Friday, May 14, 2010

A Two Year Anniversary Coming Up

Tomorrow marks the second anniversary of the death of my uncle Jim, who was also my godfather. As a young man, he'd been the victim of a grievous head injury, which left him with a steel plate in his skull, and an adolescence of extensive plastic surgery. Uncle Jim was, to make a literary analogy, much like Lennie in Of Mice and Men, a simple, hardworking man of incredible physical strength. My cousin Andrew likened him to the family Paul Bunyan (he was a mason, and could lay cinderblocks like most guys laid bricks, and could single-handedly pick up a full half-keg, and carry it on his shoulder). One family legend regards a time when a local bully made fun of Jim's stutter- a scene related to me by my uncle Robert, who was present:

Your uncle Jim and I were having a beer at a local bar, and this piece of shit kept needling Jim:

PoS: "Juh-Juh-Juh-Jim, huh-huh-huh-how's it goin'?"

J: "Uh-uh-uh-okay."

PoS: "Juh-Juh-Juh-Jim, huh-huh-huh-how's it goin'?"

J: "Uh, Rob, wuh-wuh-what do you think I should do?"

R: "Jim, if I were you, I'd put him through the ceiling."

J: "Ruh-ruh-Rob, that's a great idea!"

Well, your uncle Jim then picked the asshole (barstool and all) up, and put his head through the acoustic tiles of the drop-ceiling. Nobody ever said "Boo" to him after that.

Two things allowed my uncle Jim to thrive- a strong family and community, and a union job, first as a mason, then as a night-porter at Rockefeller Center. With two parallel support networks, he was able to enjoy a productive life without being exploited- he was able to live his life simply, and well. The night he died, two of my uncles and I were staying with him (we were going to take him to downtown Manhattan for an appointment to see his doctor), his last words before turning in for the long, long sleep were, "It's great being with you."

I missed the funeral, having booked a flight to Switzerland to see a newborn nephew for the first time, so I wrote this tribute which was read by my cousin Andrew at the post-funeral lunch:

In 1950, Gene Autry introduced the Cowboy Code on his television show, a code of conduct for his viewers, instructing them to be cheerful, honest, respectful, hard-working and kind. As a boy watching, Jim must have decided to live by the Code, because he certainly lived up to it. Jim was always cheerful and optimistic, and never had an unkind word to say about anyone. He was unfailingly generous, and he worked harder than anyone else I have met.

Jim was, at heart, a traditionalist- the three things he loved best were his family, his community, and his heritage. He was a dutiful son, brother, uncle, and to me, godfather. He adored his Bronx home, and enjoyed riding his bicycle up the Shore Road, or paddling his canoe in Pelham Bay- you see, he had figured out how to live like a James Fenimore Cooper protagonist in the big city. He was the unofficial mayor of Crosby Avenue, with Quality Café serving as his personal City Hall. His epic trip across Ireland was one of his best memories, and has become a family legend.

The last six months were hard on Uncle Jim, as his health took a turn for the worse, but he never complained. Even on his last day, when it took him fifteen minutes to climb the stairs to his room, he insisted that he was “good”. Now, when I think about it, he was talking about being with family. His pain took a back seat to being with his brothers and his godson. As always, he was concerned with others more than with himself.

Now, there will be something missing when you walk around the neighborhood, an empty chair in the house, an empty table at the coffee shop, an empty pew at Our Lady of the Assumption, a space at the bar in Jimmy Ryan’s or The Shamrock. The cheerful voice, the unmistakable laugh silent… but remember that Jim will always be with us, his example of generosity and good-humor, his strength of character, and most of all, his love.

I am sorry to be unable to be with you, but I am in Switzerland visiting the newest member of the family, my nephew **REDACTED**, who was born last month. When he is old enough, rest assured that we’ll let him know that there was once this guy, this incredible guy who showed us how to live with guts, gusto, and graciousness.


Vonnie said...

A very touching post. He sounds like an amazing man.

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

I agree, really nice, BBBA.

I hope someone may say something nearly as nice when I am gone. But I'm not holding my breath.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

You've got a gift of gab that somehow skipped me, BBBB.

I've 'Visual Mathematician' genes, according to sources who wish to remain anonymoose.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

You've got a gift of gab that somehow skipped me, BBBB.

I got it from my sainted grandmother. Now, SHE had a way with a story.

Glennis said...

This is really sweet and moving. Your uncle reminds me a little of some of the guys I worked with.