R.I.P. Uncle Peter

In the early hours of Friday May 31, Peter L. Dueben passed away from sinus cancer.

Born in Clifton, NJ on July 30, 1956 to Bernard and Helen Dueben, he was a graduate of Clifton High School and Indiana University of Pennsylvania. A former employee of Toyota, Peter was a talented woodworker and leatherworker who made mission style furniture and housewares. He was a longtime volunteer at the Kentucky Horse Park, in his adopted hometown of Lexington, where he did leatherwork by hand, made halters for horses and helped to reopen the park’s tack store.

He is survived by his father, his older brothers Bob and John, and various nieces and nephews. If he had any doubts that his family was limited by blood, the myriad ways that so many friends have helped out in his final year put that rest.

His death was sudden, though he’s had cancer for nearly a year, which has included surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. My uncle Bob was there with him at the end, and has been out for weeks at a time. My father has flown out to Kentucky more times than I can count and had weeks of classes covered so he could be there. Pete was their little brother, and there was only so much that they could do. I know that they’re just two of the many people who helped him in ways both large and small in this painfully hard last year of his life.

I believe that in the face of death, we are all a little selfish. We are thinking about the person who died, but also about our memories, about the place they occupied in our lives that is now empty. Shared experiences are now ours alone and fragile. There is a piece of ourselves that has been lost with them.

My uncle Peter was not the relative I was closest to, but he was perhaps the one I was most like, both for good and ill. All my life he was the skilled craftsman of the family, and he had been from a young age apparently, with an eye and hand that others couldn’t match. He always made a point of talking about my work. He’s probably read more of my work than most of my relatives put together. But just as we were alike in our passion, in our craftsmanship, we were also alike in our inability to give other aspects of our life the same care and focus that we did our craft. We tried to do what made us happy and center our lives around that, which can be joyous and passionate, but it can also be selfish. Trying to navigate that - and failing and trying and hopefully failing better - while doing work one loves and being a good person is the most valuable lesson he tried to show me.

“Memory is the resurrection,” Joy Williams wrote. “The dead move among us the living in our memory and that is the resurrection.” I don’t agree, but the quotation has always stayed with me. I am writing this from my parents’ home. They returned from vacation early – just over a week ago they were texting Peter who was in good spirits – and I’m driving my dad to the airport before dawn. In the room is a table that Peter built; it will outlast us all.