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Tuesday, December 18, 2001

We've had both birth and death in the family this week, and while welcoming a child into the world is a joyous reaffirmation of life and hope, we're also reminded that dying is an inevitable part of living. When someone close dies, it's not just a painful loss but a reminder of the fragility of life. Death is our cue to embrace the living, to cherish and comfort one another.

There's something kind of majestic about the death of a person who had a strong will to live. My Uncle Tommy survived polio in the fifties, post-polio syndrome in the eighties, and a lifetime of pain. Throughout his adult life he walked with a limp, until recent months when he could get around only in a wheelchair, and these last weeks when he was confined to bed. In the end it wasn't as much a vicious kind of cancer that killed him as it was his own realization that his body wasn't strong enough to survive the treatment. A month ago he thought he had three years to live. It turns out he only had a month.

He died early this morning, still fighting. He lived an hour away from here, in the Napa Valley, and we visited him every few weeks. He was Mom's only brother, her younger brother by nine years. Because of that age difference, she took on a lot of the responsibility for raising him.

As a young teenager, Mom was often looking after Tommy when she'd have preferred to be doing something else. When we visited him in October, they were still teasing each other about what a pest he'd been as a child. What I saw in their conversation was an expression of how much they'd meant to each other. She's doing okay with today's bad news, but you can't lose someone whose life has been so closely intertwined with your own without feeling it deeply.

We saw him again late last month, and he was obviously weaker. But he was also more determined to get his affairs in order. He knew exactly how he wanted his credit cards and insurance handled, and he also knew how he wanted his burial to be taken care of. We'll be driving to Ukiah Saturday, to the same mortuary that has been doing family funerals as long as I can remember, and he'll be buried in the Hopland cemetery. That's how he planned it, and that's how it'll be done.

Uncle Tommy and me, circa 1951My best memories of Tom are from my early childhood, when he and my aunt were still married, with three children who are still my cousins but now growing older, too, and living very far away. Later he was the "Voice of Vallejo" (Radio 1490) and scored me dozens of radio-edit versions of the latest hits on 45 RPM records. He's been in and out of my life, partly because of his battles with alcoholism and the toll it took on all his relationships. But his last years were in recovery, and in fact he had worked as a counselor at a local treatment center.

After he became less mobile, he discovered the Internet and made many online friends. He always had one of the most keenly observant minds of anyone I knew, and he was proud that I turned out to be almost as much of a political liberal as he was. (He was hilarious on the subject of our president, especially last year during the campaign.) Before it got so hard for him to use the keyboard, I would get messages from him nearly every day, comments on the news and links to sites he thought would interest me. He even moderated a political forum for awhile.

So it had to be frustrating for him as his body atrophied. At the end he was nearly paralyzed and could no longer send emails, but he was on the phone every day with doctors and government agencies, doing his best to manage his own care. He's been ill for months, but his mind has been sharp until he took a turn for the worse over the weekend. The last stages came and went quickly, which is the only mercy in this sad time.


From September: Suzanne, Tom's daughter Sharon, Tom and me.

Loss isn't lessened by the fact that it's expected. Death is unforgiving, and those left behind have to look to each other to share the grief and disperse the sadness. We're doing what he would want, going on with our holiday plans even while we feel that empty place in our lives. Tomorrow is Mom's seventy-fifth birthday, and Suzanne and I are taking her to lunch as we've been planning. It will be good for the three of us to be together.

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One year ago: Stop Me Before I Have Fun Again (last year's family party)

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