Uncle John


Uncle John.

Later in his life, his hair was white, but when we were kids, it was brown, combed back. Dimples when he smiled. Laughing eyes.

He took us on adventures. Cliff-scaling seemed to be a favorite. In the San Juan Islands, my mother clutched my baby brother in her arms and watched Uncle John lead us up the face of a cliff, metal ladder rungs pounded into stone. It seemed so high, but I was only eight, so maybe it wasn’t as life-threatening as I remember. But my mother seems to think it was.

I dreamt about him taking you kids up that cliff years before it ever happened, she said. I was absolutely terrified when I saw it in real life. That John. Climbing up there with you kids…

I remember an aluminum slide at the top of the cliff, connecting one side to the other. The slide bridged an abyss, a crack in the cliff. If you fell off the slide, you’d fall waaay down and be wedged between two rock walls, inaccessible. Perhaps no one would hear your screams.

But we all slid across it successfully and perched on the other side like seagulls, wind in our hair, Mother a speck on the beach.

I recall aspects of John with perfect clarity. On camping trips, he always drank red wine. He laughed and slapped his knees with both hands. His dimples were deep, his eyes sparkling.

John, leaning on one knee, pointing with the finger of his other hand. Making a point, driving home a statement. Philosophy. World history.

John, reflective, pondering a question a child has asked him. Well, I don’t know Sarah Bean. Why do YOU think people have to die?

One of our last conversations took place in his study, at the very top of the house. The walls sloped down on either side, an inverted V. Bookshelves lined the floor, a dizzying array of titles, authors.

Descartes. Aristotle. Plato. Socrates.

War and Peace. 1984. The Grapes of Wrath.

The carpet was soft, sea green. If you stood up too fast with a book in your hand, you’d hit your head. Better to stand in the middle of the room.

John’s desk, a mysterious pipe sitting on it. The occasional smell of skunk in the air.

Potted plants, hanging plants. Plants on bookshelves, obscuring titles.

Exotic lamp shades, stained glass.

And always a jar of Andes mints on the floor.

We sat near the banister. He was advancing in Alzheimer’s by then, wouldn’t be living at home much longer.

So tell me, Sarah Bean, what do you want to do with your life? he asked again, dimples creasing his face.

I want to write, I told him.

Wow, he said, shaking his head in wonder.

That’s great. Just great.

He was so happy, so satisfied, even then. My ambition was exactly his cup of tea.

Like other members of my family, John had a deliciously inappropriate sense of humor. So in that spirit of absurdity, I share with you a moment…

Recently, I was walking through a coconut grove in Goa, India. Uncle John had died a week before on December 16th, my brother John’s birthday.

Birthdays, death days.

Sunlight streamed through the trees, yellow and warm. My flip flops slapped the dirt, and over the hill was the sea.

I had just spoken to my mother. She was coming from one funeral and going to the next. Three days later, she was attending a third.

Three funerals, no weddings.

Uncle John died, then Eunice, my father’s step-mom, and then Mrs. Breen, an old family friend.

Three funerals in one week.

I expected my mom to be a nervous wreck, crying. But she laughed, a sincere laugh. She found the humor in an otherwise black situation.

Can you believe it? she laughed. First I go to one funeral, then the next! And then this weekend, a third! Do I wear the same thing?

At Eunice’s funeral, she told me, they dropped roses on the coffin before it was lowered into the ground. The sky was gray. It was raining.

I’ve never been to a real funeral like that, she said. It was so morbid!

Immorally, perhaps, we laughed. But it felt like the right thing. It was utterly morbid, John, Eunice, and Mrs. Breen all dying in one week, roses on coffins, gray skies.

Walking through the coconut grove, reflecting on this conversation, I suddenly saw John’s face before me, laughing. He always laughed with his head thrown back. So much joy. Appreciating the absurdity of every moment. Life is absurd.

Without speaking, John and I had a dialogue. He was with me as I walked, and we laughed over the absurdity of life, and the absolute absurdity of untimely deaths! He roared with laughter at his own death, perfectly timed to coincide with two others.

Your poor mother, he said, wiping his eyes. What a hell of a week!

I floated through that coconut grove, totally present, light as air. John’s laughter echoed and his dimples were deep. He was with me, because I wanted him to be. It was that simple.

This is joy, I thought. This is what joy feels like.

A strange sentiment perhaps, given the circumstances, but sometimes life is strange. I felt utterly connected, separated from John only by a sheer piece of gauze, nothing more.

Death, what is death? Nothing but a physical void. John was there in spirit, every particle of him. He would always show up for a good laugh.

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2 Responses to Uncle John

  1. sheila says:

    Oh Sarah – thanks for the tears and, paradoxically, for the laughter. Life, death, laughter, tears – what strange phenomena we humans are. I’ll always treasure this piece of writing. Thank you.

  2. b. shrope says:

    absolutely lovely. I remember talking to Coppa and finding out that John had passed and seeing so clearly in my mind, him smiling the biggest yet most peaceful smile. I hadn’t seen John in over four years but every detail in his face was visible. 🙂

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