A little over a week ago, I had a birthday. And while I strive hard to make birthdays special and fun, including my own birthday, it is a day of sadness for me. This is because a very special person died two days before my 25th birthday twelve years ago. So my birthday often serves as a reminder of the anniversary of his death.
Wilson Arlington Foster, known to everyone as Teets (a nickname his father gave him that somehow stuck) was my great uncle. Before I was born, he was a violent alcoholic that went through at least three wives (I’m fuzzy on the details) and lost all of his children to foster care. But two years before I was born, he had finally hit bottom as an alcoholic and got sober. Once sober, he was probably the most well-respected member of my family, the rock that everyone turned to for support.
To me, he was the pillar of sanity in an insane family. We formed a bond that I still have yet to form with any other member of my family. He was the only functional adult male role model. I loved his honesty, direct approach, his no-nonsense attitude, and that he was able to do all of this while showing that he cared. He was the crotchedy old man that everyone seemed to love!
I didn’t get to see him much, but we remained pen pals from about fourth grade until the day he died. And I visited him as an adult at least twice year, more if I could. Sometimes we’d talk about the family, but mostly he wanted to know about my life. And when he learned he was dying from cancer, I started to get more out of him regarding his life.
When he was 14, he looked drastically older, passed for at least 18, and joined the merchant marines. He was in the Navy during or after (fuzzy on details) WWII. His ship was docked in Hong Kong for some time after the war, and he told me and my husband (then fiance) stories of that time in his life. He witnessed Chinese against Chinese violence, baby drownings, and murders, yet still didn’t harbor racist attitudes toward the Chinese. He told us about his days of regret as an alcoholic, confessed that he was in love with Rita Hayworth, and had a thing for red heads.
My biggest regret is that we never talked about religion together. I was out as an atheist only to a select group of people at that time, and I was too afraid of his disapproval to discuss it with him. It was an easy conversation to overlook because he never brought up religion himself. I found out on the day of his funeral that he was probably an atheist. He gave explicit instructions to my cousin that at his funeral the priest conducting the service was to make no mention of God. The priest didn’t take too kindly to this and mentioned it in the service. It was the first I had ever heard that Teets was nonreligious, and learning about it at his funeral only served to upset me more as I realized years of missed opportunities to speak on this topic to a man that I considered a role model and, in some ways, a mentor.
My birthday makes me sad, but I’m not sad for him. He was suffering at the end of his life, and death provided a release. He even said at one time that he was ready to die. So, I am sad for me. I suffered a great loss twelve years ago. Still, the best way for me to honor him is to pick myself up and move on. I have gained much wisdom from him, and I honor him by carrying that knowledge forward.