My Uncle Dilmus is way too good a man to have to spend his last years this way. Devastated by Alzheimer’s, ravaged by a body that let him down way too young. He still has a few good days now and again, when he remembers his brothers’ and sister’s names, and can chat briefly on the phone.
He didn’t have an easy life, but then, who does? Really. His mama died from breast cancer when he was just about getting used to big-boy pants. His daddy, a fine man with one eye, missing part of a finger and working off a lot of rough edges, got him a good stepmother after a few years, but that don’t take away your mama dying.
At 19, my Uncle Dilmus married his high school sweetheart and together they got him through vet school at the University of Georgia. They had three children. The two boys, just like the rest of us, had their troubles gettin’ grown, but have turned out pretty good. Fine musicians, good daddies and funny as hell! Lord, the things those boys come up with! The daughter though, has been a total invalid for near on half a century, the result of a long series of seizures in her babyhood. His wife never enjoyed much in the way of good health, either. My Uncle Dilmus, the most stand-up of the stand-up guys, took every day as it came and never once complained about the difficulty — or the money it took — to take care of a sick wife, a daughter who has to be diapered and fed with tubes or a mother-in-law who needed a little house next to theirs to get through her old age. Bailed those boys out of a bit of trouble now and again, too.
My Uncle Dilmus always said, “All a man really needs is a good wife and a good pocketknife,” and ‘llowed as how he had both and enjoyed a good life. He’s always sayin’ stuff like that, a walking Poor Richard’s Almanac. Any veterinarian over 40 in the Southeast probably knows him. If he didn’t teach them in the Large Animal program at UGA, they’ve heard of him. He is legendary, especially for his jokes, which to this day, no one has ever had the nerve to tell in my presence. In his day, veterinary schools still weren’t admitting many women and a teacher and his students could pile in a pickup truck, go pull a calf out of its mama with their bare hands, and say any and every earthy thing that kind of down-in-the-dirt work could inspire.
I have to confess, I never really got to know my Uncle Dilmus. I don’t know why. After we got through the “how’s your mama” questions, there wasn’t much else we had in common. He played blue grass music with his boys, I studied classical piano. And only in the last few years have I learned to deliver my leftist political opinions with any grace at all, so we didn’t go there. Then again, I don’t know if I could ever have gotten close to a man who thought it was cool to stick his arm up the rear end of a cow. Almost up to his shoulder. Talkin’ non-stop the whole time, like it was no big deal.
I don’t know at what age they stop giving ribbons for perfect attendance at Sunday School, but he would have had the biggest collection of anybody. He taught an adult class at Tuckston United Methodist Church, starting when it was just a little clapboard country church surprised by all the growth around it. He didn’t miss a Sunday for decades. Ever. He did it because he had promised to, he enjoyed it and well, that’s just what you did. Maybe, in his heart, he also did it to make up a little for all those bad jokes nobody would ever tell me.
Not one to stand on ceremony, my Uncle Dilmus delivered one of the best wedding presents ever. A few weeks after Tom and I married, in 1994, he showed up at my office with a good garden rake and a good shovel. No bows, no card, just two high-quality, last-a-lifetime, no-plastic-anywhere garden tools. Walked right in, sat down and said, “Your daddy said y’all needed garden stuff.” True, we really, really needed garden stuff. We’ve put them both to good use.
It’s that shovel that today, almost 15 years later, reminded me again of what a decent practical man is this guy I call Uncle Dilmus. Tom used that shovel to dig up some Lenten roses for a friend with a bare shady spot. I dug up all sorts of plants and the new holes they went in. My back will be talkin’ ugly ’bout that shovel tomorrow, but Tom and I will be thankful for it again when we “take the tour,” drinks in hand, to admire all our garden handiwork and speculate on whether I transplanted those things, or just killed ’em in a new place.
That shovel made me think of my Uncle Dilmus. When the last plant was in, I just sat there on the ground for a while. Enjoying the shade and looking down towards that old bench under the dogwood. Thinkin’ about him. Thinkin’ about his strength. Thinkin’ about how sad I am that we never really got to be friends. Thinkin’ about how to get over my guilt about that. Thinkin’ about that shovel and the beauty it helps produce. Thinkin’ about how the world is a better place for his having lived in it. Thinking he is way too good a man to have to spend his last years this way.