Uncle Sid began feeding the ducks the day he learned he had four months to live. Before that he forbid anyone to throw bread out on the water. “It’s not good for the ducks, Johnny,” he told me, “or the lake. You got to do what’s right for everyone, not what’s best for yourself.”
But Uncle Sid was on the pier every morning after he received the doctor’s diagnosis. At first only a mallard and a few females glided from the reeds to where Sid stood with his bag of sliced bread. The number increased rapidly. They flew in at dawn, splashing down like paragliders. Paddling around the dock they squawked in a frenzy, beaks raised to Uncle Sid. “Damn things wake me up,” Aunt Myrna said. “But I can’t say anything ‘bout it. Not now.”
She watched from the raised porch, grim as a funereal vase, her plump lips curved in a frown that pulled Aunt Myrna’s cheeks into her jowls. “Always thought the cigarettes would get him, but the pancreas will do it first.”
Myrna hadn’t shed a tear over Uncle Sid’s cancer. She was never an emotional woman, accepting the world’s doings with a mighty fatalism. In contrast Mom cried a lot. She was hysterical when she heard. “Sid’s dying,” she wailed to my stepfather Charlie.
He was removing his suit coat when Mom collapsed against his chest, trapping his arms in the sleeves. He gave me a confused look. “Uncle Sid has cancer,” I said.
“Just like Fred,” Mom told him, which wasn’t true at all. Fred, my father, died in a car accident. Only in kindergarten, I saw my mother faint in front of the policeman at the door. Uncle Sid was with the cop. He caught Mom in his arms.
Today I can’t recall what my father’s face looked like but can still see his hands. Big like catcher’s mitts. I still recognize his smell. Old Spice. Sometimes, waiting in a line or walking through a crowd, I get a whiff of it and turn expecting to see a man with huge hands.
Uncle Sid took me over after Dad died. We’d go out to Sid’s cabin on Lake Morgan and fish. I went there on Fridays after school and stayed until Sunday dinner. “Your mother needs time to grieve,” Uncle Sid said. “A woman does that best alone.” He ruffled my hair. “A boy grieves best with a fishing pole in his hand.”
When Mom got married again I was disappointed. Not because she was betraying my father’s memory—heck, she’d waited three years—but because I knew I wouldn’t be able to go to Uncle Sid’s every weekend. “I want the three of us to be a family,” Mom told me, “to do things together. It’s important to me, Johnny.”
“Charlie’s a nice man and a good provider,” Aunt Myrna said at the wedding. “She’s a fragile woman, your mother. She needs someone to take care of her.”
I wanted to ask Aunt Myrna, didn’t she need that as well? Hadn’t she gotten it with Uncle Sid? Myrna had never had to work. She raised my three cousins while Sid drove the Pet Dairy delivery truck. He wore the dairy’s blue uniform for twenty-five years, retiring the day his pension matured. “Never really saw the kids grow up,” he told me once. “By the time I retired they were married or in college. I feel closer to you than I do to my own.”
Watching him from the porch, that summer day with Aunt Myrna, I wondered why none of his children were around. “Where are Davey and Sue?” I asked. “Why isn’t Harrison home?”
She sipped her tea like it was scalding, though it had sat for more than an hour. “Dave and Susanna are with their families, as they should be. Harrison is on business in Europe.”
Aunt Myrna gave me a stern look. “They don’t know about their daddy and don’t you go telling them. Nothing they can do about it. I’ll let them know when it’s time.”
Down on the pier, Uncle Sid turned the plastic bread bag upside down. Crumbs caught in the breeze. The ducks skidded across the water, noisily chasing after with unsatisfied gluttony. “I would want to know,” I said.
They found out soon enough when my mother called them. Sue and Davy showed up without their spouses or children. Sue wept while doing the dishes; Davy found things in the house to fix. Harrison flew in from Brussels and wandered around the rooms picking up knick-knacks, telling stories about each. “I found that piece of driftwood on the beach. Remember, Dad? I brought it home and Mom said to throw it out, but you took it to the garage. We put it together with some clay and made this ashtray. Remember that?”
Uncle Sid nodded his head, a smile spreading from his dried lips to his moist eyes. Then Davy spoke up. “It was me who helped you make that ashtray, Squirt. We made it for Father’s Day, I think. Dad wasn’t there.”
A look of sadness drifted over Uncle Sid’s face. He dropped his head. Aunt Myrna glared at my mother. “See why I didn’t want them here?”
Davy and Sue went back to their families. Harrison stayed on. He hovered at the edge of his father’s cancer, not knowing what to do. Finally, he fled too. “I’ll be back when I finish up this business,” he promised.
They all promised to return. But obligations of one sort or another repeatedly delayed my cousins. They called on the phone instead, checking on their father every day. Aunt Myrna seemed relieved by their absence. “Less to cook for,” she said.
Uncle Sid fed the ducks until he was too sick to walk to the pier. Then the hospice people came in. It wasn’t their job to feed ducks. Aunt Myrna began driving to our house in the morning. She’d arrive after breakfast and leave before lunch. “I can’t stand to be there,” she told my mother. “Seeing them give him the medicine and wash him like a baby, wipe his behind. That’s not the man I married. The man I married wouldn’t stand for it.”
Soon Aunt Myrna’s visits increased to twice a day. Sometimes she stayed until dinner. Late one night I heard her muted voice floating down the hall from the kitchen. “Sid doesn’t look the same. He’s gray with death.”
Myrna began to count the days. “The doctor gave Sid four months. That’s eight days from now.”
“Seven days from today.”
“Less than a week.”
Uncle Sid died in accordance with the doctor’s prediction, four months to the day. When I got to the lake house the hospice nurse was scolding Aunt Myrna. “It’s against protocol for you to destroy the medications. I am supposed to dispose of them.”
“I poured them down the toilet,” Myrna said.
“Do you have a witness? If not I will have to write it up. There will have to be a report. Without a witness, without the pills—well, who knows what could have happened .”
A tacit accusation trailed her words.
“My nephew Johnny was here,” Aunt Myrna told her. “He was here when I poured out the pills. He watched me flush them.”
“Is that so?” The nurse fixed me with a skeptical gaze. Aunt Myrna looked at me, eyes wide behind her glasses. We were in what had once been the master bedroom. Now it was a nicely wallpapered sepulcher. Sid’s head wasn’t covered up, the ashen pallor of his skin replaced by a waxy yellow. He laid on the bed, under the thin blanket, his eyes and mouth open, his nose protruding from his hollowed face. I never knew Uncle Sid’s nose was that big. How can a person shrink so much so fast, disappear so quickly?
I couldn’t answer the nurse’s question, silenced by my uncle’s corpse. I just nodded. The hospice nurse sat down on the bed beside Uncle Sid, and started to write out the death certificate attached to her clipboard. She stopped for a moment, smoothing the blanket over Sid’s shoulder in a gesture of familiarity and kindness. “One of my favorite patients,” she said. “Always so grateful.”
Blinking hard, I walked out to the porch. Aunt Myrna followed. She put her hand on my arm. “He’s out of his pain now, Johnny. It’s better for everyone.”
I let loose one sob, maybe two, before tucking the rest away. A thought flashed in my mind prompted by the missing pills and Aunt Myrna’s relief at Sid’s passing. I tucked it away too.
“Look.” Aunt Myrna pointed to the pier, a note of surprise in her voice. “Here come the ducks. I haven’t seen them since Sid went down.”
Sure enough the ducks were swimming in, their vee-shaped wakes creating ripples that lapped the wooden pilings of the dock. Aunt Myrna went into the house, returning with a bag of fresh, sliced, bread. Tears traced the creases in her face. “Here.” She said. “They’re waiting for you.”