The Last Time

The last time I saw my uncle, I concluded that a wife should not take too good care of her husband. I had just dropped Uncle Will off at a relative’s house in my hometown in northern Ohio.  I had talked him into attending my niece’s wedding in Indianapolis 2 days earlier, hoping to boost his spirits since the death of his wife, my aunt and godmother, 3 months earlier. I also wanted to see him since I hadn’t been able to visit from my current home on the west coast before she died.

After time as a naval photographer during World War II, Will had spent his life as a traveling salesman, driving the interstate from Cincinnati to Sarasota selling trinkets, clothing, even certificates for surgery. He was a burly man, raised in burly Chicago, with a sharp, loud laugh and a constant string of stories of what he bought and sold. “Guess what I paid for that” was his favorite phrase.

From him, I understood the concept of capitalism. The refrigerator magnets he bought may have cost only a nickel apiece, but if he sold them for a dime, his profit was pretty good percentage-wise. You have to sell quite a few magnets to support a high lifestyle, though, which is why my aunt and uncle’s credit card bills were high. At the age of 83, Will was still driving bargains and the latest in his string of nice cars, preferably Cadillacs. He bought an XLR roadster after my aunt’s death and drove it down to Florida.
That was the car he drove to Indianapolis for my niece’s wedding. A trip that should have taken 2 hours from Cincinnati on familiar roads took him 6 hours and involved the highway patrol in two states, the local police in two counties, and the Cadillac Onstar customer service agents. Sometime after midnight, the police located him at a convenience store 40 miles north of Indianapolis. The policeman who caught up to him as my brother was filing the missing person report said he thought Will was drunk. He had been driving slowly with his bright lights and flashers on. While my dad and brothers drove to get him, Will spent the time showing the features of his new car to the police officer.

Since it was clear Will couldn’t drive himself back to Cincinnati, I volunteered to do so. After all, I had encouraged him to come. Now as the passenger in his own roadster, he pointed out all the exits he’d taken the day before, trying to find the way to the wedding. And then he dozed. That night I stayed with him in his rental house (he’d sold the house he and my aunt lived in a few weeks before). Instead of his usual salesman’s bluster, he had become docile, agreeing to everything I said. He lost his bearings on the way back from dinner at his favorite restaurant that night. He had me drive by his old house on our way there. He spent the rest of the evening dozing in front of the TV and slept sitting up on the couch all night, unwilling to go to the bed where my aunt no longer slept.  Next morning, I drove his other Cadillac, an Escalade littered with samples of goods to sell, four hours north to my hometown, where Will would stay with another aunt until his daughter could get there. As I left him standing next to my aunt in the driveway, I knew it would be the last time I saw him.

No one expected my uncle to outlive my aunt. Rosemary was 8 years younger, and Will had had bypass surgery, abdominal surgery, and many years of cigarettes and alcohol. Rosemary had tended the house, cooked, shopped, even mowed the lawn. She made my uncle’s coffee every morning and his cocktail every night. She also took care of the business – insurance, taxes, bills, the bookkeeping for his sales, years of receipts tucked away in manila envelopes labeled in her meticulous handwriting. She had once told me, “Everyone needs someone to take care of.” She was his fourth, maybe fifth, wife. They had married in their 40s and never had children together. During her decline from cancer, though, she confessed that she had done everything for Will and maybe “that wasn’t good.” As a tribute to her, I made him coffee, which I rarely drink, on my last morning with him.

Now, barely a month after getting lost on that Indiana highway, the roadster and the Escalade are gone, sold to help pay the large credit bills. His warehouses of goods have been sold. Uncle Will now sits dozing before the TV in a nursing home in Utah, where his daughter lives.