The destination of goodbye is a fact no one can escape.
I’ve reached that age where people slowly begin to pass on to the other side. First it was my Aunt Alice, then my mother and now it is my Uncle Bern.
On Friday January 13th, Uncle Bern transitioned to the other side.
It’s not that I thought he would live forever, but I did believe if there was one man who had the spirit and strength to live forever, I would have imagined it to be him.
So, how do you put into words the loss of a man who touched so many? I don’t know. I’m struggling with how to pay honor to a man whose big hearty laugh was almost as big as his heart and his intellect (and in his career prime, I am sure his ego).
You can consider yourself lucky if you have one person in your life who can serve as a beacon of light. It could be a teacher, friend or relative but someone who can show you there is another way to live besides that what you know. For me, my uncle was that man. It’s hard to say exactly why. I have sat down many times over the past two weeks to try to put it into words but always seem to come up short.
2017 has not been off to a good start so far and his passing doesn’t help matters, but it is life. It moves forward whether we want it to or not.
Perhaps the best way to try to sum up who my uncle was to me is to share two stories that continue to resonate with me after all these years. I dunno, maybe that will help paint a picture of the man he was.
I’ve written before about how I lived with my aunt and uncle for a spell after I graduated high school. This was in an effort to get me to…well, I suspect, get my shit together.
While I lived with them, I spent a semester at a community college (which I imagine is a lot like playing in the minor leagues of baseball…if you do well enough you can make it to the major leagues) and eventually it came time to look at transferring to a four-year college.
I had no clue about how to do that. But my uncle did.
Now, if you are of a certain age you will recall that some publishers would publish these monolithic books with every university in the states and give them ratings (not to be confused with the pamphlet that US News and World Report issues every year with its reorganization of the top-tier schools).
These were the bibles by which the majority of people selected their post secondary education.
Since he had four kids of his own, he was no novice to the process of college picking so he pulled out a battered and dog-eared monolith. I still recall seeing him sitting at the head of the kitchen table on Annanadale Drive. I asked my aunt what he was doing and she said “Finding you some colleges to apply to.”
My uncle gave up an entire Saturday afternoon sifting through the ten pound tome’ looking for universities that he thought might be a good match for me. Colleges and Universities that were both categorically “good” and that I had a shot of getting accepted to.
There was an unspoken rule you learned very quickly with my uncle, you did what he said even if he didn’t say anything. At the end of the afternoon, I don’t recall any words being spoken, I just remember seeing the book at the end of the counter and I instinctively knew it was time for me to do my part so I took the book up to my room.
I don’t recall how many colleges and universities he selected for me, I just know that I did in fact get in to one he selected (Elmira College…but I had my head so far up my own arse that I didn’t go).
While my uncle could be a no nonsense hard ass and with an uncanny ability to be right about a thing or two (or three) he could also be one helluva fun man to be around, as I discovered when I was about 14.
For my grandmother’s 75th birthday (memory is bad, but that seems like about right) my family and I flew into NYC from Ohio on a Thursday. I was a much too cool 14-year-old who hadn’t seen my extended family in probably seven or eight years so was masking my anxiety by pretending to be much more hip than I really was (am). By Friday night, whatever anxiety I may have had been quickly crushed by the warm embrace of my cousins and aunt and uncle. I’m sure the festive mood, free flow of Rolling Rock and weed may have also played a role.
Clearly this was going to be a rollicking good weekend.
That Saturday, the night of my grandmothers party, I had, how shall I say this politely, a lot to drink….courtesy of my Uncle Bern (who was known to like a drink or two). To be honest, I have very few memories of this evening not only because of the time-lapse but also because of the sheer amount of alcohol I consumed (fortunately, I could hold my booze even then….it’s the Irish in me I suppose: note to my cousins….that still wasn’t me that puked, it was my older brother).
I do, however, remember two things from that evening.
One, as my contentious relationship with my mother was just beginning to bud and while I never stood up to her, my way of containing her (what I considered to be) nonsense was to simply ignore it. My uncle was never one to ignore anything. While my mother protested my drinking, my uncle simply shushed her. It was a simple “It’s a party Barbara, let the boy have some fun” was the reply that squelched my mothers braying.
The second thing I recall was my uncle grabbing me by the scruff of the neck to introduce me to all of the relatives I never knew of and to all of the neighborhood friends “This is my nephew Keith, he’s a good guy.” He would say as he poured wine down my gullet.
Despite anecdotal evidence to the contrary, I was always a “good guy” to my uncle.
He reminded me that I was as recently as this past Thanksgiving.
The world may seem a little stranger knowing my Uncle Bern is no longer on it, but in a way the world is much larger for me because I know, somewhere and everywhere, he is still in it.
That’s not the mark of a good guy, that’s the mark of a great guy.