My closest, very last uncle died in the past week. His ADHD is finally in remission.
Uncle Bob was forgetful and had trouble getting around to important things. His wife got tired of hearing how useful a garage might be and called the builder herself. His vision, her execution. It was a good partnership.
When I was 6, my Grandma and Grandpa told stories of Uncle Bob “when he was your age.” The stories were of mischief, practical jokes and narrow escapes. Most of them ended with an unspecified punishment. Two messages were clear: your uncle was very bright and very clever, but more importantly don’t let your own brightness and cleverness carry you across clearly specified boundaries.
Disciplining a nephew in the diner
One of my earliest memories of Uncle Bob is set in a diner so central to my early memories that I still measure fried chicken and waitresses’ friendliness by the standards imprinted on me there.
Five of us—Uncle Bob, my little brother, two cousins our exact ages and I—were wedged into a 4-person booth waiting for our burgers. The four boy cousins had raced through our soda pop and were competitively slurping the last drops from between the ice cubes.
“No slurping!” said Uncle Bob sharply with his I-mean-it-and-don’t cross-me-look.
My cousins were my best friends growing up, but the competition between us was fierce. They could run faster, identify cars quicker, ski better and name more plants than I could. (Our Grandpa was a biology teacher, so identifying trees and plants gave you standing in my family.) I lost a lot of competitions in those days, and it was small comfort that I was usually better at Bible verse memory than my cousins.
Suddenly—brilliantly, I thought—I sensed a clear opening to a competitive win. Uncle Bob was not my dad, and could not enforce the ‘no slurping’ rule! Cousins Dave and Mark had to go home with him, but I didn’t. I win the last slurp! Checkmate!!
I exhaled and began a luxuriously slow, in-your-face slurp. Sweet victory! I had won a major, non-religious competition with my cousins. The triviality of this ‘win’ escaped me.
“Come here!” said Uncle Bob sharply. I knew there was going to be a lecture, and I didn’t mind, because I had already outflanked everyone and won. I wriggled past my cousins smugly, ready to accept the dressing down.
I stood next to Uncle Bob trying to conjure the requisite gravity and contrition that I was definitely NOT feeling. But there was no lecture. Quickly and remarkably discreetly, he reached down and gave me a sharp swat on the butt.
“There will be no disobedience,” he announced quietly and authoritatively.
I had not seen that one coming. I slithered past my smirking cousins, back to my empty glass, humiliated less by the punishment than my own gross miscalculation.
The burgers came, but tasted flat. Everyone but me chatted about cars and sports. At the age of six, I was coming to grips with a large lesson. Truth, right living and behavioral standards weren’t an invention of my parents. Life has some lines and boundaries that don’t disappear when parents aren’t present.
Uncle Bob lived a fine life by respecting many important boundaries. He held a single sales job his whole life. He collected jokes on the road, but sanitized them for us, because certain words were over a line he declined to cross.
His first wife died when he was my current age. The last 10 years of their marriage consisted not of mutual affection and support, but only his tireless care of her. He had made promises at his wedding. Failure to fulfill a promise was a line he never crossed.
His funeral was held in the same church that he was consecrated in 84 years prior and attended every week since. Less-than-perfect attendance was another line he wouldn’t cross.
Rigid adherence to boundaries is not always good. Sadly for Uncle Bob, he couldn’t cross the line to acceptance of values, politics or lifestyles different than his. The boundaries that he personally held extended to everyone. That principle made sense in the diner when I was six, but it cost him some dear relationships later in life. He never figured out what to do when others crossed his own lines.
Almost 10 years ago, Uncle Bob and I met the rest of our family high in the Rockies for the funeral of Jordan, my nephew and his grandson. Jordan had ADHD and was also taught to observe limits, but unlike Uncle Bob, he couldn’t incorporate the lessons. Crossing lines—breaking bad—seemed his life purpose. One night he accidentally crossed an invisible line and died of a drug overdose.
People with ADHD that learn to respect behavioral boundaries can often craft a satisfying life. We might not be able to finesse and adjust the boundaries, but consistency is a foundation of modern society. Rigidly held boundaries often work.
At Uncle Bob’s funeral, nobody thought to mention his ADHD. We remembered his kindness, his jokes, his music, golf and fishing, his friendships, his love. Forgetfulness, bungled priorities and mismanaged time degrade many of the hours, but passion and conviction win many of the days.
ADHD ends, but memories don’t. Uncle Bob won life.