Sunday, April 28, 2013

What's in a Name

Gordon Melville Clayton was my uncle, a close companion to my family while we were growing up, and a great friend.  He passed away this week at the age of 73 due to complications with cancer.  Named after his father, who passed away when I was quite young, he always went by the name Mel.

Uncle Mel was a rare individual who took great joy from life.  Freedom was his favourite pursuit.  As a child, my mother told me, he could not sit still, and longed always to be outside.  As soon as he was old enough to see over the steering wheel, he took to driving and would 'run the roads' until he ran out of gas.  All his life he kept up his passion for going places, and drove his van over country and city roads long after he could no longer walk without a walker. 

As a child, I remember the constant presence of this uncle in our family life.  Every Christmas, every Easter, every birthday, there was Mel at the door with my grandmother, gifts in hand and a big smile on his face.  He loved kids, loved to play with us, tease us, tell us jokes and take us everywhere.  Whenever my grandmother had a notion to go somewhere, Mel would drive us: Marineland in Niagara, Buffalo or Watertown for shopping, out to the country to visit family or friends on the farm.

Mel's favourite things: pie at the diner, doughnuts at Tim Hortons, laughing children, traditional country music, my Mom's corn fritters at Christmas Eve dinner, cars, horses, farms.  He had so many plaid flannel shirts in his closet that we had to take four bags and box full of them to goodwill when he went into terminal care.

My Dad and Mel were good friends, and Mel used to tag along with his older brother Donny and my dad, Richard.  That was before dad took notice of my mom, who was three years younger, with Mel three years younger than that.  I imagine them climbing into an old Ford Dad would have fixed up in the late '40's and running the roads of Kingston, meeting up with friends or just going for a drive.  

In the hospital in the last weeks of Mel's life, a big white board in his room announced his name as 'Gordon'.  My Mom would go in to see him every other day, and remind the nurses over and over that all his life my uncle had gone by the name of Mel.  But the white board remained with the legal name, Gordon. And the nurses, who changed shifts daily, continued to call him that. 

Whenever we went to see Mel at the hospital, however wan and gaunt he looked that day, he would sit up, give us a huge grin and say, "Hi," and rhyme off all our names.  His friends at the garage, from the farms where he used to help out, from the diner he frequented, all came to see him, and called us to see what could be done to help.  His two remaining brothers came to visit and called as well, and his nephew, who was working at the hospital where he was sent for palliative care, brought him his meals every day.  There was never a day when he was alone, and the nurses commented that they'd never seen such a cooperative and cheerful patient.

A few days before he died, I went to see Mel, along with my older brother, sister and my mom. It was obvious he was struggling.  He begged to be taken outside one last time.  The weather was freezing even though it was April, and there had been snow earlier that day, so the nurses refused, saying he could not possibly be taken out of the hospital.  Mel was disappointed, but he acquiesced and gave a shrug of his shoulders.  His days of running the roads were over.

As we said goodbye, I looked up at the white board with the black marker name Gordon Clayton scrawled across it.  Written underneath that were the words, "I like to be called 'Melville'."  I grinned at him and said, "We love you Mel."  And he grinned back.  And that was the last time I saw my uncle.  But at least the nurses had finally gotten his name right.  Or at least half right. 

Because my uncle, with his sunny disposition and his willingness to help anybody, his love of the family and the simple things in life, could only be Mel.  He didn't suit the name Gordon, or Melville.  He was just plain Mel.  Everyone liked him that way.  That's the way he liked it.  And that's how I will always remember him.

Photo Gallery of my uncle


  1. Very touching, Sally. My deepest condolences for your loss.
    Shakespeare may have been right about the quality of roses, but not for person whose name is wrapped up in their identity. So glad the nurses finally got it 'right'.

  2. The nurses and doctors at St Marys are the soul of patience and consideration. They did all they could for my uncle, and, whatever they called him, they treated him like a person who had a whole life behind the frail body, the pain of cancer, and a white board with a legal name upon it. We are grateful.