Uncle Tommy

My uncle died on the morning of New Years Eve. My mother called to tell me. It was not a surprise, as we all knew he’d been in bad shape for years. He was about 75, which seems young.

His wife does not want a funeral. She wants a very small, private goodbye at the cemetery, where her parents are already buried. Tommy’s two brothers and two sisters will go. His sons and their families, I assume. I understand the desire to mourn alone without any expectation that you will hold it together for everyone else. I do not know how many friends he had or how many people planned to attend before learning of her preferred lonely goodbye.

Uncle Tommy was also my godfather.

I remember his voice. I remember feeling nervous around him as a child, even though he was always excited to see me, and sweet. I remember a pale blue sports coat. As his godchild, he gave me extra attention. He and his wife always arrived at Christmas celebrations with a gift just for me. For years, I kept a wooden jewelry box they gave me. I know his stories made my mother laugh. She said his letters home from the army were the most funny things she’s ever read.

But that’s it. He faded out of our family life. I do not think I ever went to his house. I do not remember the last time I saw him, though I know others did occasionally over the years. His son stayed with us once and called my sister “Smiley.” He has a great smile, maybe from his Dad. I do not remember.

I always wondered what his house was like. I wondered if he and his wife had become recluses, or if they had neighbors and friends who they enjoyed. I never understood if he had a falling out with one or more members of our family, if he felt disenfranchised, disappointed, if he just couldn’t handle the stresses of those relationships. Was there something different about his relationship with my grandparents? I wondered if my mother and her other siblings missed him, or if he was a shell of the young man he had been. And they couldn’t get over that. I know my mother’s sister visited him more frequently as he grew older and more fragile. There were rumors of Parkinsons, dementia, diabetes probably, just poor health. I do not know.

My mother saw Tommy recently, when word got out that he was not long for this world. She said he did not look like himself. I wonder what image has stayed in her mind over the years. I can only picture the pale blue coat and sepia photos my grandparents took of their five children. My Uncle Tommy. My godfather. A slow fade from life.

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