Uncle Jack was an unusual man. He was never quite the same after returning from duty in Vietnam. You would look into his eyes and feel the horror seething out, the undeniable regret, the pain, the dark secrets that he carried around with him on a daily basis.
He never much talked about Vietnam, but you knew that it was all he could think about. The experience raped him. He couldn’t have the life of an average citizen and had a hard time reintegrating into a society of people oblivious to the horrors of war. He used to say, “Ignorance is bliss”.
Before he disappeared I remember asking him “why didn’t you get married Uncle Jack? Didn’t you ever fall in love?”
He looked at me and sneered “Heh… me fall in love? Who the hell could love someone like me!”
It wasn’t his answer that was heartbreaking, but the fact that he actually believed it.
“Everyone deserves to be loved” I said naively.
“Look sweetie… Why don’t you go play with your Barbie’s. I’d like to say you’ll understand one day, but the truth is no one does.”
I was eighteen. Barbie’s were long over for me. I was into boys, smoking, and record players. What was he thinking?
The last time I saw him he was alone in my grandparent’s basement. He sat on the couch staring blankly at the television in a dimly lit room, chain smoking. It was my job to get him to come up and join the rest of the family for dinner. It was also when I took my last photograph of him.
“No thanks” he said “I don’t have the stomach for that. Get that damn camera out of my face too will ya.”
What did he mean? The stomach for us? For dinner? For having to communicate with his family?
I was angry. “It’s time you forgot Vietnam Uncle Jack… You’re sinking like a submarine. What kind of a life is this?”
I stormed upstairs and felt his stare cut into my spine.
Uncle Jack never came upstairs that evening. Never came up to say hello, to make small talk, or even to pretend that he wanted to be around us.
The next day my grandparents called in a panic. He was gone. His room cleared out, nothing but his dog tags left sitting on the dresser.
For the first few years we thought he just needed some breathing space… but when my grandparents died and he didn’t show up to either of their funerals, we feared the worst. The mystery became even more frustrating.
One afternoon I went to the vegetable market in Chinatown. I could have sworn I saw an older Uncle Jack. I waded through the crowds of people towards a man sitting on the steps of an electronics discount store. I got pushed and swayed around in the crowd, my vision occasionally blocked by people, hands, or signs.
When I got there he was gone.
Did I really see that? I didn’t know if I was imagining him, or if it in fact could have been him.
The mystery of Uncle Jack had tormented me for years. I felt like my comment pushed him over the edge. How stupid of me to think that somebody could just “forget” about war. I was one of those oblivious people he spoke so spitefully about. I was no different than the others.
In my late twenties I landed an installation with some old photographs I had been working on revamping. It was a series of photographs I had taken of Uncle Jack. Black & White images mostly. There were images of him staring off into another realm while blowing smoke from the corner of his mouth, others of him sitting in a solitary chair, or sitting on the edge of his bed…waiting, for relief from his mental anguish. His eyes told horrible truths.
The installation helped me get to a place of understanding. Going back and looking at the images allowed me to peer into his eyes one last time. For once I actually saw the truth.
He could have never led a normal life. It was unfair of anybody to expect that from him. Especially when they didn’t see the carnage, death, and tragedy that he lived for years.
His eyes were void of a soul. For once I felt happy for him, wherever he was. It was better than here. I knew that now.