My uncle Bill died a year ago today. I still miss him very much. He was more of a father to me than my biological father ever was. The following is what I said last year at his memorial service.
William H. Ireland
August 26, 1943 – May 15, 2008
My uncle Bill was many things to many people. He was an uncle, a son, a brother, a nephew, a cousin, a friend, a neighbor, a co-worker, a student, a teacher, a philanthropist, a volunteer, and many more things. Of course of all these things, to me he was first and foremost an uncle. He used to tell me that, despite what I believed, he did not know everything, and now that I am an uncle myself, I know that he was right. You see, one doesn’t decide to become an uncle—it’s a choice made for you by a sister or a brother, and even if you have some notice that you’re going to become an uncle, unlike for prospective parents, there aren’t tons of books that tell you how to be one.
Doing some figuring I realize that my uncle became an uncle when he was just twenty-two. Now to my nephew Carl, who’s eleven, I’m sure that seems awfully old, twice his age, but to me, Carl’s forty-two-year-old uncle, that seems awfully young. Of course one good thing about being an uncle is that you get some time to grow into it. When you’re first an uncle you get to help out from time to time, but you can always fall back on parents and grandparents. I don’t know if Uncle Bill ever had to change my diaper, but I do remember that once I was old enough he got to take me in his orange Volkswagen bug to McDonald’s, the start of a long string of his treating me and others in our family to eating out. I also remember that he did do some babysitting of my sister and me, one time at my grandparents’ house, chasing us around their tiny dining room and resulting in the breaking of one of the legs of my grandmother’s dining room table. An advantage of being an uncle is that you’re not expected to be as responsible as a mother or a father.
My grandmother’s table survived, and I remember family dinners sitting around that table where my uncle and my mother would laugh and make jokes, jokes I usually didn’t get but knew often came at the expense of my poor great-aunt Kathryn, who fortunately usually didn’t realize they were about her. My uncle loved books and words and could be very punny, often casually dropping, during the course of family conversation, a pun that would elicit laughter or groans and the observation that if we ignored his puns he’d stop, which of course he never did. My uncle Bill was also infamous for answering “or” questions logically, not making a choice when asked, for example, if he wanted vanilla ice cream or chocolate ice cream but simply saying, “yes,” because if either condition in an or clause is true, as any programmer knows, the statement is true.
As you might suspect from that, Uncle Bill was kind of nerdy, or as they say now, geeky, and that was always a great comfort to me as I grew up feeling different. Maybe most boys didn’t like to read lots and lots of books, but wherever my uncle lived he was surrounded by books in cases along the walls and in stacks on the floor. I might get teased at school for liking books, but from my uncle, who’d take me to the Acres of Books used book store in Cincinnati, I knew it was okay to like and to collect and to cherish books. And later, as I taught myself to type and to program, first on my mother’s Osborne 1 computer and then on my own Commodore Amiga 1000, he also got an Amiga so we could share geeky ideas about scripting and emacs, even though by that time he was living in Arlington, Virginia.
Although my uncle was born in Dayton and died in Dayton, he managed to get around some in his life, first moving with his parents and brother and sister to Cincinnati where he graduated from Western Hills High School and the University of Cincinnati. From there he went to Charlottesville, Virginia, where he got his Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Virginia, and then he accepted a teaching position at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, where some of my first memories of him are, in a tall, old apartment with books and a cat and glass bottles of Tab diet cola.
I didn’t know my uncle well then, but by the time I was nine, he became a much more central figure in my life, moving back to Dayton to help support our family, a role he continued ever since. He came to offer my mother support during her divorce, both emotional support and, as best he was able, financial support, the extent of which I really didn’t realize at the time. Along with my grandparents he helped to make sure that my sister and I had some stability and normalcy, in our daily lives and in our holidays, making sure we had presents like the giant stuffed lion from Rike’s downtown that he surprised Kathie with one Christmas.
A challenge of an academic career is that the pay isn’t the best, and you have to be willing to move to where the jobs are. Faced with wanting to be able to help us more than he might have been able to otherwise, my uncle Bill made a rough choice particularly for him, a somewhat shy man who didn’t like travel much, accepting a job at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. I had no idea at the time how scared he was to leave to go teach in a strange land, but I did know how lonely he was, how much he missed us, how glad he was to see us at the end of each school year when he returned with exotic gifts and stories.
Those were the days before Internet and e-mail and cheap worldwide long distance. My uncle did buy my grandparents a speakerphone around which we would crowd for the occasional brief phone call, but the real way in which we kept in touch was through letters, written on thin blue international aerogramme forms. At first my sister and I would each just write a brief note at the end of a letter my mother had written, and my uncle would jot brief notes back at the end of his letters to her, but as I got older, I started to write my own letters to Uncle Bill, confiding in him feelings of anger towards my absent father or feelings of sadness at not being like other kids, feelings I somehow was able to express in writing that I probably wouldn’t have been able to talk about in person. The letters he wrote back to me, written in his angular near illegible script, were a great comfort to me. Those were the days when I thought Uncle Bill knew everything.
We all so looked forward to summers because that was when Uncle Bill would be home. I have so many memories of him, too many to share now, most of which I can’t date exactly, ranging from going with him to Dayton Mall Cinema 1 to see the first Star Wars, to endless loops through our subdivision as I learned to drive a stick shift in his Toyota Corolla, to a trip with him to Houston in the heat of one summer when he went for a job interview, to countless movies and concerts and dinners out with him, either just the two of us, with my sister or mother, or with the whole family, and it was during these that he got into the habit of always paying for all of us.
Eventually my uncle quit his job in Arabia and, following in my mother’s footsteps, took up a new career in computers. Living for a time outside Washington DC with my uncle Willard, he worked at the Census Bureau, and in the summers my sister and I would drive out together to visit them. And then, as my grandparents grew older, Uncle Bill moved back to Ohio, first taking a job at Computer Sciences Corporation in Cincinnati and then finally coming back to Dayton to work at Mead Data Central. He lived in my grandparents’ house, taking a big share of the burden for helping my grandmother through her battles with cancer, then caring for my grandfather after her death, and also being there for my great-aunt Kathryn, who lived just a few blocks down the hill, first while my great-uncle Frank was ill and then afterwards when she was on her own.
Although my family is not a particularly touchy feely one, I knew that my uncle Bill’s love for us, not often expressed in words or in hugs, was unconditional, and one of the best examples of that is when I came out. When I finally made the decision to do that, I asked my uncle to meet me at my mother’s house one evening after work, and I told the two of them together that I’m gay. Mother, who’s been great since, cried and had questions, but my uncle just said, very matter of factly, “Oh, is that all? I thought you were going to ask to borrow money.”
Actually that wasn’t such an illogical assumption, because over the years my uncle has helped us financially, giving me money, for example, towards the purchase of houses or when I went back to school. And when he found out, two weeks ago, that he had terminal liver cancer, one of his biggest concerns was double-checking that everything was in place, so that we’d all be taken care of. And he wanted his great-nephew Carl to understand that although Uncle Bill would no longer be with us, he would still help to provide for stuff like the Battle of Cincinnati and football camp and other things that made him so proud of Carl. And he was happy to know that the tree house Carl will be building this year will be named in honor of him.
So you see, my uncle Bill was a great uncle, in every sense of the phrase, to his great-nephew Carl, to my sister Katt and to me. He may not have known everything, but over the course of his forty-two years of unclehood, he taught me so much, not just about how to be a better uncle but also how to be a better person, and for that I’ll always be grateful.