Tuesday, May 19, 2009

More from the fictional side:

Illustrious Uncle Bob

Everybody agreed: Uncle Bob was a surprising character, although his wife, Aunt Jane, had the more appopriate opinion. Bob was a unique individual, a one of a kind.

Aunt Jane was the one who folks in the movie industry would have liked to have gotten their hands on. Her story, and especially the one she told us of Bob just after he passed away, had all the stuff Hollywood seems to like: adventure, daring, and tragedy, with some odd twist of redemption thrown in for good measure.

It was the winter of 2004 that tragedy struck Uncle Bob and Aunt Jane. They had been married for nearly thirty years, and their only daughter Tina, a bright, soft-spoken girl with a huge smile, had just graduated from Northwestern, an amazing feat considering that she was dyslexic. But, as everyone said, Tina had her mom's intelligence and her father's drive. The sad thing was that she would never have a chance to really flower. One night during the holidays, just a week before Christmas, Tina went out shopping with two girlfriends, never to come home alive again. A video clip we saw on the evening news showed the story: a pick up truck nearly cut in half by the combustion of ice on a wintery Chicago street, mixed with speed, mass and a stationary tree. My cousin Tina wasn't yet 22 when she died, and her parents were devastated.

The accident weighed on Aunt Jane in a way that we all might have expected for a doting mother. She reacted normally, I suppose, for someone whose only child had been taken from her so violently. I was serving in the military in Iraq at that time and so wasn't around to experience any of this firsthand, but my mother and others would tell how Jane didn't answer the phone for months after the accident, and supposedly she wouldn't get out of bed for weeks on end. Nearly three years after that my mom recalled visiting and noticing how Jane still kept Tina's room just like it always had been, with her iPod on the dresser and her shoes by the door, as if Tina'd just gone out to the store and might get back anytime.

Mom said that the therapy and painkillers had worked to some degree. Jane could be civil, even verbal most of the time, unless the topic turned to Tina. Then Jane's eyes would go remote and she'd tear up and leave the room.

Uncle Bob had a different way of dealing with things. He'd always been a bit of a stoic, standing back from issues and not getting emotionally involved. I don't know if that came from his service in the military during the late 60s, or if it came from something else more basic. Bob was Asian, after all, and maybe he was hardwired for not showing his emotions like the white family he'd married into. The only thing clear was that he dealt with Tina's death in his own way, and no matter what anyone of us might have thought, it got him through the night.

Uncle Bob was a Filipino, but somehow he'd gotten tangled up with the US military during the Vietnam War. Rumor was he'd even worked for the CIA back in the day, or Air America, the CIA operation that was carrying on a secret war in Laos. I don't have any of this on good authority though. At family gatherings whenever Bob, Jane and Tina would visit us in Dubuque, Bob seemed to shy away from any talk of the army or the war.

A few times I did hear him mention the good life back in Southeast Asia. He'd allude to the beaches, the bars and the girls, but in a way that sounded erudite. One night after drinking with my father, Uncle Bob admitted he'd been a stud as a young man, blaming it on "a quiet intoxication with the feminine form." Bob's putting it that way nearly brought my father to tears.

Even Aunt Jane made no secret about Bob's casanova past, and on more than one occasion, I remember him getting uncomfortable with her for telling one story too many. The last story, puzzled together by a group of us at his wake, went something like this.

In the fall of 2008, Aunt Jane had waved goodbye to Bob as he hit the road again for an extended visit back to his roots. At that time, they were having a hard time communicating, or so Jane admitted, saying that she couldn't get herself out of the usual funk. "I was hard to live with," she confessed to my mother, " and probably wasn't much fun. Combined with the Midwest winter, which he'd always hated, poor Bob'd had enough."

Bob's trips back to Asia had become more and more common. He had retired from the US Immigration & Naturalization Service a year or two after Tina died, and though he didn't collect a huge retirement, I'm sure it was plenty for him to go off on a five-month tour of Southeast Asia every year or so. I was in Chicago starting grad school the last time he went, and that winter every now and again I'd stop by and visit Aunt Jane, at first to make my mom happy, then later because it seemed like the right thing to do. After a couple times Aunt Jane and I both felt more comfortable. It was on one of those visits that I heard a real shocker from her: she'd never been to Southeast Asia, not in 30 years of marriage, for a reason inconceivable to me. As she put it, "land mammals were not made for flying so far."

That didn't stop her from communicating with Bob regularly though. As it turned out, they would e-mail each other at least once a week. At one point, Aunt Jane asked me if I'd like to read the mails Bob had sent her. She'd printed them out and kept them in a pile on the kitchen counter just for me.

What I remember most was being blown away by the extent of Bob's travels. I could only imagine what he was experiencing from the way he'd put the name of the place he was sending the note from in the subject box of the hotmail. One e-mail was sent from Singapore, where Bob wrote he was staying with his brother's daughter and her husband. Another was sent from an island off the coast of Malaysia, where he said he'd rented a beach hut for a whole month for next to nothing. Still another half dozen or so he'd sent from somewhere in Thailand, and yet another from Cambodia. The most obscure place he'd sent an e-mail from was Bhutan. (I hadn't even heard of the place.) I have to admit though, his letters were far from interesting:


I'm fine. The weather's been good away from the monsoons. Gained another pound from all the good food. Hope you're well.

Big hugs,


A month passed and I didn't hear from my aunt or bother to call her. Then the most unexpected thing happened. It was a typically horrible Saturday in March for Chicago, a day when I planned to lay around and watch college basketball. My mom called and told me that Bob was coming in and that Aunt Jane had a fever so she'd wondered if I would go to the airport and meet him. That sounded like a plan, so I agreed. What I didn't know was that Bob was arriving with guests.

Before going to O'Hare I debated whether to drive my new PT Cruiser or the old Jeep Cherokee. Finally, I opted for the Jeep, and lucky I did. For there at the terminal was Bob and three others, a very young, friendly and huggy couple and a slightly older woman. Uncle Bob called them "relatives."

The couple introduced themselves. The girl said her name was Ann. She looked more Caucasian than any of Bob's Filipino relatives I'd met before, with long blonde hair and blue-green eyes. I was startled that she spoke English with such a heavy accent. Ann's hubbie was different. He had very dark skin, and was a cheerful, outgoing guy. He asked me to call him Sovann. He spoke much better English than Ann, thanks, he reported, to the fact that he was now living and working in Singapore.

The other guest didn't make more than fleeting eye contact with me. Bob introduced her as Sovann's mother and called her Peach. She was quite a looker, with soft features, light brown skin, and brown hair tinted slightly auburn that ran to her thin waist. Although Bob said she was Sovann's mother, her relationship with the young couple seemed distant. She didn't give them (or me) any attention, and in some way, she seemed sullen.

I chalked that up to jet lag, but when it came to Bob, she acted very different. She followed every step Bob took and just stared at him as he pulled her oversized suitcase (in stark contrast to his backpack) to my car and later as he stood pointing out the direction of downtown to Sovann and Ann. Only Bob seemed to exist for her.

Bob acted weird around her, too. Without hearing a word from her, Bob seemed to know that she wanted a jacket from inside her carry on, which he quickly retrieved. When she spoke, it was only to him, and they shared a very endearing tone. The words she used were a mix of a few English phrases, "thank you," "yes yes," and a language that I'd never heard. Tagalog? It must have been their native tongue, I thought.

This all startled me a bit and made me wonder what Uncle Bob had been up to back in Southeast Asia.

As we drove south past the city and into the burbs, Bob sat up front with me, talking non-stop about what we were seeing. There in the back, Sovann and Ann exclaimed about all the sights and sounds, but Peach kept her eyes glued to Bob (I could see her in the rear-view mirror), and she remained perfectly silent.

I thought I had figured it all out. Bob had spent an awful lot of time away from home, and he'd only kept in touch by sending cryptic e-mails. Now he'd returned with the woman he was having an affair with. The young couple? Who knew who they really were? Maybe Sovann was the son, maybe not. It all made sense though, didn't it? Here was Uncle Bob, and this was his babe, his Southeast Asian squeeze. Okay, if that's what it took for him to get over Tina, well, who was I to argue?

But how could he bring the woman back to Chicago?

At Bob's command, I pulled into the Travelodge not far from his southside home. There we dropped Sovann, Ann and Peach off "to freshen up" in rooms Bob said he'd booked for them on the Net. (That reconfirmed my suspicions, of course.) Then he and I headed over to his house, where I dropped him without much ado.

Through the ensuing weeks, I heard nothing from Aunt Jane or Uncle Bob. I did hear from my mother that Bob and his guests had taken a road trip, and later I heard that Peach had gone back to Asia, but I never heard anything after that, and didn't think about it. Until the end.

Uncle Bob's heart attack came four months to the day after I'd picked him and the others up at O'Hare. And it wasn't until his candle-lit wake that I learned the truth.

I had been right in one way. There was something unusual about Uncle Bob's visitors. But it wasn't like I'd thought. They were relatives, just not in the sense that I'd ever imagined.

Aunt Jane and Sovann shared their story as we sat on the back deck and had Bob's memorial cake that hot summer night: Yes, Bob did have a special relationship with Peach. She was his first daughter, half Bob, half Cambodian.

Turned out Uncle Bob had had an affair with Peach's mother when he was stationed in Thailand back in the 60s. That's where Peach was born. Bob was not the typical expat rogue though, the kind who would knock up an Asian girl and split the scene. He'd paid Peach and her mother's way right from the start, and he would continue to support them for many years to come. The only glitch came when the crazy Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia in 1975. By that time, Peach and her mother were back in Phnom Penh where Bob had set them up in an apartment. But like everyone else at the time, the two were sent to a work camp in the countryside, and so Bob lost touch. Luckily for all of them, Peach's mother had a close friend back in Bangkok. It was the phone number of that friend that Peach's mother made the little girl memorize while they were in the camp.

Then the inevitable happened, and daughter and mother were separated. The two would never meet again.

Meanwhile, in the late 70s and early 80s, during the aftermath of the collapse of the Khmer Rouge government, Bob had gone looking for Peach and her mother several times, to no avail. Finally, late in 1983, just after Tina was born, he located his other daughter in Bangkok.

It had been after an arduous journey by fishing boat from southern Cambodia that Peach ended up in a Thai refugee camp. Remembering that one phone number, she managed to place a call to her mother's friend, and was rescued. Eventually, the friend's family adopted Peach.

By the time Bob located her, she was a teenager who'd grown attached to her new family. When Bob offered to take her to the US, she declined. Yet for all those years, they had kept in touch, and Bob continued to send well wishes and money, even after his Asian daughter had started a family of her own.

And Sovann, it was true, was her son, and in that way, Bob's grandson.

And now here he was on the deck that night with the rest of us, with his fiancee, Ann, and with Aunt Jane, each relishing the stories, relishing Uncle Bob in the afterglow.