My uncle died on Christmas day, 12/25/21.
Even though he was in hospice, his death feels unexpected. Let me explain.
My uncle was the last of his generation in my family and my longest living relative. He lived ninety-six mostly good years, especially here in the U.S.
A quiet but active introvert, uncle Vicente left Argentina to get away from his traumatic childhood (I wish I could ask him questions about this old life so long ago, but I now can’t). He never wanted to talk about his past in Rosario and Buenos Aires. He kept to himself, played tennis every day well into his 80s until he could no longer. He left the old life in South America in the past, locked and forgotten.
As my mother’s only brother, he is the reason I am here in the States. Seeing a better future, he was the first of our family to step foot in California in the early 1960s. My mother, not wanting to live far away from her only remaining family member, convinced my father to move to the United States. I became American as apple pie sometime in grade school, and the rest is history.
In my youth, the holidays were a festive time. On Christmas Eve, the tradition was to wait until midnight to open gifts. No one went to mass, even though we were brought up Catholic and my siblings and I endured twelve years of parochial school. We ate ham, empanadas, and sandwiches de miga. For dessert, we had flan with dulce de leche – still my favorite after all these years – and Sidra. We did the same thing on New Year’s Eve, except there were no gifts to open. Our friends celebrated with us. There were always lots of presents under the fake Christmas tree with “snowy” leaves in southern California because Mom loved to buy stuff.
I miss it all sometimes.
Grieving is complicated, they say. It’s messy. I have not shed a tear yet over my uncle’s passing, but I feel a heaviness – a heaviness I can’t quite explain. As a writer, I am admitting I am at a loss for words right now. I can’t clarify exactly what I am feeling. Part of me is sad because the last person of that older generation is gone. I think I feel some subtle anger, too.
Why did Tio (what we called uncle Vicente – just “uncle”) have to die on Christmas day of all days? It’s taken me decades to accept that my childhood was abusive, acknowledge I needed help, do the actual work to heal, change the way I see myself, and learn to make healthier choices. The healing never ends. But now, after Tio’s death, all of the raw, messy feelings from my past have returned.
I’m in that fog again that feels like there is no escape from.
Maybe I haven’t fully healed, or maybe what I am feeling is part of the grieving process. Whatever it is, I will get through it.
One day at a time, right?
Behind the Empanadas and Flan
At Christmas time, as a family, we were the happiest. I suppose now reminiscing, I know we lived in denial. Every single one of us walked around Dad and his alcoholism. Mom tried to make light of it, tried to get me to talk to him as if I, a child, could influence Dad to quit drinking. It didn’t work and the denial continued. All of it was swept under the carpet – the cognac, the depression, the anger, the endless TV watching, the ignoring of each other, and the daily silence that screamed, “We are not okay, but let’s pretend to be.”
We were “dysfunctional.” That is what they called a family like ours back then. Tio ignored the abuse, too. He worked hard, played tennis, and mostly kept to himself. He hid in his room and avoided all of the dysfunction.
Never married, never held a long-term relationship, never had too many close friends, never bought his own home, he let his troubled childhood hinder his present and chose not to open up to anyone. Didn’t say much at parties. Didn’t appear at my high school graduation. Didn’t come to my wedding because he was afraid to fly. Never went to church with any of us. Bought the groceries and left them on the kitchen counter and expected someone else to put them away. Helped put up Christmas lights and the large sleigh on the roof every holiday season. And, in the end, before he had to move out from our house near the beach, became a gardener.
Alcoholic families pretend everything is okay. They act like nothing is wrong. Denial occurs. Communication is lacking or troubled. Problems become bigger and are continuously swept under the carpet. Confusion and despair are prevalent in kids of alcoholic families. They know something is wrong, but they don’t know what to do about it. I sure didn’t.
Children of alcoholics experience guilt, anxiety, embarrassment, confusion, anger, depression, and may have difficulties with close relationships. It can take a lifetime to heal from such a family dynamic.
Maybe the reason I can’t explain how I feel, exactly, is because my uncle’s death is bringing back pain from my upbringing. All of my childhood memories are flooding in, and unlike my uncle, I choose not to live in denial. I can’t just ignore the past and not heal from it because I’ve learned doing so is like trying to push a kid’s ball down to the bottom of a swimming pool. It doesn’t work. It pops back up all the time, just like trauma does.
The only way to push the ball down is to deflate it.
Am I now trying to jam that ball to the bottom of the pool? I could be, and, it’s okay. Grieving is personal. Maybe I need to just throw the ball away. Maybe I need to reframe.
Thanks, Tio, for your presence in my life. I’ve learned humility and discipline from you. Thanks for caring for me, for all the gifts over the years, for buying groceries and helping with the mortgage, for buying my favorite LPs when I was too shy to thank you for them. Even though, in the end, we were not too close, I still loved you.
(And it blows me away that you outlived Mom by fifty years! Fifty years. You give me hope that I might live long.)
Rest in peace, dear uncle Vicente. I wish you had spoken up when I was a kid, though. Maybe you could have helped Dad, us, me. But actually, how could you have? You were broken yourself.
Such is the human condition, isn’t it?