Tuesday, May 17, 2011

An Adventurer's Life

Some followers of this blog may have noticed the sudden dearth of new postings on this blog. There are numerous things I want to write about. In fact, I'm practically itching to do so.

But having just passed through finals week, a writers' conference, "the birthday gauntlet" (my wife and kids have their birthdays within a couple of weeks of each other), and the end-of-year dance recitals for my kids, I'm now in the final stages of packing up my entire house to move across town...while teaching an intensive three-week intercession course. In the midst of all this, on Sunday my wife's uncle passed away.

This doesn't leave me much time for the blog. But I want to say a few words about my wife's "Gunkle," Otis.

While clearing out a back closet on Sunday, hours after his death, I pulled down a plaque that was just the right size to fit in the box I was packing--and so I almost didn't look at it. But as I was slipping it into the box, in the space that was just exactly the right fit, I saw the words etched into the metal surface. It was a plaque inducting Otis, aka "Jingles the Clown", into the Clowning Hall of Fame.

I stood there holding the plaque, and I had a sudden, vivid memory of sitting in Otis's cluttered living room as he fit a clown wig and red nose onto my then-three-year-old son's head. Somewhere we have a picture of my son wearing that wig and nose. And, of course, I found myself choking back tears.

When I first met Otis, it was after he'd been essentially immobilized by strokes and other health problems. He'd moved in with his mother, who was in her late 80's at the time, and they kept each other company. He would sit in the sofa (or, later, in his bed at the nursing home) doling out laughter and gifts (mostly little trinkets meant as expressions of affection). When his mother (my wife's "Gaumi") passed away a few years ago, he lived alone in the same little apartment, mostly on that same sofa with a a view of the front door and the people who walked by.

But from stories and photographs, I knew that this man had once been an adventurer in the truest sense of the word, an explorer who traveled the world, who climbed mountains and forged his way into remote jungles. He collected treasures and trinkets and junk from everywhere he traveled (and from mail-order catalogues when travel was no longer possible--a fact that created quite a burden for my wife when he finally moved into the nursing home and his apartment had to be cleared out). When he wasn't on wilderness adventures, he worked for the gas company, for Oklahoma City's "Cowboy Hall of Fame"...and as a professional clown.

When I think of the lives of the people I've known, his ranks among the most interesting. It was a life that fell outside the established scripts, the normal patterns and expectations. (This included expectations about keeping one's home tidy; I doubt he ever used a vacuum anywhere he ever lived, although I would be surprised if he hadn't collected dozens of them.) His was a life of exploring unfamiliar terrain--a life of doing, of living with gusto and a spirit of adventure. And so one might think, in those later years when he could barely get around even with the help of a walker, that he'd be bitter.

If he was, I never saw a sign of it.  When he finally went into a nursing home a couple of years ago, he became a kind of goodwill ambassador to the lonely souls that surrounded him, spreading laughter and smiles wherever he went. On Halloween, when we brought the kids by in costume, he led us through the halls of the nursing home in his motorized wheel chair, greeting everyone by name, sharing a joke--and knocking on the doors of his friends so that he could show off his grand-niece and -nephew (and bring them the special kind of delight that children so often seem to bring to residents of a nursing home). I think he was wearing his plastic viking hat while he did so.

Or maybe it was his oversized foam cowboy hat. I can't remember. But the comical headgear was a clear part of the role he had adopted in the nursing home, a role that gave him a sense of purpose. He was being a clown, not in the derogatory sense of that word, but in the sense of honor expressed in that etched plaque I found in the closet. And he was able to be a clown in the nursing home--in this place where so many lie in lonely isolation, playing a waiting game with death--because he was, first and foremost, an adventurer. The nursing became for him a new jungle to explore, a new mountain to climb. And the giant foam hat was part of his adventurer's gear.

We found out on Thursday that he'd been put on hospice. On Saturday, immediately after my son's birthday party, we made the hour-long drive to visit Gunkle in the nursing home. Because we weren't sure if he'd be up for a crowd of visitors, I waiting in the car with the kids while my wife and her mother went in to check on him. My son was busy practicing the new magic trick he'd gotten as a birthday present. He wanted to show it to Gunkle, because Gunkle would love it. My daughter had brought with her a line drawing she'd made--of herself, her brother, and Gunkle. She wanted to give it to him, and she was wondering what gifts Gunkle would have for her.

We waited. I took the kids out of the car and rolled my daughter down a small grassy hill. We looked at a bronze sculpture of one child pushing another on a tire swing. At last my wife and mother-in-law came out. My wife explained to the kids that Gunkle was very tired and sick, too tired and sick to have a lot of visitors. I could see the disappointment on their faces. They'd been imagining a visit like other visits, with Gunkle sitting on the bed, smiling and being jolly, laughing with delight at their antics, telling them which drawer to look into to find the trinket or stuffed animal he had for them. Of course, because of the pain and the morphine, that is not what it would have been like if they'd gone inside.

And that is what he wanted them to remember, the last impression he wanted to leave. And so he sent with my wife a message to the children--a message of goodbye, a message that he was looking forward to seeing Jesus, and his mother and father, and his brother (my wife's father, who passed away more than a dozen years ago). My wife couldn't bear to convey that message right then.

But Otis--or Jingles, or Gunkle, depending on who you talk to--was ready to go. He'd made up his mind. And his was a life of doing, not of waiting. His was an adventurer's life. And so I wasn't all that surprised when we woke up the next morning to the news of his passing.

It was my son's birthday, and we have a family tradition of waking up the birthday boy or girl with songs and well-wishes, and then letting them open their presents on the bed. Before we had the chance to do that, my son wandered into our room, perhaps awakened by the sound of my wife's crying. And so she told him the news and shared Gunkle's message with him...and after a moment of quiet sadness, she masterfully invited my son to leap back into his bed so that his sister wouldn't miss out on waking him up for his birthday.

He played the role of groggy birthday boy masterfully. We had his birthday morning. A little later, my wife shared the news, and Gunkle's message, with my daughter.

That afternoon was the second and final run of their dance recital. Of course, Otis hadn't been able to come to the one on Friday night. But I like to think that his new adventure afforded him the chance to watch his little grand niece make her awkward dance debut, and his grand nephew dance the role of Peter Pan with confidence and poise.


  1. That's a beautiful story, Eric. Thanks for sharing it with us, your readers.

  2. Inspiring Eric,

    Such beauty to be found in a life lived well. All the best.


  3. [Guncle] was looking forward to seeing Jesus, and his mother and father, and his brother

    Isn’t it amazingly good that we should live in a world in which reasonable people can hold such a belief? So here’s an argument from Guncle’s passing:

    1. From all possible naturalistic worlds in which intelligent beings exist, the proportion of worlds in which it is reasonable to believe in a bright life after death is very small.
    2. Our world is such that it is reasonable to believe in a bright life after death.
    3. Therefore, it is very improbable that our world is naturalistic.

  4. Otis was a classmate of mine. He was the only reason that I went to our 50th Class Reunion. I somehow felt like that it would be the last time I would get to visit with him. He was a very special person. I'm so sorry that we are just finding out about his passing. But, I know he was welcomed into The LORD's presance with open arms.
    Gaylon Patricia Bailey Holder, class of 1958