My Uncle Harry passed away this morning, and it’s a sad end to a life that, at one point, had been so close to my own. My early childhood was spent in a hotel in New York where my family lived in a fourth floor apartment, and my uncle Harry occupied the one directly above ours.
It was common for me to climb the flight of stairs- whether with my father or alone- to visit the cantankerous old man.
He was a spectacular cook, though he had no sympathy for people who couldn’t tolerate as much pepper and spice as he could.
He was a prolific card player- he’s one of the few members of the family I never managed to beat in a game of Gin (though that may be due to our not having played again after I turned 13).
He had the most famously short temper of anyone in the family, but was also the easiest and quickest to laugh. He had what I consider to be the best “dirty old man laugh,” an aural cocktail of a sneer, snicker, wheeze and guffaw whenever he heard an off color joke to his liking- and he never told me to wait until I was “old enough” to make those jokes around him.
He was a mean sonuvabitch. He was a good friend. He was a great uncle.
Growing up the scrawny Indian kid in New York, you look for examples in your family that you won’t always be the runt of the playground. In a family of intellectuals, self made businessmen and successful women I had plenty of promise that someday a sharp mind would see me through, but my uncle was the black sheep of the lot. He was the one who showed the moxie and fire we could have as well. In a family of Cary Grants and Jimmy Stewarts, he was the Brando.
There’s a lot to him, a lot to any life that go into the equation of what the sum of a person’s biography amounts to, and it dawns on me in moments like this how much I know, and how much more I don’t.
There was the time he punched a guy for calling his sister a whore, and when the man threatened to report him and get him fired (from his job as a police officer), my Uncle Harry told the man to do it and make sure he tells the police why he got punched in the first place, then punched the guy again and literally marched the guy to the police station himself to have the guy report it.
There were the three kittens he found abandoned in an alley behind his job in New York that he brought home, cleaned, and ended up keeping because after just a day he loved them too much to risk seeing them end up with “some other asshole in this city.”
There was the way he smoked two packs of Marlboro reds a day, but quit for the year that he nursed his on again off again girlfriend through her own late stage cancer until her passing in 2001, then fell back off the wagon with a fury to smoke three packs a day until his own passing today.
There’s the fact that he was a terrible father, who left his son in Trinidad to be raised by his mother.
There’s the fact that he tried to repair that relationship in the last few years- mostly thanks to his son’s grace and monumental efforts.
There’s the fact that despite his efforts, he still managed to be a bastard and make his son feel like there was no point to trying on a regular basis for the past decade.
There’s the fact that he always asked about me through my dad when they spoke, then there’s the fact that the couple times I managed to find time and wherewithal to call him that our conversations barely lasted more than five minutes.
I don’t know what the sum of that equation is. Where’s the line of positive versus negative, red versus black in the ledger of a man’s life? Perhaps it isn’t black and white, good versus evil. Maybe that’s a line we draw to ensconce ourselves comfortably in something we can believe in, or want to believe in.
Perhaps it’s a richter scale- a collection of vibrations, heat, and motion. Perhaps it’s about impact. Maybe it’s about the ripples and aftershocks that your life causes and has caused, and maybe it’s about how those ripples leave the ecosystem when you have no more tectonic shifts left to cause after your last shuddering breath.
If that’s the scale, then well done Uncle Harry. I haven’t seen you in more than a decade, but your passing this morning shook my world in one last big way, just as all the meals, jokes, stories (good and bad), and glimmers of kindness did and continue to as well.
Rest in Peace, old man.