That Was Philip

January 11, 2007

Phil & WillMy mother’s brother Philip died yesterday. He was the younger of the two. His death has left my mother as the last member of her family. Philip wasn’t quite 60 yet.

It was just before Christmas that I learned he had pancreatic cancer and was going into a hospice. Not a month earlier, when I was in Berkeley, my wife and I had talked about trying to get in touch with him. He’d been reclusive the last few years, the victim of a crushing depression for which the only cure seemed to be ocean kayaking and, I’ve since learned, dogs. But we never got a hold of him. I’ve been to Berkeley a bunch of times in the past few years, but I haven’t seen him.

(I was just about to write that my mother still lives in the town where she grew up, where she and her parents and brother spent all their time together, but that’s not true anymore. Nobody lives in the house where I grew up anymore. Instead, my folks live year-round in the town where she used spend her summers, where there’s lakes and trees and a big sweet dog.)

He lived in a house that he rented in a patch of Berkeley that was overgrown and green. The last time I was there, he had a Husky named Thunder, with two different colored eyes, who howled while I played the clarinet. A red Volkswagen Beetle sat barefoot on the ground out in the yard, its wheels shed like shoes, with flowers growing through the floor and up past the windows. We walked around in San Francisco, up one of those hills so steep the sidewalk makes it up to eye level, at least when I was a kid. We went into somebody’s house, or office — it must’ve been his girlfriend Marjorie’s — where I remember there was a black-and-white photograph on the wall of four black and white people laying in bed, in a row. Their heads and necks stuck out under the covers. I don’t know who they were, but I remember thinking, as a suburban white kid from a suburban white neighborhood, that these people were different colors, they were friendly and happy with each other and they weren’t afraid to have their pictures taken in bed. And the person whose house I was in — it must’ve been Phil’s girlfriend Marjorie — wasn’t afraid to share this picture with whoever came in the door.

Prior to that, and for a long time since, I assumed shame was an essential part of politeness. I’m sure I still do. I’ve always had trouble distinguishing humility and shame, at least when it comes to me. Other people are allowed to act other ways, but I learned early on as a fat, weepy kid that shame was for me. But what can you do? Kids are mean.

I remember somebody came and led me away from that picture — I think it must’ve been my mother — in that way that parents do that says “You shouldn’t be looking at that, but it’s even worse if I have to explain why.” So maybe I shouldn’t have been looking at it, but it was okay to put it up on the wall. I know that’s not where I learned that are different rules for grown-ups and kids, and for people who get embarrassed and those who don’t, but that’s where it ended up getting filed in my kid brain. It was symbolic, I guess.

My uncle Phil was a cautionary symbol for me. I doubt my mother quite intended for me to see him that way, but there it is. He left college (dropped out? kicked out?), like I did. He spent money like I do (which is to say badly). He let the black iron weights in his brain drag him away from the surface world, where his friends were swimming and playing like silhouettes against the sunshine, where the water meets the sky. Like I’ve done this week.

I don’t know what it’s supposed to mean when the protagonist in your cautionary tale dies, but I’ve decided to think it means this: Get to work. Get on with the getting on with it. Keep fucking paddling. Get dragged down or get swimming.

There’s not going to be a service for Phil. It’s not his way. Instead, Marjorie’s having his ashes spread out over the ocean. I picture her out on a cold metal boat with peeling paint, dressed in a big orange coat against the Pacific wind. The Golden Gate’s behind her. Past that, San Francisco. The water’s green and gray and the wind’s floating white gulls against gray clouds. Up above them, a wake cuts across the sky, like a kayak slicing across the surface, where this world meets the next.



  1. Dear Will,

    Thank you for giving voice and images to the feelings, emotions, and sadness that exist now among those of us who knew Philip. I never knew about you, nor you, me. I wish I had known Philip had such an amazingly insightful nephew.

    I was there the night Philip met Marjorie, 20 or so years ago at a dancing club in San Francisco, I think it was the Blue Note. Fast forward 20 years later to late this summer and the last time I saw Philip at a picnic lunch at my mother’s place on Adobe Canyon road, in the woods, overlooking the Sonoma Creek. Philip and I got into an argument over my intention to try and fix the shade tarp over the picnic table. Two bulls locking horns, I wanted to do it, Philip told me, very sharply not to. I deferred, but not without a scene being made. I did apologize, but it was not the way I would have wanted my last encounter with your uncle to end. Your photos of Philip brought back memories of how I remember Philip in life. Thanks for honoring him with your love and your remarkable insight into a very complicated,loving soul.

    Bon Voyage Philip,

    Anne Coffelt

  2. Will:
    Liz forwarded your blog to me. I found it amazing, although I cried all the way through it. The next time you are in Berkeley, let me know. I have lots and lots of photos of Philip from “early on,” when we used to travel quite a bit and depression did not define every minute of every day.
    I’d also like to read more of your writing…I’m impressed….very powerful and personal.

  3. We scattered my father’s ashes in Monterey Bay about a year and a half after he died. It was an amazing cathartic experience. (Although, my first trip back to California a few years ago, seeing the ocean was really weird. I didn’t want to go in the ocean.) It’s nice to think that he’ll have company.

  4. Hi, Will. Your mom forwarded me your loving tribute to your Uncle Phil. (I’m your mom’s cousin, Jinny.) I was so moved by your words, and I gained a lot of insight into Philip by reading them. It was wonderful to see the photos of Philip with you as a boy and with Aunt Peg, as well. I remember Philip most as a sweet little boy at holiday family gatherings in Western Springs. I’m thinking of all of you as you experience this loss. Love, Jinny

  5. I am just passing through; and I must say that I was very moved by your post.
    God bless

  6. Hi, Will, this is your mother’s cousin Susie. I too was moved by your tribute. Our families never spent much time together, but it’s always been so easy to reconnect with the Nicolls/Hindmarches. There’s no undercurrent you have to watch for and defend yourself against.

    I don’t think I knew about Philip’s depression. I remember him as upbeat and funny. I wish he had felt inside the way I thought he did.

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