My father is one of six siblings, three boys and three girls born into an Irish-Catholic family in the tiniest of towns in Ohio. They grew up working-class (very) poor, my grandfather and grandmother getting by as best they could after the Great Depression financially devastated the family. By all the children’s recollections, they had very little, but were a soundly united front. True, they would scrap like all hell amongst each other. But if an outsider dared to go after one of them? Well. That poor bastard would soon find themselves reckoning with the entire fiery brood, don’t you know. They continued as adults to sometimes scrap amongst one another on occasion, but always came together for the good times and the bad to support each other. Family weddings are the stuff of legend- good drink, lots of music, and lots of loud laughter. Odd as it may sound, my grandmother’s funeral is one of my best memories. It was a fitting tribute, in our own twisted way, when the grandkids slipped a cigarette and a beer into the casket with my grandmother. After all, those two things were favorite pastimes of Grandma's- you know, like knitting or something in other families. Now that she was comfortable after years of her body failing her, she’d certainly want a smoke and a drink for the journey. I don’t remember our parents even trying to feign anger. Hell, they’d probably have done it too if they’d thought of it.
Last night, my father lost his brother. Years as a diabetic had sent him into kidney failure some time ago; he’d been on dialysis for a while, ineligible for transplant because of his age and other health problems. Finally, his body simply surrendered. Even the heart of a wild Irish son can only take so much.
Uncle Skip was my favorite of my father’s two brothers when I was growing up. He was always good with the kids- quick with the hugs and songs. He had a great voice. My father’s family is divided into “the singers” and “the hummers”. Daddy and I are in the hummers. Uncle Skip was very much a singer. I remember when I was in high school, my grandmother’s mind was failing as quickly as her body. She needed a family member with her around the clock in the hospital. It was summer and I was out of school, so I volunteered to spend the night. Uncle Skip took me home the next morning and I remember how sweet he was to me on the ride, doing things like going out of his way to make sure I got exactly what I’d like for breakfast. He was clearly relieved and touched that I’d taken that night shift. At the time I hadn’t thought much of it, it was only one night- for family, you do these things. No thought, no question. What I hope he knew is that I learned that lesson partly from watching him, my father, and the other siblings. As Uncle Skip got older and his body failed, he got a tad less patient and perhaps a tiny bit grumpy at times. But everyone knew it was the pain talking. Fortunately, his wife, Aunt Kay, is one of the funniest and kindest women you’ll ever meet. Just before he died, they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. I have a feeling he was hanging on for that, God love him.
My father and his siblings are so fortunate, to have been a complete set for so long. Very few big families can say they were all present and accounted for until the youngest is in her sixties. And while I know how lucky they’ve been, I find myself so sad for my father and my remaining aunts and uncles. My cousin pointed out that the longest relationship you have is with your siblings. I can’t help but think that Uncle Skip’s death must feel like the beginning of a different and very unwelcome era in their lives, where they begin to face the inevitability of slowly losing their original family circle.
Tonight, I will celebrate Uncle Skip in fine family tradition- by drinking and telling stories. I will shake off my sadness and raise my glass to a good man whom I am honored to call a relation. And I will raise a glass to my father, and to the rest of that clan full of stubborn, funny as hell, unruly souls with hearts of gold. Mar sin leat, Lawrence Patrick.