Eulogy for an Uncle: My Uncle Barry (1909-2001)
I’m avoiding writing this, this eulogy if you will. I’ve got a few other pieces that need finishing and my energy needs to be targeted toward getting everything ready.
Then something happened. And now it’s harder than I thought to do this.
On Wednesday afternoon, my uncle, Barry Jeffery, died at the age of 92. My youngest brother Daniel had been with him at the hospital in Florida and told me.
I found out after midnight that my uncle said dying didn’t scare him, that he had no regrets about his life and that it meant a lot to him that we had talked on the phone the day before. Even though he couldn’t hear me through the whir of the oxygen mask over his face, I had told him that I loved him and that I hoped to be something like him someday.
Daniel, who seems to be on top of every situation, couldn’t speak. I hung up the phone, then looked at myself in the mirror while I cried.
My Uncle Barry recognized his time had come. In his letters and phone calls from the past few years, he talked about spending his days painting, writing, and shuttling back and forth to “various doctors. You know how it is.”
He always ended by laughing
Last week, his aorta started collapsing in on itself and his lungs filled with blood. He took excellent care of himself, still swam laps well into his 80s. But his body was imploding, one vital piece at a time.
Already in his early 70s when we became friends, he gave me a silver dollar for cleaning the leaves off the bottom of his pool. The net measured twice the length of my eight-year old frame so he held the handle.
He wrote letters to newspapers on current events throughout his retirement, winning several awards from the Florida Sun Sentinel and the Miami Herald. He painted western scenes and vignettes inspired by the cowboy movies he loved as a boy. He and my brother were very close and the two would link up in Decemebr and discuss politics and world events for hours. Daniel got Barry an AOL account and before long, my 90-year old uncle had a pen pal, a 25-year old graduate student in Japan.
Barry knew he didn’t have much time. He had a lot to do before then.
Daniel and I talked several times this week in preparation for the eulogy he would give at Barry’s funeral. Our uncle was a dreamer, saw himself as a cowboy, an English gentleman and a clear-eyed witness to history. But he spent most of his life in the textile business, paying bills, raising kids. He loved heated conversation even as a person with few friends and an inherently solitary disposition.
He saw his end but lived as though it would never come.
Who we Were
When you meet someone in the twilight of their life, you have all snapshots and no captions. You have their memories, once removed, after their kids are grown, after they’ve made most of their big decisions. If you’re lucky, you get to see them do what they’ve always wanted. But you also have to be resigned to the mystery, the seeming contradictions. You weren’t there to see them become who they became.
According to our Aunt Teddy, Barry saw us as his adopted grandsons, a relationship Daniel took seriously and I probably didn’t. Barry would Instant Message me while at work and I’d put him off. I’d send him pieces of my writing when he asked and I resented that he didn’t understand my sarcastic tone or my “Gen-X-isms.” I neglected to email him back because I felt like I’d spend most of the letter explaining myself.
In my early 20s then, I barely knew myself. I didn’t have to time to justify it to some old guy. Even when my Aunt Teddy told me , that I should send him an email, I didn’t write him. He understood work had most of my attention.
“You’re a businessman now,” she said. I didn’t think I would run out of time.
I felt some of that this week. My Uncle was gone and I, too busy to grieve, two major deadlines on Thursday, a trip away for the weekend, a relaunch in less than two weeks. Twice this week, I looked up and realized too late to call Teddy, to tell her how sad this made me, that I could and would be present for her if she needed me.
Does working for myself, molding this dream from fresh clay, mean this? That sometimes being human has to wait until my schedule frees up? I didn’t go to Florida this winter because of work. I almost didn’t see them both last year but I made a stop, grudgingly, on the way back home, dragging my old friend Justin along.
What is the matter with me?
I still didn’t know when I sat in front of my window and prayed for the soul of my Uncle Barry, that he now dwelled somewhere with more time on his hands, where it didn’t hurt to breathe and where I would see him again someday.
Moving into my professional life, I will have to create, produce, manage and decide, faster and with more conviction than I’ve ever had. It scares me every time I think about it. But I’m going to continue on here and dedicate the next chapter of this story to my late Uncle Barry.
He taught me that people can know you through your dreams and desires, and that sharing them without expectation or judgement means sharing your joy. That it’s not in competition with the rest of your life, but perhaps the most enriching part of it.
That we often have more time than we think.