My Uncle John is going to die today. I think he was John VanBerkel the second, maybe the third. I forget. My grandfather was the John VanBerkel before him.
Entering into my grandfather’s house, just past the bee-infested pergola of bougainvillea, there was a framed and calligraphied certificate in the foyer. It proclaimed, I think, my Uncle John’s birth. There were numerals behind the name at least. That’s all I can remember.
Maybe it was a diploma—who knows?
At some point the family tree is just a gnarlsome briar patch rather than something steadfastly oak. There was my Grandpa John, my Uncle John, my cousin Johnny. I literally have three hundred unmet cousins in Holland, many probably named John as well; Cayden, meanwhile, is the last of the family line on the Hofman side.
We’re all Dutch, regardless.
Over the last couple of generations, we’ve outgrown tulip fields. These days, we swing at windmills rather than building them. We’re emigrated, re-established, and generally have way fewer kids. I’m now married to a Scandinavian: red-hair is the Mendelevian new. Delft-blue eyes persist though, like some ghostly genetic memory having recently resurfaced.
I look very much like my Uncle John, especially with age. In fact, the last social media post I saw from John involved him remarking to his sisters how much I resembled my grandfather. Two aunts agreed.
“He looks like Pop!”
The other aunt said: “He looks like YOU.”
They were all correct.
I’m not the third or the fourth or anything. My name is not John. But it could be.
Uncle John’s son Johnny was my hero. He had a spartan bedroom—a mattress, basically—and shelves that were lined intermittently with books and records. Nothing else. Tons of LP’s. He was the DJ at his college radio station.
In high school, Johnny was known for being the slacker kid in the back of the room, always with headphones on. He’d play Mozart and Metallica at random with a cracked Phillip K. Dick book in defiance of every teacher he met. If a teacher tried to best him—call him out on his inattentiveness—he’d stand up, remove his headphones, and school the teacher with an improvised lecture that bettered whatever dullness was stenciled on the chalkboard.
He’d then sit down and reapply his headphones.
He died early—27? 28? Somewhere in that Joplin-Cobain-Morrison range.
He had Marfan’s disease. So when he stood up at the back of the classroom, he was 7’2”, with an uncomfortable back-brace. Imagine Lincoln without the stovetop hat, but rather long black hair. Coke-bottle glasses and a Social Distortion t-shirt.
“You’re wrong, Mr. Fields. Paul Revere was forced to resign out of the army after the Penedscot Expedition. And the ‘Redcoats are coming’? He never said that. Don’t get me started about the horse ride. The British captured him and he confessed to everything. American hero? Maybe, but this Longfellow poem you’re teaching is ridiculous.”
It’s no wonder that in most photographs I see of Cousin Johnny, he’s extending a middle finger, made even more expressive by virtue of his Marfan’s. Longest bird you can imagine.
I’m like my cousin Johnny. I’m like my Uncle John. I’m like my grandfather John. Just in different ways.
Uncle John’s heart was so calcified with plaque that a stint failed last night. His aortic valve literally cracked, and he bled.
My cousin, my uncle’s son, was in front of a grocery store in Sacramento—’93 I think—and he collapsed suddenly on the sidewalk, in front of what I imagine a melon display because I like to make shit up. Could’ve been apples. We get facts wrong.
A tousle of black hair on the sidewalk, a long torso. Johnny’s aortic artery had separated from the heart. His stepmother, in an act of grave coincidence, was there to see it, once the ambulances had arrived.
It’s common for people afflicted with Marfan’s, this sudden aortal separation.
Hank Gathers, another Marfan’s sufferer, and a collegiate leader in scores and rebounds at Loyola, 1990, did one last slam-dunk before falling on the court dead. Proof you can literally die of a broken heart. His aorta separated, too, somewhere between air and floor.
At my Uncle John’s house, years ago, I was playing basketball with Cousin Johnny and he was ironic before I even had an inkling of what ‘ironic’ meant. He passed the ball back and forth to me, though he hated when everyone asked him: ‘Do you play basketball?’ He happened to be a foot and a half taller than everyone else, and would flip a bird to anyone that asked about a perhaps basketball career. He had good retorts, too. He was caustically smart. He housed a Wildean wit that was sandpapered with a gritty touch of Carlin.
(“Wow—you’re tall! Think about basketball?”
“You’re fat. Think about Weight Watchers?” )
Still, he would gentle the ball to me, then do a feet-on-the-floor dunk in deference of his ability. We’d get purposely bored and retire to his room to play records and Dungeons and Dragons.
Johnny would clear half the bookshelves and send me home with a grip of sci-fi novels, an occasional record.
“You need to read this,” he’d say, selecting a book, “Oh—and this, and this one too.”
Like I have to do now, he’d look through the bottom of his bifocals to read the spines. His retinas were in the slow process of detaching because Marfan’s has a way of not keeping things together.
Johnny smoked with my Uncle John, also my grandpa. Uncle John, at some point, was smoking four packs of Winstons a day. A pack before work, a few sundries on the way to the office. He worked at CalTrans, was the guy in charge beneath the gubernatorial appointee. All his meetings were held outside. As he’d say: “I need to get a breath of fresh air”, while lighting one up.
My grandpa, too, had the nervous habit of always reaching into his front pocket, looking for a smoke. He started smoking when he was nine, working on the dairies and milking cows with a pipe dangling from his lips. Stooled behind a cow’s haunches, yanking cow tits, exhaling blue smoke upwards into the hayloft. He had a sense of humor and a love of animals. The barn kittens would parade in, and he’d squirt them in the face with yellowish sow-milk until the cats started arriving in coteries.
Later in life he had half a lung removed.
My Uncle John saw my Grandpa be taken away, institution-bound. We still don’t know how. It was supposed to be in secret.
Uncle John said it changed everything.
My Grandpa was flown from California to Bethesda in Denver, Colorado, for a spell. He had local places, too, where he personed the white rooms, briefly, before escaping out windows. He’d arrive home with nonplus and a cane. Then resume where he left off.
No one questioned anything. Or maybe they did. What the fuck do I know? I’m just left with my own particular shades of John, and with three Johns currently gone who is left to properly ask?
I just know it was hard for all parties, that there’s rippling consequence. ‘Sins of the fathers’ is the proverb, but sickness is not sin; it’s not a chosen thing. Especially since all parties involved sat in straight-backed pews at the Dutch Reformed church where pre-determination was Calvin’s guiding doctrine—when exactly do you get to choose your choice?
I don’t know who even to ask about myself: it’s all a sort of an inside-out Mobius, where I’m just left with me at the end of the strip, ad infinitum.
I played chess with my Uncle John years ago. I was eight. He looked like I do now, with a white beard and signal wrinkles around the eyes. He was amused that I’d battle him at chess, and we did in the great room, with my grandfather’s chessboard on a table draped in woolen damask. He was drinking a Pepsi, quick to finish, so that he could ash in the can. He was a Berkeley graduate, had his dad’s smarts. He harbored a lit cigarette in between his thumb and forefinger, the cherry just shy of the palm. The smoke would pass through his curled fingers.
I moved my pawn—k-chunk—and he chuckled.
He moved his bishop.
I pushed a knight.
He kept moving his pieces into my territory, but I fought him off with pawns. It’s how young kids strategize, unless you’re something Fischer. The family gathered.
I used to play dice games with my Grandpa, which was less of a spectator sport. Roll the bones—did you get twelve? My grandpa would touch the tip of his tongue to his nose, I’d laugh, and we’d keep rolling dice on the green velvet board he stored near the television. Six, snake-eyes, the somehow rare threes. We’d play dice not looking to win. No one can win dice; no one wins Tic-tac-toe. My Grandpa would say something in Dutch and I’d pretend to understand. We’d just roll again and again and there was no competition, only the throw of the bones, the muted sound of ivory on velvet.
Uncle John fought me hard, though, in this particular chess game, he ashing his Winstons into a Pepsi can, chuckling the whole while. The game took too long and the ash of his cigarette got equally exaggerated, the errant tobacco drifting like spent moth-things as he poised over the board, hand unflickingly still over the damask.
Uncle John—I look like him, down to the stubborn genetic fact that our moustaches and goatees refuse to communicate with the rest of our beards. They retain color. We’re VanDykeish by default.
Van because we’re Dutch, not Von. Von’s are German, and my Grandpa VanBerkel used to—in occupied Holland—sneak out at night with his friends and sabotage the Messerschmitts parked beneath the windmills. I’m not exactly sure how, but he’d stay out late enough to have to hide in trenches, curfew expired, waiting for morning till he could run home unnoticed. Life and death amid the haystacks.
My uncle extinguished his last cigarette and I forget who won. Szzzz. I just remember him smiling impishly, and pushing back from the table.
In one version of memory, I won. Sometimes I’m convinced of this. Then I reconsider.
He most likely won.
I just remember the side conversation, the family watching, and me fighting up the board with my pawns, sitting cross-legged on a chair too big for me, and me actually making it into my Uncle John’s territory, a victory in itself.
Again, I’m no Fischer.
But we’re Dutch, we’re stubborn. You have to earn your win, else tilt at windmills in imaginary triumph. No one’s allowed an easy victory.
I’m sure my Uncle John beat me, his black bishops cutting up my defense.
Meanwhile Cousin Johnny asked me: ‘There’s a demon guarding the corridor—what do you do?’
Grandpa rolled threes. “Yah—you need a five, now,” while swiping for a cigarette, while I shook the ivories.
What are my chances? A kid elbow-deep in the damask, second-hand smoking with a view of the sea figs and eucalyptus just out the window, spent pawns toppled, a blindness to the mirror? I need a five, a king left standing, a demon vanquished. What are my chances? How do I win? Can I win?
I roll the dice; I tell Johnny—“I’m casting a ‘magic missile’.” It misses.
I roll the dice. I get snake eyes, and my grandpa lights a cigarette.
I roll the dice; I fold my king.
All three gambles lost.
All Johns say, “Sorry.” I lose I lose I lose.
My grandfather died one year before the Challenger blew up; it’s how I remember the date. I saw my Uncle John one year later at his home in a Sacramento suburb. It was a long drive for a nine-year old and I pissed myself while climbing the stairs, his Pekingese barking at my ankles. I hid in a closet, my uncle the now patriarch, with me scared that I had ruined his carpet having accidentally stained the stairwell.
I was given reprieve. My uncle was celebrating with a cigarette, his recent radiographs white between the ribs.
“Totally clean!” he exclaimed, ecstatic at the doctor’s latest report. And we got to celebrate with him, and I got to not be in trouble having dribbled up the upstairs.
My grandpa died with COPD, one and a half lungs and black x-rays. My uncle, meanwhile, had luminary radiographs, a gamble won.
Cue Sinatra: “Luck be a lady tonight!”
I was forgiven the piss, but I was scared of my uncle, regardless. He wore a brown leather jacket, which crinkled like his eyes. He was clean like an open chess board, a chess board where the bishop can make a sweeping and diagonal take of a pawn.
I was nine years old in wet shorts, ashamed, and even the dog was barking at me.
Cousin Johnny was upstairs playing records. I was nervous around Uncle John.
But fast-forward a number of years.
“Uncle John—I think about Johnny often.”
“I see him in you. You know, of all the kids you remind me most of Johnny.”
Cancer got Uncle John in the ass, a double procedure on the prostate, which must be one of life’s jokes. Blow smoke up your ass, out your ass—whatever—but have clear lungs after four packs a day? That is a lottery dubiously won, just simply re-mapped. A cartographic flip of the north-south.
I used to bang on my Grandpa’s pump-organ, and he’d tell me that—wow—I’d just played ‘How Great Thou Art’.
My cousin would emerge from his room, loping like some cryptozoological beast, black-mopped and long-fingered, having needed his spine to rest. He would get a glass of water and take a cigarette.
They’d have their smokes on the patio, the three of them.
One time, Cousin Johnny pretended a joke, in which case he collapsed on my Grandfather’s lawn, south of the jade and in the sun, tousled black hair untied and falling in his face. He bit a blood capsule, a Hollywood effect, and pretended to die in the grass, rivulets of red streaming from his lips. We tried for fifteen minutes to revive him, until we actually got scared.
He popped upand proclaimed, ‘Boo!’ with a red mouth and stained t-shirt. He tickled us and wrestled us to the ground, and we laughed in the shadow of the pepper tree.
“You remind me of Johnny.”
“He looks like Pop.”
“He looks like you.”
Johnny. John. John.
In that chess game, I fought my damndest. Weren’t we all playing chess, no winners. John saw my grandpa taken away, which is the worst way to lose your king.
Johnny had red smeared on his face and grass on his cheek.
“Boo!” he said with fingers outstretched like a Kreskin, suddenly coming back to life while I fell, surprised, onto my back, short of breath, a car slowly descending the driveway, and there meanwhile being bees in the pergola where my Uncle John smoked and smoked and regarded the fresh air.