I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. This one is from July 2016, about my late Uncle Mike and my late Uncle Dave. I was just thinking about them today, so I thought I’d post this.
The reason so many movies have major scenes set at weddings isn’t because of the bride and the groom. Weddings are moments when everybody stops the crazy slam-jam sprint of daily life, puts on some fancy clothes and chills the heck out for a weekend. When I was younger, weddings were excuses to drink like an idiot and go crazy for a couple of days. Now, weddings are pause buttons. Everyone take a breath, whewwwww, see beloved old friends, stow the kids with a sitter, maybe have one too many drinks, whoa how awesome is it that “Blister in the Sun” is a dance floor song for your grandma now let’s goooooooo. You take stock of yourself, and the people you care about, at weddings. You see how everybody’s been doing.
At our wedding, the big story was not my wife and I. It was Mike and Dave.
Mike and Dave were my uncles, though biologically only Mike was. Mike Dooley was my mother’s older brother in tiny Moweaqua, Illinois, population 2,000, the oldest of four children. He was the pride of the town. He got all the best girls in high school, he was strikingly handsome, he was all the teachers’ and parents’ favorite kid, he graduated with honors and went to West Point. He was particularly skilled in the creative arts, specifically painting, and when he got to West Point, he became popular among the other cadets because he drew intricately detailed caricatures of them on the walls of the dormitories. But he didn’t last long at West Point, because, as he would realize later, he was struggling with his recognition that he was gay, not the most convenient realization when you’re at West Point in 1963. (Mike, years later, would show me photos of the drawings. They were essentially gay anime; all the soldiers were cartoonishly overmuscled, with skin tight camo pants and bushy cropped mustaches. They basically all looked like Freddie Mercury on HGH. We shared a big laugh at how much everyone in the cadets loved them so much.)
Mike bummed around Chicago for a few years, almost a decade actually, depressed and struggling, before he began working with a copywriter named Dave Oaks. Dave was married with two daughters, and he and his wife became fast friends with Mike. And, to their surprise and slight dread, it became clear that Mike and Dave were becoming more than friends. Dave’s wife saw this and did what she could to keep the family together; for a few years they lived as a trio, even sleeping with the same bed when they’d visit Moweaqua at Christmas so the girls wouldn’t get confused. (This was fascinating to an six-year-old Will Leitch, but it always got him slapped upside the head when he asked about it.) But she couldn’t sustain it, and ultimately the family split up. (The girls are still a part of our family; one of them even once dated another uncle of mine!) Mike and Dave started a business together, moved to Philadelphia and lived as a professionally closeted couple for the next 30 years.
They were together 24 hours a day for those 30 years; they were more in love than any couple I knew. My dad used to say they were the most functional couple he’d ever seen, and that if he and my mom were around each other that much, they would have killed each other 20 years ago. It wasn’t until I was about 12 that I realized that “Unce Mike” and “Uncle Dave” were in fact a couple, and learning that at that specific time — when hormones and idiocy turn boys into monsters — was the best possible thing for a kid in a small Central Illinois town; I loved my uncles and knew there wasn’t anything wrong with them at all, no matter what the kids (and some teachers) at school and everybody else said. It’s good to know the world is bigger than what’s around to you, as early as possible, and I was lucky. I saw them every Christmas, and my family stayed with them in Philadelphia for one of our baseball trips. (We saw Jose Oquendo pitch!) My cousin Denny and I spent a drunken glorious week with them when I was in college, one of those trips when you realize the adults are now treating you more like one of them than a child and it is awesome. When I moved to New York in 2000, a city my parents had never been to and did not understand, my father called them. “You can be there in two hours, right?” They told him they could, and they would. We’ve all got to check in on one another. I took trips there twice a year, at least. They were the first people to call me on September 11. They were my family out there.
Around 2003, it started getting bad for them. Their business collapsed with the stock market, and they had to move out of their cool Society Hill condo out to a small apartment in the burbs. Mostly, though: They started getting sick. Dave got cancer. Then Mike did. Dave’s went in remission, and then Mike’s did, and then it came back. They were alternating taking care of each other; it was like they were tagging each other in. One would be bed-ridden for weeks, then it was the other’s turn. They’d both been heavy smokers and drinkers, so then we learned that Mike needed a liver. It all seemed to fall apart over seven-year stretch. Every time I’d visit, they’d put on a brave face, and we’d drink and talk as late as we could as always, but you could see them becoming more wan, more weak. My family worried, about each of them, about both of them. Definitely both. Because if something happened to one, it was impossible to imagine the other one lasting much longer.
Then, a turn: The health problems cleared up. They didn’t go away, exactly, but both their cancers were in remission, and their financial problems eased, and they started to resemble themselves again. There had been months when neither of them had barely left the house, but now they were wanting to travel like they used to, maybe even a cruise, oh yes a cruise, like we used to take your grandmother on, the gay cruises where everybody loved her and she “couldn’t believe how tight everybody’s butts are.” Those were such times. Could they be back? Oh, even better: Mike and Dave will be able to make it to Will’s wedding in Georgia! Are you sure you’re up for it? Up for it? We wouldn’t miss it for the world!
And that was the story of our wedding, at least for the Leitch family. Mike and Dave were glorious. They used to always wear toupees in public, too simultaneously vain and bashful to be seen without them, but at our wedding, they at last didn’t wear them. They were happy and comfortable and secure. They danced, and drank, and smoked with all our friends in New York. They sat at the rehearsal dinner table with the best man, a fellow Philadelphian, and they just had the time of their lives.
(That’s them, the two bald dudes, in the back left at the rehearsal dinner. I think my wife and parents have a lot more wedding photos than I do.)
It’s difficult to talk to anyone at a wedding when you’re getting married, but I did get to talk to them. I told them how fantastic they looked, and how happy I was they were through the worst. They said they hadn’t felt better in 20 years, and how they were saving up money to move to San Diego, a city where they’d had their best vacation ever and vowed to return to. They figured they only needed five years or so. They’d retire and live the lives they’d always wanted.
It didn’t happen. About nine months later, Dave was diagnosed with prostate cancer. It was serious. I took a train to Philadelphia immediately — I was now the one entrusted with checking on them — and it was clear: This was going to happen, and this was going to happen fast. He lasted about six more months and passed in the night with Mike next to him. Dave never wanted a funeral, so he didn’t have one. It fell apart pretty quickly for Mike after that. He got a liver transplant, but never really adjusted to it and never really wanted to. My mom and I went out to help him, but he had no desire for help. Ever since Dave died, he had just wanted it to be over. After a year or so, it was.
Mike was in no state to take care of his affairs, and he left their home in total disarray. Mom and I, along with my Uncle Ron, flew to Philadelphia and spent three days clearing the place out. We found decades-discarded toupees, and cigarette ash everywhere, and peeling paint, and a staggering amount of gay pornographic magazines. (They must have subscribed to every one for 20 years.) We also found this magnet on their fridge. I’d never seen it any of the times I’d be over there. I wonder when they put it up.
Mike’s been gone more than two years now, Dave nearly four. It was hard at the end; Mike wasn’t himself, and he made it difficult on anyone who cared for him. We did so anyway, because we knew what he was going through, because we knew Dave would count on us to. We just tried to remember my wedding, and how they shined that night, how they had one last evening for us all to see them how they really were.
My mom has both their ashes with her in Mattoon, and last month, she even bought them a grave plot. They’ll be about two miles from my childhood home. It’s not where they were supposed to be, but it’s somewhere. As I type this, I’m on an airplane, flying to the MLB All-Star Game. In San Diego. I should be visiting them on this trip. They’re out there, retired, smoking Pall Mall Unfiltered and fixing us all drinks as we tell old stories about our family and bullshit about politics and old girlfriends and laugh and drink some more cheers cheers cheers.
I’ve never been to San Diego before. I’ll be thinking about them the whole time. This should have been our trip. I’ll go check on them in Mattoon in September, see how they’re doing, tell them about my visit out here. That was the deal. We’ve all got to check in on one another.