Tuesday I got a phone call from Danielle and she was...FUCK IT!..I don't want to explain this...Uncle Joe died!!!! Mom was coming here to tell me in person but I pushed Danielle into telling me over the phone. Mom arrived Wednesday and we had a good visit. Before she left today I started to cry.
When one of the girls came and told me my sister was on the phone I immediately knew something was up. I love my sister to death, but our relationship growing up was fairly strained and distant, and it was very rare that she would be calling me on her own. My suspicions were confirmed by the tone of her voice when I answered. It was clear she had just been crying. When I asked her what was going on she hesitated and then told me she had been ordered not to spill the beans. I was freaking out. My parents had a habit of hiding really important information from us because they didn’t think we were ready to handle it. I knew that if they were instructing my sister to keep a secret from me it had to be big. Something bad had happened and I was going to remain in a panic until I knew what it was, so I pressured and guilted her until she broke. My Uncle Joe had died.
When I was a kid we used to go to my Nanny and Pop Pop’s house for Sunday dinner. My Nanny, a full bred Sicilian, was the greatest cook to ever live, and in her house, accurately dubbed as the “house of food”, food was love. Their house was filled with the smells of freshly made sauce, chicken cutlets, shells, meatloaf, baked ziti, eggplant parm and whatever else was on the menu that day. It was impossible for you not to feel your stomach grumbling the moment you stepped foot in that door. It goes without saying, Sunday was my favorite day of the week as a child.
Up until they got too old to live by themselves, my Nanny and Pop Pop lived in that house -- the same one my dad, his two brothers, and sister grew up in. And until that time, my Uncle Joe lived in the basement. I can still so vividly remember rushing to our assigned seats, and waiting for him to come upstairs so we could eat an insanely delicious meal, large enough to feed a small country. My Uncle sat at one of the heads of the table, directly to my right. He loved 4C iced tea and my Nanny’s salad dressing that was secretly made from a Kraft Good Seasons packet. His hands were rough and calloused, the hands of a man who worked on cars all day. He was a mechanic for the local cable company, which meant that not only was my Nanny and Pop Pop’s the house of food, but the house of TV -- more importantly the house of The Disney Channel.
The basement where he lived was always dark. The only light that came through was from little windows at the top of the wall. He had a giant fish tank filled with all sorts of large tropical fish that he would show us with excitement, telling us stories about how the two largest fought until one won by eating its opponent. All around the walls - including over his bed - were different sets of bows and arrows. His passion was deer hunting which I was completely repulsed by until I sat and talked to him about it one day. He explained how he thanked the deer for its life after he killed it and made sure to use every part of its body just like the Native Americans did. As a kid who grew up with parents who held drum circles in our living room, this answer seemed to appease me.
Sundays at my grandparents were filled with cheesy jokes, laughter, a lot of food, and a lot of love. But even as a little kid I could feel the sadness my Uncle Joe carried with him. It wasn’t until I was older and was given the full story of his life, from the perspective of my dad, that I began to understand where this emotional weight came from. Years before I was born, my Uncle Joe had been a heroin addict. He had struggled through depression, addiction and the troubled life that came with it, but through treatment and Methadone maintenance he found his own recovery and worked his way to become the man I knew and loved. I was told his story not because I was old enough to hear it (which I was) but because our similarities scared the shit out of my dad and for good reason.
His presence filled the house with a deep, dark sadness. His moodiness and erratic behavior had my grandparents always on edge. In a time when therapy was only for hippies and the deeply disturbed, they were heartbroken and helpless, not knowing how to control or take care of him. He was an addict and his addiction, like most, affected the whole family. While I was lucky enough to be afflicted by an addiction to food in lieu of drugs, this was me he was describing.
Even though my Uncle got clean, in the end it was his addiction that killed him. When, due to health issues, my grandparents moved out of their house, my Uncle Joe was forced to live on his own for the first time. And, to everyone’s surprise - including his own - he flourished. Tragically, within a year of starting his new life his liver began to fail from the Hepatitis C he had contracted from using. The experimental treatment he was on hadn’t worked. Not long before I got sent to Chestnut, after spending about a year in and out of the hospital, he moved to Colorado to be with my Aunt (his sister) and cousins in hopes of receiving a liver transplant at a Denver hospital. A week after arriving in Colorado he died.
Before he left New York, my dad, with the help of his oldest brother, did what they could to help take care of him. I stood by my dad as he struggled to play the role of caretaker to a man he loved deeply and was only just getting to know. I saw the pain in his eyes as he tried one last time to understand him.
The last time I saw my Uncle Joe he was in the hospital. He was shocked to see me. He was always shocked and delighted to see how much people actually cared about him. He was noticeably frustrated and in pain, but he kept a genuine smile on his face the whole time I was in the room, and at times even mustered up a laugh. I truly believe my Uncle, like my dad, saw himself in me. He had a big heart, a hard and misunderstood life, and I loved him very much. He understood me in a way no one else in my family could and when I found out he died I was heartbroken.
The morning after my sister broke the news to me, my mom showed up and helped me say goodbye to him while the rest of my family was getting their chance at his funeral. Amongst many other things my mom is a healer. When I was a kid she worked in hospice and for my entire life she has been studying with shamans, energy healers, medicine men and women -- you name it. She is one of those people who will be in school forever, always learning, and always picking up a new skill. I barely made it through two months of college. Clearly, I did not inherit that gene. Right before my Uncle Joe died my mom did a ceremony to help him pass comfortably and without fear. When she came to visit me she brought me a totem from the ceremony, a deer hoof. When she handed it to me I felt Its energy radiate throughout my whole body. I had lived in Chestnut for about four months at this point and despite living in the middle of a giant field deep in the woods of Virginia, I never saw any deer. On the day my mom came, there were deer everywhere. On the side of the road, on the path to the hospital, in the fields, everywhere. I have never seen so many deer in my entire life. Even if I wasn’t someone who grew up steeped in a new agey spiritually charged household, I wouldn’t be able to deny the fact that this was my Uncle Joe saying hello and goodbye and letting me know he was with me. It was magical, beautiful, and surreal.
Years later at about six o’clock in the morning my dad, sister, and I stood together on the lawn of the beach Inn my soon-to-be husband and I were getting married at later that day. The Inn was located on the Peconic Bay and the lawn was fenced in and surrounded by water. While the three of us discussed the chair placement for the ceremony I heard my future father in-law scream “LOOK A DEER!” Directly in front of us seemingly out of nowhere a buck (male deer) ran out onto the beach, looked us in the eyes and then disappeared. I turned to my dad crying and exclaimed, “Uncle Joe!” The three of us embraced each other in tears, all recognizing the significance of this moment. Later, when we searched for the hoof marks we stared in awe at what we had found. The prints led back into the water of the bay. So unless this was a new breed of hybrid deer/fish I am convinced it was my Uncle saying a little hello. These two instances have solidified in my mind that my Uncle Joe and I will forever be connected, and whenever I see a deer, I am always reminded that he is with me.