Once upon a time, my uncle and I got dinner at a pizzeria.
The details of this gathering aren’t very clear in my memory. Perhaps it was a dinner in Novato but I don’t recall the name of the restaurant. I was still in high school so I enjoyed a few cokes to pare with the pie’s marinera sauce.
There wasn’t a special reason why Uncle Richard, and my mom, and I decided to get together. We just wanted to do what family does once in a while and be in each other’s presence. It was casual but at the same time one of the rare moments when the three of us were together.
It wasn’t anything more than a dinner but we held this event in very high regard.
For years Uncle Richard and I talked about getting pizza again. “Let’s get pizza again soon” is how we’d close many a holiday card. The topic of pizza was in birthday cards, holiday cards, and random phone calls that we’d have. Getting a pizza with Uncle Richard was on my mom’s and my to-do list for years. We kept on saying that We need to go visit Uncle Richard or we should try to organize another pizza dinner with him.
Richard didn’t live that far away (about 2 hours) yet finding an appropriate time to see him seemed to evade us. It became a mirage that we could see in the horizon but it didn’t materialize. It was no one’s fault; I was either living out of the state or working a job that didn’t sync with my mom’s schedule. Richard had his own life with a new family (remarried) and never visited the Bay Area.
I knew I could pick up the phone and call him, but just never got around to it.
Until one day, recently, I did.
About two months ago I grabbed my phone with the intention of talking to my uncle. The pandemic was a good excuse to give him a ring and I had been meaning to check in with him. Maybe this would be the moment to set up another pizza date, even if outdoors and donning masks.
I hit call on my phone’s screen. An automated voice came on the line:
“We’re sorry, you have reached a number that has been disconnected or no longer in service.”
I checked and re-checked the area code then tried a few more times. I asked my mom if she had the same number after the same message echoed into my ears multiple times.
She had the same number saved on her phone. We drew the conclusion that he had changed his number. I sent him an email for good measure but it didn’t wipe away the internal monologue: Why would Uncle Richard change his number and not tell us? Was he fed up we never got pizza?
He was on my mind for a few days, until eventually I got caught up with my own things and slowly the curiosity began to fade.
Life returned to what it was, until one day my mom called me with some news:
Uncle Richard was in heaven.
He passed away the month prior.
It now made sense why the calls wouldn’t connect and why no one responded to my email.
Apparanetly, he had been ill and didn’t tell many people. My mom found out through our friend Judy, who had been in more contact with Richard than us. As I write this post I’m still not sure what the cause of his passing was.
A void began to grow in my heart. It had been so easy for years to reach him, just a call and a drive away, but not that close for some reason. I wanted to be upset but what was the point? It wouldn’t bring him back. I felt remorse for having taken his close proximity for granted. It could have happened, but everyone was busy so no one was to blame. In the words of an old friend, phones go both ways. He could have tried to make plans but didn’t. It was sad, but that’s the way things go sometimes.
He was a link to my past and my family that I suddenly wanted to connect with. I wanted to ask him why he didn’t have kids or why he loved my Aunt Dee. Why did he want me to become a government courier and what was his childhood like? He was one of the first people to call me “Dan” and his scratchy voice was one of a kind. He loved Ohio State football and enjoyed hosting large parties at his house in Mill Valley. His love of fine spirits became well known by accident when I stumbled upon his stache at my parent’s house when I was a college student (I promised I would restock). He was the only relative besides my parents to still give me money for my birthday last year. I had heard plenty of stories of Uncle Richard, but wish I had heard more of them from him personally.
It made me think about all the people I’ve been meaning to call but haven’t. Maybe it’s time to start.
Thinking of him now, I wonder what advice he’d give me. For some reason I picture him telling me, “Dan, don’t give up on what you love.”
Well, Richard Headapohl, I dedicate this blog post to you. My you rest in peace. I’m doing what I love right now, and that’s writing. See you in the next lifetime, I’ll split the bill and how about we add some olives to the pie this time?
P.S. While I’m on the theme of remembrance: Nancy Mahl, John Falk, Kim Milburn & Marcus V Lobo were friends who passed away during the past year. They will also be missed and their families are in my thoughts.