Uncle Bob and the Heisenberg Principle

And why you can’t walk into a hospital room with a video camera rolling.


The bad news came in with a gentle bird whistle. That’s the ringtone I’ve chosen for text messages, a low two-toned warble that ends on a decaying high note, whoo-wheeeeee. My husband and I headed for San Diego to see Uncle Bob.


He wasn’t doing well. He’d become much worse in the intervening hours. His eyes wandered and his skin was pale, despite the red blotches on his cheeks. He couldn’t really speak, but I interpreted some sounds that sounded like “ooo-si,” which I finally decoded as “Lucille,” my mother’s name.

From there, we reached communicational nirvana, as I translated these near-syllables into: “You want to see your sister, Lucille.” And he nodded as vigorously as he could before nodding off to sleep.

Over the next week he improved. I negotiated with my three siblings about who would pick up my 91-year old mother at the assisted living facility. So here’s my mother, after my make-up savvy sister Elaine has gotten her all glam-girled up:


It’s not easy taking my mom on a trip. As she puts it, her memory isn’t so good any more. (I tell her, “that’s OK, we’ll remember everything for you.”). She’s fussy. She has to pee frequently.

A child of the Great Depression, she wants to take home all restaurant food and drink, including the parsley, half-empty jelly containers, used napkins, straws and wrappers, and water. If you demur, her face darkens, her voice rises, and she stamps her feet. It’s easier going picnic style, but then there’s the problem of eating in the car or at a park…you get the picture: No one is jumping at the chance to take Lucille to see her baby brother Bob, even if it looks like he could pass at any time.

Time passes. Uncle Bob doesn’t.

Negotiations linger over the next two weeks. No one says “No, I can’t do it” or “I won’t do it.” But no one steps up, either. I call my aunt Renie, Bob’s devoted wife. We talk. She says: “Bob really wants to see your mother.”

I brood. This trip will take an entire day, a long, difficult, emotional, facility-filled day with sick people. I hate hospitals. Everyone in my family is in the medical field. Except me. I don’t even like to write about it.

But there’s a problem for me. You see, I owe Bob. And I certainly owe my mother. Let me count the ways:

  • She gave birth to me.
  • She taught me to read.
  • She made me chicken noodle soup and peanut butter and jam sandwiches for dinner for two years, over my father’s objections.
  • She woke me up at 5:00 am on Sunday mornings (in Seattle) to hear the gospel singers from Chicago on the shortwave radio.
  • She taught me to jitterbug.
  • I had no bed time…I could read as long as I wanted to — every night.
  • She let me stay home from school to write poems, but never to watch TV

OK, so maybe your mother is supposed to do that stuff, but I never knew anybody else’s mom who did anything like that. She was the perfect mom for me.

I owed Uncle Bob too. This was a serious debt— he sort of saved my life so that I could have the one I live now. And that meant I had to bring my mother to San Diego to see him, whether it was convenient for me, or I wanted to, or I was busy. Actually, to be fair, I owed him and my Aunt Renie more than anyone in the world except my parents.

The reason for this personal debt takes something of a digression. For the moment, know that I did take my mother to see her brother, as you will see.

Now the digression. Well, actually, it starts with a confession.

I was a Very Bad Girl when I was a teenager. I was epically bad. I would say I was a badass but that term wasn’t yet in common use. Anyway, I was too suburban, short, and coyly girlish to be mistaken for any kind of badass, no matter how much I wanted you to think so.

But I was mad about leaving Seattle and moving to Texas and I set out to be a VBG. I pretty much succeeded. (Although I must say that it took a lot less to be very bad in 1962 than it does now.) Nevertheless, I am sure that someone in that town in Texas will come across this FP (first person), read it, and say to themselves, “Yep, she was a very bad gal, probably the baddest one in the class of 1963, if I remember rightly.”

Now that was a long time ago, and confession only goes so far. But I will say this: My misdeeds required that I leave Texas by sundown. Too true. If the state found me within their borders in the morning, I would be arrested, institutionalized, and the key thrown away.

But, the lawyer assured my worried-sick parents, “They will not bother extraditing her from another state. She is certainly a juvenile delinquent and surely a pain in the ass for just about everyone. But she has not committed any serious crimes that would warrant extradition.”

My mother called her youngest brother, Bob, living with his new wife in Stockton, California and asked him to take me in. He said yes. I packed and my parents took me to the Greyhound station. I was on the bus to Stockton by 9:00 pm that night.

High school universe

The next six months were miserable for me…and pure hell for Bob and Renie. I was 105 pounds of nasty, moody, rebellious, sexually precocious teen girl. I skipped high school early and often. I hitchhiked to Sac State or University of the Pacific to hang out in the Student Union Building, smoking cigarettes, and pretending to talk existentialism with cute guys, so much cooler than the weedy high school boys.

Uncle Bob said I had to get a part time job and he found one for me as a hostess/cashier in a local diner, six hours on Saturday and Sunday. He actually demanded my paychecks and gave me a minuscule allowance. I believe I screamed: “That’s my money!” to no avail. I had to do housework. I had to help Renie with dinner and dishes. I had to sweep the outside sidewalk.

I hated him. He didn’t like me much, either. In all fairness, I must let you know that he put all my checks in a bank account and gave me the accumulated savings when I graduated and left in June.

I did not forgive my aunt and uncle for the terrible things they did made me do — work, help around the house, etc. I barely spoke to them for a very long time. On the few family occasions we met in the next 20 years, it was all rather frosty and distant.

Fastforward 20 Years

I grew up. Graduated college. Got married. Divorced. Went to work in advertising. Became a writer. Produced some documentaries. Went to graduate school and got my PhD.

My mother invited Uncle Bob and Aunt Renie to the graduation ceremony. I figured Mom wanted to gloat, but she always denied it — although she had a little smile. They did come. In the picture, Uncle Bob is there on the right. I think he looks proud.

Uncle Bob and Joan

At my graduation, a light came on in me. I realized what Bob and Renie had really done for me all those years ago. They took me into a small apartment — when they had been married less than a year. They gave freely. They did their best to help a deeply troubled and not-very-pleasant teenager.

At the after-graduation party, I went up to them, put my arms around them both and said:

“Thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for all you did for me. If you hadn’t helped me, I wouldn’t be here today.”

Flashforward 25 Years

So my husband Joe and I picked up my Mom one morning and drove her to San Diego. We met Aunt Renie for lunch and then went to the convalescent nursing facility where Uncle Bob was doing a bit better. But he still couldn’t walk, swallow solid food, use his left arm, or speak clearly.

I brought my video camera. Remember, I was a doc producer, so if a potential exists for even a scintilla of emotion, my itchy-trigger index finger rests lightly on the ‘Record’ button, ready to press ‘go!’ at any nanosecond.

But I couldn’t do it. I mean, just imagine this: 88-year old Aunt Renie turns into his room, my 91-year old mother behind her, followed by my husband. Right behind them all, there I am, video camera pressed to my face, looking like some technological gargoyle. And they are all on Candid Camera for the Dying Man and the Last Visit of His Sister. Eww!

A few years ago, a friend of mine told me to stop shooting video at a party we were at. She said: “Joan, you watch people. You think about people. You write about them. You shoot them. Heck, you’re nice to them. But you’re never just with them. Please, stop shooting and join us at the party.”

So I knew that I could not walk into this room with people I loved — and my vidcam rolling. It would be so wrong in so many ways. I left the camera in the bag.

And, boy, was I sorry. (Sort of.)

When Bob saw Lucille, a vortex swept through that room. It blew through the wisps of my mother’s shredded memory cells and pierced the veil of Bob’s stroke trauma. Time stopped while they looked at each other and the moment was electric.

Palpable. We all felt it. I don’t know if Mom even knew it was Bob, but she knew they knew each other, loved each other, shared a history together, and belonged together.

I have learned from experience that this kind of emotional strobe lights up the video (and film, too). It’s there. It’s captured. I don’t know how, and you probably think it’s all mystical mumbo-jumbo, but I’ve cut too many scenes not to know it when I feel it.

When Bob meets Lucille, joy ensues.

We stayed for a couple of hours. After everyone was situated and had “set for awhile,” I shot a few stills with my iPhone.

Bob and Lucille held hands. They talked a little, Bob not quite comprehensible, Lucille not quite comprehending. One thing he kept saying was clear: “Cille, we’re the last ones.” And yes, they are the last two of five children.

Every once in a while, Bob would call my mother “Mom” and then chuckle — she really looks very like her mother. And Bob actually looks quite a lot like their father.

When I think back on this day, sometimes I wonder if we don’t just step into one another’s shoes from one lifetime to the next, reenacting some kind of intricate dance in time.

I’ve lived a lot of life since I was that unhappy teenager who acted so mad and bad, because she was so frightened and sad. I know what people mean to me, what they have given to me…how I can value and nurture them, as they have me, when it’s not convenient and it’s not easy.

So I don’t have this (perhaps) last reunion on video. Instead, it’s in my heart. I did the right thing. I was with them. I shared that moment as a full-fledged member of a family, fully there, fully present in their lives…and my own.

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