For My Uncle Al

Where Al and Alice and Mary and Jo and George and Big George once hung their hats (Lowell, MA).

So I fly home to New York City from LA today, drawn back to the grayer, tamer ocean for bleak reasons. My uncle Al succumbed to digestive cancer this week after a protracted battle and I’ve got to climb into my heartbroken little car (it was burglarized during my absence) and drive to Massachusetts. I figured I still had time to say goodbye, but, afraid to face his kind, hopeless regard, I really was ignoring the signs that he was getting ready to go. I fucked up.

My mother’s youngest brother, Big Al Edney (back in the day, there’d been also been Grand-uncle Little Al), had a tough life. Fifty-six when he died, he struggled with dyslexia before teachers even knew what the word meant. Drank too much, smashed a couple of cars, lost his license, sobered up, fell in with the Scientologists, fell back out, lived a long time with Grandma Alice, she who I miss every day since her death when I was 17. I’m not sure how he avoided Vietnam, but I’m guessing somewhere between the drinking and the dyslexia, even the US Army knew they’d get a handful. He met up with Pauline (aviator glasses, enormous belly, whiskered chin), she who’d been married to a gay guy, and married her and adopted her brown-eyed pipsqueak of a son Michael, the kind of kid just waiting to grow a mullet and wear a Metallica t-shirt unsarcastically. (Which he did.) Al Drove big rigs. Schoolbuses later.

He was really, really tall and, when he was younger, really, really skinny, adam’s apple and eyes protruding something fierce. When he married Pauline, he got enormous for a while. The two ate steadily and joylessly at family get-togethers: Pepsis chilled in the bathtub, burgers, chips, ambrosia, pies. He looked like my mom, a male, unbeautiful version of her: same big teeth, long features. But where my mom had been given those Sioux cheekbones and blue-yellow eyes that shone with both elation and empathy, Al looked, well, sad. Which he was.

He was always sad, shy and largely silent and terribly gentle, folded into himself in a way that downplayed his great size, as if he were reaching, always, for a level of invisibility impossible for anyone but a superhero. Once when I was a kid, he burned down the Allston apartment building he lived in by passing out with his cig still burning. He came to live at our house for a while after that. Whirled me through the air and gave me wedgies by pulling me up by my tights. I liked him but, all of three years old, felt responsible for him and his loneliness. When he left we had fleas for months. Crazily, years later, Max and Allegra, friends of my friends, moved into the same building, long rehabbed, and it burned down again. Allegra managed to rescue all the cats in the building.

Something about Big Al made me forget to tell him that story every time I saw him. We didn’t have that kind of fluency. I rarely saw him and, when I did, we only talked if I made a point of it since he’d usually be sitting alone at our get-togethers. Everyone on my mom’s side either stares into space or screeches at the top of their lungs when we get together so it wasn’t as weird as it sounds.

It’s not like our family has ever really connected much, even though we see each fairly regularly. Or they do and I rarely go. I’m the furthest, all the way in New York. The rest (my mom’s three siblings and their kids and their kids; her cousins and their many offspring) in various depressed New England towns. And Jennie, my younger sister, and I have always been fairly different from the rest (and different from each other). My mom Mary went to art school, after all, changed her name to Sari Musan, married Bernie, my tiny exotic Jew of an old man, bought the cheapest house in Newton for the good public schools her two babybirds would attend, and promptly fell into a 20-year pool of her own sadness just when she wasn’t expecting it.

When I show up at family get-togethers, which, admittedly hasn’t been too often since I left Massachusetts for college back in 1989, no one really says much to me. There are too many kids — my cousins started having a bunch when they were still teens — and there is nowhere to sit. I hate going back. Not because I’m a snob, though for sure the food is beyond-the-pale and the houses they inhabit are crazy-messy and smelly and everyone’s lives bum me out (unemployment, shoddy public assistance). But actually it isn’t really that. Everyone takes their crap for granted and usually tells their crazy sad stories strangely cheerily. The ones who don’t work at fast food restaurants have mostly done the unsung social service jobs like working as attendants for the mentally and physically disabled. My cousin Sue, so psychic her whole life that she’s scared the rest of us as well as herself, is a corrections officer.

My mom’s family’s dogged blitheness freaks me out; I read it as shutdown, though I think it’s also a form of bravery. But what really has kept me away is that no one except for some of the kids ever says a thing to me when I show and it hurts to not feel like I belong to my own fucking family. I live in New York, I went to college, I worked as a television actress, I’ve mostly made my living working at magazines and on Internet publications. No matter how broke I feel, I live in a different world, where things can change every time I turn a corner. I’ve been so, so lucky both in terms of the choices my milltown-born parents made and in terms of the connections I’ve fused in my life since I left their house. And even if I don’t always feel that the rest of the family and I occupy different universes, everyone else does. It’s not like they resent me; it’s that I’m a different species, plain and simple.

But it’s not as if I’ve been able to escape entirely the bottom that Al made his home. I live in it differently: lose whole days when I can’t face my computer, can’t face New York’s crackle right outside my door. A few times I even considered trying to talk to Al about it. He’d been my grandma’s favorite in a way, since he’d lived at home for so long and had come to love reading as much as she did once he mastered the process. (She bought him two extra years of special dyslexia training after high school on her meager salary.) Usually, I’d just volunteer jokes instead and he’d laugh generously, a big man giggling with great gums showing. And, ah, those sad eyes. Only when we talked about science fiction did the conversation grow remotely natural. He reminded me so much of Grandma, whom I missed more than I even realized until recently.

My grandmother. Self-taught, she went to school only till her early teens herself but read everything under the sun and did crosswords every day of her life. She and Al got into science fiction, and that was the only real connection I ever formed with the both of them. I’d read their old paperbacks when I’d go over to Grammie’s, and eventually they got me my own subscription to Isaac Asimov Magazine. I loved its various conjectures about the future, so many of which have since come true. Did I thank them properly? I worry and know that I didn’t. I was a kid, and an ungrateful one at that. If I’d thanked them enough, I could have talked with them about the mags, maybe gotten past that crazy silence that both of them always generated like mournful monks. Instead I chattered on about myself: gymnastics, school plays, my many A’s. I must have been something else for them, barging into their sanctuary whenever my mom drove up to Lowell, to the house where they lived and where Mom had grown up. Some rooms in the house were so filled with books you couldn’t even open a door into them. Mystery novels. Socialism. The classics. Buddhism. Transcendentalism. The rest of the rooms were on their way.

Grandma got poor-people sick in her early 70s — factory air, bad diet, cartons of Camels macked her system — and she started reading about macrobiotics. Ate mostly beans and vegetables from then on and lived a while longer. I think it was loneliness that did her in finally, when Uncle Al married Pauline and she began to live alone. The year I was 17, I interviewed her and Al and Mom and George and Jo, my mom’s other siblings, about working in the mills. A teacher submitted the report to a historical society and I was offered a grant to conduct oral histories in Lowell while living with my Grandma. She actually called a few times to see if I accepted it, which was big. She never called. But I didn’t go; wanted to be near my acid-dealing boyfriend so I could fuck him on the regular to make sure he didn’t fuck anyone else. (He did anyway.)

She got sick that fall again and died in the winter. At the funeral when I did the eulogy, I talked about her clear denim eyes that never missed a beat and looked up to see Big Al’s own blues, brimming with tears, gazing straight into my own for the only time of our lives. Later Jennie, always on the little-sister lookout for my hypocrisy, said, “I thought you were just being an actress. But then I could tell you were for real.” It was seeing Al cry that day that made me real. He felt it all, I think, and it was too much for him. Always.

None of the rest of us ever did let ourselves feel much usually. The crying might’ve never stopped once we started. The horrors just kept coming and coming. The many disastrous fathers of the cousins’ kids, and the cousins’ kids’ kids. Sexual and physical violence. Mental illness. Homelessness. Prison. Poverty. Alcoholism. Sex workers. In fact, if I had to say for real why I left home so completely that year (I’ve not lived in Massachusetts since I graduated from high school, never spent another night in my parents’ house), it was so I could learn to feel again, this time in a way that didn’t just hurt.

The last time I ever saw my uncle was at a family cookout. After a year of reporting unsolicited weight loss to his shitty poor-people doctor (That’s good, Al. You needed to lose some weight), he’d been finally diagnosed with stomach cancer. Stage four. Al was easily 6’4 and the time before I’d seen him he’d been toting such an enormous gut that it’d given him a hernia. Now he weighed in at 120 and was grey and yellow, eyes not sad so much as scared. He managed half a shake my cousin Kimmie matter-of-factly made him and then he threw it back up. I tried my hardest to go over to him — I was not a kid, I reminded myself, no matter how long NYC lets us extend our adolescence. All I could manage to tell him was that I was sorry he was so sick and to kiss his dry cheek.

I yell at my mom for being such a checked-out caretaker of Jen and me when we were coming up; it’s our worst fight these days, and a ridiculous one to have now that I’m in my 30s and she is in her 60s. But I’ve got to give it to Sari: She did her best by her brother as he died over this last year. He’d been given only a few weeks to live back in February and she went over to his house every day to help him out rather than hide her head in the sand. She and Jo did what they could while Pauline sat by, shellshocked. Made him food he could eat to gain back some of the weight. (They couldn’t do chemo with him so weak; not that chemo’s often much help at that stage.) Got him cable. Bought him a better Barca Lounger and hospital bed. Helped with the small things since they couldn’t do anything bigger, basically. Jennie, who’s become a hospital-trained dietician, figured out to how to make his shunt more comfortable.

And I stayed away. “Don’t come,” said Jennie over and over. “The house and the situation will just make you mad.” I figured she was right, that they didn’t need my self-righteous indignation on his behalf. That I wouldn’t do anyone any favors if I came and raged against the cold house falling apart to which he was relegated for his final days, against the shitty system that landed my uncle in this rut even younger than his dad in turn. (Grandpa George, a textile cutter, died at 59 not long after the mills closed and moved South.)

But Jen said it was terrible. That Al rocked in his chair and just stared, frightened as could be. That the hospital had sent a counselor over to talk to him but that she fell on their ripped-up sidewalk and ended up in the emergency room. Woe to all who enter the Edney family vortex, I thought, and stayed away. I prayed for him from NYC with Yancey, though. I asked my grandmother to send him guidance and clarity from where ever she was and I asked God to protect my grandmother’s baby son and my mom’s baby brother, to send him peace and release him from his fear. I wrote Al. But I never did see him again.

I kept thinking I’d still have a chance. He hung on for so much longer than anyone expected that I went ahead and bought tickets to the West Coast to tend to my own mess at the beginning of this month. Right before I left, my mom said:

“I think Alfred has hung on so long because he’s getting love from all of us and he needs it, and so he can get used to the idea of dying.”

He got used to it, I guess. The other night, high on morphine (his first mind-altering substance in more than 20 years), he hugged Pauline. Told Michael and Michael’s new baby girl that he loved them. Said, “I am leaving now.” And then my uncle Al, who had such a hard time living well on this Earth, had himself a good death.

I pray that Grandma was waiting right there for him. I’m sure she was. When I talked to Jen from California, she said that he’d been getting more talkative right at the end. Talked about Grandma, and about how much he’d been missing her. Jen said it was the first time he’d really opened up to her. I felt jealous that they’d talked and that she’d been able to help at all at the end of his life. I wished I’d spoken with him frankly about his depression years back, when antidepressants may have actually made a difference in his life, not just in his death. I’ve never been much good for my mother’s family and I’ve never gotten much back.

But I can write this, for better or for worse.

So here’s to you, Big Al. Gentle, so gentle that you never could get much you needed from this world, and gentle, so gentle that you never hurt a fly. I love you very much.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy