According to legend, Uncle Frank was born and developed normally until around age four when he was hit by a car and spent a month in a coma. As the story goes, he was never the same after that. I often wonder if there was more to it, but times were different and in any case, by the time I knew him, he was officially diagnosed as schizophrenic and on permanent disability, living with my grandmother in their apartment in the projects. I spent a lot of time around Uncle Frank. Even in the midst of my teenage angst, I recognized that he was teaching me more than I could possibly appreciate. Here are some of the things I learned from having Uncle Frank in my life.
1. People with disabilities are people too. Nothing more, nothing less. I was so used to being with him, it never occurred to me to treat him any differently than my other aunts and uncles. I didn't need to talk slowly, or extra loudly. No need to be afraid of him (except maybe that one time when he went off his meds and threw all the furniture off the fire escape). No need to be extra nice and sickly sweet. Just treat him like everyone else.
2. People with disabilities are smart. Uncle Frank was pretty famous for calling his doctors and talking to them about his meds, fooling them into thinking he was another doctor. Eventually he would crack up on the phone and give himself away, but the man was smart about what he knew. Not everyone "got" that and he was good at taking advantage of those kinds of folks. Which brings me to my next point ...
3. People with disabilities are funny. Uncle Frank's sense of humor was epic. He would pounce on unsuspecting "regular" people and take them down. It was always great when someone new came to the house. They would always be a little nervous and tentative. One poor guy saw Frank standing near the lake and got all worried that he might jump in. Of course Frank pretended he was going to jump. And then laughed at the guy. He laughed really hard. We all laughed at him too. Which was mean, but ya know, he kinda deserved it. And if Frank laughed, you just kinda had to laugh too.
4. It doesn't matter if you have the latest, bestest camera gear from Radio Shack. Your pictures are still going to be crappy if you don't know what you are doing. But on the other hand, crappy pictures are better than none at all. Seriously, Uncle Frank had so many cameras. When I was little, he had Polaroids. Like, 7 of them. He had disc cameras. Fancy film cameras. More recently he was enjoying video cameras. Quality of his work? Not so great. But ya know what, he enjoyed what he did, and I'll bet he has some memories that the rest of us missed.
5. Its good to love animals. And rescue them if you can. Uncle Frank always had a cat. Usually some feral cat that he found outside. He'd feed the cat, sometimes he'd trap the cat and bring it inside and try to force it to live with him, and I think he named them all "Baby". Whether the cats were thankful or not, who knows? But he did his best to give them a nice life and he loved them. He recognized that some of them needed help and he did what he could to save them.
6. Sometimes people show love differently than we expect. Uncle Frank loved his family. He didn't go around hugging people or blowing kisses. But when he was younger and having a bad day, he would calm right down when my tiny self would tell him to quit it. When he was older, he'd watch the news and worry about me. If he heard of anything bad happening anywhere in the state of New Jersey, he'd start asking if I was ok. Just last week, my mom told me that he was fretting about the boardwalk fires at Seaside Heights. I told her to reassure him that I was very far away from the danger, and I appreciated that he was worrying about me. Because I know that it was his way of showing how much he loved me. And I know he felt the same way about the rest of his family.
7. Don't judge a book by its cover. The man looked like the Uni-Bomber half the time. And in winter, he looked like the Uni-Bomber ALL the time. But he was the gentlest soul on the planet. He'd raise his voice to argue with my mom (his sister) over things like feeding the pets and cleaning up the coffee grinds on the floor, but generally he was just a sweet person. He was happy to just show you his latest video or tell you about his cat. He made the world more interesting and we would have missed out on a lot if we let his appearance scare us away.
8. It doesn't matter how much of a mess you make in the kitchen, as long as you can make me a cup of coffee. The man could make a mess. Pretty sure he tracked coffee grinds from one end of the house to another. But he knew how to make coffee. And I can forgive pretty much anything if you apologize with a cup of coffee in your hands.
So here I am, a full fledged grown up with kids of my own. One of them is disabled, and I am thankful every day that I learned how to treat him like a human being and value his intelligence and humor. Even when he jumps out of our row-boat and into a lake to scare a grownup friend (and yes, he did), I have the ability to just laugh, because I know what's funny. Thanks Uncle Frank. I am thankful that your love of cameras and technology sparked a love of photography in me. I am capturing our memories in a way that makes me smile. Thanks Uncle Frank. I am thankful that I love animals and work with animal rescue groups when I can find the time. Thanks Uncle Frank. I am thankful that I learned to recognize all the ways that people show me love, even the ways that aren't "regular." It makes the world a warmer and fuzzier place. Thanks Uncle Frank. I'm thankful that I am not afraid of people who look a little rough on the outside because I know that there is a good chance they are sweethearts on the inside. Thanks Uncle Frank. And I am thankful that I love coffee, and that my husband will probably continue to spill coffee grinds on the counter every single day - because it will make me think of you. And I will smile and say, "Thank you Uncle Frank."
You left us today. You got on your bike and went for a ride and you never came back. The world is forever a less interesting place without you. Thank you Uncle Frank.