Back in July 2012, I got off an airplane in San Diego and got a voice mail from my uncle. “Hey Hans! (yes, he called me Hans) Give me a call back ASAP”, his gravely East Coast accent said. I was worried about this. My father was very ill, so I thought the worst. When I called my uncle back, he simply said, “Are you ready, Brat? (yes, he called me that as well.) It’s all going to happen soon.” It did. In another week, my father passed away.
That story had been going through my head over the last few months. “Are you ready? It’s going to happen soon.” Well, it finally happened. Robert Bretz, my uncle and a large role model in my life, passed away this past weekend.
Was he a role model? Yes. As a child, I looked up to him in many ways that I never did with my father. He was a character. Bob was loud, brash, off color, profane, always with a big laugh, ran around to the bars, worked on the docks, island hopped through the Caribbean, had a bright orange corvette, told me stories of bars on South Street, never married, never called anyone by their right names (Kelly was ‘Kells’, I was ‘Brat’ or ‘Hans’ … which was suppose to be my name before my mom change it to Karl), never wore black (“It’s the color of death, Hans.”… something I never really seemed to follow him on), always wore Hawaiian shirts to funerals (including my father and his mother’s), lived Life with a capitol L, and most importantly… he was an artist.
He was RoBrez! He was the artist in the family. I was always at his studio and art openings as a child. He would do large intense colorful paintings in very unconventional manner on wooden boards that he picked up from the junkyard. Looking at these images is what made me want to do this in my life as well. My father always asked me in an angry voice “What the hell are you going to do with your life?” Bob always told me to add more color. He was my godfather, but never did a very good job of that (which I thank him for.) He got me to read ‘Lord of the Rings’ as a child and handed me his worn paperback copy of ‘Siddhartha’ when I was in college. He would look at my work for years and give me critiques. I never always followed his suggestions, but always listened. Everyone that met him would later tell stories about their evening with Bob (“Being around Bob, I never cursed so much in my life. I just felt I had to keep up with him.”, my buddy Nick told me.)
…and I knew this was coming. He’s been sick for several months, always in and out of the hospital for tests and blood work. Kelly and I last saw him when we were back in the Philadelphia area over Christmas. Though he was thin and didn’t want to touch anyone (because of the various treatments), he was still jovial and foul-mouthed as he always was. Nothing out of the ordinary for a guy that grew up on the streets and neighborhoods of North Philadelphia. Through the trip, I was worried that this would be the last time I saw my uncle… and it was.
Though I now live a half a country away from my family, I still spoke to them regularly, and got updates on things. There was a period in the Spring where Bob was in the hospital three times a week. I spoke to him on the morning of July 4th and I knew something was different. He told me that he had to go back for tests the next day and he wasn’t very happy about it. This was the first time I heard it in his voice: defeat and resignation. He used colorful language to let me know how sick he was of all the tests. We spoke for several minutes until he finally said “… sorry, Hans, I’m all out of conversation. Let me pass you to your aunt.” And that was it.
He went into the hospital on Thursday and never came out. They think he may have had a stroke on Saturday morning. He passed away that night. It hit me on Sunday sitting at the bar when I realized that no one would ever call me ‘Hans’ again. Kelly and I raised a glass to him.. nothing too fancy, he would never go for that. Something good and sensible. He was the guy that always drank Christian Brothers brandy.