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Uncle Bronty and the Grim Reaper: II

Uncle Bronty’s cancer surgery took part of his jawbone and some other bits from inside his throat. He was more fortunate than Ma had been, 20 years earlier. By ’81, when he was diagnosed, doctors were no longer removing everything in sight, so he didn’t loose his voice. Or at least, not altogether.

Whereas his had been one of those clear, resounding voices which could be heard an 8th of a mile away, his speech, although still loud, had been left badly blurred. One could still, if less easily, understand him, however, if they paid attention. But there is no doubt that chemo is destructive. Although he had not even reached his sixties, Uncle Bronty seemed battered well beyond his age.

He was always a fighter, however, and while various functions, such as swallowing, were more difficult, he carried on. He could evidently be brought to a standstill, but he would never, voluntarily, slow down.

Still, much of the lifestyle that he was accustomed to enjoying was gradually being foreclosed on him, do what he would. His last deer hunt was in the fall of ’88, and it was not a success. Before he and his cronies had gotten the chance to try killing deer, they managed to make a rather good attempt at killing themselves by rolling over the old jeep they were in. Uncle Bronty was rather badly knocked about, although he hadn’t actually broken anything but his glasses.

Since he wore “coke-bottom” lenses, that alone was quite enough to put paid to any chances of his enjoying the outing. He went home to recuperate.

It wasn’t settled whether they would try for a rematch the following year or not, (they’d totaled the jeep for one thing) when the question was taken out of his hands, conclusively.

In July of ’89, the tenant of the little house which he had originally built for Gran came down the driveway past where he was lying on his back, under the jaguar tinkering with its innards. She said hello, he sneezed loudly several times. She asked him if he was all right, by which time he wasn’t. It is just sheer chance that there was a witness on hand.

He was still conscious, but the stroke was a major one, deep in the brain, and inoperable. The ambulance was called at once and we all started spending evenings at the hospital. We were told he might recover, at least partially, if he survived. The first week was critical. And there was also a respiratory infection to complicate matters.

By the time the news reached me and I joined the vigil, four days later, he was lucid and fighting. The paralysis was down his left side. He was able to write, with his right hand. He was not incapable of speech, but it was the paralyzed side of his face which was the intact one, and even Aunt Pisces — who after 40 years should have been qualified to finish his sentences — wasn’t able to quite understand him.

It is impossible to be prepared for such events, but since his blood pressure had been legendary since at least his 30s, the only cause for wonder was that it had been so long delayed. He was discharged from the hospital — to the unalloyed relief of the staff — in September. He had recovered, partially, as had been cautiously predicted. He was able to walk, with a cane. He had the use of his left arm, although not the hand. He still had a stomach tube, since he could not swallow, and his speech was to all general purposes, unintelligible. He had therapy three days a week to work on these, but seemed to make little further progress.

Aunt Pisces took him down to their second house in Carlsbad, next to where her mother and stepfather lived, to continue his recovery, and he went on medical leave from work. He fought, but eventually became reconciled to the changes. Not being able to swallow was the problem which concerned them the most, and it would have been the most humiliating in the long run (entailing always having to keep a towel in reach to spit into), but I think not being able to communicate must have been the more frustrating. Uncle Bronty never took well to frustration.

The only really good thing to come out of it all is that Aunt Pisces had to finally break up the brain trust, and start tapping her principal. She had a good deal more on the ball during this period, and afterwards, than I could ever remember from when we were kids. (Although, I am willing to concede that it is my own perception of the matter which is most likely to be at fault.) The next year when his overall health was stable, they went back east to a clinic in Philadelphia to see what could be done further. After a month, he managed to relearn to swallow, despite the earlier, surgical damage, but he gave us to understand that it was almost more work than it was worth.

Still, he could eat now, even though he was limited to what was of baby food consistency. But he was no longer fit for an active life, and after his company — for which he had worked nearly 50 years, all the way from sweeping floors part-time before he had finished high school, to the position of chief engineer, forcibly retired him, his return being implausible, he was left with few resources to draw upon.

He had never had possessed the level of passivity required for a successful life as a couch potato, and the limited pottering about the yard that he was capable of was both too much and not enough for any degree of satisfaction. Unlike my Dad, he had no natural gift for idleness. His eyesight was such that he had never been encouraged to read, and it had deteriorated even further since the stroke, leaving him unfit to continue to drive. An old Volvo which he had been holding onto was passed to Val’s eldest, once the boy turned sixteen and needed it to get to and from college. An even older Ford was taken off his hands by a pal of my co-worker Michael’s. He even sold his beloved Jaguar.

Uncle Bronty was always a fighter, but he wasn’t really geared to make the adjustments necessary for living with permanent disabilities. He hadn’t the patience to go on fighting for too small a reward. He discontinued his therapy, and began to lose ground. Worse than any of the physical debilities, his mind was no longer as sharp as it had been.

Worst of all, he was aware of it.

At the memorable family 12th Night gathering in 1992, after the four elders left early to return to Carlsbad, the rest of us fretted and worried over them, and came to the conclusion that there was nothing any of us could do about the accident that was so obviously just waiting to happen.

Scarcely two weeks after that gathering, Uncle Bronty had another stroke. Another major stroke. On the other side of the brain. When the grapevine finally reached me, nearly a week later, he was in coma, recovery unlooked-for, and, frankly, unwelcome.

But he held on.

He held on through the rest of the month, until we began to fear that he would survive, when there was nothing left to recover to. But, no, thankfully. He let go, finally, early in the morning, on the first day of February. We buried him on the afternoon of the 5th, as it sluggishly began to rain.

He would have turned seventy at the end of June.

At his funeral, a gaggle of middle-aged fellows from his old plant showed up. “I was his apprentice” one of them said. “We all were.” put in another. Over the period he had been there he had probably trained just about everyone in that particular classification in the place.

Every one of us was sorry that he was gone, but not a one of us could be sorry that it was over.