Remembering Uncle Nigel (A Work in Progress)
by E. Amado Williams
I will always remember my Uncle Nigel. He was certainly a man who was hard to forget: the piercing eyes that slanted when he smiled, the wide nose, the constellation of moles under his left eye, the coarse voice with a distant accent that always made me question where he really was from, the dark brown skin that had apparently refused to wrinkle, the height that made him a giant to many, and the patience of a saint. It is hard to forget your favourite Uncle.
During the summer of my eighth year, God gave my Uncle Nigel his wings. I was old enough to understand that my Uncle Nigel had to leave at some point in time, but I was not ready to accept his departure when he did go. How do you say good-bye to someone whom you don't want to see go? See, my Uncle Nigel had the same problem that my Granddad Garfield had. My granddad smoked constantly and then he got sick, really sick. He had a nagging cough that just would not go away. After he couldn't stop coughing all the time, I started to see less and less of him as he spent more time at the hospital and at home in bed. Uncle Nigel didn't smoke, but Mom and Dad said that he was of a certain age where men can get sick if they don't go to the doctor regularly.
I remember the day that my dad, my Uncle Rolland and his girlfriend Victoria, my Uncle Hailey and his wife Beth, and my Aunt Marlow and her husband Martin came home with my Uncle Nigel's black derby. He loved that hat. No one said a word when they came in the house. They all had their heads hanging down like they were carefully watching how to plan their steps. Momma cried like I had never seen her cry before. Come to think of it, I had never seen my dad nor any of my uncles cry either before this day. I had always heard that men were not supposed to show emotion; they were supposed to be strong in the face of pain. That was not the case this time. Everyone was in tears and my Uncle Nigel was not there. He had promised to take me to the amusement park. I had put on my favourite pair of blue jeans, a denim shirt, my tennis shoes, and matching blue baseball cap, and I was waiting for him.
"Is Uncle Nigel coming over?" I asked while everyone was hugging and crying. Nothing seemed complete and I wanted him to come over to the house so that I would know he was okay. He could tell me what was wrong. "Momma, Daddy, is Uncle Nigel coming over? He is supposed to take me to the amusement park."
"He's not coming back," my momma yelled at me, tears racing down her cheeks like kids on bicycles going downhill. "He's gone and he's not coming back."
She approached me, gritting her teeth and smacking her leg with her right fist and her chest with the flat of her left palm. I stood there without saying a word and without moving. She looked mad as she came towards me screaming and crying, "He's gone; he's gone; he's gone." At that moment my momma didn't look beautiful and intriguing the way she alway had, and the sun dress she was wearing looked ragged and torn. Her eyes were shades of red and her nostrils flared. I didn't know if she was mad at me, or not, and I simply continued to stand in one spot as she got closer. She picked me up and squeezed me and held onto me like I guess I was going to fly away and never come back. All I kept hearing was her saying "He's gone" and I could see everyone else in the house crying hard and asking "Why Baby Brother? Why Nigel?"
I wanted to run, but I couldn't. My momma had me wrapped in her arms and was slowly swinging me back and forth all while she was crying. I wanted her to let me go so that I could take off from the house. I pushed, thinking she would loosen her grip, but she held me tighter. My feelings got all mixed up. I wanted to run to my Uncle Nigel and I wanted to stay and hug my momma so that she would stop crying. She was holding on to me because she didn't want me to leave the same way my Uncle Nigel and my granddad had left. Was it she didn't want me to leave because I looked just like my granddad and just like my Uncle Nigel? I didn't know, but something felt empty on the inside as I watched his hat hanging from my Uncle Hailey's hands. Outside it was raining and then my eyes began to rain. It wasn't supposed to rain this day.
On the day that we had to get dressed up and say good-bye to my Uncle Nigel, I could not bring myself to look at him. It is not as though I would have been able to see him through all the water that was in my eyes. I refused to say good-bye because good-bye is forever. If I didn't look at him lying in the casket, I would remember him as the Uncle Nigel that I loved and wanted to be around all the time. Besides, I was terrified that the people were sending him to the wrong place. They were lowering the casket into the ground and that is where I thought hell was. My Uncle Nigel was supposed to be going up to heaven, not down. I knew the casket was heavy, but it should have been light enough to float off into the sky so that God could get him.
The first time my Uncle Nigel came back, I was sleep. He shook me at first and called out my name, but I was so tired from all the crying I had done earlier. "Nicholas," he called out again, "wake up." I rolled over to see who was really calling me and when I woke up, I couldn't believe my eyes. There was that same movie star air that he had about himself that made it impossible not to stare at him. I gazed at him mostly because it was like looking at myself. He didn't look like there was anything wrong, certainly not like he was ever sick. He just pinched my cheek and smiled before speaking again.
"Put your shoes on," he whispered with that faint accent that reminded me of my best friend's dad, the one who was from St. Croix. "Let's go."
"Where are we going?" I asked out loud.
"Shhhhh," he shushed me with his index finger up to his smiling lips. He grabbed one of my tennis shoes and handed it to me while putting the other shoe on my right foot and tying the laces.
It was still night when we left the house, but it looked like the sun was just beginning to come up. You can tell when the sun is rising, even before the sky gets light. The Eastern sky has a different look to it when the sun comes up than the Western sky has when the sun goes down. The horizon was just real bright and that blended in with dark blue. That's the way the sky looked. I held onto my Uncle Nigel's hand as we walked past corner stores, old houses, playgrounds, people lingering outside on the street, and cars that rocked, moaned, and shouted obscenities. In the distance, you could hear people talking, dogs barking, cars going up and down the road, and crickets chirping. It seemed like a long walk, but I didn't get tired like I usually did when we were on our feet for quite some time. He kept looking forward and smiling, never saying a word; I kept looking at him and imagining what I would look like at his age. Would I have his wavy hair that would start to thin at the top? Would I have his high-set cheekbones? Would my eyes ever slant when I smile? Would I speak in several languages with an accent that does not come from here?
We had walked for a long time and I didn't feel the need to ask him where we were going. I could smell it. There were the aromas of cotton candy, popcorn, cinnamon almonds, donuts, snow cones, hamburgers, hotdogs, and Polish sausages. Far away you could hear children laughing and grown folks clapping their hands. The air was also laced with screams of delight and rapture. We had reached an amusement park. Uncle Nigel had promised me that he would take me to the amusement park, and he had come back to carry out his word. We rode the roller coasters, spinning cups, and wooden horses with a single horn sticking from their heads. On the Ferris wheel, we went way up into the sky. I could see for many miles and everyone waved at us. Unlike the day when my Uncle Nigel left, the sky was a foreign blue that did not remind me of the dark shade of blue that I equated with sadness. The sky was pretty just like his smile.
"I want something to drink," I mentioned to my Uncle Nigel after we had feasted on hotdogs loaded with mustard and relish.
"Okay, I will give you a dollar, but you have to take it from my hand before my fingers cover it. If you get the dollar out of my hand, I will give you another one for good measure. If you don't get the dollar, I get to tickle you."
I started laughing before he reached in his pocket for the money. With such a rule, I didn't really care about the dollar. I was spending time with my Uncle Nigel. After he pulled a dollar out of his pocket, he held it out in front of me. I began to laugh again as I eyed the bill resting in the palm of his huge hand.
On the first try, I missed getting the dollar because I was laughing so hard. I grabbed his fist and knew what was next. I giggled out loud as his fingers stole under my armpits. I noticed that he laughed, too, and we sounded alike. He sounded like someone was tickling him under his arms.
"Try again," he suggested after he stopped grinning.
I put my left hand over my mouth to stop my giggling and with lightning speed I reached for the dollar with my right hand and still was too slow. He grabbed me and tickled me under my arms and on my sides. I didn't care. On the third try, I just raised my arms because I knew I wouldn't get the dollar. He obliged.
On the fourth try, he smiled and waited. Slowly I lowered my hand down to his while looking him straight in his eyes. The closer my hand got to his, his lips moved like they were mouthing something. It looked like he was saying "I'll see you tomorrow." I snatched the dollar and jumped with excitement of a child during Christmas.
"I got it," I yelled. "I got the dollar."
The amusement park, the inviting smells, and the sea blue sky had disappeared and I found myself back in my bed. My momma and daddy were standing over me asking me what I was so thrilled to have. After I realized where I was, I told them that it must have just been a dream. There was an empty feeling that followed as I then wished that I could have pulled my Uncle Nigel out of my dream back into the waking world with me. It was when I looked down at my hand that I realized that I was not dreaming. For in my hands, I had two dollars. Uncle Nigel had told me that if I got the dollar from his hand, he would give me another one. He never broke a promise he made to me. I began to jump up and down on my bed, waving the two dollars in front of my puzzled parents. My momma was wrong when she had said he was not coming back.
I was eight when my Uncle Nigel first came back for me. Even at age thirty-five, I often go to bed with my shoes on so that I am ready when he shakes me in my sleep.