Life through a deck of cards«.

³Two, four, si, si, six and three make nine.´ He put his cards down and moved his peg on the cribbage board. His gnarled hand grasped the peg awkwardly, but still efficiently, placing it in the hole to which he now was entitled. I counted my points and casually threw my cards on the board, so he could pick them up and shuffle. He shuffled awkwardly, as well. However, the cards were mixed in eventually and he dealt the cards, one at a time, back and forth. We reviewed the cards, his decision being very quick, and his hands moving in a jerky manner. I discarded two cards, leaving me with the required four, and hoped for the best. My earliest memories of my uncle were not of his cerebral palsy. I didn¶t really even comprehend there was a problem in my youngest years. That is a gift of the young, to just know someone, without labels, without knowing that this is right or wrong about them. They just are and you interact with them. So for me, the person across the cribbage board was just Uncle Fred. Weathered face, crew cut hair stiff and short, stiff movements and a speech pattern that incorporated some stuttering were all familiar and loved and embraced as ³Uncle´. He was, as I later came to understand, brilliant and funny, as well. Before I was born, he practiced law. My memories of him after that however, were as a kind Uncle, a music lover, a morel hunter, and a gourmet chef among other pursuits. He even tried to own a herd of cows, once, but again, luck was not with him as the first calves were all male.


I suspect he wasn¶t as unaware of his challenges as I was. I suspect now that he was frustrated that his body couldn¶t keep up with his mind, which was always working. It was his turn to deal again and he did this in his fashion. I played the first card, he followed with a card and announced ³fifteen for two´ and moved his peg. We bantered in that uncle-nephew way through the rest of the cards, then picked them up to count our points. I scored my typical 9 or 10. Then he laid his cards down. ³Nineteen´ he announced proudly, smiling and coughing. His left eye squinted at me, but his right eye gleamed with some joke as yet lost on me. Therefore, I carefully looked at his cards, counting no runs, no cards adding up to fifteen, no«nothing. I looked at him, my adolescent eyes suspecting some joke and then he explained to me that 19 was not a possible score in cribbage. ³I see,´ I laughed, filing that one away. Lesson learned (one of many). Then he turned to his crib, the throwaway cards in the hand that belong to the dealer. Although having what some view as a disadvantage, I never knew him to hold back from life. His ³crib´, to use the term that became common a few years ago on TV, was life itself. He drove his muddy Ford Explorer everywhere, often to hunt morels when the season was right, sometimes to drive to a cabin to which he had access. Perhaps he owned it or shared it with a friend. I don¶t know but once I was able to ride to his cabin in that muddy Explorer, brown even when not muddy (which it usually was), the ride jerky and bouncy over gravel and dirt roads. He shared this cabin with another friend, somewhere in the woods that bordered the Cedar River. It was a one-room affair, basically. Wooden, with thread-bare curtains, it was ³filled´ with a couple of old army cots, I think an old wood-burning stove, and a small table. I don¶t remember if a toilet was inside or out. I, however, was inside. That was important because outside was the blackest night I could comprehend. As a small child, with a wild imagination, the dark night with wind, out in a forest I had never been in, was spinning up the worst fears. However, inside we did what any reasonable man of cards would do. Break out the cribbage board and play cribbage. He probably was playing easy with me. One game I ended up pegging into the next to last hole before going out, momentarily in a slight lead. In cribbage, this hole is known as the ³stinkhole.´ I imagine it¶s based on the perception that losing by one point is somehow worse than other losses because you were so close. Being so close, but not having won is I guess someplace you don¶t want to find yourself. However, from this man I learned that there isn¶t really such a thing as a stinkhole in life. Some would say he could have viewed his life as a stinkhole, having to deal with cerebral palsy all his life. Yet, he lived life more fully than many people I know of today who do not have this challenge. So I have memories of him cooking quail in my sister¶s kitchen to make a gourmet meal. The meal was wonderful, but he was incredibly messy. There was flour all over. I then understood some of my sister¶s trepidation at his offer of cooking, even though she


looked forward to the meal. My Uncle followed the rule that if you cooked, you didn¶t clean up. So I have memories of him sitting in his room with a shortwave radio, late at night. The local area may have gone to bed, but the world at large was up and about and broadcasting on short wave. I would go into his room and he would smile, cough, and proudly announce he was listening to someone in Poland. Or Australia. Or Mexico. He knew the world, at least to a kid who didn¶t. And I have memories of him making Orange Julius¶s, bringing them out to me, and sitting down so we could drink them after supper and listen to his new Nakamichi stereo, top of the line at the time, spinning some new Smithsonian collection of jazz. The sense of humor he had was brilliant. As a joke one year for his birthday, my Father gave him a blank book, after titling the first page with ³Sex life of a spastic.´ My uncle opened the gift, read the title page, and turned to the next page, then the next, and the one more. Then he stopped, looked up squinting, and responded ³I will only have room in this book for the redheads. Where are the other volumes?´ The gift of laughing. This is not to say that he didn¶t sometimes have a temper. After one game of cribbage, which went particularly bad for him, my Uncle took the cards, stood up, started to rip the deck in two as much as he could (and he got surprisingly far in this). He walked over to the trash, dumped the torn cards in, went to a drawer, pulled out a new deck, and without saying a word began shuffling them, saying, ³Play again?´ as he started to deal. He enjoyed life, and enjoyed it with others. A couple of my later memories deal with cigars. He spent his final few years in assisted living, in the same complex as his Father. While others gave in to the routine of the home, he maintained some independence, going to breakfast in town, reading books, listening to his Nakamichi. One event, however, defines his time for me. I arrived at the home one day, and he was outside, on the bench. The look I saw on his face as I walked up, where he and my Great Uncle were on a bench outside the home, smoking cigars that belched smoke like some industrial smokestack was priceless. Truly. ³Sneaking´ a smoke with a friend or relative made him very happy. He enjoyed what he had available. Like all of us will eventually do, one day he counted enough points to peg out and win the game of life. My Mother ± who was her brother ± informed me. I was grown by this time, married, with very young children, working in the next state. I didn¶t get to visit him as much as I wanted. Now I would make my last visit, not for him, but for me. His wake was in late afternoon and I couldn¶t get off work to make it in time for the start. Hoping to make it before it ended, I drove like crazy, probably drove as he drove, a little erratic. I had to get to a small town in North Central Iowa and remember all the turns. I thought I would have a chance to make it, I thought I would catch maybe the last few stragglers at the wake. However, such luck was not in the cards for me that day. The parking lot at the funeral home was empty. Not a car in sight.


I did have some luck, however. I got out of my car and decided to try the funeral home doors. They were still open. Walking in, though, I was greeted with silence. No one was about, not even the funeral home employees. I looked in the main room, the largest room. Of course they would hold the wake in there. He was a popular man, a mushroom hunter, a morning breakfast regular, a humorist. And there at the end of the long room was the casket, immaculately polished dark wooden lid still open. I took a deep breath and approached, step after step. I got close enough that my Uncle¶s body eventually started coming into view. He was still, as still as the empty room about him. He was dressed perfectly in a brown suit which was pressed so no wrinkles showed, his trademark crew cut framed a peaceful face. His left eye no longer squinted as it was shut, matching the right for once, in rest. I stopped right in front of the casket and looked at his hands, folded on his unmoving diaphragm. Folded, and holding a cigar. I smiled. Like the Egyptian pharaohs, he was taking a favorite possession with him. And I would take a favorite memory to hold forever. Later, it was my turn to deal. I was teaching one of my sons how to play the game. Although I was always pleased with good cards that would score many points, I was really hoping to get dealt a rotten hand, a hand with no points in it, so I could lay the cards down triumphantly as my Uncle once had, and announce ³Nineteen!´ to my son, and watch his reaction.


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