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Memoir Nonfiction

A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Sometimes it’s worth far more.

There’s so much I want to write. So much I want to say. And I don’t even know where to begin.

When all of this started last week, I tried to explain to a co-worker, who would serve as my back-up, who Gary was to me. Gary had been admitted to the ER then moved to ICU for COVID complications. I was having a hard time with the news and was going to take some time off from work.

Gary Hamlett was my first cousin, my good friend, and while it may sound weird, I told them, it’s actually not: but he’s also my brother-in-law, which makes him my kids’ uncle and cousin.

I married Allison Watkins. Gary married Emily Watkins. Gary’s my first cousin. Emily and Allison are sisters.

We jokingly referred to each other as Cunkle Gary and Cunkle Jeff to our kids at family gatherings.

Before I dated Allison, Gary nudged me in her direction. He knew I was infatuated with Allison and told me to man up.

Left to right: An entirely sober Robbie Hancock, Gary Hamlett, and Jeffrey Pillow. The night of this photo right before the ball dropped at midnight, Gary said, and I say this with no disrespect to another Gary (Gary Elder), that, “you better push his ass out the way and kiss her when the ball drops. Now or never.” And so I did. It was the first time I ever kissed Allison and to say she wasn’t expecting it would be an understatement. Her eyes literally about popped out of her head.

Before Gary dated Emily, I nudged him in her direction. I would talk up Emily to him and I would then turn around and talk up Gary to Emily. One day, while I was over at Allison’s, Emily said out of the blue as we sat at the kitchen table, “He sure was looking fiiiine.”

I said, “Who?”

Emily said emphatically, “Gary.”

I said to myself, “Mental note to take back to Gary,” which I did. The rest was history. Gary went after his bride, as he called her, and created three beautiful kids.

I want to write more. I plan to write more. But right now, I can’t even string much of those thoughts together.

I lost my cousin today. I lost my friend. I lost my brother-in-law. Emily lost her husband. Their kids lost their dad. My side of the family lost their son, their brother, their cousin, their uncle, their friend. Emily and Allison’s side of the family lost their son-in-law, brother-in-law, and friend.

Gary was everyone’s friend. Everyone’s. That’s just who he was. It’s who he always was. Just last week me, him, Cal, and Robbie were texting funny stuff to one another like we have for the past decade. Now he’s gone.

I searched high and low for another photo of me, Robbie, and Gary from thirty years ago. I couldn’t find it to save my life despite seeing it a million times over the past few years. I told Allison he’s trying to get the last laugh because he doesn’t want anyone to see that photo of him with those glasses. But I’ve always loved that photo. I asked my mom if she had it.

Left to right: Robbie Hancock (or “Rob” to Gary as he always reminded me), Gary Hamlett, and Jeffrey Pillow. Robbie with the chipmunk grin. Gary with the glasses. And me with the monkey arms and giant hands and feet.

Robbie and Gary always treated me like a brother. A little brother perhaps always messing with me, but a brother nonetheless. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I remember riding home one morning hungover from Charlottesville in 2000 and Gary was driving. I told him I was going to puke and could he please turn the music down.

Instead, he cranked up the treble and blasted “Pink Houses” by John Cougar Mellencamp and said, “That better?”

I miss you. I love you. You will always be in my heart. Always. And you one upped the shit out of me with your last two photoshops of me as Verne Troyer and Austin Powers and the Dude’s little brother on Dumb and Dumber — and you made it into a video!

Do you realize
That you have the most beautiful face?
Do you realize

We’re floating in space?
Do you realize
That happiness makes you cry?

Do you realize
That everyone you know someday will die?

And instead of saying all of your goodbyes, let them know
You realize that life goes fast
It’s hard to make the good things last
You realize the sun doesn’t go down
It’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning ’round

Flaming Lips, Do You Realize?

By Jeffrey Pillow

Jeffrey Pillow is an American short story writer, memoirist, and poet. He is the author of The Lady Next Door. His writing has been published in Urge Magazine, The Nervous Breakdown, 16 Blocks, USA Today, Sports Illustrated, TheBody.com, New York Times, Washington Post, and Richmond Times-Dispatch.

He grew up in the small town of Phenix, Virginia, population: 200, and now lives in Charlottesville with his wife, two kids, and a dog named Mozzarella Cheese. He is a graduate of the University of Virginia where he was a Rainey Scholar. This is his blog.

17 replies on “A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words”

I love this so much. I’m glad you were Cunkles to each others children. He is missed so much and my heart is broken fir us all.

Yes indeed. It’s a difficult joke (“cunkle”) to explain to others without it sounding weird; but I’m glad, at least for the time we got to be cunkles together, we were stuck with each other once we both got married and started having kids. Still seems like a bad dream.

Jeff, our hearts are broken hearing about Gary. We are thinking about all of you right now and sending over comfort and love today.

Heartbreaking and heartbroken for sure. My heart aches for everyone, especially Emily and the kids right now. I know you know what it’s like and I wish you didn’t. I appreciate you reaching out. I hope you and your family are well. Stay safe during this time. It will pass one day.

I’m so sorry for your loss, Jeff. We loved Gary, too. There was no one else quite like him. Just a really solid, smart, hilarious guy. To say he’ll be missed is an enormous understatement. Sending so much love to y’all now and in the days ahead.

He was undoubtedly a unique individual. He was perhaps the strongest human being I’ve ever known physically and also one of the funniest. That’s one of the things I’ll miss most about him. His humor. As we get older, there’s just a natural tendency to drift apart. But he never let that happen. Even up to the point he started dealing with COVID, he was still sending me hilarious texts. I’m going to miss those. He could always make me laugh. And he could make everyone laugh. Just a very unique sense of humor. A one-of-a-kind personality.

It takes a lifetime of ambition to set aside new grief to remember the fun and share it with the world. You did good by Gary in this, Jeff.

Gary … one memory: seeing the look in your eyes through your rear view mirror on Ward’s Road—a near collision with a small car in your blind spot and your SUV full of friends. There was so much you could’ve done out of rage, but you didn’t because you chose to keep us all safe. That image to me was the gold that lay beneath the steel. Rest In Peace, good man.

That wouldn’t happen to be the same night we all went to see South Park: The Movie together, would it? I just remember that night of Gary, but for a different reason. I think I drove separately or rode with Jeremiah. Gary got to laughing so hard at the South Park movie, he started wheezing and I thought he had gotten choked on a piece of popcorn.

I’m so sorry, Jeff. I’m beyond words. I’m so sorry for everyone who is hurting but those babies…

Sara, Whitney and I were chatting back and forth yesterday and I told them, “I don’t have the right words but we all know how those kids are feeling right now and I hate everything about that.” I’m just so sorry that any of your family have to go through this pain.

I feel the same way. Gary was such a great dad and took them on all kinds of adventures from the time they could stand on their own two feet. One time when Henry was like two years old, he was like, “You wanna go with us kayaking?” And I was like, “Dude, Henry’s two.” And he was like, “So.”

I’m so glad nothing held him back from taking Rutherfoord, Hyde, or Sidney on those trips — not even their age. I’m so glad they got to experience that part of him that doesn’t happen for a lot of kids until they are older.

He loved the outdoors and wanted his kids to experience it with him. I only wish things had turned out differently. My heart aches for them. He had so much more to offer. So much more life still left to live.

I meant I felt so much more strongly for those babies. I feel like that wasn’t conveyed in the way I originally wrote it. I should have edited it. I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m so sorry for Emily and your niece and nephews. Prayers for all of you for comfort and peace.

No, no, you’re fine. I didn’t take it the wrong way. I feel the same. I actually thought of you three and a couple of other folks I know who lost a parent at a young age. I can’t imagine. My closest reference point is losing my own dad but I was in my 20’s, but that’s entirely different than being a kid. You don’t need to apologize. I actually went to reply to your comment last night and apparently I had the default set where comments/replies turn off after 1 day. I fixed that this morning.

Oh, good. I realized my editing mistake and thought it sounded wrong.

I’m glad he was fearless and brought them along for the ride. May they remember that on every adventure life takes them on. I know they’re going to miss him but what a blessing for him to have been there for them for as long as they had him. I know he didn’t want to leave anyone and he will be forever missed. Hang in there, Jeff. I know you loved him so much. I’m so sorry.

Jeff, I googled your website because I figured you would write about Gary’s death. I know how close all of you were. I am so sorry. I can hear Jeremiah saying as saw Gary walking toward him in heaven ” hey man what are you doing here?” Another of the group gone too soon. My heart breaks for all of you.

Gary loved Jeremiah and vice versa. Almost every time I saw Gary, some old Jeremiah story would come up between the two of us. I actually have a photo I’ll see if I can locate I’ll send you by email. It’s at one of my birthday parties when I was a kid and Jeremiah and Gary are both in it playing basketball at the court in Phenix. I thought of that photo when I saw you had left a comment.

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