“I can resist anything except temptation.” Oscar Wilde
My uncle came to live with us when I was nine or ten years old and he lived with us on and off for the rest of his life. I only ever referred to him as Uncle. There was no Uncle John or John. It was always just Uncle.
As I’ve written many times, I’ve missed my extended family my entire life, so when Uncle arrived, I was excited. Here was part of my larger family, right there, in front of me. I listened to my uncle and father converse in Greek around our kitchen table. I loved trying to figure out what they were saying. I heard stories of their school-day scamps, their parents (my grandparents), and their sisters. These tales made me laugh and I felt as though I was part of the culture I longed for. We went to the lake on weekends or Banff for a picnic. A bottle of beer always in my uncle’s hand.
Uncle sometimes took us (my siblings and me) for rides in his brand new sports car, bought us burgers and chips and liquorice sticks when our parents wouldn’t allow us to eat such things. He took us to the Stampede Parade more than once. But on some of these outings he would disappear and as the oldest, I had to take care of my sister and brother. He usually said he’d be back in a few minutes, but more than once those minutes stretch to an hour and sometimes more. As I write this, I can still feel how frightened I was with all the responsibility, how unsure I was about what I’d do if he didn’t come back. It wasn’t until much later, when I was an adult, I told my parents about these excursions.
My uncle was an alcoholic. He left us to go to the bar to drink. He never admitted to it. Alcoholism, I mean. In fact, he always referred to himself as a social drinker.
His birthday was this week. He would have been 92. And this year marks the 20th anniversary of his death.
I think of Uncle often and the impact he had on my life. I rarely drink alcohol now and never did in university or when I was younger. That saved me a lot of grief. And, I have my uncle to thank for this.
In the early part of my career, just out of university, I worked with addicts. They scared me sometimes, but my need to help was greater than any fear in those days. After I left the world of social work to pursue other careers, I continued as a volunteer addiction counsellor working in the seedier parts of Calgary and later in Edmonton. My need to help, particularly addicts, comes from those early days of trying without much success to support my uncle.
I seem to have also developed a hyper second sense about people with addiction issues. I can’t explain how I know someone is addict. I just do. And I’m drawn to them like a moth to light.
As a kid, I tried hiding his beer or watering down his vodka. I remember all the futile attempts my father made to get my uncle to quit. Nothing worked. He was who he was. He was a take me or leave me sort of person and we did, warts and all.
So many memories, good and bad, have rushed through my mind as I thought of my uncle this week. He left his mark and really, in the end, that’s not so bad.
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