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Dear Uncle Vern,

Saturday will be three years that you’ve been gone. (Well, sort of. February 29 is the technical anniversary, but evidently that doesn’t happen every year.) Three years in which I’ve had a lot of time to think about what I would want to say to you, if I was somehow given 10 minutes in which to do so. Believe me, there’s a lot of words I could throw at you. Actually, there’s a lot of words that I’ve thrown at your gravestone, but unlike those dramatic scenes on television would have you believe, that doesn’t offer a lot of closure. In fact, it just makes you feel a little insane – I mean I’ve literally stood at your headstone and said some terrible things, apologized, cried, and then continued saying terrible things. And not just once, either. I’ve done this several times. Doesn’t that seem a little crazy to you? It feels like a scene from a bad Hugh Grant movie or something.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the last three years trying to justify my feelings toward you. Let me be frank, they aren’t pleasant feelings. My memories of those four days are perpetually fresh in my mind. They can replay in my head like a movie – and they often do. That’s why I haven’t slept in three years. That’s why I’ve developed anxiety that’s triggered by dark or silence. It’s because when I close my eyes, I hear my mom sobbing and her empty, dull sounding voice. I hear my dad’s broken words over the phone. I hear my sweet brother asking when we’re going to see you in the hospital. I hear my grandfather quietly trying to piece together how this happened. I hear my grandma, panicked and saying it’s not right that we were leaving you at the cemetery. You have no idea how fucking broken these people were because of you, so you’ll have to forgive me for feeling a little bitter for all this time.

You know how there’s 5 stages of grief? I think that’s bullshit. I go through those stages and a slew of new ones every time I remember the four worst days of my life. Disbelief, anger, bitterness, guilt, sadness, bargaining, exhaustion, rock-bottom depression, and horror. The worst feeling, though, was this awful sense of feeling like my family could never be put back together. This feeling is quite literally the worst thing I’ve ever experienced. I wanted to claw my skin off and scream until my throat is raw because I couldn’t fix this. That might sound dramatic but you have no idea how it feels to watch everyone you love go through that kind of pain and hell, and know that there’s nothing you could possibly do to help them. Thankfully, I don’t feel that part anymore. This family has done a hell of a good job of repairing itself.

Acceptance is supposed to be the last stage of grief. I’m not there yet, and experts (AKA my dad) say it takes about 5 years to reach, so I suppose I have some time. Every time I feel like I might almost be there, like maybe I’m ready to forgive you, move on, and try to sleep with the lights off, I swear I see you. Not like an apparition or even a hallucination, but I swear I see you in the flesh. I get a flash of recognition when I see a guy with long, dark hair, or someone driving a white Grand Am, and in the moments afterwards I’m thrown back into a spiral of anger and sadness again. But I’m getting better – I left flowers on your grave for the first time in a really long time, just because I wanted to say hi. I told a funny story about that Christmas when I schooled you in Wii Bowling the other day. I played a Sonic the Hedgehog game and remembered playing with you on your Sega a million years ago, and the memory gave me a teary smile.

I’m getting better, Uncle Vern, and I want you to know that. I don’t want to hate you anymore because that’s not fair. I don’t want my memories of you to consist of heartbreak; I want to smile when I remember being a kid and wearing your giant size 13 shoes instead of my own. I want to remember the years that were good, instead of the last three that have been pretty terrible. I want to be brave, because our family deserves it.

I love you, and you’ll always be a hero to me.

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