This One Life

Uncle Frank and Finding Your Music

One morning, I woke up early before my kids and my husband. I ran through the trails in my neighborhood, looking for I don’t know what. Looking for answers.

Then that certain song played through my headphones.

If I die young bury me in satin,

lay me down on a bed of roses.

Sink me in the river at dawn.

Take me away with the words of a love song.

–The Band Perry

I ran, and I cried for two miles straight.

That was the same song on the radio that morning. September 4, 2012.   My Uncle Frank appeared in the river at dawn.  A jogger found him. He was dead.

The next three days of September 2012 blur together.  Police calls and medical theories and the back tracking of steps.  Uncle Frank’s small container of an apartment scoured for clues.  Frank’s children taking his bus routes looking for breadcrumbs to how their father died.

Did he fall, did he collapse, did he jump, was he pushed? Was he alone?  Our family asked why.  How?   Needed answers.

The next days were the making of funeral arrangements.  The calls, the thousands of questions, the mystery of his death.  The movements of a family not ready to let go.

I helped my aunts and mother edit the obituary copy for the paper.

They said, “You have to do the eulogy.  You’re the writer in the family.”

I thought to myself, I am not a writer.  A writer knows the words to say.

I looked to my mom to help me find my way out of it.  She said, her voice catching in her throat, “I can’t.  He was my brother. Right now, I can’t.”

That day, I was called to be a writer.

Every time before, I found my way out of it.  I found the easier thing. The thing with deadlines that made sense.  The things with plans that were clear.  I did the things that left a beautifully groomed trail of productivity and accomplishment to show for myself at night. Marketing executive, mother, wing woman to the people with the clear plans.

On September 5, 2012, I was asked to be a writer and I didn’t know the words to write.

I wrestled with my memories.  I wrestled with the words that would comfort and honor and have answers.

I felt the distance from the man I thought I knew as I tried to think up the right words to sum up a life.  I took sum of my own life. I was 39 years old, almost 40.  He was 59 and would have been 60 in a month.

Moments of my Uncle Frank started coming back.

I remembered 1991, when I interned for my uncle while a student at the University of Texas.  He was an educational consultant.   A teacher.  An activist.  An excellent writer.  A passionate speaker.  I put together folders and pamphlets and he buzzed around the tiny portable shed we worked from.  He buzzed to and from meetings and appointments.

frank circle

My Uncle Frank.  His crazy big open mouth laugh. That tornado of energy.  That buzz.  The Cesar Chavez  references he’d shoot out with fist raised, “Si se puede. Yes, you can.”

SI se puede cesar

The way he always shook his head till his hair moved – shaking a big yes or a big no when he knew the big yes’s and no’s.   He would almost stutter out the words and pound them into the ground with his foot, “Yes, yes, yes” as if letting the answers stick.

I remembered Frank’s music always blaring.  That Tejano music always blaring. That funny dance step only he could do, back and forth and crooked.  The music that was always a part of his story.

I remembered the Type I diabetes.  I never noticed it until his diabetes hit harder. The insulin shots he had to stop for.  The battle of the discipline it took to take care of himself while keeping the other things of life going.

Just before I graduated from college, I remember hearing how Frank drove the car off the road.  In 1994, when he forgot to take the shots. He had a stroke a year later.  He was never quite the same Frank in his body after that.    His body was different. His tornado of energy shifted from the things that paid the bills and earned degrees and fit his plan to the things that didn’t.

Some things in his tornado were shed over those next ten years.  The business blazers, the projects, the solid place at front and center of something.

Other things grew.  His spirit, his heart.  The new, silly way he loved.

Frank with grandkids

I was gone those years.  Traveling.  Having babies.  Working.  I only heard about the bits and pieces of Uncle Frank.

Days before his funeral, I struggled to put back the pieces of him.

Family gathered at my mother’s house the evening before the funeral.  Cousins, siblings, his children, his mother huddled as a video that would appear during the funeral played.  The pieces of Frank’s life.

That certain song came on.  They had chosen it for the video.

If I die young bury me in satin,

lay me down on a bed of roses.

Sink me in the river at dawn.

Take me away with the words of a love song.

Watching the photos of his life, his children, his grandchildren, his hugs and his smiles.  My heart stuck in my throat. I had no words.

Frank and kids

The next morning, I got dressed.  I had to arrive early to the funeral home and drove myself alone borrowing my husband’s car. My husband would come later with our three kids in the SUV.  I had jotted down notes about what to say and scratched them all out.

Anxious and pressured, about 15 miles from the funeral home, I turned on the radio.  Frustrated, I fiddled with the knobs on my husband’s car looking for a station.  The channel settings were different than mine.

I turned, and that song played.

It was a hit song.  I couldn’t escape it.  I cried so hard I could hardly see through the windshield.  I let myself cry for the first time since I’d heard my Uncle Frank was dead.

I turned the channel.   Angry.  Searching.  Sad in a way I can’t remember.

A song I’d never heard:

Let’s Just Kiss and Say Goodnight – The Manhattans

“I had to meet you here today
There’s just so many things to say
Please don’t stop me ’till I’m through
This is somethin’ I hate to do.”

I registered the words, not prepared for the oldies station to come on.

I changed the station again, hoping for something familiar.

The Crystals, He’s A Rebel

“He’s a rebel ’cause he never ever does what he should
But just because he doesn’t do what everybody else does
That’s no reason why I can’t give him all my love.”

I thought of Frank.  His crazy, passionate ways.

I turned the channel again. One of Uncle Frank’s favorite bands, Los Lonely Boys.  The song Heaven.

“And I know I need to change
My ways of livin’
How far is heaven, Lord can you tell me.”

I felt an awakeness enter me.  A sad, crazy open-mouthed laugh came out of me.  I calmed. I listened.  I changed the channel.

These words came through.

“Hush now
I see a light in the sky
Oh it’s almost blinding me
I can’t believe I’ve been touched by an angel”

I turned off the radio.  I pulled the car over.  I sat with shaking hands not able to let go of the steering wheel.

I sat silent for a long time.

After some minutes, I typed into my cell phone all the titles of the songs as they had flashed across the digital display so I would remember.  I drove to the funeral home.

I don’t know exactly what I said at Frank’s eulogy once I stepped up to that podium.  I had only my scraps of notes from the car.  I had only the words he gave me in the music.

What I do remember is looking out to the sea of faces in that room.  That day, I heard the stories from the countless faces Frank touched.  Stories I’d never heard before.  His eulogy wrote itself.  On my car stereo.  In that room.  The letters from senators and congressman about how Frank knocked on their doors and sat at their tables for the things that mattered.

Frank and lloyd

The teachers that shared how he loved learning and books and wrote the grants that began a bilingual preschool in the East side of Austin. How he rode the bus when he could no longer drive to deliver breakfast tacos to a woman who desperately needed someone to listen.  How he loved on his granddaughters and children even when he didn’t know exactly how to.  How he danced, crooked and crazy, no matter what.

That day, I felt the vibration of Frank like an ocean in that room. His purposeful work did not look perfect.  It did not fit his plan. It simply resonated.  It vibrated.  Like music.

Frank died in the river.  Ushered away in the words of love songs.  His wealth is counted in moments that mattered.  His wealth is counted in those faces.

As far as how Uncle Frank died, it went down as a drowning.  The real how is an answer we can’t know for sure. The manner of Uncle Frank’s death is but a detail. I’m at peace now knowing that the details of his living mattered more.

Frank grave

Four years later, running to find my own answers, I thank Uncle Frank for once again giving me the words and the courage to write again – my music.

It’s like he whispers still:  “Si, se puede.”

That is Spanish for yes, you can.  You think you can’t.  But yes, you can.


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