We saw Uncle Joe yesterday. He was very old and fragile, and his voice was muffled and soft, hard to hear, and his words, sometimes a mystery. But beneath the drapery of the withered old body, his sharp wit and solid opinions are as strong as ever. He was less intimidating though, because his appearance no longer carries his insides out for obvious display.
As we sat in the restaurant waiting for our food to be brought out to us, I asked him what has caused him to stop smoking and start eating healthy foods. He answered quickly; it was his heart attack. OK. So then I wanted to know if anything less dramatic could have worked as well. “Knowing yourself,” I said, posing my question with an air of cuteness, “could you have made those changes under different circumstances?” He leaned in across the table and starred me down with his bright, charming eyes, sunken deep into sockets covered with a thin layer of skin. There was a long silence with our gazes locked like that, as I too, leaned in and returned the stare. Finally he broke the silence with his weak, frail, old-man voice: “Amy, I don’t mean to sound rude, but how in the hell can anyone answer that question?!”
He collapsed backwards into the scoop of the chair and continued his reply. “Nothing changed me before the heart attack. Could something have changed me? You are asking the unknown, the unknowable. It didn’t. There!”
Superimposed over the old man, I saw the emergence of my Uncle Joe – the shell of his shape filled out, his white hair returned to its youthful thick and shinning black. I noticed the shadows of arrogance circling above him like an angel’s halo. It delighted me to see the spirit peek out of its shell like that.
When I first laid eyes on him yesterday, I thought, perhaps for the first time in my life, that I never want to get that old! By the end of our meeting, however, I realized that he has aged quite gracefully and I saw the beauty in his persistence with living.
The slowness of his movements is carefully calculated; his choices are deliberate and he seems to be at peace with them. For all the heartache and disappointments he has endured in his life, the smile on his face speaks volumes.
His smile, subtle and small as it was, dominated his presence. Punctuated by eyes that sparkle with an intellectual energy, quick wit, orneriness, and the power of a proud man, his smile filled my heart and reminded me of how deeply happy I am to belong to this extended family.
We don’t say “I love you” in this family, especially among the older generation. But I felt it as I bantered with him, using words as weapons as we playfully battled in a ring of antagonism. And I felt it again when I hugged him at our departure.
Farewell Uncle Joe! I love you very much!