There must be something wrong with me because the first thing I think about when I get back to my parents’ house is writing. I might have seen my uncle for the last time today and the first thing I think about is writing my blog.
Is this any different than someone oversharing on social media?
Maybe not. I write because I don’t have any other talents. That’s how I make sense of the world around me.
Also it helps me remember. I have a terrible memory and I need to remember.
My uncle found out yesterday that he has lung cancer and things aren’t looking good. The emotion on the forefront when I heard the news was gratitude. I was grateful I heard now and not after I had left. This is a chance, given to me, and moreover,
it was mercy.
You have to take it when it’s offered to you.
I have two uncles, Mikko and Karl, my mum’s younger brothers. We lost my uncle Mikko over a year ago. Both my uncles have had issues with alcoholism. I have spoken of my uncle Mikko and of my mum’s side of the family in other blog posts in case you’re interested in having a read.
Despite battling similar issues and living similar lifestyles of solitude, my uncles have one major difference: a few years ago we found out that my uncle Karl has a daughter, who was given to adoption without his knowledge.
I’ve been staying out of the whole situation because when we found out about my cousin Lily I was in university in the UK and was going through my own stuff. When I saw a picture of her, there wasn’t a question whether Lily was my uncle’s daughter. She has his prominent nose.
Then I pretty much forgot about the whole thing. My uncle isn’t the easiest person to get to know or get along with but over the years they’ve grown closer. After my uncle’s girlfriend, Evelyn, passed away, he moved to be closer to her and her three children. My uncle who refused to move in together with his girlfriend of ten years.
When Lily found out that we were coming to visit Karl, she pretty much insisted joining us. We’ve never met face to face and she had mentioned before that she would like to meet me.
I wasn’t too bothered to be honest. Does this make me a cold person? Despite us being cousins she is a complete stranger and I really wanted to spend time alone with my uncle, who I haven’t seen in at least five years.
Maybe it’s because my weird background. Neither of my parents are in speaking terms with most of their family members and my family has pretty much always consisted of them, that’s it. The fact that someone is related to me just doesn’t compel me one way or another. If I don’t like the person, I have no problem having nothing to do with them.
My uncle Karl is pretty much the only exception. He made irregular appearances when I was a kid, teaching me things like skiing. My dad was travelling for work a lot at the time and in a way uncle Karl stepped in for that presence at the time.
I have a vivid memory of uncle Karl walking on an ice rink, holding one end of an ice hockey stick. I’m holding on to the other end, trying not to fall over on my skates.
I don’t think my dad ever had the time to do such things, whenever I think about moments like that, I see uncle Karl.
He’s always had a wicked sense of humour. One time after we got to his flat he insisted I took a hold of a book and pretended to read it so he could take a photo. I was maybe five or six. I told him I can’t read.
I saw the photo years later. The book was Iliad and Odyssey.
He’d say he was going to write his grand novel and dedicate it to me, titled Iron nails of Finland in full colour.
With those memories I went to see my uncle at a mental ward. He is bipolar and has been struggling. He was a bit concerned about what I would think about him being on the ward but in her unique style my mum replied ‘stop faffing, Ida’s been on one too.’
It was quite interesting to visit a Finnish mental health ward after being in an English one. There were less security measures and less locked doors. Nurses were still friendly.
My uncle was in room number three. Three is a prominent number in my family, it’s my mum’s lucky number: one reason why my name has three letters.
I hardly recognised the man who got up from his bed and came to give me a hug. It had been five years but he had aged fifteen. My well-built 6”5 uncle had withered and become so frail that he looked almost see-through.
Mum went to his flat to get some things and my cousin had to stay back at work so things went exactly as I had hoped: I got to spend some time alone with uncle Karl.
“It’s nice that you came”, he said.
From my uncle it’s a rare compliment.
Mostly we compared our experiences in the loony bin. The routines and the practices. My experience had been much more strict than his. He was allowed a phone charger in his room and would keep his nicotine pills in his room despite having been told to hand them over in the nurses’ office. At my ward they would’ve been confiscated immediately.
“People with a talent for writing always end up in the loony bin”, he said. “Just look at all the great authors throughout history, they’ve all ended up in a funny farm.”
He started listing out names and I felt a warm flicker at the pit of my stomach because he sounded like his old self more than at any other time during this visit.
He stopped quickly though and started on one of his tirades. Like many ex-alcoholics, uncle Karl keeps going about the same two or three things over and over. I tried my best to distract him and to save my nerves.
I asked his opinion of the way ‘yogurt’ was spelled on the ward menu. In Finland there is a debate of whether ‘yogurt’ is spelled with an o ‘jogurtti’ or with an u ‘jugurtti.’
There is only one other person who gets wound up over spelling and grammar in my family, that’s uncle Karl.
He seemed to think about it and then said a word that was neither of the two. It sounds stupid but my heart sank. This is a topic he would’ve gotten revved up before, which would’ve led him to another grammar tirade, or three and his annoyance over something that could be seen as minor in the face of the rest of the world made me laugh. He just didn’t have that air of annoyance in him anymore.
Now I do it too. My profession even requires it. I was looking forward to sharing our quirk he probably helped to create.
I tell him about my new job. He doesn’t ask about it.
My parents aren’t avid readers so Uncle Karl took over my literary education. For every birthday and Christmas he got me a gift card for the biggest book shop in Helsinki and hassled me until I read the books he saw as worthwhile (there weren’t many that were published past 1800s). My love for literature was probably a birth quality but he definitely nurtured it.
Uncle Karl never gets anyone gifts. My mum has never received a gift from him.
I get cross with him at one point when he starts slagging her off for getting too involved with his business. I remind him how he doesn’t need to take care of any practicalities these days because mum has taken over paying his bills for him.
We swear a lot in my family so ‘don’t talk shit’ isn’t a declaration of war but nobody slags my mum off. He realises to back off and I must’ve become an adult because he would’ve never let me get away with challenging him as a teenager.
We have a weird dynamic. Uncle Karl isn’t really interested in anyone else but himself. He never asks anyone how they are, not my mum or me after five years of not seeing each other.
Still at the same time he has shown me more tenderness than any other person in his life.
My book gift tokens.
Birthday cards he still sends religiously even though he has never sent anyone else in my family a birthday card.
The last time I visited him, I found out he had cut out my column from the copies of the uni newspaper mum had given him and put them up next to his bed with blue tack.
And still, mum and I are acutely aware that if either one of us had had cancer, he would’ve never come over the next day.
Of course we talk about the cancer. I’m not afraid of death. That trying to embrace a moving train did to me – I’m not afraid to die. I ask is he scared. He says no but he is visibly afraid. I’m quite surprised because uncle Karl is a stoic free-thinker of his own description. I guess I would’ve expected him to react to cancer the same way he does to everything, with a wisecrack and an overtly rational description of the situation.
I wasn’t prepared to meet this scared old man.
He even becomes teary at one point when talking about something that isn’t related to cancer in any way and I have never in my life seen him cry.
When my mum joins us, I am aware that all of us have the same eye colour, which Finns call watergreen, a kind of a blueish green.
I’m not used to people looking alike, most people I consider my relatives aren’t actually blood-related.
When Lily joins us, her eyes are of that same colour.
We say hi. I keep having the feeling that something is expected of me but I don’t know what. Should I hug her? A complete stranger.
Even though she looks familiar. Mostly due to her nose but there are other things. She’s tall and slender like my uncle and both of them have long, thin fingers. Come to think of it her body type is similar to mine before I gained weight from antidepressants. I’ve never had cousins or any other relatives really, I’ve never had a comparison.
When you start comparing, we live completely different lives. She lives on a farm with her husband and three young children and works in healthcare. I live alone in England and I’m a journalist. We’re only five years apart but you couldn’t really make us any different if you tried.
It’s difficult to find a common denominator.
My uncle comments twice how we, Lily and I, don’t get to chat because my mum keeps talking.
I’m grateful to her to be honest. I still have a feeling something is expected of me but I don’t know what it is.
How do you talk to a stranger you know uncomfortably lot about? How do you begin to stitch in the years I spent with her dad, years which I know she feels should’ve been hers?
I show them both my work website. My name is on every story.
One thing has been sacred to my uncle: he’d never hesitate to tell if he thought something I liked was stupid but he never said a bad word about my work.
“None of that’s interesting”, he laughs when I tell Lily what some of the stories are about because she doesn’t speak English.
There isn’t a point in having expectations towards my uncle.
Still I realise I’ve held one.
I’ve learnt to love him even though his illnesses make him unpredictable and he is at times mean.
I’m proud of my achievement though, I’m proud to have this job, and wanted to share it with him. He knows how much I’ve struggled.
It doesn’t insult me as an author. I’m used to criticism, harsh even.
My heart hurts though.
When we’re alone mum tells me that when she went to his flat, there are only two photos: my grandparents’ wedding photo and my picture.
I honestly didn’t expect much.
“Well done”, or something.
Uncle Karl is staying with us. He comes to meet me from school. I’m about seven or eight years old. I usually walk alone or with friends through a small forest so adult company is a rare treat. It’s autumn, the trees are red, orange and golden.
Uncle Karl tells me to stand underneath a large maple tree, against the trunk.
He starts violently shaking the tree from side to side. Hundreds of leaves start falling at once and for a few magical seconds that grow into an eternity I am inside a shower of autumn leaves.