The first time my uncle disappeared was eight years ago, during the cocktail hour at my wedding. He was one of the first people to approach me after the ceremony, his voice low and reserved as he congratulated me and leaned in to kiss me on the cheek. I clutched a champagne flute of mimosa in one hand as I bent toward him, leaning over the voluminous skirt that made me feel like a ballerina. I saw him again later as I was enveloped in the crush of congratulations and sweaty hugs. He stood off to the side, stiff, elbows hugged in close to his torso, a tiny plate of clams oregenata and stuffed mushrooms clutched in one hand.
But when we moved into the main dining area, his chair was empty.
It was three years before I heard his voice again.
We used to have Sunday dinners with my uncle when I was very young, followed by episodes of Davy Crockett and other rebooted classics on The Magical World of Disney. He came over less often as I grew older, showing up on all of the big holidays for the next 10 or so years. Eventually, we were lucky to see him on Christmas. He would push through our front door with bag after bag of carefully wrapped gifts running up and down his arms—perfumes and nice sweaters from the Liz Claiborne outlet, where he worked as a shipping supervisor, plus our annual Christmas tree ornaments. When we were done unwrapping this abundance of gifts, he’d hand us Chanukah cards filled with money and Barnes & Noble gift cards, to honor his Jewish heritage.
“This is too much, Rick,” my mother would say, every year.
“Oh, it’s fine,” he would reply, and my brother and I would feel the inadequacy of our carefully wrapped socks and ties, but also somehow sense that this was an apology for his general absence in our lives.
After my wedding, there was much speculation as to what had happened to my uncle. Our phone calls and voicemails were left unanswered. Same with the handwritten notes I occasionally left in his mailbox when he didn’t answer the door. As I’d push the doorbell for the third time, listening to it echo through the house he’d grown up in, I’d imagine him pressed to his living room carpet in the dark, barely breathing, waiting for me to walk away. It seemed impossible that he was always out.
In Imagine Wanting Only This, writer and artist Kristen Radtke loses her uncle much more quickly. He dies from a complication during heart surgery, to correct a heart defect that has threaded its way through multiple generations of her family, and which Radtke herself may or may not also have. Up until she loses him, Radtke maintains an enduring connection to her uncle, a man she had been close to for her entire life. They send each other mail. Talk to each other on the phone. Keep each other updated on the minutiae of their day-to-day lives. “He was my favorite person that I knew in real life,” she writes of the Uncle Dan she knew as a child. When she loses him, it doesn’t seem real. They had texted earlier that day, he from his hospital bed. The truth of his passing hits her hard, the fact that he will never be returned to her.
The disappearance of my uncle rankled in its own way. We had never been a frequent part of each other’s lives. But the fact of him as someone who was nevertheless there was something I took for granted. This new disconnection between us was something he had, unfathomably, chosen. As I searched for answers—as I searched for my uncle—I couldn’t help but wonder how someone could so easily discard the only family they had.
The thing that brought my uncle back was the death of my grandfather, on my mother’s side. Afterward, he was a part of our life again, or at least as much a part of it as he had been before my wedding. He’d show up on Christmas, doze in an easy chair, and my mom would have to change into her pajamas before he would get the hint that it was time to leave. And then, we wouldn’t see him again until the following December.
Though my parents muttered under their breaths about this, I felt as if I understood my uncle. I felt as if I understood him better than any of them ever could and, in some way, always had. I, too, tended toward withdrawal from the people around me. In a way, I, too, wished I could disappear so completely. And so, while Radtke’s connection to her uncle is based upon sharing rather than on withdrawal, I felt keenly the sense of loss she experienced upon the passing of someone to whom she related so closely. My uncle and I had shared many silences together and, in those silences, I felt as if we knew each other. They were silences that didn’t ask anything of the other. They were space and breath. They were a reprieve from the constant knowledge that, because of the ways in which I held back, I was not enough.
In the months before her uncle passed away, Radtke visits an abandoned cathedral in Gary, Indiana. While there, she stumbles upon a pile of mold-smeared photographs, which she takes with her with the intent of creating an art installation. Later, she learns that the pictures had been placed there as a sort of memorial for a man who had been killed nearby, run down by a train he was perhaps trying to photograph.
After her uncle’s death, the meaning behind these photographs sticks with her, as does the shame she feels over the fact that she has pillaged the contents of a dead man’s memorial and, by extension, dishonored him. Her grief and her loss also stick with her. She channels this grief into a fascination with ruins, and leaves behind those who love her in order to travel the world and chronicle more of these abandoned places, commemorating them instead of appropriating their contents for her own use. She searches for meaning in these spaces, signs of the people who were left behind.
The ruins I explored were emotional. My uncle’s three-year disappearance gave my own proclivity to isolation a new meaning. My uncle had always been quiet. Elusive. As I’d grown into my own quiet reserve in my teens and early twenties, my uncle and I spent many Christmases in companionable silence in my parents’ living room. To share that space with someone so like me—to not feel pressed to be someone I wasn’t—had been a relief. But when I’d married my husband, I’d stepped into a future my uncle would never have. The same future into which his brother had stepped with my mother, leaving him behind.
Still, I hesitate to assume too much. Radtke warns against such assumptions, writing: “I assign meaning to these scooped-out places as if obsession equates authority. But there’s nothing to understand except that I have no business understanding what I cannot feel.”
At the same time, I can’t help but worry over the ways in which we abandoned each other. My uncle, when he disappeared. My family, when we let him.
Two Christmases ago, my uncle called to say he wouldn’t be able to make it. He wasn’t feeling well. I was disappointed. I had given birth to my daughter only six months before after trying to get pregnant for three and a half years and I had been eager for my uncle to get to know her. Still, none of us put up much of a fight.
Two months later, my uncle called my father, asking for a ride to the doctor. He told my father he felt too ill to drive. When my father showed up at his house—the house in which they’d grown up together, a house that had since grown into disrepair—he didn’t recognize him. His face had changed. His stomach was distended. My father drove him straight to the hospital.
Four days later, my brother and I visited him in the ICU. By that point, we had learned that cancer had spread so far throughout his body, doctors couldn’t even determine where it had begun. All they could tell us was that he must have been sick for a very long time.
There was no way he could not have known.
There was nothing they could do.
When I walked in and saw him lying in that bed in the ICU, he looked ravaged. His cheeks were caving in. His skin was wrapped tight to his skull. He was breathing through a respirator, and the gasping of the machine twisted something inside my chest every time it went off, like a fist around my heart.
My brother and I inched our way between bed and curtain to get close to him. I touched his hand and he opened his eyes. His hello was like a cross between a moan and a sigh.
“Hi, Uncle Ricky,” I said, trying not to let my voice shake. Trying to sound normal. “How’s it going?” I asked, and then barked out a quick, horrified laugh. How was it going? How did it look like it was going?
My brother and I spent the next half hour talking about what we had done lately. My brother talked about his honeymoon in Mexico. The beaches at Tulum. The food in Playa del Carmen. I told my uncle that Emily was finally learning to walk. I gave him my cell phone and he held it loosely in his left hand, sliding his thumb to the left over and over again to see her hugging a stuffed animal. Holding onto a doorway. Clasping someone else’s hands in order to stand. My mother leaned over every so often to pull his respirator off, to dab at his lips with a wet Q-tip. Sometimes, we lapsed into silence.
When I stood to let one of the nurses check his blood pressure, my face flushed and my vision blurred. “I’ll be right back,” I said, and I stumbled my way out of the ICU and leaned back against a wall. I slid all the way down to the floor and hung my head between my knees. My stomach burned. I brought my hand to my forehead, but my skin felt cold.
When I went home that afternoon, I prayed. Let him recover from this, I begged. Let us all have a second chance. Let him go into hospice and get better. When he comes home, we’ll do things different. This time, we’ll be a part of each other’s lives.
I imagined Sunday dinners, this time at my house. I imagined serving breaded chicken cutlets with lemon and garlic sauce, with veggie casserole on the side, recipes I’d learned from my mom. I imagined my uncle being stitched into the fabric of our extended family, so tightly we couldn’t possibly lose him again.
I wanted my uncle to know he could be a part of the world, even when he felt alone. I wanted him to know we had always been there for him, even if—at times—it hadn’t felt like it. That our own passive acceptance of his silence hadn’t been abandonment.
My mom called the next morning, just as I was about to step into the shower. “Your uncle is finally at peace,” she said.
Again, I felt my stomach burn, just as it had in the ICU. “Well, he couldn’t have been comfortable these last few days,” I whispered, pretending there was a silver lining, pretending I hadn’t been praying for a miraculous recovery—a second chance—even though I am not someone who prays.
Radtke writes of how “something that is can become, very suddenly, something that isn’t.” This preoccupation is presumably inspired by her time in Gary, Indiana, though the way in which she puzzles over this conundrum again and again can’t help but be colored by her uncle’s death.
My uncle was absent, but alive.
Until, suddenly, he wasn’t alive.
When I hung up the phone after hearing of my uncle’s passing, I returned to the bathroom, easing my way around my daughter’s Rock n’ Play, from which she beamed up at me, gap-toothed, elated. I smiled back at her, turned on the hot water in the shower, and stepped in. After pulling the curtain shut behind me, I leaned my head against the tiled wall—the water raining down on the crown of my head, hitting the back of my neck—and sobbed.
When Radtke’s uncle died, it seemed all she could see were ruins. Abandoned places. Empty shells. She left a life behind to travel to those places. To bear witness to what they had become, and to speculate about what they used to be. And though the meaning she assigned to each of these places may have carried significance specific only to her own life, the artwork that resulted has effectively shattered the silence around her grief.
My uncle’s home, meanwhile, had itself become a ruin in the years leading up to his death. Dark rooms. Ceilings bowing down. Spider webs and mold making the bathrooms shrink, with his parents’ belongings unmoved, furred with dust. His drawers were filled with every bit of paper mail he had ever received, bills marked up with penciled-in notes and then stuffed back into their envelopes. There were dollar bills tucked randomly into the pages of books, piled throughout the rooms of the house.
It took weeks to empty all of the rooms. Pounds of paper were carted off by a local bank to be shredded. Antique furniture was parceled off between family members. And then my brother bought the house—cheaply—with the inheritance he had received from our uncle. He had contractors rip it down to the studs, and then rebuild it.
Sometimes, when I am over at the house that is no longer my uncle’s, I look at the brand-new kitchen cabinetry with its soft-close drawer slide technology and I run a hand over the waterfall faucet spout in the bathroom sink and I feel like this new place is an erasure.
Do ruins honor their former inhabitants by remaining ruins? Sometimes, it seems that this is so. How else, after all, can we remember?
Personal photographs provided courtesy of author. Artwork from Imagine Wanting Only This © Kristen Radtke.