Last fall, my uncle was complaining of pain in his chest and weakness. He was fatigued all the time. He went for several tests, treatments, and procedures, finally determining that he had fluid around his heart. When they finally got him in to drain it, they pulled over a liter out of him. They tested the fluid and determined there was a viral infection, but more pressing was the damage that had been done to his heart. Seems that the infection had weakened some of the tissue around one of the valves, I think. They had been evaluating him for stem cell treatment options when he started getting a bit worse. Suddenly (to me, anyway), he was in a hospital in Boston, under observation, awaiting a transplant. His pulse kept getting weaker and fading out. They resuscitated him twice last week, then found a problem and inserted a tube, raising his b.p. We were hopeful. The third time his pulse faded, he didn't make it.
Grief is an unpredictable thing. There are patterns, but ultimately everyone grieves in their own way. This has been toughest for me not because I lost my uncle, but because my uncle was nearly the same age as my dad was when he died (my uncle just had his 50th birthday; my dad was just short of his), and left two children younger than I was when I lost my father (21 and 23; I was just barely 24). I've been trying to be there for my cousins because I know some of what they're feeling, without making it too much about myself and reliving my grief over my father (yes, I worry about these things too much). I've also been worried a lot about my mom, who just lost her baby brother. I talked to her on Friday and she said she was waiting for news about his condition before heading up to see him. She's probably kicking herself for not leaving earlier so that she would have a chance to say good-bye. She and my cousin Debbie (who's my oldest cousin, and is only a handful of years younger than my uncle; the two were often taken for brother and sister growing up) were driving up to Boston when the news came. Thankfully, they had each other. Mom said they were kept pretty busy this weekend so didn't have much chance to grieve. But when I spoke to her last night, she was really shaky.
So it's been hard for me to make space to grieve, because of my own worries and concerns about my family. But ultimately, I wasn't really that close with my uncle. The only one of my mother's four brothers who I was ever close with was Uncle Jimmy, who passed away in 2002. He had no family of his own, but always made time for my brother and me as our mother struggled to raise us without my father. Uncle Mike was in the army while I was growing up, so I almost never saw him. When it came time to talk on the phone for holidays, I (who never knows what to say on the phone as it is) never really had much to say to him. We never had much in common. Most of our correspondence in recent years was in the form of xenophobic e-mail forwards praising the Christian God and maligning "illegals." What can I say about him that doesn't fall under the usual platitudes of "He loved his family" and the like? What can I take from this?
Well, it's kind of odd, especially in light of this entry, but I actually came out in praise of facebook today. In at least some small part, it's helped keep me closer to my cousins and my cousin's kids (the ones that are teenagers already, at least). I moved back to NYC in part to be closer to family, and not just geographically. Who I was doesn't have to be who I am. Just because I wasn't really close to family the first 20+ years of my life doesn't mean I can't change that now. It's horrible, cliché, and horribly cliché, but each death teaches you something about the value of life. It's only in vain if you can't take something from it.