Uncle Dorian was doing well for ninety-six, if by “well” you mean healthy, with a good appetite, able to get around the house, attend to his private functions unassisted, sit engrossed by the radio all day, and get himself into and out of his clothes and his bed. It’s just that for ten years no one had understood a word he said.
He was the master of the monosyllable and seemed contented, so we just went with it.
That’s not to say we didn’t converse, even if our conversations would go something like this:
“Good morning, Uncle Dorian, are you feeling well this morning?”
“You did? Well, isn’t that something?”
“Well, you know what? You’re in luck. I think that’s exactly what we have. I’ll bring you a bowl. Large?”
“Oh, listen to you!”
“Oh, I don’t think one or two would hurt. Mustard or hot sauce?”
Yes, every now and then he would say something intelligible, but you wondered if it wasn’t like the monkeys typing.
On the rare occasions when someone unfamiliar with the situation would come over, we would discreetly advise them to pretend to understand him. It really was the best way to handle it, and if he was asking where his slippers were and got sardines, there are worse things. Like us, he went with it. The trick was to keep things running smoothly, like when Uncle Jake, not what you would call technologically advanced, would play the attract screen of video games for hours, and just have the best time.
The only thing, besides fuzz balls on his sweat pants, that really agitated Uncle Dorian was someone going “Huh?” or “What’d you say?” or “I didn’t understand you.” Aunt Hortense having one of her days when she declared life not worth living and tried to lure him into a discussion about the meaninglessness of life wouldn’t faze him, but “Huh?” would throw him into an existential crisis only ice cream could pull him out of. It was painful to see him so unhappy. I don’t know how it was, but when Uncle Dorian was out of sorts, it was like the universe itself was awry.
Honestly there are days when I agree with Aunt Hortense, but that’s another story. But—and this is something we learned from Uncle Dorian—if life doesn’t mean anything, then it means whatever you say it does. I try to remember that.
Like with myself, I try to limit the questions I ask Uncle Dorian to true or false, or yes or no, and never fill in the blank or multiple choice, if I can help it.
Never “Uncle Dorian, do you want a blanket, something to drink, a bowl of ice cream, or Saskatchewan?” Saskatchewan is the cat.
Or “Uncle Dorian, what have you been doing lately?”
More troubled stare.
But “Uncle Dorian, are you warm and comfortable?”
Not “What does life mean?” Troubled stare. But “Does life mean anything?”
So the day the preacher paid a call, we were a little apprehensive.
The senior pastor, no less, who slid into the driveway in his Cadillac as we peeked out the windows like meth cookers, and strode to the door. I met him with the usual warning.
“Pretend I understand him?” he clarified.
The Reverend smiled and said, “We miss him at church,” and I guess they did since he hadn’t been in fifteen years, but I would say that was understandable.
At his age. And, frankly, I think his age was behind the Reverend’s visit.
“You have to get your priorities right,” the Reverend said as he sat down across from Uncle Dorian who was picking at a fuzz ball on his sweat pants.
“Uncle Dorian, are you warm and comfortable?” I asked.
Pick pick. “Thip,”
“Do you have a church family?” asked the Reverend.
Pick pick. “Zat.”
“I believe the rain will hold off today,” I said.
“Yes!” exclaimed the Reverend, “of course it’s possible to make a provision for the church in your will!”
“Cream and sugar?” I asked.
“We have three plans to choose from—the silver, gold, and platinum. Of course we feel the best value is the platinum.”
“Mig grunt.” Uncle Dorian was searching for a new fuzzball.
“Platinum? That’s wonderful!”
“The squirrels are back,” I said.
“Can he sign his name?” asked the Reverend.
“Sir, there are some minor legalities that will require your signature. Will you be able to furnish that?”
“Huh? What’d you say? I didn’t understand you.”
Uncle Dorian wheezed like he’d been stabbed then went catatonic. I faked a call to 911, which got rid of the Reverend in a hurry.
But it took a large bowl of strawberry ice cream, some Glen Miller, Saskatchewan, and an extra foot pillow to calm down Uncle Dorian.
Life goes on whether it means anything or not. And once again the universe had narrowly escaped going awry.