I want to tell you about my uncle, Barry, who died last Thursday, four days after my half brother's suicide. My uncle had a stroke in the middle of the night, was flown to the hospital, but was proclaimed in too poor health to survive an operation, and was pulled from life support by early afternoon. Two of my aunts (including his wife), two uncles, and my mother were present when he died, 30 minutes after the respirator was removed.
He was 65. When I was a child he helped me learn how to play the piano by ear; he often accompanied me when I competed on my clarinet in solo & ensemble festivals. He was a cantor at several synagogues, taught voice at two local community colleges, and had a double degree from Peabody. As a child I used to love to sleep over their house, where before settling in to watch movies, we'd gather around the piano and sing. He used to say I had a "sweet voice."
His funeral, Tuesday morning, was attended primarily by family; it was small and quiet. The rabbi, who was unacquainted with my uncle, nevertheless gave a nice speech about him. My aunt and cousin held up admirably, given the circumstances. Afterwards, my entire family went to a reception, but I left them to head up to the MD/DE border, to attend the funeral of my half-brother.
I should mention that the day of my uncle's death, there was a real danger that both funerals would be scheduled simultaneously. I had a minor breakdown in that moment, and swore to my mother that if it came to pass, I would not come home. How could I choose?
It was so good to see my sister, who pulled all the arrangements together for her brother almost single-handedly, because her parents were too distraught to take any action. She was so beautiful and composed. I had spent days thinking of how I wished I could help somehow. 3000 miles is very, very far sometimes.
Before I tell you about the rest of this day, I have to take a minute to explain things to you, because I never have. My sister, Dayna, and my brother Jason, along with my two middle siblings Caitlin and Christian, are my father's other children. There are five of us; I am the oldest by 3 years.
I have never met my father.
In fact, I had not met any of them, nor did I know of their existence, until 2006 when, on the prompting of my grandparents, Dayna searched for and found me on the internet. I met my grandparents for the first time that summer, along with my sister. A year later, I met my sister's husband and son, my brother Jason and his wife, my father's sister and brother and their respective spouses, and my young cousin Hope, whose eyes were exactly the same shade of blue as mine. Slowly but surely over the years I have met most of the members of my father's side of the family, with the exception of my father himself and my other two siblings, who are high-school aged and who, Dayna believed, did not know of my existence.
One day I'll tell you about how all of this has felt -- what mix of gratitude and terror, of hope and guilt; the strange reality of the prodigal child -- but for now I want to tell you how I sat in the back of the funeral home, surrounded by nearly all of my paternal family, and held my grandmother's hand as we wept at the death of my brother.
The service was very difficult. The minister was Jason's best friend's father, and as he started to speak, his voice was audibly breaking. He talked at length, and then allowed people to take the stand; Jason's stepfather spoke, and my sister, and his grandmothers; a friend of his from high school, and his commanding officer in the Marines. It was hard to hear about this boy I never knew, with his giant bottle glasses and sweet personality; hard to know what I inadvertently missed.
Jason was given military honors: three rounds of rifle fire, the presentation of the flag to his mother, and the playing of Taps outside the building. I can't verbalize what that familiar, mournful trumpet call did to me. it was the most excruciating part of the service, and yet I was grateful for it.
Afterwards I stuck by Dayna until I had to leave because of imminent snow. I would have liked to stay. A few strangers came up to talk to me; one relative of Jason's stepfather told me that he'd spotted me from across the room. "I'd know you anywhere," he said. "You look just like him." A small gift, these few words, on a hard day.