Little Bird's Dad

“Even one voice can be heard loudly all over the world in this day and age.”

“Why Are There No Blue Dogs?”

20130904.BlueDog750Tuesday night, after the night shift nurses in the Hospice had dimmed the lights so everyone could settle in for the night, and after everyone left his side,  my Uncle Joe quietly passed away.

I never really got why folks were so impatient with Joe.  A lot of folks thought he was stupid – retarded was not an uncommon description.

In reality, he was just a goofy man.

His favorite question – to anyone who would listen – was “Why are there no Blue Dogs?”

We all have ways of sizing people up, and I think this question was just Joe’s way.  If you took the bait, and genuinely enjoyed the “Blue Dog” bit, Joe would open up, laugh and joke around.

But if you had no time for such nonsense, Joe kept you at arm’s length: he was polite & civil, but never really open.

Joe was a hard worker: he diligently “punched the clock” for 30 years as a Federal employee.

I don’t know all the jobs he did. For a while he ran printing presses at the Government Printing Office.  He spent his last few years “on the job”  – first as  worker and then as a volunteer – pruning the roses and helping to grow exotic plants at the National Arboretum.  He loved gardens and plants: the tomato vines he grew stretched 15 feet in the air, ran over the top of Grandpa’s garage, and down the other side.

I never saw an insect or bird steal a single one of his tomatoes – how they resisted the biggest &  juiciest & reddest tomatoes is a mystery to me.

Joe had a sense of humor, though most didn’t “get it”.

As a kid, I collected coins.  One year, for my birthday, Joe wrapped up $50 worth of pennies in a handkerchief,  tied it up with a bow made of garden twine, and dropped it in my lap.  There were old pennies, new pennies, wheat pennies and clipped pennies, steel pennies & Indian-head pennies – thousands of pennies.

While some called that gift “stupid” and shamed Joe for giving it, it really made me think.

$50 is a lot of money to me now – as a 10 year old, it was a large fortune. I had to decide which I wanted more:  THOUSANDS of coins for my collection, or the $50  I could get by counting them up, rolling them and taking them to the bank to cash them in.   [Can you guess what my choice was? What choice would you make?]

Joe went to confession or church every day for 75+ years.  Never once did he talk to a single person besides his dad and his priest about God, or religion; he never tried to push his beliefs on anyone else.  God was something Joe wanted to experience on his own terms.

Joe was generous. He loaned me some money to help pay for food when I was a starving law student.  After I passed the bar, he told me not to pay him back.   A few years later, he gave me some money to start my law firm, asking only that I be a “good lawyer”.

He was a good guy.

Nobody ever knew what condition Joe “had” or what was “wrong” with him.  If they did know, they never said.

We were told his umbilical cord had been wrapped around his neck at birth, and he had brain damage from the loss of oxygen.

Speech was very difficult for Joe.  He spoke with perfect precision and enunciation, but had to contort his face into any number of shapes to turn thoughts into letters, letters into syllables, syllables into words, and words into sentences.

For all that work, Joe made sure  each word counted.

He had an uncanny ability to remember things in excruciating detail.   Some folks thought he might be autistic, although his brother (my dad) and his dad (my grandfather) both have the same “gift”.

When I packed up his house to move him into an apartment 20 years ago, I found 500 reprints of a single Readers’ Digest article wrapped up neatly in a box.  On every copy of the article, Joe had underlined the same sentence in a red ballpoint pen –  with remarkable free-hand precision.

Some folks thought he had an obsessive compulsive condition. If they stopped to read the sentence he underlined, they’d have known he was just overwhelmed by loneliness in the years after he retired, and after his Mom and Dad and big sister had passed away.

The folks that tried to put a label on Joe – or that tried to find a nice little box to tuck his personality into –  never got to know him as a person. In some cases, they didn’t even know he was a person.  To many of them, he was the guy with the intellectual disability.  To some, he was the  retard.

I haven’t seen Uncle Joe much over the past 20 years.  The year he moved into an apartment in Maryland, I joined the Army, ultimately settling down 1,500 miles away, in Texas.  Joe doesn’t use phones or computers, and I was just too damn busy or too damn important to write a letter.

I should have bought him a train ticket to come visit us in Texas.  He loved riding trains. Why didn’t I do that.

This past April, I took the time to introduce Momma Bird and Little Bird to Uncle Joe.  I was nervous when I went to see him –  many layers of guilt had gimped me up.  He didn’t look very good.

I wondered if it would be the last time I saw Uncle Joe. Turns out, it was.

Uncle Joe, I will miss you.

I hope like hell you find that Blue Dog.

186 comments on ““Why Are There No Blue Dogs?”

  1. the truth about islam
    21-Nov-2013

    best wishes for your uncle

  2. The Wayward Thinker
    21-Nov-2013

    Such a beautiful reflection on your relationship with Uncle Joe. We all get caught up in our lives, but even so, you did get out to see him that final time. And regardless of that, I’m sure he would have been so appreciative of the time that he spent with you when you were younger.

    Thanks for sharing.

  3. onomatopoeicbliss
    21-Nov-2013

    We are ALL ‘retarded’ in that our brains don’t function anywhere near our design capacity. It’s unfortunate that most people cannot take the time or effort to ‘get’ people who see and communicate things differently than the ‘normal’ people.

    Ok, so you won’t tell us what UJ underlined . . . . will you tell us what he said when someone responded, “I’m not sure, Joe. Do YOU know why there are no blue dogs?” ?

  4. vieome
    22-Nov-2013

    S m i l e !

  5. amfeelingright
    22-Nov-2013

    Hi,
    Firstly thank you for sharing this post. Uncle Joe would be proud of you for making him reach so many people with his question.
    I would have loved to meet him. Like what the girl I love once said, being normal is overrated.

    Keep writing my friend.

  6. pathwayfinder
    22-Nov-2013

    You saw the true spirit of a lovely man and not the broken person some only noticed. Thank you for sharing. Peace be with you and Joe xx

  7. Feral State
    22-Nov-2013

    Wow, I really like your uncle Jo! What a great piece of writing and an interesting insight into the guy… feel he’d make a great character in a book/ tv show … imagining all his secret internal worlds! Look forward to following your blog. FS x

  8. murraysmedicalequipment
    23-Nov-2013

    I think your uncle’s question about the colour of dogs was his way of saying: life’s a mystery, don’t you find? Had I met your uncle we would of laughed together. Oh, but there are blue dogs, I would have exclaimed. I have one. And I do. Barclay is a Kerry Blue Terrier. He’s not so blue, but you should his mother with her flowing hair of sliver and truly, truly light blue. You have to see the breed in person, they don’t photograph. But none of this would have made a jot of difference to the relevance of your uncle’s question.

    Of course you kept the coins. Your uncle understood that collecting the coins was more important than the value of the coins. Perhaps your uncle was the reverse of that old adage: he knew the price of nothing and the value of everything. All the best, J.

    • Little Bird's Dad
      30-Nov-2013

      I did keep the coins. 🙂

      Peace, LBD

      • murraysmedicalequipment
        02-Dec-2013

        Thanks for replying. I’m sorry, I should first have complimented you on your piece and expressed sympathy for your loss. I instead rushed in with my own viewpoint.

        I’ve been thinking a lot lately about generosity and thoughtfulness towards others. I’m only in my 40s, yet feel that an act of thoughtfulness has become a cause for suspicion or worse, viewed as an act of weakness. Maybe people feel resentful because you’ve evoked an unwanted sense of obligation. I honestly don’t know…

        I’ve stopped engaging in random acts of kindnesses. It seems required of me. It’s something I’ve had to learn to do. But isn’t it odd that in our brave new world of social media – people are less connected, not more; not really. There’s an I and ME in media, but no U.

        Glad to confirm that you kept the coins. 🙂 Bye. J

      • Dear murraysmedicalequipment, I understand what you say about kindness being misjudged. I’d hazard a guess that these are people who have sufficient resources, material or otherwise, that would enable them to manage on their own. If we stop helping we kind of stop being human and I say don’t let anyone take away your humane-ness. I guess, one way around this might be to extend our kindness to those who need it and are open to it. I find working with children in a variety of difficult situations – orphaned, destitute and so on is a great way to keep the love flowing. They tend to remember and there’s a good chance of the kindness being passed on. Cheers!

      • murraysmedicalequipment
        02-Dec-2013

        Yes. You’re right, of course. I was thinking that exact thing myself as I wrote. I think I would like to work with an organisation that offers support to the ‘homeless’. I keep telling myself that, but never seem to do it. But then it could sort of become like ‘work’ – valuable work, of course, but not as spontaneous as an act of kindness.

        By the way, in the previous reply I was referring to the smallest of acts of kindness. Say you mentioned such and such was your favourite author and that you were looking forward to their latest book. If I already had a copy, I would give it to you. Which seems the most logical thing in the world to me, but somehow is no longer socially acceptable! I really was referring to such little things – an automatic ‘act of kindness’ where nothing is expected in return. Something that only requires a little ‘thoughtfulness’ on ones part and is forgotten as soon as done.

        But your ‘concept’ of people having ‘enough’ is interesting to me. I’ll think more about that. The idea of working with children sounds wonderful – but I don’t know how I would set about doing that. I was ‘lost’ in an extremely big family and remember only too well how wonderful it felt to be treated as an individual and to be given something by an adult that was chosen ‘just for me’!

        Something to think about, certainly. Thank you for writing. J.

      • 🙂 Yes, I’ve seen that happen … the awkwardness and the funny looks. And the “little” acts of kindness that come naturally are getting rarer. Large family eh? That would give one many opportunities to be thoughtful and considerate towards others. It occurs to me that kind acts are accepted more easily among people in poor countries. Guess that’s how they get by, by helping each other. One of the organizations that I know does phenomenal work with kids is http://www.ekukhanyeni.org/ The love and joy they exude is tremendous! Cheers!

      • murraysmedicalequipment
        02-Dec-2013

        Thank you. I will look into it today.

        P.S. A large, extended, and wealthy family! (We rarely see one another.)

      • :-)) I see! In that case kudos to you .
        Enjoy!

      • murraysmedicalequipment
        02-Dec-2013

        Go raibh maith agat! J

      • murraysmedicalequipment
        02-Dec-2013

        go raibh maith agat – is Irish. It means ‘Thank you’. J

      • Yes. I looked it up. 🙂 … and found there were many ways to pronounce the words! And ’Sé do bheatha / Ná habair é / Tá fáilte romhat

      • murraysmedicalequipment
        03-Dec-2013

        Or you might have gone all out with: Fáiltíonn míle – a thousand welcomes. However, this is actually a greeting, rather than an acceptance of thanks!

        Reflecting on our discussion, are we not leaving the recipient of an act of kindness off the hook? What about accepting things with grace? I had to learn, for example, that you should receive a compliment with a simple thanks – not argue that the compliment is misplaced and undeserved! Maybe we need to re-learn how to accept acts of kindnesses. I suppose it comes back to my firmly held belief that Good Manners is a (disappearing) vital form of communication in society and not some outdated way of talking. I think that good manners can be a common language that oils the wheels of communication among everyone. Others might argue that bad language is the new way of getting your message across. But that’s usually only effective when you have something really negative to deliver! Slan! J.

      • 🙂 “receive a compliment with a simple thanks – not argue that the compliment is misplaced and undeserved” is only possible if you love yourself unconditionally, warts and all. And accepting things with grace .. kindness or hostility.. can only come if one is at peace with oneself and in equanimity towards one’s experiences. People who feel uncomfortable with acts of kindness may not have experienced them, may not have good memories associated with these acts or may not themselves be secure enough to perform these types of acts and so may wonder why anyone else would… and so on. People grow at their own pace so no hooks 🙂 just free will choices and consequences. Speakin of manners not sure how LittleBirdsDad feels about this extended exchange on his blog! Slan.

      • murraysmedicalequipment
        04-Dec-2013

        Yes. I’m new to WP and don’t entirely – forget entirely – I don’t know what I’m doing. I just jumped in without learning the basics. I’ve obviously breached Blog etiquette. Bad manners, definitely. Sorry.

        (I’d like to reply to you, if you can tell me how without I imposing further on the blog that inspired our exchange.) J

      • I’m new too. So apologies and I’m going to give thanks for the learning experience. We could continue on your blog if the topic isn’t too off for Murray’s Medical Equipment. I’ve left a note on your About Page. Or you could create a different blog with an appropriate title. Blog discussions can be a great help to people who’re searching for answers.

  9. tia
    23-Nov-2013

    Im sorry for you loss. Thanks for sharing.

  10. legendsofyouth
    23-Nov-2013

    Im sorry for your loss, this was a beautiful piece.

  11. tre12
    24-Nov-2013

    Reblogged this on awesome and commented:
    That is in a book right

    • Little Bird's Dad
      30-Nov-2013

      Not sure what you mean by being in a book….

      … I will say that about a week after Joe passed, we got a children’s book for Little Bird that talked about Blue Dogs. The sender had no idea about Joe or this post, which made it very unusual.

      Peace, LBD

  12. notthenest
    24-Nov-2013

    This is such a heart-warming, though somewhat sad and unfortunate, memoir.

  13. Blue dogs … 🙂 The Native Americans speak of the Kachina, a race highly evolved loving, spiritual blue beings, not of this world. Perhaps Joe was searching for his own kind.

  14. onesadhaka
    25-Nov-2013

    Nicely done. A great tribute.

  15. meontheverge
    25-Nov-2013

    love this post! I love Joe and his wacky ways, such as the gift of pennies, and Im dying to know what the line was that he underlined in all those Reader’s Digests..?

    p.s. i would have told him I had a blue dog!! His name was Jordon, a pound mutt that was the best dog I ever had. He was beautiful and he was “blue” or gray.

  16. Kat
    26-Nov-2013

    There are blue dogs. Purple dogs, too.
    Beautiful story, well written. Thank you for taking the time to share your uncle with us.

  17. passionatedreaming
    26-Nov-2013

    I bet he found his blue dog. What was the sentence he underlined? He sounds like an amazing man.

    • Little Bird's Dad
      30-Nov-2013

      I bet he did find that blue dog. I am not going to mention the underlined passage…it’s a little piece of Joe I’m keeping for myself.

      Peace, LBD

  18. khushnumab
    27-Nov-2013

    I lost my mom and have the same regrets of not spending enough time with her . Good read .

  19. stealthy_cat88
    27-Nov-2013

    “There are no blue dogs because blue paint is too expensive.” <- I am not sure why I wanted to say this… maybe I am just trying to be funny… but I suppose it is about hardship… we dream of blue dogs but we can never be with or pet them, because they are unobtainable… but it doesn't mean that we should forget about them, just because they don't exist.

  20. gaytaylor
    27-Nov-2013

    Oh, thanks for writing, for a warm eulogy befitting the (not so) “average joe.” We let live on those we love by tendering their memory, by talking about their passge thru life and their impact on us.

  21. yokaidreams
    27-Nov-2013

    Reblogged this on bakenekogenbei.

  22. Jason Leslie Rogers
    28-Nov-2013

    Wow. That packed quite a punch. Heart-warming and intimate, but hard-hitting too. I enjoyed the read. Thank you for sharing. Please accept my condolences.
    If you want, you can check out some things I wrote about my Grandpa, his life and passing. I couldn’t help but think of him as I read about your uncle Joe.

  23. dontevenaskmyname
    28-Nov-2013
  24. Pingback: http://littlebirdsdad.com/2013/09/05/why-are-there-no-blue-dogs/ | jremembrance

  25. Pingback: Cherishing Moments | JREmembrance

  26. thecellarboy
    29-Nov-2013

    Joe reminds me of my uncle, who sort of acts like a kid. When I was little we played video games together constantly and I helped him build lego and do puzzles. I think some people just don’t want to bother with someone who is so-called “different” and so they just label them and go away, but when I was little I never even noticed that about him, because it didn’t matter, and it still doesn’t matter.
    I’m really sorry about your uncle, it sounds like he was a cool guy in the same way that my uncle is. That painting is beautiful, too.

    • Little Bird's Dad
      30-Nov-2013

      He was a very cool guy – and sounds a lot like your uncle. Joe let us play with markers one time while baby-sitting us, and we colored the couch, the walls, you name it. Mom and Dad weren’t happy, but we kids were ecstatic!!

      Peace, LBD

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