My Uncle Ben passed away earlier this evening. He was 84 years old. Two years older than his baby brother, my dad. My Uncle Ben and I were not close, but he and my dad were. This is a brief story about them.
Uncle Ben was born in Brooklyn in 1927. My dad was born 2 years later, in 1929, just a few months before businessmen in Manhattan began walking off rooftops because that seemed to them a better fate than whatever else there was after the crash. Their father, my grandfather, was an African immigrant of Sicilian descent. He ran, and later owned, a barbershop in midtown Manhattan. “Forty chairs!” my dad still boasts. One of the largest barbershops around. They had a manicurist and a bootblack, and everything.
The boys grew up eating penny candy and shooting marbles. They held hands when they crossed the street. They shared a bed all their lives, till they were drafted into the army during the Korean War. They wore Italian undershirts and shorts pulled up high on their waists. They had the olive skin and dark-circled eyes of boys from the other side. But they grew up speaking English, not the bastardized Sicilian dialect their
father brought from Tunisia. Their mother made gnocchi. Meatballs part lamb, part pork. Manicotti with crepes light as air she made herself without making a fuss about it. She did make a fuss about most other things, though. She was barely 5 feet tall. Platinum coiffure, always perfect. She penciled a birthmark in just over her lip. She suffered from an undiagnosed mental illness that caused her to lash out toward everyone. Had it been diagnosed, it likely would have been deemed some type of generic, old-fashioned hysteria. It was probably something like bipolarity. She had violent rages. Moments of blinding, destructive fury. Her boys always forgave her.
One summer Armand and Ben donned roller skates and hitched themselves to the back of the Coney Island trolley. They bumped along the cobblestone railpath behind the trolley, and realized later that their wheels had been rubbed down to nubs. They’d had to spend all their money on new wheels, and didn’t get to go on any of the rides.
Benny was always a sensitive boy, and later, a sensitive man. He clung close to his mother, while my dad, Armand (also known then as Junie, short for Junior), ran off to play ball or whatever else. Uncle Ben was seized, from time to time, with fits of sadness or fright, traits that were much much later passed into the next generation of our family. There was a brief discussion, when the boys were in their teens, about putting my Uncle Ben into treatment. He ran to my father and begged him to not let them take him away, and they didn’t. Uncle Ben stayed home.
Later, my dad chased women. Led a fancy, cosmopolitan life. Uncle Ben was a humble man, with a good, simple life. He married a woman named Helen, and they had two children. A boy and a girl. They kept a modest home on a hill in Nutley, New Jersey. Uncle Ben worked for DuPont for most of his adult life. He wore short sleeved man’s shirts, and carried a hard backed attaché case to work every day. He kept a garden out back, and showed off his tomatos and carrots each spring, an activity which as a little girl I found spectacularly boring. They sold wallets and other trinkets at flea markets most weekends. They had hard furniture and starched polyester sheers and brown carpeting, and Aunt Helen kept everything spotless and new looking. She clipped coupons and never, ever changed her hairstyle from the unmoving, swept into a swirl style she appears with in every single photo ever taken of her. Even the ones that were taken when she was fourteen years old.
Both my dad and Uncle Ben put on weight over the years. They took turns being bigger than one another, and often put their bellies together for photos. They laughed together at every holiday, at jokes no one but them thought were funny, but we all laughed anyway because they laughed so hard, and so wholly, and so completely with their bodies as if their entire lives were stitched together by these singular moments of laughter, and all there was for everyone to do was laugh and laugh along with them.
Uncle Ben was forced into early retirement by the company to which he’d devoted his life. He took up watching cooking shows, and once made cous cous by hand, the way their father had learned to do during his turn of the century childhood in North Africa. I don’t know what became of his anxieties until 2005 or so. His panic attacks. His bouts of melancholy and sensitivities to the world seemed to manage themselves, or to be managed by the consistency of his world, held in precise balance by Aunt Helen. (Those are all disabilities to which I can relate, I should disclose, and I’m sure my own similar tendencies came from that side. I think I’m able to equalize not because of any great intrinsic traits, but rather because of when I was born. Namely, into a decade obsessed with psychotherapy; accepting, and indeed nurturing of, neurosis-prone adolescents.)
Aunt Helen passed away around 2005, and Uncle Benny fell deeply into a void. He sat stoic in his sunroom, and more than once cried out so violently a neighbor came running to see if he was alright. He got caught up in a terror over a tree on his property losing its leaves on the other side of his neighbor’s fence. He cried. He called my dad three and four times a day to discuss how to best handle it. He was lost. He was falling. He had nothing to which he could ground himself. Then he found the internet.
He met a young Russian woman who claimed to be in love with him. He sent her thousands of dollars, until his daughter found out and put a stop to it, which frankly disappointed me. If he wanted to spend the money he’d worked all his life for on a woman he truly believed loved him from a distance, I figured why take that away from him? It stopped him from worrying over the tree, after all. He dated a woman his own age, then, (in real life!) who was apparently (according to dad) quite naughty (in a good way). Uncle Benny made a Native American friend, whose plight he became increasingly compassionate toward. Uncle Ben had a little party toward the end. He did things he would never have done before. He thought about writing his life story. He told my father he was once in love with my mother. He had some fun.
Then, last year, he suffered a stroke. Since then he was in exactly the sort of worst case scenario everyone prays to be spared from. He was immobile, almost entirely paralyzed on one side. He was addled. Too much so to properly communicate. He wasn’t really able to speak, save for a few words. He could string a few sentences together, but couldn’t really converse. He was able to feed himself, but required assistance from his full time nurse to use the bathroom. He could no longer use the computer. He couldn’t even really watch TV. He found it confusing and overwhelming. Most days, he sat in his wheelchair and stared out the window; all at once oblivious to the passing of time and also experiencing moments of lucidity and enough coherence to know the situation that he was in. He knew enough to know, and that was the worst part. When my dad visited one time, he managed to suggest that they commit suicide together. Another time, just after the worst of the stroke, he asked my dad for their father.
“He’s gone, Ben,” my dad told him. “Passed away 30 years ago.”
Uncle Ben asked about their mom.
“She’s gone, too.”
And Uncle Ben cried like it was the first time.
For the past few months, Uncle Benny has been wasting away to nothing. He passed away this evening at just over 100 lbs, after a few days of being unable to eat or drink anything at all. My dad went to Uncle Benny’s home in New Jersey yesterday, and said his goodbye. I don’t know what he said, or what he might have wanted to say, but I do know this.
My dad is now the last of everyone. His parents are gone. His cousins are gone. And now his brother is gone. Everyone my dad knew as a child, as a teenager, as a young man, is gone. Every single cord that ever tied my dad to his beginnings, has been severed. He now lives in a world where no one can share a single memory with him that happened before more than a third of his life had already passed. He grew up eating dinner and breakfast at a table with his brother, sharing a bed with him, comforting him, protecting him. And then yesterday, after two whole lifetimes had been spent, my dad parked his car in the driveway and walked into his brother’s house. Into the dining room that for the past few months has served as Uncle Benny’s bedroom, but used to be a place where we ate Sunday sauce till we thought we might throw up, and laughed till everyone’s faces hurt. He walked into that space, and said goodbye to his wasted brother, with whom he shared a bed till he was eighteen years old.
My dad isn’t the best at dealing with sadness, or any emotions other than joy, really. He doesn’t know that if he wants to sit on the phone with me and just be silent, that would be fine. He said it’s better this way. That Uncle Ben had no quality of life. That all he’d been doing was existing. That he was unhappy. He was able to say, through tears, “But now I don’t have a brother any more.” And then he tried to get off the phone. I kept him on as long as I could, but he said he didn’t want to talk, and I know I have to respect that. He took a pear from the fruit bowl, and a knife, and told my mom he wasn’t hungry, but wanted to keep himself busy. I called him again a few minutes ago. It’s nearly 1am, but I knew he’d be up. We talked about Ava Gardner’s profile for a bit, and then just before we hung up, I said again how sorry I was that Uncle Benny passed. That I know it was better for Uncle Ben given his condition, but regardless I understand why dad is still so sad about it. I told my father that most of all, I don’t want him to feel alone. He got me off the phone in a hurry after that.
I’ll go there tomorrow morning. My dad is better in person, and comfortable with physical contact, so I’ll be able to hold his hand and sit quietly easier than I can sit on the phone with him. The hardest part, I guess, is that that’s really all I can do. I’m tempted to remind my dad that he’s relatively able bodied. To encourage him to take advantage of the freedom he has, both of mobility and circumstance, in order to live a fuller life right now, while he can. But that’s silly. I’d never listen to bullshit like that if someone said it to me, and we’re a lot alike. He’ll do whatever the hell he wants to do, even if that’s nothing at all, just as I would. So I guess my only option is to do everything I can to help him remember that he is loved, even though I know that right now that doesn’t really measure up.