Two weeks ago my uncle fell of a ladder, hit his head, slipped into a coma and died. I didn't mourn for him, he was an awful man -- the only person in my family that I can remember being explicitly outwardly homophobic towards me, warning my father, his brother, that I was getting a little girly on too many an occasion to count. It wasn't just towards me that his awfulness seeped, though -- he was abusive to his children, his multiple spouses, and every time he saw my father he managed to call him fat. He was one of those people who inject nastiness into every moment, who seem so twisted up in their own self-hatred all they have pouring out of them is bile.
This was my experience of him, though it has holes. The last time I saw my uncle was at my grandmother's funeral seven years ago, and of course it's the only time I can recall him being nice to me. Life has endless ways of complicating the narratives we've created. We had that one thing in common -- my grandmother. He built a house for her to live in during her later years; she'd half-raised me since my own parents were such disasters. I loved her and I guess he clearly did too, and so there that day my uncle shook my hand, looked me in the eyes, and said, "I'm sorry."
What do we do with these things? How do we organize our feelings towards and experiences among the people who have been fundamental forces, good and bad and all of it, in our lives, into meaning? Not just meaning as a story we tell ourselves, but meaning as in a purpose, something tangible that we use and transform ourselves by -- as a thing of the past that shapes us now, yes, but something that carries us, reaching forward, a surrounding sea of images and interactions that we interpret into substantial action, an extension of self as real as my eyelashes? What is the impossible alchemy of understanding any of it?
Waves, the tremendously moving and humanistic new film from director Trey Edward Shults, is about these porous walls between every person -- we eyeball one another through a murk of the past and the roles we've assigned one another. I am your parent, I am a little less human -- I am your child, a little less human still. We carve forms, whittled down flesh and memory, slaps and caresses, spit and whispers, into a thing we see standing in front of us that is assigned meaning, and then we spend every day rebelling against them and also hardening their shells. We are fogs butting up against each other, rolling on an indistinguishable foam; the tides slide to and fro, both cleansing and polluting -- our interpretations muddy and coalesce, atoms dis- and reassemble.
Cancer took my aunt, a good woman who hummed an atonal sound as she cleaned her house -- it was a joke among us back then, that odd sound, but now I miss her and I find myself making that sound when thoughts of her come into my head. The vibration of it in my mouth makes me smile, as if those molecules dancing have brought this person back to life for a moment. What will I have of my uncle? Where will that man who was find a place for me? It might all be bad and sour but it was, it's there inside me right this minute, looking for a sound, a willed something for forever.