My uncle Richard has been sick for many months, the kind of sick where people are quite clear early on it’s not going to end well. He’s been back and forth in the hospital as well, sometimes for several days or weeks at a stretch, sometimes for a few hours. Recently, he was in the hospital and the situation was bad enough that the doctors were resigned to the fact that they were simply going to be the maintenance crew, not players.
My family is full of many boisterous and unique voices. His was among the quietest, if not the quietest, because he was content to be that way. Well, that’s how he’s been for the past decade that he’s been in our lives again. Growing up I didn’t know him, partly because my immediate family lived in South Jersey for the first big chunk of my life (while my mom’s family, including Richard, lived in North Jersey). I remember actually seeing him at one of our family’s functions (I think it was a baptism but I could be wrong) in 2006 or 2007. I honestly didn’t know who it was, but I remember looking and saying, I know that guy. I don’t know where from but I know him. He probably expected that, or perhaps he was just being nice, but he didn’t look away or give me a dirty look when I looked to the back of the church and saw him a few times.
I don’t know what he spent his life doing between when he stepped out of the family’s life and when I saw him at that event, and it really doesn’t matter. I do know, in broad strokes, that he led the hardest life of anyone in our family, but I don’t remember him actually trying to blame anyone or get upset about it – but again, I didn’t ever really talk to him myself. I asked him a few times about problems with my home (as I held more trust in him to come over and help out with home projects than another handyman family member), and he did help clear out issues we had with our bathroom, but I didn’t really make the time to speak with him at parties or family events.
I think that’s what really got to me. I kept telling myself, whatever’s wrong, he’s in the hospital, family is around him all the time and they are all able to do far more for him than I could. I’m a computer technician and a white-collar guy by trade – Richard was a handyman and as blue-collar as they come. I wanted to do more to make time for him and go visit – the hospital he was at was very close to the light rail in Newark, which is steps from my workplace. But I kept getting wrapped up in other things – my wife’s classes, making time for my kids and helping them out with their bedtime routine – and the idea that, again, what real comfort could I give to him?
A little under two weeks ago, at my brother’s twenty-first birthday, we gotry t an update on Richard’s situation: he was being discharged from the hospital and sent home to await God’s call. “Home” was my aunt’s house in Newark – Richard had been staying with another aunt while he was sick, but he had no formal living arrangements. I don’t know if this was by choice or not but he made it a point to help out wherever he was staying, including the shelters.
The word went out to family all over: his prognosis is not good and he is not likely to last more than a few days, perhaps a few weeks.
I decided to tell my wife when we got in the car that night that one night that week I intended to go straight over to that aunt’s house and visit with Richard. She had heard the same thing and had intended to tell me that I was going to take whatever time I could to go visit with him. God love my wife, because while I hadn’t anticipated an issue with this, I just don’t ever try to ask for things like that, and I didn’t know what the response would be.
January 20th was the night. I wrapped up things at work and left as soon as I could around ten after six; my wife, having already been nearby for some errands she was running with our boys, was ready and waiting for me, and drove me over instead of letting me take the light rail or bus over to my aunt’s house. I told her I’d be in touch about getting home, but didn’t leave her with an idea of what time I’d be coming home. My aunt Susan, whose home I was visiting, seemed surprised to see me, I think largely due to the fact that I haven’t been over to visit too often (to my own detriment).
Walking in, I found Richard laid up in a hospital bed set up just that day in Susan’s dining room. The air was neither celebratory nor deeply solemn; it was calm and even, slightly lively even. My aunt and grandparents were keeping watch by his bedside. A TV, VCR, DVD player and cable box had been moved in and were mounted on the dining room table, which had been moved towards the front of the room to allow room for Richard’s bed. Richard seemed alert; however, due to the complications from the cancer which had ravaged and raged inside him for months, he was unable to move around. Communicating with him was quite difficult, at least for me, because of these complications.
I sat down next to him, hanging my coat on the back of his chair and trying to take up a small conversation with him. It was awkward and in fits and spurts. I did what I could to help him with a drink, and as I sat there I realized how incredibly similar he was to my grandfather. Pa is closing in on eighty years and looks about twenty years younger, and Richard, at 50, looked nearly the same. My grandmother and I talked for a little bit, mostly about how Richard was doing, how my kids were doing, and other things like that.
I got up after a little while and moved into the kitchen; Richard was trying to get to sleep and we all wanted to give him the time to try. It was especially hard for him, given his breathing issues and overall pain from his condition, but he did get some rest. Before I left, I helped him to get his headphones on and his CD player, playing Styx’s Paradise Theater, on and working.
In the kitchen were Susan, her husband Dan, and my cousin Mary-Kate. MK was studying for an upcoming test and praying for snow, and Susan and Dan were putting the finishing touches on dinner – meatloaf and baked potatoes. I’ve found that some things are always true about my family – they are all, without exception, born cooks who cannot make bad food, and that they all turn to cooking in times of trouble. It’s horrible for waistlines but fantastic for drive and focus. If you’re keeping a close eye on the oven, you can’t really let the sadness from your relative’s situation into your head.
In any event, we talked. I can’t do much else but I can talk and I can make people laugh, so that’s what I did. I talked with MK about her scholastic career and where it was going – apparently she was considering my alma mater, a decision I quickly dissuaded her of due to its high prices. I talked with Dan about goings-on at my old job, and how one of his closest confidantes is likely leaving soon – upsetting an extremely good and long-lived working relationship between himself and two other co-workers. I talked with Susan about a recent injury and about my sons, her great-nephews, whom she doesn’t get to see very often and enjoys greatly every time she gets to see them. I talked with Grandma about the time she had to roll her eyes as her own husband, post-surgery and full of meds, had threatened annulment if she blocked him from leaving the hospital (mind you, this was after all of their 16 children had been born) and about the priest who had come by to give Richard the Last Rites and an apostolic blessing, granting him absolution from all sins and pretty much ensuring an express lane to Heaven. I talked a little, but I wasn’t trying to talk. I was trying to listen. As for Grandpa, he spent the evening going back and forth, between Bill O’Reilly / CBS’s Blue Bloods and keeping a fatherly eye on his increasingly weaker oldest son, his namesake.
It was getting later, and soon a new group of siblings came in to help make the most of what would be Richard’s last night on earth. We spoke with him for a few minutes and he decided that he’d love to watch the movie, “Major League”. After a few minutes of research to find out what service actually had it and another few minutes of Dan and I working on getting Dan’s Wii hooked up to the TV, this was done and everyone settled in around Richard to enjoy a good movie. After my sister arrived later, I checked and realized that I’d accidentally left my phone set to “Ignore” while I was sitting with Richard, and that my wife had left me a few messages. Thanks to my sister’s generosity, I was able to get a ride home (as it was really late, and my kids were all asleep).
I gave Richard a careful hug and kiss, and left not knowing if this would be the last time I would see him. I went to sleep that night with Dan’s words ringing in my head, a casual reminder he’d given me that no matter how long Richard survived, someone would be here with him when God called him home.
The next morning, I had gotten up and tried to proceed as though it was a normal day. Twenty minutes after ten, I got a call from my brother Joe. Richard had passed on into God’s waiting hands. Joe knew I was at work, and told me that it wasn’t necessary to come home at the moment. I can’t tell you how much I wanted to leave, but I knew I wouldn’t have been able to do anything for anyone. I said a quick prayer, made arrangements at work to take off for Richard’s funeral, and tried to throw myself into my work. I honestly think I did more that day than the past week combined.
The day of the funeral came. We got the kids ready, packed them into the car, tied up the dog and made sure she had plenty of food and water, and set out. We helped guide Richard home one last time at a beautiful funeral Mass, and gathered with the family at my parent’s home.
I wrote this because I wanted someone to know that Richard died happy and in comfort, surrounded by love, that he would be deeply missed and sorely grieved by his family, by his parents, siblings, son, stepdaughters, nephews, nieces, great-nephews, and friends.
Rest in peace, Richard. God bless and keep you, today and always.