My Uncle Bob passed away at 69 on December 30th 2011. What follows is an expanded version of the eulogy I wrote for his service (with a little clarifying detail for the American audiences).
“Bob’s your uncle.” As a child, I remember hearing this and interpreting it literally, thinking “Well, yes, he is.” It took a while for me to catch on to the more common translation of it meaning “there you have it.” Still, I always thought I was lucky when that phrase came up because, indeed, Bob was my uncle.
For those of you who don’t know, my Uncle Bob was quadriplegic. He had a motorcycle accident when I was a baby, one of those horrid twists of fate where the bike and a wet road had a difference of opinion. If he hadn’t been moved by a well meaning Samaritan his spinal injuries might have been resolvable – but alas, this was not the case. I never knew Bob out of his wheelchair, but really, it is hardly the thing that defines him for me. He was always so much more than his labels – as really, we all are.
My first really good memory of Bob comes from a visit to him when I was about 8 or 9 years old. He was on the old long term disabled unit at Stoke Mandeville (a top UK residential spinal injury center) and he was in bed. With a bunch of family trying to crowd into the tiny room, his wheelchair began to look pretty inviting as a place to sit. It was also something of great curiosity to a child who, despite knowing that she needed to behave, had excess energy to burn and was itching to play with that chair. Bob understood this, and rather than going along with the awkward pretense that it wasn’t good manners to be curious about such things, he saw the look in my eyes and encouraged me to haul the wheelchair out into the corridor and go play with it. At the time it occurred to me that Bob still understood what it was like to be a kid.
Playing in Bob’s wheelchair was a pretty pivotal moment for me in many ways. While I endured many a lecture from my family on the dangers of motorcycles over the years, nothing taught me more than those few minutes wheeling Bob’s chair, imagining what it must be like to not be able to get out of it. I think Bob probably knew that too, and let the lesson be learned through my seat rather than my ears.
Bob was the cool uncle. I had a silver charm bracelet through my teens, and he often added to it at my birthday. He always chose fascinating charms that opened or twirled – the most memorable being an apple that opened to cheekily reveal the anatomically correct Adam and Eve. While all the other adults were asking me about what I was studying at school, Bob would cut to the chase and ask the really important question when you are a teenager - was I was courting anyone interesting? That’s the Bob that so many of us knew – all directness and no pretensions.
Bob was always ahead of us with new fangled technology. While the rest of us were getting the hang of radio cassette players, Bob had a top of the line multi-component hi-fi, and with a graphic equalizer no less. He was the first of my family to get satellite TV and a flat screen. As it turns out, he was ahead of us in other ways too. He used that directness to fight for the things you and I take for granted, long before society got politically correct about rights for the disabled. Through his absolute belief that he deserved as good a life in his chair that you or I could have without one, he blazed a trail that eventually led to richer lives for so many others. He lived this belief, from the seemingly small challenge to the ward rules that finally allowed him to share a room and later a disability retrofitted house with his lovely wife Sally, through to his friendship with Jimmy Saville (a famous UK radio and TV personality) that led to national fundraising drives that built a beautiful new residence wing at Stoke Mandeville (that resembled apartments rather than a hospital ward). As I said, Bob was so much more than the chair.
The last time I visited with Bob he made me a full-on Sunday dinner, with extra roast potatoes because he remembered that they were my favorite. I asked him where on earth he learned such a feat, and he said that his mum made sure he could cook a roast in case he needed to impress a girl. Trust me when I say this girl was very impressed.
So there you have it. Bob’s my uncle. Lucky me.