Before we boarded the plane to move to New Zealand in the fall of ’88 my family took a big trip back East to visit family. Most of it is a blur of faded memories, the clearest time is the few days we spent at my Mom’s Aunt Margaret and Uncle Jim’s house. I was 11, just old enough to realize that Mom had a life before we were born. It was during that trip that I really started to understand how much she was a part of their family.
She lived with them and their five sons for a time while she was in college. Her parents moved away from her hometown and the solution was to stay with family while she finished school. She was the youngest child of three, but at Aunt M and Uncle J’s she was the oldest kid in the house and the only girl. I remember laughing as Aunt Margaret told my sister and me how foreign it was to deal with a young woman’s hormones. She said no one ever knew what Mom’s mood would be. Some days she’d come home from school happy as a clam, others there would be a storm cloud over her head and she’d stomp up the stairs without a word and slam the door to her room. Being those hormones had only just started to take root in me I had the luxury of feeling superior about Mom’s unreasonable behavior. Hubris sure is a bitch.
Beyond the stories, which my sister and I ate up, it was so awesome to see that she belonged in their house. She knew where everything was, she was comfortable. Aunt M and Uncle J claimed her as their own. And they just seemed so….cool. They had a lovely pool in their backyard. Aunt M is an incredible cook and baker. She magically whipped up meals from scratch in record time in her kitchen while Uncle J mixed the drinks. That trip I had my first sip of an Old Fashioned as I listened to my mom wax rhapsodic about his bartending prowess. She told us she’d never order an Old Fashioned anywhere else because no one made them like Uncle J.
Early this morning Uncle Jim passed away. Yesterday afternoon I spoke to my Mom who told me it wouldn’t be long. I haven’t seen Uncle Jim in a number of years, which is shameful considering they only live two and a half hours from Syracuse. But we had T the week after we moved here, and every time a trip was scheduled something would happen-T got sick, I had a miscarriage, C got sick. It felt like we had time, so I didn’t stress over it. And now it’s too late.
When I called Z to tell him the news yesterday I began to cry. I cried for Uncle Jim, who was a good man. I cried for Aunt Margaret. Z and I have only been together for 15 years and the thought of living without him makes me sick to my stomach. I cried for my Mom who lost someone she loved very much. I cried for Uncle J’s sons and daughters-in-law and grandchildren, for the hole that will always be in their lives. And I cried for myself because the idea of losing either of my parents is paralyzing.
Death stings in a new way since I’ve become a Mom, the stakes are much higher. And life feels much more fragile and temporary. Because duh. But before T was born death felt distant and life long. I’m sure most adults don’t need parenthood in order to have a more realistic understanding of mortality, but I sure as hell did.
Tonight I will raise a glass to Uncle Jim. I will miss his gentle teasing, his amazing stories, his humungous heart.
Before his illness Uncle Jim was a big man, he carried his ample middle with a bit of a swagger. He was the kind of guy who belted that sucker right around the center, no cinching underneath so the gut spilled over. I like that in a man. It is honest and confident and bold. And totally badass. Just like Uncle Jim.