chair and Emmy has crept down from upstairs to hug them both and snuggle next to me, sensing — something.

Uncle Keith snatches the gift bag back, with a sealed envelope that I think contains mementoes unrelated to that task. My name is on it is his sloping hand. The rest are names and letters from scholarship recipients.

“Understand that I still expect a thank you note if I make donations.” His trademark humor is back.

“Of course I’ll send one,” I shoot back. “I’ve never missed your Christmas card! And…Uncle Keith, I’m honored. Seriously.”

“There’s something else…” He trails off, uncharacteristically teary again.

I look at my aunt.

“He’s kind of emotional, dear.” She says to me. I don’t understand. That is not typical Uncle Keith.

I put my arm around him, tearing up more just because I love him.

“Don’t touch me,” he shakes his head and frowns. I think it’s because I am making this harder, but he grins at me through his tears and I think he might be teasing, because he says, “I meant the puppy.”

I sit and wait, and reach out for his hand. This time he doesn’t pull it away. He explains that he’s known he hasn’t felt right for some time. He’s had an MRI and it shows…it shows… He takes the longest time to get this out, waiting for Aunt Neato’s encouragement.

“My brain is atrophying. It’s, it’s shrinking.”

I gasp. “Your brain, Uncle Keith? YOUR brain? That can’t be right. You’re the scholarly one. The sharp one. The one who remembers everything…”

He talks about physical therapy and when the puppy places her tattered fox before him, looking longingly for play, Aunt Neato tells me, “He can’t see that there, honey.” Oh.“I need you to be positive for me and I’d appreciate your prayers.”

I can’t stand it. I throw my arms around him. In my family we hugged more than in his, but I can’t help it.

I’m sorry. Just so, so sorry. Through our tears we laugh as I repeat a story my daddy told me about one of his trips to Hutchinson, Kansas to visit his brother and attend the National Junior College Basketball tournament. A ball player, grammar test in hand, climbed the bleachers to dispute a grade. “Mr. Sigler,” he said to Uncle Keith, my meticulously grammar-bound Uncle Keith, “you be hard on me.”

We rolled with laughter. I could only imagine the score if that’s the way he talked.

“Pray for me.” He pats my hand.

You know I will,” I say. I look over at Aunt Neato. “You guys are on my orange and white striped prayer cards. I have walked and prayed for you every week since…” I look at my husband.

“Since we moved in this house eight years ago,” he confirms.

“Really, honey?” Aunt Neato looks touched. “Well, bless your heart.”

For some reason, I run and get the beautiful black and white photograph of the perfect 1950s Sigler family. Grandpa Earl, Grandma Eva and all five of their children, one of whom is my daddy; one of whom is my Uncle Keith. He looks dapper. Distinguished. Life is at his best. It is framed and on the white hutch in my kitchen. It ALWAYS stays there. We look at it together and marvel.

In such pictures, such eras of life, you don’t imagine losing a younger brother. Getting the news that your brain is shrinking.

I need levity. “So, Uncle Keith…do you need me to call you up and ask you hard questions to keep you sharp?”

His quick wit surfaces and he retorts, “Yes, I still have my faith in God. That’s the hardest one. Next question.”

Touche.

He demonstrates for Greg how he won’t be able to pass the heel-toe sobriety test if he gets pulled over. We laugh.

He sobers up. “I can’t drive at night anymore.” I know he mourns the loss of independence. “But,” he straightens, “I am happy to report that my daytime driving is still better than my wife’s!” He throws an ornery grin to Aunt Neato.

“Augggh,” she says, and stands. “He just needs to hang on the stair railings, or,” she gives me a saucy grin, “to me.”

They love each other, these two.

“We need to go.” Uncle Keith stands and gestures to the bag. “When you’ve done this about twenty years, you can pass it on to one of your girls.”

The changing of the guard.

I walk them to the car, hanging on to Uncle Keith’s arm. He bats it away. “Why are you treating me like an old man?”

“I am not. I am being respectful of my elders, the way I was taught!” I grin at him.

“Well. In that case…” he grins and I open the van door for him.

“I love you guys,” I choke.

“You know we feel the same,” Aunt Neato says.

I stand on the sidewalk and blow kisses, the sun glistening off my tears. I am officially the grown-up, a keeper of family history in  a way I wasn’t yet prepared for.

“You haven’t seen the last of me!” Uncle Keith calls.

I wave violently. The changing of the guard. And life goes on.

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Cindy Sigler Dagnan

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