My Uncle Pete knew all of his stories were completely made up. It was the thing he seemed to like about life the most, making up tales of total fancy.
His own life was a bit of a wreck: an injury robbed him of his ability to work and his children were a constant source of deep disappointment. I could see why he dreamed up a different existence every day.
He said I drank more milk than anyone he had ever met. If he knew I was coming for a visit, he would run to the store for an extra gallon, just for me. He would sit at the kitchen table while a big pot of goulash was simmering and tell me my legs were hollow and that’s where all the milk went. When the doctors removed several large calcium lumps from my feet, he took it as proof – real evidence – that all the milk had in fact been filling up my empty limbs and some had settled there as condensed bumps and nodes all over my feet.
When I was in high school and well beyond my milk drinking phase, he contracted emphysema. I would visit and drink a glass of milk just to indulge him. We would sit together and I would listen to his wheezing. I tried to create stories to tell him and he would nod or squeeze my hand in his big meaty hand if he liked them. He was simply too weak to speak most of the time anymore.
On one visit, he seemed a little better than usual. He was propped up at the kitchen table, watching the world from his perch there. A cold bowl of goulash had been left in front of him. I sat down with my glass of milk and Uncle Pete started to tell me a story – short and winded with many pauses – but a definite tale.
He told me about his Aunt, who had come down with a cancer that ate her alive. He told me that, when she had reached a stage of constant pain and certain death, she begged him to kill her. And he did. With his massive hands, he had smothered her to death. He told me how she struggled a bit but then it was done.
He looked at me with his watery gray eyes. He was quiet now, except for the wheezing. I wasn’t sure what to make of the story because it sounded somewhere closer to the truth than his usual lies. And then, with his giant paws, he pushed all of his medication toward me and looked again at me, very deliberately. He told me that if I didn’t do it, he would be forced to ask his eldest son. He and I both knew that his son, a troubled and angry man who despised my Uncle, would do it – would relish it, in fact. But Uncle Pete wanted to die at the hands of someone he cared about. He pushed the pill bottles toward me once more.
I sat there forever. I studied each bottle and tried to think about how many he would need. But in the end, I couldn’t do it. I wanted to help him but I didn’t think I had the strength to watch him die this way. I knew enough to understand that one didn’t just drift off to sleep from a drug overdose. In tears, I left Uncle Pete’s kitchen, my glass of milk untouched.
My Uncle was dead by the next morning. My cousin delivered the news to me personally: self-inflicted gunshot. But I wasn’t sure if that was just another story Uncle Pete was telling from the grave.