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Friday, March 31, 2017

May We Meet Again Sometime Uncle Bob...

Lived to see the day...
I can't say my wife's first impression of my great uncle from Chicago was the most innocuous one.

It was right after my Grandmother's death.  My family gathered at another of my great aunt's houses, following the Funeral Mass and interment.

Being the first of her siblings to die, since the family's arrival from Cuba, it was a difficult loss for the older generation.  Funerals have a way of reminding us of our own mortality, especially when it's a contemporary, or someone we have known our entire life. In my family’s case, that usually means alcohol is involved.

As the great W.C. Fields once said, borrowing a few words from St. Paul, "Drown in a cold vat of whiskey?  Death, where is thy sting?"

By the end of the night, my uncle (married to my grandmother's youngest sister), who tipped the scale in the 350 lbs. range, collapsed in a bathroom and couldn't get up.  

Needless to say, it quickly deteriorated into an unrehearsed scene from ¿Que Pasa USA? with people scrambling about the house, cries of “Ay Dios mio,” a couple of men trying to maneuver themselves inside the tight half bath to lift the listless man from the floor and paramedics being called in to save the day; just another night at Aunt Chela’s townhouse in Hialeah!  

My uncle was fine, of course, and, after the colorful episode, was able to get up on his own and sit down on a couch (I’m sure to the paramedics’ relief!), as his blood pressure and vital signs were checked. 

That was my wife's introduction to this bigger than life man, with the loud, booming and powerful voice, who loved to sing anywhere he went and, as a suitor for his youngest daughter, my Great Grandfather confused with the voice of Caruso (thinking the radio was on!); that's Enrico Caruso the late 19th Century Italian tenor. 

My uncle loved to laugh, tell stories, eat, drink and be merry; not to mention, spend time with family.      

Sadly, last week, at the age of eighty-eight, he went to that opera house in the sky.  He passed away as he had lived for most of his life, until his health and mobility deteriorated. He spent his last few hours singing with a male nurse who was caring for him, as his family gathered around his hospital bed.

In fact, in a touching send-off, the nurse sang him, Roberto Carlos' classic, Amigo, after my uncle had taken his last breath. 

The lyrics state:

Tu eres mi hermano del alma, realmente el amigo, Que en todo camino y jornada esta siempre conmigo, Aunque eres un hombre aun tienes el alma de niño, O Aquel que me da de su amistad su respecto y cariño... You are my soul brother; a true friend; who in every way and every day is always with me.  Even though you are a man you have a boy's soul; the one who gives me his friendship, respect and affection...

It was a fitting song for a man who loved life and was everyone’s friend, including my parents, who while dating and early into their marriage, while they lived in Cuba, loved to spend time with my Great Uncle and Great Aunt.  

A memorable Christmas gift...
My father says, he was one of the most generous men he ever met, and was always there when someone needed him, including opening his house to family and friends.  For example, he took in my great grandparents to live with him in Chicago when they came to the U.S.

As I reflected on my interactions with my uncle since his death, the first memory that comes to mind was when my family drove to Chicago for the Christmas Holiday one year in the mid-70's.  My dad, great uncle, cousin and I went to the store to get some supplies for the family and my uncle bought me a calculator!  I had never owned a calculator before.  It was nothing fancy, just a run of the mill calculator, but just the fact that he bought it for me left a lasting impression, much nicer than the impression my wife got!

Another thing I'll never forget about my uncle was that I hated shaking his hand. He had a vice-like grip and loved to squeeze my hand when he shook it, grinding my knuckles together to the point, where at least once, my eyes teared up from the pain!  He was also always asking me to pull his finger!  No, thanks!  You fooled me once, shame on you.

A gracious host and born salesman, he was a great story-teller, sometimes too great and you didn't know where the story ended and his elaborate embellishments began.  He was notorious for his outrageous tales; like the one about the shark in the hotel swimming pool that I took in, hook, line and sinker!

One year, when I was in high school, while visiting my Chicago family during the Christmas break, my cousin and I went out with his friends.  We ended up drinking a wee bit too much, me more than anyone.  When we got home, I went down to the basement and collapsed on the couch.    

Needless to say, the room started spinning, as I heard commotion upstairs; my aunt was upset that my cousin had taken me out drinking and, as I laid there with the room turning faster than my dog chasing his tail, I got sick all over myself; right there on the couch.   I immediately jumped up and rushed to the bathroom.
I remember the commotion continuing upstairs and my uncle assuring my aunt that we were fine.  Then, he came down the stairs and asked me quietly through the bathroom door, "Carlitos, are you Ok?"  "Yes," I answered, as I prayed to the porcelain god and dry-heaved.  My uncle stood outside patiently and, when I finally opened the door, he handed me a towel and a clean shirt so I could shower.

Then there was my cousin's wedding, which till this day, I have never been able to live down; it was probably the most embarrassing and selfish moment of my life (And, believe me, that’s saying a lot.  I've had plenty!).  

Not only were we late to the wedding on my account, after getting into a fight with my brother because I wanted to shave with the steam following my shower (we were two of the ushers at the wedding and the entire family had to wait for us so we could drive to the church in caravan, including my great uncle and aunt, because of our petty fight), but, later, towards the end of the night, I started a fight with the DJ and the party ended on a sour note.

Outside, as everyone was leaving, my great uncle tried to play peacemaker.  The DJ was a friend of my cousin, the bridegroom, but I refused to shake his hand, as my uncle asked; too much pride, too much ego and too much selfishness.  I have been apologizing to my cousin ever since.  Unfortunately, I should have apologized to my great uncle and great aunt as well!
In any case, his death made me realize that the older generation is almost gone.  Out of the nine siblings only two remain, my great uncle's wife and another great uncle.  There are also only three spouses left.

Death is difficult.  Although, my great uncle had been ill and they expected the worse several months ago, only to witness a miraculous recovery and an opportunity for a little more time, when the inevitable happened, it was still painful.  

All we can do, as I wrote my cousin, is hope; with the hope that only faith can provide. It's a hope that we will one day see him again, a hope that, in God's Mercy, he will attain everlasting comfort and a hope, as Catholics, that every time we receive Holy Communion, we receive him in the Body of Christ!  

Moreover, death is not the end, it's the beginning.

As J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote, "End?  No, the journey doesn't end here.  Death is just another path, one that we all must take.  The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it."

Still, for the family and friends that stay behind, the void hurts greatly and I know my cousins and aunt will be grieving for some time.  

Regardless of the scandalous first impression my wife may have gotten, she later came to appreciate my great uncle, especially the day we were with him, my aunt and cousins at the beach and had to rush to the hospital when her mom called to say her father had suffered a heart attack.  We were still dating then.  My yet-to-be father-in-law passed away that hot summer day. My whole family was distraught and showed my girlfriend, at the time, compassion and empathy. It was another difficult day.   

On a more positive note, as a lifelong frustrated Chicago Cubs fan, which were one of my New York Mets’ biggest rivals for decades, and we spent lots of time arguing over who was better, at least my uncle got to see the Cubbies win the World Series last year.  It took the team 108 years to do it and he was fortunate enough to see the day!

So, farewell, Tio Roberto.  May you already be singing with God’s choir of angels, hopefully not asking any of them to shake your hand or pull your finger, and may we meet again sometime...  

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