Every October for the past thirteen years, my Sunday-morning golf buddies and I have driven two hundred miles south, to Atlantic City, for a three-day late-season golf extravaganza (about which I’ll have more to say in a few days). For the past eight years, our trip has been dedicated to the memory of a friend we called Uncle Frank, who died, at the age of seventy, a month before our trip in 2004. This year, we honored him by using (and losing) twenty dozen golf balls with his name printed on them. They should be turning up in the woods of southern New Jersey for years.
Uncle Frank inspired one of the nine local rules printed on the back of our Sunday Morning Group scorecard: “No competitor shall dress in a black-and-white sun suit purchased by his wife.” When we held our first golf-club sleepover, a decade ago, he arrived in a blond wig and a blue feather boa (see photo, below). He smoked cigars as though they were cigarettes, and then he switched back to cigarettes, which he would have smoked two at a time if he hadn’t needed a free hand for storytelling. He discovered that he was sick after waking up one morning unable to speak above a whisper—the ultimate ironic disability for a man who lived to talk. The doctors found lung cancer and said that it had spread to his vocal cords. He died before the golf season ended.
People fell for Uncle Frank. If you needed to play a fully booked golf course, he was the guy you sent into the golf shop to negotiate. He’d come out ten minutes later with four tee times and an invitation to spend Christmas with the family of the pro. A couple of weeks after his funeral, his wife threw a party in his memory, and so many people wanted to come that she had to find a bigger room
Telling stories about Uncle Frank is hard to do because the teller is always aware that Uncle Frank would have told them better—like the one about the Japanese steakhouse in Myrtle Beach where he cracked up the joint by doing an impression of the chefs’ stylized food-preparation routines using a couple of sex aids he had borrowed from a bachelorette party one table over. Nothing about that performance was inoffensive; somehow, though, it didn’t offend. The only possible explanation is that Uncle Frank’s own disarming vulnerability showed through everything he did, even when he was flipping shrimp into his pocket with a dildo. As loud as he usually was, he was narrowly attuned to the feelings of others. When my father died, he was the first of my friends to call.
If Uncle Frank felt sorry for himself as he was dying, he didn’t show it. The nurses in the hospital all had crushes on him; doctors making rounds dropped by to share a joke. After his cancer had spread to his brain, he was given a marathon radiation treatment, during which his head had to be immobilized in a halo brace, a birdcage-like contraption that was anchored to his shoulders and his skull. When the session ended, eighteen hours after it began, he asked the nurses to take him to the children’s oncology ward before removing the brace. A couple of days before, at home, he had made a basketball backboard out of Styrofoam, and now he asked the nurses to attach it to the back of his head. He let the children in the ward shoot free throws with a Nerf ball, three shots for a dollars. “Hey,” he told me later, “I made twenty-three bucks.”
Three days after the radiation treatment, my friend Jim took Uncle Frank to the golf club for what would turn out to be his final round. I saw them in their cart in the parking lot afterward. Uncle Frank’s face was puffy from the steroids he’d been taking, and he had a bottle of oxygen on the seat beside him, but he was happy. “If this was baseball,” he said, “I’d be batting .750.” Four days later, he was gone.