By Kitsana Dounglomchan
My Uncle Dennis — nicknamed Uncle Den — served as a battalion chief for 30 years in the Alameda County fire department in California. My aunt once told me a story about Uncle Den jumping from the roof of a burning building before it caved in. He never talked about this, much like his service in Vietnam.
His alpha male disposition and reticent nature allowed him to command the respect of the firefighters under him. And even though he was the chief, he insisted they call him by his first name at the firehouse. The dedicated firefighters enjoyed working on his shift — he had high standards for everyone, including himself.
As a kid I’d go over to Uncle Den’s house for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. He would spend all day cooking the family meal in the kitchen, but he’d always make time for my trivial requests. Whenever I needed help with Command and Conquer or Sid Meier’s Pirates!, he’d walk upstairs to the computer room and give me the advice I needed.
This advice was not confined to computer games, however; it stretched into every facet of my life.
I started having sleep problems after my parents divorced. My insomnia persisted the night I stayed over at his house, and I went downstairs to talk to him. Uncle Den always stayed up until the wee hours of the morning reading sci-fi books in the family room recliner.
We sat there and he listened to what was on my mind. I don’t remember what he said, but I never had any sleep problems again.
Four years ago, shortly before Father’s Day, Uncle Den was diagnosed with stage four esophageal cancer. He only had months to live. I dropped everything and drove to California to be with him.
All his life he was a big man, but within weeks his figure became gaunt and emaciated — he couldn’t eat solid foods anymore, the tumors made it too painful to swallow.
During earlier visits, he would always cook breakfast for my aunt and I. We’d sit around the kitchen table and talk for hours. Even though he could no longer eat, he insisted on maintaining this routine during my last visit.
Those days we spent together were somehow great. We had those conversations you never have when someone is healthy. I told him I always thought of him like a father; he told me I was like a son. We did our best to act like men, but we both cried.
The finality of death breaks down the superficial barriers we erect around our hearts so we can finally speak the truth to one another.
This upcoming Father’s Day we’ll buy those men in our lives coffee cups and neckties, but we also need to remember to have those conversations with them as well. Let them know why you care about them; let them know how they’ve made your life better.
I’m thankful I was able to do this with my Uncle Den.
Kitsana Dounglomchan, an 11-year Air Force veteran, writes about his life and times for Clovis Media Inc. Contact him at: