BATON ROUGE, LA—Announcing his controversial return to family life, local resident Uncle Greg told reporters Monday he will attempt to make his long-awaited comeback during a family barbecue in a relative's backyard next month.
Once a mainstay of holiday get-togethers, the 39-year-old uncle has long been written off by those who said he could never recover from a decade of strained relationships, social gaffes, and severed familial connections.
"It's official—I'm back," said Uncle Greg, outlining plans to attend his first major family function in nearly three years. "All my hard work the past few months has been leading up to this: holding down a job, easing up on the booze a bit, getting myself a decent haircut. And at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 7, all the naysayers will be silenced when they see the new Uncle Greg in top form."
According to the three-time college dropout, the upcoming barbecue is ideal for staging his return, partly because it will take place on friendly turf, with Cousin Dan, one of the few relations who's stood by him through every slump, serving as host. The gathering is also expected to be pretty low-key, since it falls during a lull in the family's summertime schedule, a month after the big reunion on July 4 but weeks before the special Labor Day celebration planned for Grandpa Jim and Grandma Joan's 60th anniversary.
"Obviously, I'd be stupid to try and pull this off during a First Communion or a Thanksgiving dinner or something," Uncle Greg said. "But I figure at Dan's place I can just walk in, ask him if he needs any help with the grill, and, when he says no, stake out a neutral spot for myself at one of the picnic tables."
"Plus, Shelley and Rod will be out of town," he continued. "So that should be a big help."
Though he wouldn't disclose his entire strategy, Greg did reveal that he plans to drink only one or two beers tops, avoid the topic of politics altogether, and smile and remain polite to Cheryl, no matter "how big of a bitch" she might be.
While his performance the past few years has been spotty, Uncle Greg enjoyed a long stint of popularity during his mid-20s, when his practice of sitting at the kids' table and teaching Dave and Linda's dog Frisky to drink Pepsi earned him the title of "favorite uncle."
Sources agree that Uncle Greg peaked in 1999, and that a long string of ugly incidents since then—including Aunt Margaret's birthday party, during which he made an unfortunate joke about her spinsterhood, and the picnic at the lake to which he brought his best friend Bobby, who kept hitting on a 16-year-old niece—has all but cemented his role as the family's black sheep.
"He's really giving it his all," said Uncle Greg's wife, Jeanie, who believes this comeback will be a success despite the failure of a similar attempt a few Thanksgivings ago. "This time he's serious. And I can tell he's trying extra hard because he asked me to buy him a new T-shirt for the occasion, and to make a pan of my chocolate-chip bread pudding so he can walk in carrying something."
Added Jeanie, "He even told me he wasn't going to challenge anyone to an arm- wrestling match the whole time."
Many relatives remain skeptical of Uncle Greg's ability to recapture his former glory.Sister-in-Law Cheryl went so far as to doubt the sincerity of the entire project.
"What is this, comeback No. 7?" Cheryl said. "Greg tries to pull this shit whenever he needs money and realizes no one is going to give him any if he keeps acting like an ass. His best bet is to make a fresh start with the nieces and nephews who are too young to remember the guy who ruined Christmas with a goddamn DWI. Twice."
Uncle Greg told reporters he preferred to keep a positive outlook, because "this is family and you have to let bygones be bygones, even though [Brother-in-Law] Michael will probably never let you dog-sit again."
Greg also confirmed he was memorizing the names of those who weren't born the last time he attended a family gathering, or "who packed on a shit-ton of weight recently like Aunt Roberta."
"This family needs me and I'm going to make them realize that once and for all," Uncle Greg said. "This barbecue is going to change everything."
"Especially after I tell Mom and Dad about crashing their truck over the weekend," he added.
On Jan. 26, just four days after visiting the doctor for what he thought was severe indigestion or maybe an ulcer, Russ Kunkel got the dreaded news: A malignant, fist-sized tumor had metastasized between his stomach and liver. It was cancer.
Right then and there, faced with the prospect of a life-threatening disease, the 34-year-old Florissant, MO, husband and father of three drew a deep breath and made a firm resolution to himself: I am not going to fight this. I am a dead man.
On Feb. 20, less than a month after he was first diagnosed, Kunkel died following a brief, cowardly battle with stomach cancer.
"Most people, when they find out they've got something terrible like this, dig deep down inside and tap into some tremendous well of courage and strength they never knew they had," said Judith Kunkel, Russ' wife of 11 years. "Not Russ. The moment he found out he had cancer, he curled up into a fetal ball and sobbed uncontrollably for three straight weeks."
Said Judith: "I can still remember Russ' last words: 'Oh, God—I'm going to die! Why, God, why? Why me? Why not someone else?'"
According to Russ' personal physician, Dr. James Wohlpert, the type of cancer Russ had generally takes at least four months to advance to the terminal stage. But because of what he described as a "remarkable lack of fighting spirit," the disease consumed him in less than one.
"It's rare that you see someone give up that quickly and completely," Wohlpert said. "Cancer is a powerful disease, but most people can at the very least delay the spread of it by maintaining a positive outlook and mental attitude. This, however, was not the case with Russ."
Russ' friends and acquaintances saw that same lack of fighting spirit.
"Russ did not go quietly, that's for sure," said longtime friend Bobby Dwyer. "He did a tremendous amount of screaming."
"During the three days he spent at work before the pain got too bad, I saw a very different Russ," said Arnold Tolliver, a co-worker at the Florissant electronics store where Russ had been employed for the past six years. "He was always telling the customers how tragic it was that he wouldn't outlive his kids, reminding me that every day is a gift cruelly torn from his fingers, and grabbing somebody, anybody, by the shirt and screaming into their face that he didn't want to die."
In those final days, like so many who realize their day of reckoning is near, Russ Kunkel turned to a higher power. "Russ came to me in his time of need," said Pastor Charles Bourne of Holy Christ Almighty Lutheran Church. "But when I tried to comfort him by saying he would be with God soon, he only stopped bawling long enough to say, 'Fuck God. There is no God.' I had to get a couple acolytes to help me pry him out from underneath the pews."
When the end finally came, Russ Kunkel died red-eyed, trembling and hysterical in the attic of his home, where, in the depths of his fear, he was convinced the Reaper would look last. On that day, his 5-year-old daughter Bailey awoke to an unnerving quiet, the usual terror-choked sobs and shrieks of her father strangely absent from the morning air. Alarmed, she ran to her mother's side.
"Bailey was yelling, 'Daddy stopped crying! Daddy stopped crying!'" Judith said. "Somehow, though she's still very young, she understood."
On Monday, Russ Kunkel was laid to rest at Shady Grove Cemetery in Florissant. More than 200 people gathered to bid farewell. And just as Russ had requested shortly before his death, the funeralgoers wailed loudly and gnashed their teeth, cursing the heavens for the unfair hand dealt their loved one.
"The day before Russ died," Judith recalled, "he took my hand and said to me, 'At my funeral, I don't want people to wear bright colors and smile and laugh fondly at the wonderful memories of the precious time we spent together on Earth. Tell them to wear black and cover their faces with ash. Tell them to weep bitter tears and rail angrily against the cruel God who took me at so young an age. Do this for me, my beloved.'"
Added Judith: "He also told me not to move on from this tragedy by one day finding love in the arms of another. He said he couldn't bear the thought of me with someone else, and that the best way I could honor his memory was by never building a new life for myself.""They say it is in times of great trial that a man's true colors show," said Russ' best friend, Larry Ahrens, summing up the feelings of those who knew the man. "And in Russ' case, he had a yellow streak a mile wide."