Even if I had a million years and ten times as many words at my disposal, I could not ever do proper justice on the page to my Uncle Jack, who passed the other day. Passed is a word carefully chosen, not a euphemism to try to ease the reality of death or push away grief. Uncle Jack really was just passing through, and if there is another plane, or a chance to reincarnate (as a pelican or a Vegas showgirl or a marigold), or some other opportunity to somehow manifest again, I’m sure Uncle Jack has already got all that figured out.
And though I cried hard when my mom called me a couple of Sundays ago to tell me her oldest brother was reaching the end, whatever momentary grief I felt melted as he lingered for a week, took his time exiting, and gave many of us who loved him a chance to say goodbye. My own opportunity had to be conducted via phone— buying a next-day plane ticket involves the kind of money I don’t think I’ll ever have. But the phone turned out to be okay.
Uncle Jack— whose primary cancer (lung) gave way to another cancer (not sure what)— declined morphine until the very very end. He told me, when I called, he wanted to stay alert. Boy was he. At 81, he had never gotten around to retiring. He told me he planned to get out of the hospital and get home soon because he still had some clients to whom he owed work. Yes, that’s right— my uncle was still doing people’s taxes up until the end. (And his mother, my Murphy Mom-Mom, was his secretary until the day she died at 94.) Uncle Jack was so adamant about getting out and getting home that he refused to sign a Do Not Resuscitate order and was weighing three options the doctors presented to try to squeeze a few more months (or years) out of his rapidly failing body.
When I spoke to Uncle Jack, I tried to hold it together and the more I talked to him the calmer I got. What a blessing to be able to tell him goodbye and how much I loved him, and to hear him say those words back. He also managed to reassure me and mystify me in the ten or fifteen minutes we spoke. The reassurance: “Don’t worry about coming home – there’s not going to be a funeral. I’m donating my body to science!” he said.
And then the mystery. “You know, Jack,” he began, calling me by my childhood name, a name we shared, a fact I loved. “When you were born, Mom-mom said something to me I didn’t understand. She said, ‘Jack, I hope you’re around to see her grow up to adulthood, she’s going to need you.’ Well I just didn’t know what she meant by that but I wondered if maybe you had been born with both organs.”
Both organs? WTF? I thought about this for a minute and, while I didn’t ask him to clarify, I felt pretty certain my favorite uncle had just sort of asked me, “Hon, do you now or did you ever have a penis in addition to your uterus and other lady parts?”
This speculation on his part THRILLED me! It was a pure Uncle Jack moment. And though sadly, my sister Kitty told me-- during a fact-checking call I made to her shortly after talking to Jack— that she’d changed my diaper plenty and could assure me I never had a penis, not even one that maybe got lopped off early so that maybe I forgot about it, well… I still get to keep the memory of that last priceless conversation with Jack.
Oh the other stories I could tell you about the man. He was often referred to as the crazy uncle, the one who was “a bit off.” In our family you might hear someone suggest you were going to “grow up to be like Uncle Jack,” which wasn’t intended as a compliment, but nor was it an insult. More it meant, “You are exhibiting signs of nuttiness” and that was, I can say, a fair assessment. For my part I loved it when it was predicted I would be like him, and I loved it later when it was noted that the prediction had come true. Uncle Jack didn’t march to his own drummer—he dispensed with drummers altogether and strode along to some internal rhythm only he truly knew. What a damn fine role model his was.
I know only scattered, non-confirmable parts of his story. These came from a number of places--- family lore, family grapevine, and/but mostly from Uncle Jack himself. My family spent summers in West Wildwood, NJ, a spit of an island that went under water with every full moon. Mom-mom and Uncle Jack-- who were roommates til the day she died (though I think a lot of us didn’t piece together that this was, yes, the classic gay son situation until several decades into their living arrangement. A friend of mine once asked, “So, you just thought he was waiting for the right woman to come along before he moved out?” Well, yes, I guess we were)—lived in a little house the next block over. Every time we’d get to the shore, they’d be waiting with treats for us—Jello and marshmallows, rice pudding, or some soup Jack cooked up in a massive pot, his cigarette in a long holder as he stirred, the equally long ash at the other end threatening to become (an no doubt sometimes becoming) the exciting secret ingredient.
As I got a bit older and started spending whole summers down the shore, honing my teenage alcoholism and later sharpening my skills as a smoker, it fell to Jack and Mom-mom to “keep an eye” on me since my parents were back at our year round home, save for weekends. I loved Uncle Jack and Mom-Mom’s version of supervision, which mostly involved them telling me to have fun and praising me for being such a good worker. One night, when I was out way past curfew, I ran into Jack walking on the boardwalk—he loved to just walk all night (and I, too, can walk for hours on end). I was startled to see him, thought I might be “in trouble.” Nah. He just wished me a pleasant evening, showed me the buck knife he carried for protection, and was on his way.
Whenever I wanted to bum a smoke from Uncle Jack, he would just whip out a whole carton and offer me that, or at least a few packs. He smoked those MORE fags that are, like, five hundred feet long. My god the man could smoke, and yes lung cancer got him in the end, but he never voiced regrets (and in truth he quit probably twenty years ago).
Uncle Jack had lots of interesting habits besides smoking. He would sleep in most of the day, spend as much time as possible—by which I mean weeks or months on end—in his bathrobe, and then, suddenly, decide it was time to get out the lawnmower. When he did he would mow his and Mom-Mom’s lawn, then proceed to the neighbors’, and before you know it I swear Uncle Jack had mowed the entire little island.
He had a hippie friend name Paul that he brought around in the sixties or early seventies. Uncle Jack had long hair then and Paul had an earring and there was that ubiquitous cigarette holder. Oh they were so radical and bohemian and a total shock to everyone. Except for me. To me they were an inspiration.
When I got my first computer in 1995, Uncle Jack got his. I guess he was 65 then. I was HenMom@aol.com and he was TaxService@aol.com, an address he kept to the end. We might not have been freakishly early adopters, but we were ahead of the curve and these magical machines served us well. I could kick myself for not saving our email exchanges but in those long notes we sent back and forth I began to get a deeper history and broader picture of this man. For example, I’ll swear he told me he helped found the first lesbian bar in Philly, and that the secret code to get in was this line, “What’s your story?”
He didn’t talk a whole lot about being gay, but I pieced together some of his story from the long emails he sent me. As a young man he joined the seminary. He learned a bunch of languages. Seminary didn’t work out. He fell in love. His partner died young (I have no idea how). Uncle Jack had what they call a “nervous breakdown.” Maybe that’s when he came back to live with his mom, I don’t know. All I know is that he came back, and he stuck around, and he was the most damn cheerful person – at least on the surface. Maybe there was other stuff going on, but if so he didn’t mention it at all.
When the casinos opened in Atlantic City in the early ‘80s, Jack found his niche. He and Mom-mom went to those casinos nearly every night for decades. You’d ask him how he did and he might say, “Great! I won $15,000 last night!” But if you’d asked him how much he lost, he’d admit it was $20,000, maybe more. I’m not sure how he worked it—except that he did keep his job for all those years, probably to finance his habit. He was so well known in Atlantic City that I’ll be surprised if they don’t darken all the casino lights for a night in his honor.
Uncle Jack never did learn how to drive and he was always asking one of us kids for a ride. I think it drove my siblings nuts sometimes, but I never got sick of it since I wasn’t around very much—heading back to Jersey maybe once every five or ten years at most. I have this one great memory of him needing a ride to get gas for the lawn mower and some office supplies. I can’t even remember what beater I was driving then, but he climbed in, put the rusty gas tank between his feet, did some weird thing with the seatbelt to escape from the shoulder harness portion so he could turn sideways in the seat to sort of face me and chat, and then lit up a cigarette, once again the long ash threatening to fall, this time directly into a rust hole in the gas can.
During the week he spent dying, I got regular reports from one of my sisters, who visited him in hospice. From my perch down here in Texas, it sounded like Uncle Jack chose to die for a solid seven days, one for every language he spoke. One day he’d be saying goodbye in English, the next in Latin. I got a text from Kitty at one point saying, “I think he’s talking French now.” I texted back, “French as in fuck shit fuck? Or French as in Au Revoir mon cherie?” Because everyone is a comedian in our family, she wrote back, “I don’t know! I don’t speak French!”
During his very final days he got around to sign language and then nothing at all, except mouthing soundless words and conveying things with his eyes. I called my mom after he was gone—she’d stayed at his side all week—and she said that before he lost his voice he told her that dying felt a lot like being on hold with the IRS, that it was taking a lot longer than he expected, and that it was harder than he thought, too. But he said he wanted to die smiling, and my mom said he did. She said she really felt like she’d watched him head off on a journey. I’m telling you, that man was just passing through.