Family, Loss & Grief

Remembering Uncle Frank

Two years ago today my Uncle Frank passed away after a long battle with cirrhosis, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s Disease.  So this is a post about the fond memories I have of him.

Frank wasn’t my uncle by blood; he married into my family when he married one of my aunts in 1985.  I attended their outdoor Fall wedding at their home when I was 5 years old.  I only have vague memories of that day, but I remember being very interested in the large in-ground swimming pool that was decorated with lily pads for the occasion.  And my mother was frantically trying to keep me and my toddler brother away from it all day long for fear that we would fall in and drown.

Before eventually having kids of his own, Frank didn’t much care for any of us kids in the family.  We were kind of loud and obnoxious and got on his nerves.  Whenever he and my aunt would stay over at the house for family holiday gatherings, he usually sat in the rocking chair in the living room with his face in a newspaper ignoring us.  But after we grew up into adults and were no longer little hellions running around, Frank finally saw eye to eye with us and appreciated our presence.  We had a lot of fun times and countless laughs with him over the years after we grew up.

Frank was a Sales Manager for Exxon Mobil and was very financially successful from it.  As a family, we joked that he “sold grease” for a living.  Over the course of their twenty year marriage, Frank and my aunt lived in various states around the country before finally moving back to our home state and settling into another beautiful large home.  During the summer of 1999 after I graduated from high school, my grandparents and my brother and I took a week long family trip out to their home in Pennsylvania to visit them.  Their two kids were just babies then.  That was the furthest I had ever traveled away from home until then, and it was my first ever cross-country road trip.  It was a 14 hour drive and I got SO bored during that car ride.  And we probably would have made better time if my brother hadn’t made us stop like every fifteen minutes so he could eat or go to the bathroom.

After Frank and his family finally moved back to our hometown, we were at their house all the time.  They moved back in the spring of 2000 when I was 19.  We all spent so much time hanging out there that it was like our second home.  Grandma was always over there helping my aunt plant flowers and babysitting the kids, and I was always over there swimming in their pool, playing with the kids in their 5-story treehouse that Frank had built for them, or just hanging out on the couch.  Frank was a master at the grill, and the entire extended family would go over to the house several times a week during warm weather months to grill burgers and steaks outdoors and hang out together on his deck.

Frank was also an avid boater.  Back when he lived up in New York and Pennsylvania, he often went boating out on the Great Lakes.  He brought his boat with him when he moved back to our home state and even traded it in for a bigger one.  During the summer months, my cousins and I would go boating with Frank out on the lake every single weekend (as long as the weather permitted).  When I was home from college on summer break every year, Frank would call me every Saturday and Sunday morning to invite me out on the boat with him and his two kids.  When I would get up and walk out to the kitchen to answer the phone at 9:00 in the morning, I already knew exactly who was calling before I even picked up the phone.  And every time I answered, the first and ONLY thing Frank would say was “Booooooaaaatiiing???” And I would reply “Yes. Let me get dressed and and I’ll see you in twenty minutes.” And then we would spend all day out on the boat.

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Taking the wheel of Uncle Frank’s boat; summer of 2000

Although Franked loved boating, he did NOT enjoy the process of getting his boat in and out of the water.  Frank kept his boat stored somewhere out in the country, and he would pull it behind his van on a trailer to and from the lake, which was twenty miles away.  Getting the boat in and out of the water was a bit of a struggle for Frank, and it always resulted in him weaving a loud tapestry of curse words.  My job was to grab the ropes and help quickly tie the boat to the dock to keep it in place while he maneuvered the boat trailer in and out of the water.

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Me and Uncle Frank’s daughter chilling in the water; summer of 2000

Frank’s kids were ages six and three when we began boating every weekend.  The youngest one often stayed home with my aunt, but occasionally both kids went boating with us.  Frank’s favorite boating activity was to put each of us in the round donut inter-tube that he had tied behind the boat and then drag the shit out of us in it back and forth across the lake at high speed.  When it came time to unload and hook up the tube, Frank would always announce, “Alright, who’s going to be the first victim…oops, I mean rider?”  Frank’s objective was to throw us out of the tube as quickly as possible, and if one of us somehow managed to hold on for long enough, he would then engage in sudden turns, swerves, and changes of speed in order to eject us out of the tube.  It actually hurt like Hell to ride in that tube because the bottom of it was so thin that your ass would slam against the water while you bounced along.  My entire backside actually used to get badly bruised from being slammed across the lake in the tube all day, and I sometimes broke blood vessels from hitting the water so hard after being thrown out of the tube.

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Relaxing with a beverage in between torture sessions in the inter-tube; summer of 2001

Frank always kept a close watch on whoever was in the tube, and we were to communicate to him whether we wanted him to speed up or slow down by holding our thumb up or down in the air.  Of course, he always ignored us when we signaled for him to slow down.  Grandma and my aunt used to complain about the way Frank manhandled us on the lake.  Grandma would always fuss and fume and exclaim, “Gosh darn it, Frank is way too rough with those kids out on that water; one of them is going to end up getting hurt or killed one of these days!!

Aside from getting our asses torn up and thrown out of the tube at warp speed, our other favorite boating activity was to anchor the boat near a rock cliff in a cove off the lake and relax and swim.  And of course we had to climb up onto the cliff and jump off of it, too.  His kids loved it, but I wasn’t much of a fan of jumping.  That rock wall seemed a lot higher when you were standing on it looking down at the water than when you were looking up at it from the boat.  But I had to jump from it a few times or else Frank would have teased me about it forever.  Here’s an old video clip that Frank took of me, his kids, and my old boyfriend Matt jumping off the rock wall.  This was way back when I was a young whippersnapper in my early 20’s.  The little  kids in this video (my cousins) are now adults in their 20’s, just to give you some perspective on how long ago this was taken.

Interesting true story behind this video:  I did as Frank told me and did not “hold my nose like a girl” like I always do whenever I jump into water.  And the impact of the landing caused water to shoot up into my nose so hard that knocked my new nose piercing completely out and actually damaged my ear drums from the pressure.  So even though you might not be able to tell from the video, I was in A LOT of pain when I re-surfaced the water after that jump.  I passed out from pain during the drive home later that day, and my next door neighbor, who was a Physician’s Assistant/Nurse Practitioner, came over later that evening to put some sort of drops into my ears, packed my ear canals with cotton, and then gave me something to knock me out.  Incidentally, that was also the same night when I woke up several hours later in the middle of the night and saw a UFO right outside of my bedroom window.  No joke!!  Frank laughed at me and said I must have been hallucinating from my injury, but I knew what I saw was real.  But that’s another story for another blog post at another time.

Oddly enough, Uncle Frank was the one who was responsible for Matt and I becoming a couple.  We had been friends for a little while and after inviting him to come boating with us one day, Frank noticed that Matt was crushing on me and persuaded me to give him a chance.  So I did.  To this day, Matt still says he will forever be grateful to Uncle Frank for helping us get together. LOL!

Frank was also a huge NASA space fanatic.  He was very much into telescopes, astronomy, space exploration, geology, physics, and really anything at all pertaining to science, probably because he had a degree in Engineering.  He had a large glass display case in his house full of various rocks and shells.  When his daughter Megan was in elementary school, he helped her create an elaborate board game for a school project: “Journey to Megron”.  It was a board game about journeying through space to the red planet “Megron” (cleverly named after his red-headed daughter).  The game had an eleaborate board, game pieces, and an eloquently worded set of directions.  We actually played it together as a family when he finished it.  I’m sure Meg’s school teacher probably busted a gut laughing when she saw it.  But that was Uncle Frank for ya….always going the extra mile with a dash of his sharp, silly humor added for added effect.

For being such a stern, serious person with such a high-pressure career, Frank was a HUGE jokester.  He could always be counted on to participate in any practical joke that occurred within our family.  Sometimes he orchestrated these shenanigans, and sometimes he was on the receiving end of them.  I remember back at Christmas 2001 when our entire family conspired to surprise him with a homemade version of the infamous leg lamp from one of our favorite Christmas movies, “A Christmas Story”, as a gift.  Unbeknownst to Frank, the entire family was complicit in gathering the necessary materials and then building this lamp.  He opened it on Christmas Day, and when the rest of the family went over to his house on Christmas night for another holiday celebration, he had the lamp displayed in one of his front windows.  By the time he answered the door to let us in, we were all doubled over with laughter.  Frank had already lost it and was laughing before he even opened the door!  He actually kept that ugly looking leg lamp on his home office desk and used it for many years.

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Uncle Frank and the rest of the “female” members of the family pose for a group photo.

I remember one year at either Thanksgiving or Christmas, Frank went down into his home office after dinner and toyed around on his computer for awhile.  When he emerged awhile later, he was grinning from ear to ear, trying to stifle his laughter, and then began passing out what looked like money.  It was fake money.  He had taken a $20 bill, superimposed pictures of Grandpa and his daughter Megan onto the middle of the bills, and then scanned and printed them out.  He called them “Barney Bucks” and “Mega-Bucks”.  He actually made several copies of each and kept some on him at all times.  And every once in awhile he would suddenly reach into his pocket, pull one of them out, hand it to someone, and say, “Here, have some Barney Bucks.”  Due to the fact that Grandpa was so well known and respected in our small town, Frank always joked that “Barney Bucks” were actual legal tender in our town.

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“Barney Bucks”
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“Mega-Bucks”

Frank’s one major downfall, which eventually ended his life at an early age, was that he was a very heavy drinker.  He could go through at least an entire bottle of vodka or Scotch whiskey in a single day, and he always drank them straight on the rocks.  Thirty years of heavy drinking eventually destroyed his liver, and he was diagnosed with Stage 4 cirrhosis and given only a few more years left to live.  Due to his stubborn nature, Frank actually lived several years longer than the doctor thought he would, but it was rough ride.  We watched him lose a lot of weight and grow thin and weak.  He also developed early Alzheimer’s Disease and Parkinson’s Disease, which were likely side affects from decades of heavy drinking.  His hands shook so badly all the time that he could no longer type on his computer for work.  He also had trouble walking and standing and began using a wheelchair.  He sometimes forgot who his kids and other family members were.  Eventually he was forced to retire early from his career at Exxon and received palliative care at home until he died.  I was living in Florida at the time of his death, but I heard that his final few weeks were pretty ugly.  Although he was no longer conscious, he still clung tightly onto life and refused to go.  It was very difficult to watch him deteriorate in his final few years….to see him go from a sharp-minded, disciplined professional and jokester full of laughter and wit to a near vegetable who sometimes didn’t even recognize his own children.

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Uncle Frank slumped over on his couch and looking very ill just a few months before his death.

Although he and my aunt divorced in 2004, he still loved my family like his own until the very end.  He always had the utmost respect for Grandma and Grandpa….they were two of his most favorite people in the world.  I’m sure that whatever universe he is in now at whatever point in time and space, he has found Grandma and Grandpa and all of our other deceased family members and is living it up and laughing with them once again.  I’ve missed you, Frank, and I hope you’ve enjoyed watching me experience some of my own fun times and shenanigans here in Florida since you crossed over.  Until we meet again….

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