I stopped in my tracks. Could we be distantly related? Maybe if his mother was black and Grandpa was…no, his mother would have had to have been purple and Grandpa would have had to be an albino to cause such a difference between us. I was about to say, “I’m afraid there’s been a mistake…” when Dolly took my hand and reached it to his, hanging in space. “Please,” she said softly.
“There you are, child.” His face broke into a show-stopping smile. His sightless eyes leaked tears in the outer corners.
He covered my hand in his. His skin was soft and warm. “However did you find me?” His big voice wavered. “I looked for family my whole life and found nothing but disappointments. And here I am, at the end of my days, and who would have thought, a niece.”
Strangely enough, tears sprang from my eyes as well. I spilled over with all my information. It was so wonderful to share it with someone who actually listened. I told him how I traced “our” family tree from old records on the Internet. All the way from Massachusetts and his mother’s tragic death of the swine flu; how his father–my grandfather–apparently couldn’t raise a newborn on his own. How my mother and father moved to Seattle to start a family.
He nodded and listened, shook his head and smiled. “My adoptive parents told me about my mother dyin’ so young. I didn’t realize it was the swine flu. Dad was always a mystery, though. So my father went on to have more children? I suppose that’s only natural. I’m happy for him.” He took a deep breath. “I’ll be seein’ him soon enough and we can catch up then. He won’t believe we met each other. This life is strange, isn’t it?”
“Yes. Lord it is,” I agreed. I can’t believe I just tried to sound black. Did I really do that? “How did you end up over here in Tacoma?”
“Oh, I had a good childhood, raised by a couple is Salem. I didn’t even know I was adopted until I was about grown. Didn’t matter. Lovely people, my parents. I got a bit of an education, and then I joined the service and traveled the world.” His eyes sparkled in the sunlight streaking through the blinds. “When I retired, I traveled the world again, on my own terms. I have had a wonderful life.”
We talked about things we enjoy doing. Reading and history were our biggest hobbies. He had an old tape recorder on a cart with a stack of books-on-tape beside it. He was in the middle of a novel I had just finished the week before.
“Aren’t genetics something? I was a bit of an artist before I lost my sight,” he said proudly. “Do we have any more in the family?”
I excitedly pulled out pictures of my three children and fanned them in front of him. I told him about the drawing classes I take and my daughter who is minoring in art. He ran his long fingers over their faces. “I’m sure they are beautiful,” he said.
“They are,” I said. “I will bring them in to meet you over Christmas break. They’re all in college now.”
“Smart kids. Three of them, too. What a blessing. I never slowed down long enough to have my own. Had a wife for thirty years, though. Brought her here from Thailand. She passed away in ’98.” He fumbled beside his bed and picked up a frame with a picture of a Thai woman with a big grin on her face, as if he had just said something a little racy to her. He handed it to me. “Nim. You would have loved her,” he said with a little laugh. I swear he remembered what he told her in that picture. “She would have loved you.”
I ran my fingers over her face, like he did, as I studied her. “She’s gorgeous, Walter.”
“Oh, she was so much more than that,” he sighed.
Looking at her picture and his face full of contentment, I knew this couple had soaked up every bit of life that came their way.
I hardly noticed the soft footsteps of the aides checking in on us as we talked away into the evening. Finally, Dolly came into the room. “I hate to interrupt you, but you will need to eat something before you go to sleep, Walter.” She looked at me with such warmth I thought she was going to hug me.
“Was he all you had hoped for?” my husband asked as we got ready for bed.
“And more,” I said. “I’m going back on Friday.”
“Still more to talk about, eh?”
“There is a lifetime of stuff to talk about,” I said.
I brought my sketchbook with me on Friday and spent the afternoon drawing my uncle’s animated expressions as he told me about Venice and Moscow. He told me how Nim, a confident woman who spoke a little English, saved him from the mistake of wearing his shoes inside a Thai Buddhist temple and then, after much persistence on his part, accepted his invitation to dinner.
From then on, she joined him on the rest of his travels. He described the strange fruit in Bali and the nutty, sharp cheeses in Italy. We laughed so hard about our mutual dislike for Indian food that the aides came rushing in. He insisted it was OK for me to stay while he ate his mushy dinner. I could see his face become droopier and his movements a bit slower. I was afraid I was tiring him out.
“I’d better go and let you get your sleep, Walter,” I finally said, packing up my sketchbooks and pencils.
“Are you coming to the dinner next Sunday?” he asked. “It’s just our little group here, but those of us who can wheel out to the dining room for some visiting. I’d love to introduce you, my niece.”
I slowly put my bag down beside his bed. “Of course I will, Walter. But first, I think there is something you should know.”
“Hush, now, child.” He put his giant, charcoal, wrinkled hand over my freckled, pale one. “Hush, now.”
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