My uncle died this week. He died alone in his little townhouse where he had lived alone for the last 30 years. His bacon was cooked, his eggs hard boiled, and his instant cocoa waited for hot water. Marshmallows lay atop the sugary brown powder as if life was just that: marshmallows atop chocolate. A table near the front door was overturned, papers and cards strewn across the floor like mosaic tiles, probably when the paramedics brought in their equipment. A lamp I remember from my childhood was knocked from its perch and landed sideways, its shade dented and leaning to one side as if slightly drunk. Someone made him a ceramic bowl–was it Max or Sam? I cannot remember–that broke as the medics rushed to save a man who had stopped breathing at least an hour before their arrival, based on the eggs in the pan.
The center of the room was cleared of everything, chairs pushed against walls disproportionate for their size. I wondered what the room looked like before the herd of hope blasted through and tried to save my uncle’s life: I had never been in his home before. There was the slight scent of something sweet and near the couch at my feet I found an overturned jar of honey. I bent down and picked it up, dipped my finger in the sweetness and brought it to my lips. My eyes filled with tears once again, and I sat there, alone, and allowed myself to cry. This time there was no audience with me, no small circle of my uncle’s friends and me, his only family member there, at his grave. Just me and the overpowering emptiness of the room, the chairs, and spent honey.
After a while, I leaned against the couch and studied the magnificent oriental rug on the floor. The rug was in my grandmother’s house, in the huge entry hall that welcomed many guests and, I learned recently, her seance attendees. My brother and I rolled on this rug with the dog, my mother walked down the staircase in her wedding dress and stopped on this rug to join her father. In his home, my uncle sat in his leather chair to watch television, his feet holding history on this rug. Now there is a large dollop of honey on the rug and the pictures blur in my head and in my heart to produce tears that now drop onto this old, worn rug.
They are gone, my grandparents and their two sons. I leaned forward and stretched out with my stomach on the rug, painfully aware of the loneliness wrapped around my heart, the acrid smell of wool in my nose, the dust beneath the Chinese television cabinet.
My uncle was very much like George Bailey, tall and lanky, intelligent and self-sacrificing. He was the last in his family to attend college, and returned home to work in his father’s failing laundry business. He stayed with his father to the bitter end of the business and beyond, at his bedside when his father closed his eyes and sighed good-bye. Six months later his mother died in her room as my uncle was reading a car magazine in the kitchen. He never forgave himself for not hearing his mother die, denied the fact her death by stroke while seated in her chair could not have been heard. He thought he should have known, just like anyone would. There is nothing rational about grief or guilt.
The government offered my uncle his way out of Shreveport, Louisiana. He sold his parent’s home and moved into a townhouse in Virginia where he lived quietly, worked loyally, and golfed regularly. Reagan offered federal employees early retirement, and in his early fifties without hesitation my uncle returned to Shreveport. He bought his townhouse just off the extension of the street he knew so well in his childhood, Line Avenue. No wife, no children, no pets, few visitors; my uncle lived a life of pleasant solitude, traveled often, played golf regularly and all over the world, and entered the world of Jewish scholarship, a world he learned to cherish more than the others.
And that was his life, in two paragraphs.
But there is this:
When I was very little, my uncle came to our home in New Orleans and put me on his shoulders, my hands grabbed his ears as his hands held my ankles. This was an experience known to me only because my uncle came to visit and broke the rule of no-fun-lest-you-be-hurt. I thought he was the tallest man I had ever seen, much taller than my father. As I grew older, I noticed my uncle’s eyes, how round they were, how they sat in his head so differently than my own. He brought me gifts and told me stories of the big house on Thora Boulevard and described the things he played with in the attic when he was little.
Whenever I was lucky enough to go to Shreveport to see my grandparents, I waited patiently drawing pictures or playing cards until exactly twelve noon when my grandfather and my uncle came down the driveway for dinner. My grandmother then stood at the bottom of the stairs and yelled at the top of her lungs for each of us, by name, to come down for dinner. I ignored her and barreled out of the side door to meet the men, My uncle, serious as he was before he saw me, smiled his smile and lifted me into the air. He held me by my wrists and swung me in a wide circle (“oh, honey, don’t do that! You might hurt her!”) as I squealed with delight and joy, only slightly dizzy when finally set down and we went in to sit at the table.
My brother sat on one side of my uncle and I of course sat on the other. When asked what I wanted to drink with dinner, I always said I wanted whatever my uncle was having. This was a drink I have never tasted anywhere else: grape juice and lemonade, each from frozen concentrate but with only half the usual amount of water added to the blend. My mouth puckered with the first sip, so sweet and so tart I closed my eyes tightly and swallowed. Someone, probably my grandmother, said “that is so bad for her teeth” but no one was listening, no one was looking anymore because Celia the cook had just brought in the main course.
After lunch everyone went into the sun room and, in good southern style, fell asleep. I sat patiently and waited for them to wake, something I had learned would not happen for over half an hour. My uncle was in his room taking his rest quietly and alone. So I waited outside with my book and sat under a pine tree on a pillowtop of pine needles. Each breath was one of pine and hot air and dense moisture, and as I settled into the bed of needles and into my book I decided this was the heaven I would go to when I died: this big house, the mysterious attic, lemonade and grape juice for every meal, and my uncle’s unqualified love for my brother and me.
Years later as I prepared for my wedding, I stood next to my uncle for a photo at the rehearsal dinner. He was awkward in the beautiful room filled with flowers and people he did not know, and I stood next to him in a blue-green chiffon-like dress. We looked nothing alike, and at six feet tall I loomed over his five feet seven inches, but we both smiled.
To me, he was always the tallest man in the room.
As I took hold of the shovel and held it upside down and took the first bit of soil to sprinkle atop his coffin, I was aware of the yellow pine star of David affixed to the modest pine box. Within that box was the uncle for whom I named my second son, the man who wore hats day in and day out, whose eyes were round and open to the world. In the plain box was the man who had known and accepted me all of my life, was quietly kind and generous and loving to me and my children and there was nothing left to do but toss in the small heap of soil, then another, and another. The sound was deafening. I did not want him to hear it, I did not want to disturb him.
After the service, all I could do was sit on bench surrounded by the sun. I thought of the soft bed of pine needles under the trees and began to cry. I missed them all: my uncles, my grandparents, my father, my friends disappeared, my children grown and on their own. I cried because, on some level, I have begun to accept the fact that people leave: no one stays. The child who waited at the front door for my uncle to come see me, who listened to his stories of his childhood forts in the back yard, the young mother who handed him my sons when they were infants, who sat next to him at restaurants while he ate well done steaks probably could not have withstood the sadness of saying goodbye, of smelling the damp soil heaped upon his coffin, of lying on the floor of his living room and wanting him to walk in the door.
I was once told maturing is measured by the way one deals with death. I am not sure I agree, but each death, each departure reminds me to dip my finger in spilled honey. I will miss him always, and now add his name to a list of people with who I wish I could have one more meal, one more talk, one more afternoon. One more: the chant of the living. Keep living: the message from the dead.