Saturday, October 10, 2009
Uncle Lloyd -or- How I Met The Funky Drummer
A couple weeks ago, M and I drove north to Madison to visit my aunt Mary and uncle Lloyd. My uncle had just started dialysis treatments, and we hadn't seen either of them in about six years so I figured a visit was overdue. I didn't know my uncles when I was growing up; my family lived in Switzerland when I was small, my uncles lived in Maine and Wisconsin, and neither of them ever visited us. The only childhood memory I have of either of them was the year my uncle Stuart sent us a huge package of American candy for the holidays. I was overwhelmed - while there was no shortage of chocolate where we lived, I had never seen such a cache of sugary bliss: candy corn, Tootsie Rolls, Razzles, Pop Rocks... it made quite an impression on me, and the irony that my uncle Stuart was a dentist never dawned on me. The night after my mother told me we'd be moving back to America I had a dream about all the candy that I would find upon our return; I wasn't disappointed.
Dad still lives in Switzerland, and he visits me from time to time. Not long after I moved to Chicago he visited me and we took an Amtrak train up to Milwaukee - halfway between Chicago and Madison, to meet Lloyd and Mary for lunch. On the train ride dad read a copy of the Wall Street Journal, folding it in thirds when he was done and holding it out into the aisle with an outstretched hand to the passengers seated across the aisle. The two men seated across from us were in mid conversation when one of them noticed dad's unsolicited offering. "This is for you," he said, "I'm finished with it." Amazingly, they accepted his gift. The train driver made periodic announcements, telling us about points of interest along the way. Dad found this unbearably funny, he laughed loudly and repeated the announcements as they were being made.
Dad only has one volume on his laugh - loud. It starts with an outburst, an uncontrollable exhale of air, and quickly devolves into a full body, rhythmic shaking with an accompanying noise that's similar to a saw moving back and forth on a 2 x 4, while his eyes grow wide and glisten with manic hilarity. It's a snakebite that has no antidote; once dad starts laughing you just have to let it run its course. I can't tell you how many times I've missed movie dialogue because of dad's laughing, and while I'd like to say that I inherited none of this, every once in a while something tickles my funny bone so hard that I find myself laughing until I literally weep. Dad's laugh attracted the attention of the woman seated in front of us, and she turned around so that her knees were on the back of her seat and her hands on the headrest. She was traveling alone and looked to be somewhere in her sixties, but carried herself like a seven-year old. "You sound like fun," she said to dad. I could barely handle the embarrassment of being in public with the challenging sixty-year old that I happened to be related to, let alone one who was just along for the ride. I gave her what must have been my deadliest stare ever because we made eye contact and she promptly turned around in her seat and stayed put for the remainder of the journey.
In Milwaukee we had lunch with Lloyd and Mary at a brauhaus, and during the course of our conversation dad asked Lloyd how his diabetes was going. This was the first I'd ever heard of it. "There's diabetes in our family?" I asked dad, my pulse racing, "why didn't you ever tell me this? For years I've been going to doctors and handing them blank forms that ask for check marks next to diseases that run in my family because I don't know of any!" Dad mumbled something about it being a "mild diabetes" that I shouldn't worry about. Our waitress cleared the plates and dad asked her if they served espresso. "No," she said flatly, "we just have coffee."
"Dad," I hissed once the waitress had left the table, "we're in Milwaukee, not Florence."
I left that lunch wondering: if there's diabetes in my family and I never knew about it, what else didn't I know? I began an email correspondence with Lloyd and Mary, and visited them several times in Madison. My aunt - a retired librarian, had cataloged every piece of information about the Cohen family that existed on paper, and arranged them in scrapbooks that lined an entire bookshelf. I stayed up until three in the morning the first night I stayed at their house, poring over news clippings about my grandmother, who died in 1957 and was a concert pianist; my grandfather, who died in 1962 and was a chemist; and childhood photographs of my dad and his two brothers: photos of them dressed in cub scout uniforms, wearing mortarboards and gowns at graduations, and posing with cars and girlfriends. It was at once engrossing and alienating - if I was a Cohen, then why hadn't I been indoctrinated in the family history years ago? What wasn't in the scrapbooks I asked my uncle about. I learned more about my family in one weekend at their house than I had ever learned from dad.
When we weren't busy catching up on family history, we had fun. Lloyd is a retired car salesman, and a classic car enthusiast. He had a cherry red 1957 Thunderbird that he kept in a garage all winter, and took for joy rides in the summer. He even has a mailbox shaped like a Thunderbird, with plastic windows that fog up with condensation in the morning. He took us for rides in the T-bird, one at a time since its a two-seater. We visited for the fourth of July and watched as choreographed music played in time with exploding fireworks at an annual event called Rhythm & Booms; we walked up and down State Street, Madison's shopping district; and Lloyd treated us to his famous eggs Benedict, and homemade gazpacho made with tomatoes and cucumbers from his garden.
My dad and both his brothers came to our wedding, and we saw Lloyd and Mary in Chicago once about a year afterward, but then somehow the fragile ties that we'd built began to erode. One year passed, and then five more without either of us making the effort to visit, until Lloyd sent an email saying he was scheduled to begin dialysis, and I picked up the phone.
We borrowed my mother in-law's Mini for the journey, and I found a mummified banana in the passenger side door that I'd left there the last time we borrowed her car - in June. It was completely shriveled and black, the moisture having completely escaped, and had an unused Band-Aid stuck to it. The ride to Madison was familiar; we drove up through Rockford and crossed the state line into Wisconsin, passing through Janesville and driving up Highway 14-18, known as The Beltline, past streets with names like Old Sauk, Rim Rock, and Fish Hatchery Road, until we pulled into my aunt and uncle's driveway.
Lloyd greeted us outside, and the first thing we noticed was that he'd slimmed down. He's been heavy his whole life, and had dropped 40 pounds in order to improve his health and qualify for a kidney transplant. He was drawn to the Mini, and asked M several questions about it before we entered the house.
New floors had been installed since our last visit, and Lloyd had bought himself a new, large screen digital TV as a consolation prize since his travel options were now severely limited - his dialysis schedule is three sessions per week, three and a half hours per session. He'd also adopted a friendly orange tabby cat named Fernando who's about two years old. Fernando was the name given to him by the shelter that Lloyd and Mary found him in, and they kept it because Mary has a great love of all things Spanish.
Lloyd served us homemade gazpacho for lunch and got us up to date on his condition, telling us everything there was to know about dialysis. Lloyd can talk for as long as you let him, a trait that he shares with his brothers and that served him well as a car salesman. The morning after our arrival a couple Jehovah's Witnesses came to the door, and he out-talked them. Lloyd's condition did nothing to dampen his spirits or his sense of humor; at a trip to Copps, the local grocery store, we walked through an aisle of sugary treats. "Do you want some of these?" He asked, pointing to a bag of mini-donuts dusted in powdered sugar. "I can't have them, but you can."
"No thanks," I said.
"Are you sure?" He asked, "I really get a kick out of buying them for other people."
We accompanied Lloyd and Mary to the dialysis center, driving along a stretch of road that was under construction and hadn't been repaved yet; it felt like we were driving on square tires. A woman wearing a t-shirt with the word: Single...ish stood at the front door of the dialysis center. Once inside, Mary, M and I sat in a waiting area while Lloyd got hooked up to the dialysis machine. An aide pushed a woman in a wheelchair to the seating area, she had a beehive hairdo and a cone of soft serve ice cream, which I'm guessing was a reward for having undergone treatment. I flipped through a copy of the dialysis center's newsletter and tried not to get anxious. Lloyd had explained everything, but something about being there made my pulse rise; we were surrounded by people with failing organs, and it made me nervous.
"Lloyd sits in the same chair every time," Mary said, "and the man next to him is a famous drummer, maybe you know him - his name is Clyde Stubblefield." M's eyes popped and he leaned forward in his chair.
"Clyde Stubblefied?" he repeated.
"You know of him?" Mary asked.
"Are you kidding? He's the one who invented boom-boom siss, boom-siss," M said, holding his arms out and playing air-drums as he sounded out the beat to Funky Drummer.
"Oh," Mary said. "He lives in Madison, and he still does a show every Monday night."
We walked into the treatment area, where Lloyd sat reclining in a chair. He was attached to a machine the size of a refrigerator via two tubes in his right arm - one taking his blood out, the other pumping it back in. "This is my kidney," he said, pointing to the machine. I could see his blood being filtered behind a circular glass window, like laundry in a front-loading machine. A curtain separated him from the other patients, creating a semblance of privacy. "I've got everything I need," he said, "right here's a TV and headphones," he said, pointing to a TV bolted to his chair. "And right next to me is Clyde Stubblefield," he said, lowering his voice, "he's world famous."
"Yes Lloyd," Mary said, "I told them."
On the other side of the curtain Clyde Stubblefield was being attended to by a nurse.
"Can I get you anything else?" She asked him.
"Just some eggs, grits and bacon," he joked. The nurse returned to her desk and Clyde put his headphones on, and turned on the TV attached to his chair.
"Hey Clyde," Lloyd said - loudly, since he couldn't see around the curtain. When Clyde didn't respond he called for him again, and then a third time.
"Clyde," the nurse on duty finally said to him, "Lloyd is talking to you." Clyde removed his headphones and asked: "Yes Lloyd?"
"Clyde, this is my niece and her husband, they're visiting from Chicago," Lloyd said, as M and I sheepishly waved and smiled from Lloyd's cubicle. "They know who you are," he added. M and I continued to smile, our eyes darting from the floor to Clyde and then back again.
Back at the house, Lloyd said he'd bring Clyde a set of drumsticks to sign for us.