Visiting hour has started so I pull out a chair for my uncle.
Waiting for him to sit in it is like waiting for a redwood to do anything.
Finally, he’s in.
“I have to cross my legs,” he insists and this cannot be argued with.
I wait. His shaking hands smooth his blue gown. His yellow booties glow. From under a red cap I’ve never seen him wear, he blinks as if a reptile taught him to open and shut his eyes.
My uncle was once a fighter. Now, he is a lover.
“Do you wanna see pictures of the animals?” I ask. The animals turned him into a lover. Saint Francis of Assisi. A special type of sissy.
I pull my iPod from my purse and hold it in front of us.
My finger slides across its screen. Chicken pictures scoot across it. He watches his chickens go by.
“Chickens are dinosaurs,” says my uncle. “Atomic lizards.”
I push his favorite lizard onscreen.
“I’m going to make his face bigger,” I say. Sliding two fingers against Saint’s cheeks pulls his face larger.
Saint the Iguana, named after Saint Ignatius of Loyola, has been my uncle’s differently specied companion for the past 23 years. Saint knows my uncle’s secrets and he doesn’t tell.
“We fed him lettuce and grapes,” I reassure my uncle. “He liked it. He was licking his lips like this.”
I pretend to be Saint licking his lips and because we are on a psychiatric unit, it’s not a big deal.
“Did you give him water?”
“Yes. I filled his bowl with fresh water.”
“He doesn’t have a bowl. He has a square tub.”
“I filled his square tub with water. What did you eat for breakfast?”
“What appeared to be reconstituted eggs.”
Sitting straight in his chair, my uncle looks so incomparably handsome. I want to make sure that nobody ruins that handsomeness.
The madness in his Slavic eyes is a friend to the madness in mine.
We could both be accused of having reptile eyes.
I’ve thought before that my uncle’s eyes were green, and maybe they were before today, but during visiting hours, they have blued. With his powder blue robe and his red hat and the whites of his eyes, my uncle is a flag.
He served in the U.S. Army as a first lieutenant. Last night, when he was being admitted, I told a doctor, among other things, that my uncle had been a military officer and was a veteran.
“Where were you stationed?” the doctor asked him.
“Vietnam,” he answered.
She said, “Welcome back.”
On the way to the hospital, in the ambulance, straps had secured my uncle to his gurney. I rubbed his shoulder while a pale EMT, he had the face of a Polish angel, asked him questions. One, I think it was curiosity driven, was, “When were you in Vietnam?”
My uncle’s reptile eyes slowly and deliberately swiveled towards the young man’s.
He answered, “Half of me is still there.”
After the hospital staff admitted my uncle, I took his belongings, right down to his urine soaked cap, with me. This is why the red hat he is wearing surprises and awes me.
“You look great in your red hat,” I tell him.
He says, “I won it in a bingo game.”
My uncle won medals for things he did in Vietnam. He buried these prizes somewhere in his yard, the same way you would bury a dead pet.
He says, “It was a choice between the hat and a lollipop, and I chose the hat.”
Someday, you may have to choose between a hat and a lollipop and I hope you make the right choice.