Until recently my father thought he was the 7th of 9 children. As it turns out, he is the 8th of 10 children. My grandmother had a son named John who died as an infant and, apparently, never spoke of him again. She later had another son and named him John as well. He died at the age of 9 from meningitis. The loss of children and parents was not at all uncommon in the poor ethnic enclaves of Philadelphia back in the 30s and 40s. My mother also lost a sibling and my aunt lost a newborn son. When my parents talk about the characters that figured prominently in their childhoods, it seems that most every family lost a child or a parent prematurely. Grief came to each life early and predictably like any other emotion.
While my father’s family lacked financial and material comforts, they seemed rich in companionship. He and his siblings were close and loving with each other. This was especially the case of my father and his older brother, Snowy. Snowy’s real name was Anthony, after my paternal grandfather who modified his Hungarian Anton to its American version upon his arrival in the States. When my uncle was a baby someone looked at his fat body and platinum-covered round head and said, “He looks like a Snowball” and it stuck. He was Snowy for the rest of his life.
In the kitchen of our tiny row house we had a large rectangular table surrounded by 8 chairs. My immediate family filled 7 and, for much of my childhood, my Uncle Snowy occupied the 8th chair. He was very much a part of our lives.
In my mind’s eye he was a big man in a handsome camel coat. But he could not have been tall; the Mayer family is a tiny clan.
At my brother’s wedding I caught a glimpse of my father and his siblings together and started laughing. They looked like a reunion of the Munchkins from the Wizard of Oz. Snowy was happy and playful and doted on me endlessly. “Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy. A kid’ll eat ivy too. Wouldn’t you?” he would sing to me over and over to my delight. He took me shopping at the fancy department store nearby and laughed at my ability to find the candy section despite his attempts to lead me away. There he would buy me a box of chocolate covered cherries. I would greedily unwrap one and shove it in my little mouth and feel the utmost delight as the sugary center erupted and flowed out the corners of my mouth. He took me to Philadelphia’s finest restaurants and spent Sundays walking with me down the “Avenue,” the main shopping area in my childhood neighborhood. We picked buttercups together in the park. He was mine; I was his. I loved him with all my heart.
When I was in fifth grade Uncle Snowy had a massive stroke. While he survived physically and cognitively, he was never then same emotionally. It was as if his spirit had drained out of his limp and lifeless left side.
He lived with us for a while after the stroke. One day my mother asked me to do his physical therapy with him, “He won’t do it for anyone else; he will do it for you.” He was supposed to nest Styrofoam cups together with his left hand. And he tried. But he quickly grew angry and frustrated and gave up. I tried to encourage him while choking back my own tears but I felt overwhelmed and, I think, I ran away from him. That day is my last memory of spending one-on-one time with my beloved uncle.
Snowy lived for 6 years after his stroke but he was never the same man. His failing body prevented him from enjoying many of his favorite activities. He was no longer joyful or playful. And he never sang about mares and oats again. My pre-teen self didn’t know how to relate to this version of my uncle and, I fear, I abandoned him when he needed me most. But I could see that he didn’t want to go on living. Uncle Snowy was merely a ghost that had not yet passed into the next world. And I didn’t know how to love a ghost.
Last night I was lying in bed, waiting for sleep to come. I kept returning to this image of me as a young child. I was sitting by the back door in our basement, staring out at the pouring rain and crying hysterically, “Come back. Come back.” I remember that day vividly. I had been so rude to Uncle Snowy, preferring the TV to his company. After he left I thought I had hurt his feelings and I felt so guilty. I wanted him to come back so I could say that I was sorry.
I haven’t thought much about my Uncle Snowy in years. Thoughts of him creep in from time to time, but I haven’t really revisited my memories of him. Last night I realized that he was the first real loss in my life. But I lost him long before he died. Those years between the stroke and his death were so painful to witness and, I imagine, painful for him to endure. His spirit had given up on living, but his body couldn’t let go. And we all orbited around him like satellites that refused to venture too close to a dark and gloomy planet.
Perhaps it is the memory of Uncle Snowy’s lingering that scares me so. From the outside, that long good-bye seems undoable. How do you endure a suboptimal existence while watching the lives of others unfold in far more favorable fashion? It sometimes seems like an insurmountable feat of adaptation: learning to love a life that you have neither chosen nor desire.
I wonder what Uncle Snowy would tell me now. Should I go eat some chocolate covered cherries? Pick buttercups the woods? I can still do those things. They brought me such joy at age 4. Are they enough at 40? Can I learn to be happy with less and give myself the chance to experience more? I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.