The thing about life that is so not great, is the death part. I want to accept and embrace it because I know that it’s the mandatory ying and yang, but it’s so deeply painful that I want to kill it like I want to kill this goddamn winter (and then death would be dead, ha!)
Death seems to get more copy, seems to be showier and more painful than any of the joyful parts of life. But really it’s not. If you think about the first time you fell in love, or you achieved something that seemed utterly unachievable, that inaugural moment when your eyes laid themselves upon the kind of blue ocean that can only be described as magical, the split second when you learn you’re having a baby, and then a little later when that baby comes tumbling into the world from seemingly thin air. A big belly laugh with friends, a cuddle with your furry family member, an exceptionally fine meal (or for that matter, a really greasy one). Maybe it’s only when you’re in the middle of the pain of loss that it seems to weigh so much more than happy does.
My Uncle Louie died Tuesday night after having what appears to have been a massive stroke. He was 91. That’s old. He had a full, great, and long life. He was the child of immigrant Italians from Calabria. He was a guy who sought joy, worked from the time he could walk, sold vegetables on a truck on the country roads of Connecticut, served in the Navy, was in the seminary, went to Fairfield University, taught history to loads of adoring students. In the summer, he bought houses, rehabbed them and sold them. He was a master gardener, and made his backyard into a magical bunch of flowers and food that would make Martha Stewart drool. He became a realtor when he retired from teaching. He was a school council member. He loved to cook, and even more to eat. He and my dad would have contests to see who could get chicken for the least amount of money a pound (God knows what they spent in gas doing this). He could build stuff, he could make things, he could fix whatever you had that was broken. He loved the beach the way I do. And nobody could pinch a cheek like Uncle Louie. He was in perpetual motion, not a guy who hung around to rest. He was a husband for 63 years and a dad to three amazing boys. And in my head, to me, too.
My mother has been gone for 22 years, my dad for 12. My aunt and uncle’s house was the place I visited and stayed when I went home. They were like parents to me, and like grandparents to my children. We spent every Thanksgiving at their house, last year being the first time we ate turkey without them (because of our trip to see Jake in Barcelona). This is a tradition that fills me up when I am down. We vacationed with them on the Vineyard and in Italy. We laughed. A lot. And we ate even more.
Because my mom died so long ago, sometimes I would stare at Louie because he looked like her. If I stared long enough, I could make his face into hers and pretend she was alive. I loved to share my kids with Louie because it felt like I was in some way sharing them with my mom, who never got to meet them and died a few weeks after I’d been told, “Your insides are a mess, you’ll never have a baby.” On her death bed, she told me I would indeed have a baby, and she was right.
When you get 91 years, and fill them up with good things the way Louie did, death shouldn’t be a time of sadness, but of celebration of a life well lived. I know it was time. It was probably time several years ago, as dementia had taken away his speech and most of what had made him, him. But I’m unspeakably sad. Sad in a way that goes deep, deep into the center of me. Sad in a way that makes me want to cry about everything awful that’s happened to me since kindgergarden.
You see, this is the last of the six siblings of my mom’s to die. This is it. I have nothing left of her.
But I’m grateful. Oh, I’m so grateful that I knew this man. He gave me so much, much more than he knew. The only thing that’s keeping me from crying all day is thinking about Louie, and my mom, his sister Louise at the all you can eat seafood and pasta bar in the sky. Buon appetito, guys. I love you.