My Dad and my Uncle Will are identical twins, the kind of identical twins that laugh outloud together at something that silently passed between them. The kind of identical that after 41 years on this planet with both of them as mirror images in my life, I still had moments when I wasn't sure who was whom. Uncle Will is softer than my Dad. Uncle Will is thinner than my Dad. Uncle Will was the gentler version of my father. I always felt like Uncle Will wouldn't get mad at me or punish me. Not that my Dad was scary or always punishing. My Dad is my hero. But he's MY Dad so there were times when I deserved punishing and he was the one doling it out. I always imagined Uncle Will would let me slide.
For as long as I can remember, my Dad and my Uncle have been playing seriously competitive tennis against each other and each family gathering boasts another victory, another chalk mark for one of them. We all, my brothers and sister, my two cousins, grew up with rackets in our hands. My cousin Stan has evolved into the family champion, but he still wouldn't beat my 72 year old father and his dad. My guess is that the last game the twins played where they were both in equal health was last summer. My guess is my Uncle died a match up on my Dad.
My Uncle was less an uncle and more like my substitute father. As a kid, I imagined sometimes swapping out. Uncle Will taught me how to hold the tennis racket. Uncle Will let me ride the big John Deere tractor.
My best memories of my life are of the summer weeks we'd spend at the beach together, our two families, blended into one, husbands and wives joining as if they'd always been there, babies growing into toddlers into children knowing that these were no cousins, these were no Great Uncles, but more like a double set of grandparents and brothers. My cousins Stan and Brandon are brothers to me. We'd rent adjacent houses, sharing crab boils and cases of beer, playing games and laughing, toasting to our luck having been born in this amazing family of love. Having known that kind of support.
One of my greatest regrets right now is that 2 years ago, at their 70th birthday party, I was booked to play a show at the Sundance Film Festival, which I thought was some big IMPORTANT show. Something that might change my career. I might get heard by the RIGHT people. It turned out to be no more than playing a set in a bar for a bunch of loud indie film people who could have cared less about my folk songs, and a few of my good friends who already knew my music. I could have easily blown that week off and my career wouldn't have suffered one iota. But I made the mistake of choosing that over staying home for a family dinner to celebrate a milestone. At the time, I thought, well, I'll make a promise to be there for the 75th birthday dinner, which will be HUGE.
I am writing this tonight, because just a few hours ago I had the great privilege of playing a show on WFMT in Chicago, a radio show that was broadcast on the web. I was only to play for exactly 58 minutes and Rich Warren, the host, gave me the 5 minute warning just as I'd finished "Double Wide Trailer" which was to be my 3rd from last song. I was then planning on playing a new song, "Its Too Late To Call It A NIght" and then ending with "Piece By Piece", a song I wrote for my Dad 2 years ago when my Uncle Frank passed away suddenly. It ends with "If you fall down, I will be there on my knees. If you break down, cause you'll break down, I can sing you to sleep, put you back when you're weak, piece by piece." When Rich held the 5 minute warning up, I sped right to "Piece By Piece" and took up 3 minutes of my time talking about my Uncle and my father, dedicating the song to both of them. I knew I couldn't sing the whole song, so I sang the first verse, a chorus and went directly to the last verse, a verse directly to my Dad. I almost didn't make it, and felt rushed, but also felt like I needed to sing that, even if it was an abbreviated version of this song. After the show, after mostly everyone had left, I took my phone out of my bag, saw that there were messages from my brother and sister and called my brother to find out that my Uncle had passed.
Singing the show tonight, I had a moment when I was looking up at the ceiling of the studio room, and I just felt like I was flying, like I was doing the thing I loved best, like no matter if I never made money from this career, or if this was the high point of it all, I was so elated to have had the chance to do THIS show, TONIGHT, with THIS audience, singing THESE songs.
Maybe that was my Uncle's pat of approval from his position up in the stars, an angel amongst us.