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Posted on Jun 28, 2016

A fond farewell to my favorite outlaw

The news punching me in the face could not have been less encouraging. They said it’s cancer, my mom wrote, and that there’s no way back for your uncle.
And I thought, how can they say that about him? My uncle doesn’t lose. My uncle overcomes everything. My uncle is Johnny Cash, this can’t be the end.
Now, let me say, my mother’s brother is not the country singer. But to me, the great Man in Black, of whom I am a fan, is a shy librarian compared to the life my uncle has led.
You say Dark as the Dungeon? My uncle started his adult life as a miner. A communist miner at that.
You say Walk The Line? I say my aunt Esther makes a fine June Carter, sticking together with my uncle through thick and thin. Just like June was to Johnny, my aunt is the love of my uncle’s life. No question.
You say Folsom Prison Blues? My uncle was in his forties when the long arm of the law caught up with him. It was the first time I ever visited a prison, accompanied by my mother. It took 20 years before my mom told me that my uncle, that tough-as-nails superhero of my early years, would weep during every visit.
You say Sunday Morning Coming Down (yes, I know it’s a Kristofferson tune)? I say my uncle reached his sixties, and he was still “wishing, Lord, that he was stoned,” planting his Mary Jane in the back yard.
He has been a fisherman, a liquor store owner, a gardener (hehe) a farmer, a father, a husband, and my dad’s longtime pal. My mom’s favorite sibling (out of 11), and a heck of a good companion for five-year-old me and my initiation in the world of kindergarten mischief. Ice cream before dinner or a boxing match on late night TV? You betcha, nephew. A long chat about soccer when it should be homework time? No problem, kid. A nice game of dominoes when it should be bed time? Are you any good at double-six?
And then, there was the guitar. His constant companion on trips or in the living room of his home. Like Mr. Cash, my uncle’s singing voice takes a while to get used to.
Unlike my uncle, though, Mr. Cash never taught me how to play with a dreidel or how to put on socks.
It’s been 20 years since I last saw him, and now the Men in White (coats) tell everyone, my mother included, that the end is near. He’s almost 80, they say, and chemotherapy would do more harm than good.
Part of me wants to jump on the first plane available, the first bus, the first anything that gets me closer to the last country on earth, the skinny one down south, where my uncle was born, grew up, thrived and endured.
But I can’t. in fact, I can’t do much of anything for the guy. Judging by the doctors, nobody can. So I do the same two things I do whenever life kicks me right in the ass. I write, and I try to find something worth smiling about.
And I think about the time he saw me after years of being apart and found that his roly-poly nephew was now a skinny teenager. My mom later told me that he walked up to her and said “How’d you get Sebastian to stop eating?” Then he paused and asked, somber as Cash’s black suit. “You beat him up, don’t you?”
Or I think about that legendary Jim Marshall photo of the Man in Black himself, staring straight at the camera and offering a show-and-no-tell version of how one of the digits on his right hand works. Hint: it ain’t the thumb.
Here’s hoping that when the ‘other’ man in black comes a-calling, scythe in hand, my uncle offers him a similar greeting, “Ring of Fire” be damned.
Because if I know my uncle, he’s just going to pull out a box with his other hand, smile and say “Ah, just kidding, nephew. Now, are you any good at double-six?”

Sebastian Moraga is the sports editor of the QVPR, and the nephew of one Luis Alberto Ugalde. May he beat cancer like Douglas beat Tyson.

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