Looking up at a dreamy blue sky sprawled to infinity over the the open frame of the quad and past the pale gray angles of the chapel, not a speck of cloud or haze, truest blue, sparrows flicking across it and into it and away from it to the ground. A bright day, and warm without being hot, an achingly beautiful day to pause and look up and breathe in and think that my Uncle Kevin was rapidly sliding away from us.
“Uncle.” The word doesn’t do justice. An uncle is a fun guy, or a creep, or a laugh, or just a mild man who shares some nebulous past with one of your parents. But my family has never been as loosely connected as so many are. Uncles to me were part of the fabric of every day. No holiday or vacation or weekend even without at least one or two of my uncles. And if only one, it was Kevin. My father’s closest brother in age, best friend, constant conversation.
Nothing of my childhood even exists without Kevin and Tricia, John and Mike. Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays, part of every weekend and many weekdays. Every summer gap filled in with their Hull house, running up the stairs through patchwork sunlight and white curtains floating in and out with the salt air rushing across the hill from the water below, racing across the loose-nailed boards of the deck, holing up in the swingset fort with coloring books and crayons, watching the bay down the hill fill up with jellyfish, dashing salty across the beach to the ice cream truck in the orange afternoon sun, Uncle Kevin following behind to count off cash for bomb pops and strawberry eclairs and king cones even if maybe he has to get the cash from Dad or Tricia first, nights in the house cloaked in cool humid salt air, telling the tides by nose, and watching the moon and the planets through the telescope on the deck. One night out there with Dad and Mom and Kevin and Tricia and the other adults, past my bedtime, all the other kids asleep but me and Mikey, a toddler at the time, our heads craned back, watching the earth’s dash through a meteor shower, nothing to see but the deck and the sky, the stars and the meteors, like we’re sailing through space on the bridge of a ship, Mike’s eyes as round as his apple cheeks, Kevin holding him in one arm and pointing out at the show with the other.
The house we shared in the Vineyard after that. Beach days and frozen lemonade, jumping off the bridge, evenings heading into town, Mom and Tricia cleaning up or maybe getting a moment of peace while Dad and Kevin take us for a walk and an ice cream, Kevin in his salt-and-pepper vacation beard singing songs he doesn’t know the words to as we drive through the August night. Long days bodysurfing in the waves or riding the current at the cut at Long Point, the same place where I sat on another dream-blue-sky day watching seagulls create an intricate history of not-quite-identical arcs overhead, shade tent a burst of geometry against the blue, waves rumbling and foaming onto the sand, when Dad got the call from Tricia telling us what we already saw but didn’t want to know, that things weren’t good, that we didn’t have much time left. Dad’s voice quiet as he told us, his eyes out on the waves. The water and the sand and the sun and the gulls in the place we had shared so many moments. An achingly beautiful day to pause and look up and breathe in and think that my Uncle Kevin was rapidly sliding away from us.
I was rolling toward my 30th birthday, a milestone, intimidating even if you don’t want to admit that something as arbitrary as a number can be, working on wrapping up the Master’s that could tell me I hadn’t gotten there with nothing whatsoever to show for it, listening in the background to the Sox thinking about another World Series – the last evening I spent with Kevin that he was awake, just him and me and Kevin A., my godfather, my godson, and me, the game on the TV, the regular season nearing its end, the playoffs beckoning – and losing Uncle Kevin so quickly, floored by the loss in a way I thought was invisible but which was written all over me.
It’s been ten years. I’m rolling toward my 40th birthday, a milestone, even more intimidating than the last. This decade has gone by so fast I can barely wrap my mind around it, and I just spent a week back in the Vineyard, sat on that beach, listened to – no, felt – those waves colliding with the shore, tugging at my feet, splashing up at my face. I’m working on wrapping up the next Master’s that can tell me I haven’t gotten here with nothing whatsoever to show for it, listening in the background to the Sox thinking about another World Series, and wondering whether I can find a way to jump into the next ten years so that even if they’re so fast they blur, it’s a blur of semi-colons and exclamation points, not ellipses and parentheses.
I’m still floored by his loss, especially on a particular kind of late summer day with the dream-blue sky you see after a storm has migrated through scouring out every scrap of cloud and haze as it goes, when it’s warm without being hot and birds trace arcs across the blue, an achingly beautiful day to pause and look up and breathe in and think of what we’ve lost, and what we’ve learned, and how sorrow has changed us, and what we can do to make the most of all we still have, all we got from Uncle Kevin and all we get from each other and all we make for ourselves.