My Uncle Roy

Roy John Henderson. February 3, 1945 – May 15, 2008.

View a web gallery of my photos of Uncle Roy.

This past Monday (May 19th, 2008), I attended my Uncle Roy’s funeral and wake. I was in Houston, Texas for business all that week, and I heard of Roy’s death the day before I left. Since Roy lived with his family in Austin, there was no question that I would attend. I told my boss that I would need to take a day off during the trade show, and made sure that I had a rental car. Early Monday morning, I left my hotel and drove to Austin.

Roy had been diagnosed with cancer only a month earlier, but it had turned out to be a type of cancer that could not be helped by surgery, and was resistant to chemotherapy. I never asked exactly what kind of cancer it was; it didn’t really matter anyway.

My parents had flown in to Austin the night before, and were staying with my Aunt Hazel. My father was Roy’s brother; Hazel, along with my other aunts Iris and Ruthie, were his sisters. I drove to Hazel’s apartment, and met my parents there. Together, the four of us then drove over to Roy’s house. We were met by his wife, Regina, and the day began.

Roy’s funeral and wake were unique to me, in that Roy knew he was dying, he had his wits about him all the way until the end, and he had made specific wishes and requests for his closing ceremonies. Every other funeral I have ever attended, the death was sudden and unexpected, and/or at the end of a very long life after a long and slow decline.

Roy was a very joyful man, a guy with a happy marriage and three wonderful kids, so it was no surprise that he had asked that his goodbye consist of a respectful church ceremony… followed by an all-out New Orleans-style wake with singing and dancing.

The church portion of the service was normal, I suppose. I could not understand the Pastor Emeritus’ sermon, which seemed to be a jumble of unrelated bible verses, but other than that, a fine and standard Lutheran ceremony. The wake afterwards, however, was a true Henderson-style shindig.

I have to admit that I don’t know Roy’s children – my cousins Ira, Reed, and Tamara – very well. They were born and came into the family after I had already left for college, so they were not a part of my growing-up relative visits. I’ve seen them only sporadically over the years, and I doubt they know me well either – except possibly from what they’ve heard from other people. But I do know they take after their father, and I do know that they had a lot to do with putting together this party.

A five-piece brass band, a tap dancer, a open bar, a huge spread of food, and every friend and relative were there in Roy and Regina’s beautiful old Austin back yard. When I arrived, the band was playing “Ob La Di, Ob La Da”. I stayed as long as I could, knowing that I had to drive back to Houston that same night. I left after a long congo line and napkin-wave following the band to “When The Saints Come Marching In”.

During the wake, Regina asked for anyone who had funny stories about Roy to step up and tell them – they had set up a video camera for that purpose. This seemed to be run by my cousin Ira (Roy’s oldest son), although that might not have been true in actuality. However, my mind was not in the right place then and there, and I was fretting about the long drive still ahead of me. And I felt somewhat embarrassed about speaking directly into a camera, in front of a lot of people I’d never met, and a whole generation of cousins and second cousins whom I barely know.

So on my drive back to Houston that evening, while whistling “When The Saints Come Marching In”, I thought of Roy. I tried to think of all the occasions I had met him over the previous 46 years, and what my impressions were. In my mind, Roy was always a larger, younger version of my father, with a big mustache and a huge laugh. As a child, whenever his name was mentioned, that’s what I immediately pictured: a laughing mustache.

Now, all the men on my Dad’s side of the family (and I am no exception) are known for our very hearty, very loud laughter. Even among a clan of loud laughers, however, Roy stood out as laughing the loudest. Even now, writing this just a little over a week after his far-too-early death, I can hear his laugh in my head. I cannot for the life of me remember all the jokes, nor all the reasons for all the laughing, but the laugh itself, I’ll never forget that.

As I grew older, I knew more about Roy. I knew he was my Dad’s little brother. I knew that when my grandfather died in 1950, my father was 10 years old,and Roy was only four. I know that Roy had little to no memory of his actual father, and I know that for at least a number of years, he looked up to my father as his surrogate, him being the only other male in a house full of women.

I knew that Roy was a lawyer, although I never did know exactly what kind of law he practiced. I knew he spoke spanish. I heard at least four different explanations for this during his lifetime:

  1. He learned the language in order to get back at some people who had cheated him in a business deal, or:
  2. He learned it because many of his clients spoke only Spanish and he had to communicate with them, or:
  3. He learned it because he was planning on getting into politics and you need to speak Spanish to win the vote in Texas, or:
  4. He learned it to impress his future wife Regina, who is of Cuban descent, and to impress her parents.

During the wake, however, my father told me that none of those were true: in actuality, Roy simply had a gift for languages, and knew at least four fluently by the time he graduated college. Spanish just happened to be one of them. He also told me that Roy had spent a year learning Vietnamese during his stint in the Marine Corps. I felt very odd hearing him tell me this, realizing that I had not known any of those facts about Roy during his life – only after his death.

But here are things I do remember.

In 1974, when I was twelve, I spent a day and night with Roy in whatever place he was living at the time (this was before he met and married Regina). I can’t remember why I was there; I guess my parents had dropped me off for some reason. We were about to move to Germany, to live there for the next three years, so we were going around and visiting all of my relatives before we left the country. I guess it was Roy’s turn that day. The odd thing is, it was just me – neither my brother or sister were there. I guess they were catching up with other relatives at the same time.

We spent a nice day together, walking around Austin, talking about not much, enjoying the weather. I think he was married to his first wife Nancy at the time, but she either wasn’t around or I just don’t remember her presence. They had no children, so perhaps Roy just enjoyed walking around with a pseudo-son for the day.

That evening, I was looking for something to read, and going through Roy’s shelves. There were a lot of “lawyer” books, and the novels all seemed way over my head and/or uninteresting to boot. However, there was one slim paperback… “Star Trek III” by James Blish, a collection of novelized episodes from the TV series. “Hey, you’ll probably like that”, Roy said, and handed it to me. I had never seen the TV show – it was too “grown up” for me, I was into “Lost in Space” – but the cover painting looked cool.

I stayed up too late reading that book, meeting Captain Kirk and Mister Spock for the first time and thrilling to their adventures, but was not able to finish it. The next morning, when it was time to go, I put the book back on Roy’s shelf. He pulled it back out, and flipped through it. “Did you finish it?” he asked. “No”, I said. “Well, then, you have to finish it on the plane and tell me what you think”, he said, and handed me back the book. I gave him a hug, and left with my parents.

Now, I don’t know why Roy had the one single Star Trek book on his shelf. I don’t know if he was a fan of the show, or if it was a gift, or if someone else had left it at his house, or what. And in all likelihood he didn’t think anything of giving a gaudy paperback TV tie-in book to his somewhat (!) nerdy twelve-year old nephew. But it meant a great deal to me at the time.

Later, while living in Germany, the american TV network that we got on the army base (“American Forces Radio / Television Service -AFRTS – proudly presents…”) began to air “Star Trek”, and I watched every episode. And I got a special thrill when they would air episodes that had been novelized in “Star Trek III”, and I would think of Uncle Roy. And as the years went by, and Star Trek went through all its various other incarnations and versions, I would always, for a split second, get a picture of a smiling Uncle Roy whenever I saw them.

How strange, the way the human mind works. Even now, when I see a promo of William Shatner for “Boston Legal”, Roy’s face briefly flashes through my mind.

Years later, while I was in college and the rest of my family was in Korea, I again stayed with Roy. This time it was with his wife Regina and their two small boys, Ira and Reed, along with 10-year-old (ish) daughter Tamara. (Tamara is actually Roy’s stepdaughter from Regina’s first marriage, but he always called her “my daughter” and she always says “my father”, so…). Now, at the time, I was a starving college student. For reasons that have long since vanished from my mind, Roy had a painting of mine that I had done a few years earlier, a still life of a fruit bowl (I think – I haven’t seen it in about 25 years and I don’t really recall exactly what the subject was). After dinner, he said, “You know, I never got around to paying you for that painting”.

Like I said, I don’t actually remember how Roy ended up with the painting – I have a vague recollection of him complementing it while visiting us, or maybe I brought it with me during a visit for some reason – but although there might have been some joking about “buying” it, I never really expected any money for the thing. But Roy insisted, and paid my $25.00 on the spot. He said it was an investment, a real bargain, and maybe someday he’s be able to sell it for much more, once I was famous.

I was 19 or 20 years old by this time, and I certainly knew bullshit when I heard it. He knew and I knew he was giving me some money to help out with school, but I was extremely grateful and took the cash. And I spent the night on a full stomach of Regina’s cooking as well.

Some years later, back at their house, I was very surprised to see the same painting, now framed, actually hanging on the wall. Now, I don’t know if since Roy knew I was coming, he frantically dug up the painting and hung it before I got there or not, but it was very nice seeing it there. And even though by this time I was not as poor as I had been, Roy repeated that it had been a bargain.

Roy was a great person to tell a story to. Also during this college time, and while Ira was a bouncing baby, I had a stress-filled flight home after Christmas vacation in Korea. I had to get back to Chicago by flying “‘space available” – army slang for hitching a ride along a plane that happens to be going where you want to go – and spent nearly a week attempting to do so. The full details are way too long and complicated to go into right now (maybe for a future post), but after the fact, it sure made for a good story.

When I told it to Roy, during a family gathering at my Aunt Ruthie and Uncle Carey’s house in Giddings, Texas, I thought Roy was going to die laughing. He laughed so hard he turned beet red, which of course encouraged me to pile on the details of my journey. “Oh, God, you have to stop, I can’t breath”, he shouted out between bolts of laughter. For years afterwards, whenever I would see him, he would demand to hear the story again. Surprisingly, he remembered details from my earlier telling that I myself had forgotten!

Over the last 10 to 15 years, I saw very little of Roy, only during the odd occasion when I managed to get to Austin. I remember meeting his sons Ira and Reed about 10 years ago for what seemed like the first time, since they were now grown – and the last time I remember seeing them, they were toddlers. It became apparent around that time that our families had something else in common, since Tamara turned out to be gay, just like me. (Well, not “just” like me… I mean, she’s a woman, and I’m a man, and… oh, never mind).

The last time I saw Roy was just after Thanksgiving of 2004, when his mother (my grandmother) Theresa Henderson had just died. I remember that Roy wasn’t feeling well, that something was wrong with his kidneys or liver or stomach or something, and he was looking a bit worn. And of course his mother had just died. But despite all that, he said, “So, Jonathan… what funny things have happened to you lately”? and drug some stories out of me. I remember that he asked me to tell him again about the time I got arrested on suspicion of making an attempt to assassinate Deng Xiaoping (yes, that actually happened – another future post), and I once again told him the story of that night in 1979.

Austin will never laugh as long or as hard now that Roy Henderson is no longer there to encourage it. But he does leave behind one of the absolute nicest families I’ve ever known. Regina, Ira, Reed (and Jade), Tamara (and Rachel), my heart goes out to all of you. My Uncle Roy will be missed. But he will never, ever be forgotten.

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