Tuesday, January 21, 2014

My Superman

On paper, he was married to my aunt. In real life, he was everything. My uncle, my grandfather, my father and mentor. I don't know if I can call him a friend, because I was too in awe of him to ever consider myself on such a level.

My Uncle Ben died at sunrise on December 15th, at the age of 85. I had watched him fade away, ravaged by cancer, his features turn ashy and sunken. I fell asleep holding his hand, perched precariously between two uncomfortable chairs, my head balanced in the crook of my arm. I sat for hours, for days by his bedside, holding my own breath with each unnatural pause in his painfully slow, labored breathing, with nothing to say but everything.

Mostly I cried silently, because he had told me I wasn't allowed to weep for him. Four days before he died I started sobbing openly and apologized to him; by that time he was in a comatose state, eyes glassy and half-open. He squeezed my hand. Whether he was telling me it was OK, or to knock it the hell off, I'm not really sure. A little of both, probably. He had said repeatedly in the final few weeks, "just throw me in a trash bag and put me out". It was only half in jest. My Uncle Ben was the most humble man you could ever imagine. Given what he had done in life, his humility was just another amazing accomplishment.

If anyone in my home state of Delaware ever has to call 911, you can thank him for that. He set that up. If, after you call 911, the paramedics show up, you can thank him for that too. (At the viewing and his funeral, there was a paramedic color guard, and uniforms in white gloves manning the doors; it was too much for me) If your best friend is in a horrible car crash and rushed to the emergency room, you can thank my Uncle Ben for the care your friend receives. He created the ER as we know it today, a specialization all its own. You're welcome, George Clooney. He had vision and passion like no other. His passion was helping people. That sounds stupid and corny, but it really was. He believed in God, and that his God-given talents were on loan, so he sure as hell better use them wisely. He believed in people, and the goodness in people, and he did everything he could to help others realize their own potential for good. He built schools in third-world countries, drilled wells for those families to have fresh water. And he did all of this...because in college his cleats got stuck when some asshole base runner ran into him at home plate and blew out his knee. He would've been a catcher for the New York Yankees. So, Plan B? Doctor. And not just any doctor, a surgeon. Yeah, blows my mind, too. 

But his greatest accomplishment, if you ask me, was just being my uncle. He was Superman to me, and I didn't know about half the shit he did to save the world. He was such a monumental part of my life, and that's all I ever knew, all I ever cared about. He was always there, as far back as I can remember. He and my aunt were a cornerstone of my childhood. My grandfather on my mother's side died when I was 4 years old. I'm the only one of my 3 siblings who remembers him. On my father's side, we saw Grandfather once a year, at Christmas, when he gave us socks....

We spent our entire Christmas break every year with my aunt and uncle; belly-sliding down the stairs, playing Chopsticks on the baby grand, running from the monsters in the basement. 
I gave him manicures while my sister played dentist. We hid stealthily under the covers in my aunt & uncle's bed, shushing each other and giggling wildly, waiting to "surprise" Uncle Ben when he came back into the room. (We got him every time, by the way) Our ocean-front house at the beach every year, broadway trips and the corner suite at The Plaza Hotel, dinner at Le Cirque and cruises to the Caribbean; looking back I was so indescribably lucky to be showered with such love and attention, such incredible generosity from a man whose only tie to me was a piece of paper stamped by the county clerk. But I had no idea. I didn't know anything different. It was just the way things were. We were family, and I loved him so much. And I think that was what made him so spectacular. He truly loved me, regardless of what anyone's definition of "family" is. That was my reality. And I loved him, regardless of who he was to the rest of the world. Finding out 30 years later he was a real-life super hero, well, it doesn't surprise me in the least, because he was a hero to me already.

Every single event of my life, big and small, from my christening to my wedding, he was there. Both of them. They've always been there. And now they're both gone, and I have no idea how to mend this gaping hole in my life. The family was split in two after my aunt died, and one of his final acts on this good Earth was to bring us closer. The two separate branches that had thinned out and broken away over the years, made whole again during his final days. Laughter and lively conversation at a dining room table that had been unused for years. Surprises, revelations, hugs and tears, and even an "I love you".

I don't know what life without Uncle Ben looks like; I can't imagine it. I guess now I have to live it and find out; God help me I don't want to. But I know he'd be pissed if we stopped living our lives. I'm sure he'd make some wonderfully witty remark about us moping around, as was his specialty. Even in the final days when his mind was foggy, he was making us laugh. He always knew exactly what to say. I wish I had that gift. I don't know if I said everything that needed to be said, or if he even heard. I don't know if he knew how much I loved him, that he is a part of nearly every happy memory I have, or how the tapestry of my childhood was so vibrant in color because of him. I don't know if he knows I'm sorry. I let him down in a lot of ways; I disappointed him and angered him. I pray that he knows that I am so very sorry. Although I think he'd probably admonish me for that, "Katie, don't be ridiculous, there's nothing to be sorry for." But most of all, I hope he knows how important he was to me, the impact he had on me and my life. He helped shape who I am, and I am so very grateful to have been able to call him mine.

He was my Superman:

"In the end, the only satisfaction you will ever have is the knowledge that you accomplished what you set out to do. There will be no statues of me, my name won't be on any plaques or anything, but I'l be sitting back, sipping a vodka tonic, knowing that...I made a difference, the trip was worth it. There is nothing else in the end when it comes down to it but your own personal satisfaction. And if you can have that, that's what makes all this so much fun." - Ben Corballis, MD

We love you, Uncle Ben. Always.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The North End

A grand exit
in spectacular form.
Her most egregious flaws
so crassly on display
in the decadent lobby
of the Ritz hotel.

At the airport,
sick with shame.
Regret burns her cheeks
and stings her eyes,
but there are some things
that cannot be taken back.

Perhaps though, a fitting end
to such a passionate affair.
Burning out
so spectacularly
in the decadent lobby
of the Ritz hotel.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Dallas Buyers Club - The Verdict

My regular readers reader knows I am in the Writer's Guild. One of  the only perks is getting screeners and screening invitations during awards season. (Screeners are DVDs that have the "For your consideration only" message appear on the bottom of the screen every 20 minutes)

Now that we've established that.. I just watched Dallas Buyers Club. It stars Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto and Jennifer Garner. It was good. I didn't think it was great, but it was quite good. The acting, however....wow. We'll get to that in a minute. But first a little background.

If you're not familiar, Dallas Buyers Club is based on real events. A hard-living guy in Texas (imagine that!) named Ron Woodroof finds out he has HIV, and is given 30 days to live. He looks for treatment, but being this is 1985, there are no options. They're just starting clinical trials with a drug called AZT that appears to be more deadly than the disease itself. Woodroof makes it his mission to stay alive, and through extensive research he travels the world and finds a regimen of shit that's not approved by the FDA. Other HIV and AIDS patients come to him for help, and he goes into business with the help of his doctor and a fellow patient named Rayon, smuggling these illegal medications into the country. The business is eventually called the Dallas Buyers Club; to get around the DEA and FDA, patients buy a "membership", and with the membership they get the drugs. So technically, Woodroof isn't selling illegal drugs. Anyway, this movie chronicles his story. Pretty compelling.

Now, back to the acting. I know you're looking forward to me eviscerating Matthew McConaughey...but, well... it feels so strange to say this, and it may or may not make me throw up in my mouth a little, but McConaughey is fucking amazing. Uh.Maze.Ing. Who knew the man who cannot keep his shirt on actually has some acting chops?? The cynic in me wonders if it's just because he looks the part. He lost 30 pounds for this role. I didn't know what the film was about, and when I first saw him on-screen I thought, "Wow, he looks like he has HIV". He is so painfully skinny, and has that sickly look about him that we've come to associate with HIV/AIDS patients. So McConaughey looks the role. But the film critic in me understands this is only a small piece of the puzzle, and adds to the authenticity of his performance. And it truly is a performance.

McConaughey manages to bring the character to life. You believe him. He's an asshole, a good ol' boy homophobe. And you really don't like the fucker at first. Even when he becomes ostracized by his good ol' boy homophobe friends. You don't care about Woodroof. Which is what makes McConaughey's performance so miraculous; eventually you do care about him. I never ended up liking the guy, yet somehow I became invested in the character's life. I wanted this fucker to survive. McConaughey was able to coax some empathy out of the role, without ever losing the asshole attitude. He remained true to the character, never patronized the audience to force some kind of emotional attachment. It came naturally, through the character's development. I actually forgot I was watching Matthew McConaughey play Ron Woodroof. I was watching Ron Woodroof. That, my friends, is rare. Even in the best films, with the best actors, it's not often that you completely lose the recognition that you are watching [insert your favorite actress or actor] as whatever role. For example, in this film, it was Jennifer Garner playing a doctor. I believed she was a doctor, but I also never lost the recognition that it was Garner. The only other time I can recall complete immersion was when I saw Man on the Moon, with Jim Carrey. I completely forgot it was Jim Carrey; I was watching Andy Kaufman.

On to the freak show we've come to know and love that is Jared Leto. Again... Uh.Fucking.Mazing. It took me a while to realize it even was Leto. Another completely authentic performance. Leto also lost a significant amount of weight for the role, which again I believe supplemented the performance, rather than create the illusion of good acting. His character is a transvestite drug addict AIDS patient named Rayon; and you fucking believe it. You like Rayon right away. Leto successfully cultivates that kind of outgoing personality that we often associate with drag queens. She is both beautiful and tragic. Unlike Ron, she is a compassionate person, and their business partnership -- which evolves into an odd friendship, perhaps the kind you would see between siblings who never got along -- is an unusual one. And yet, you believe in the relationship. The bond they form is entirely realistic, despite their differences, Ron's emotional detachment and selfishness, and his continued homophobia. Leto is also able to convey Rayon's sassy attitude and deep emotional agony at the same time. Both layers exist at once and are visible at all times, like wave upon wave, and it is fantastic. 

The movie was good. When I started writing this, I wasn't sure that I'd want to pay $15 to see it in a theater, I thought maybe a matinee.... but as I've been writing, I have to admit maybe I would. The acting truly is worth the price of admission. Those 2 carry this film, and they are remarkable. I never thought I'd hear 'McConaughey' and 'Oscar' in the same sentence, (unless it was something like 'McConaughey is cast as Oscar the Grouch in Sesame Street Unleashed'), but I have to say his performance truly is Oscar-worthy, and it would be a great injustice if he did not at least get a nomination.

Now stop acting and shit and take your shirt off!