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Friday
Dec282012

Discovering My Uncle

My Uncle Edgar May passed away yesterday morning. He's been telling us he was going to die soon. But that's what older people do. It starts around 70. The organizing, the filing, the telling of where the papers are. My uncle started laying the foundation for his death by visiting more. He'd enter the door. Stand there silently. He'd hold his arms outstretched and rest them on my shoulders. So he could take a good look at what's happened since the last time he saw me, and what he's going to miss. When he's gone. Then we'd hug, and I wouldn't want it to end. Because nobody hugs like Uncle Edgar. 

I YouTubed my uncle. Up popped a link to a Vermont Pulic Radio interview with my uncle and his sister Madeleine in their seventies about their arrival in America. My uncle first stepped on America's soil when he was a boy. His sister Madeleine was five. Their ship was the SS Manhattan; Appropriately named as they arrived in the mist of New York's harbor outstretched arms of Lady Liberty. Air Force jets shot across the sky. It was 1940, and Italy had just entered the war. In the darkness and fear of that moment, my uncle's ship erupted in applause at the beauty, the grace, the promise this new land would bring. The ship held 900 people. There were 2,000 on board. My uncle's mother was a widow from Zurich. She held her children close and told them that in America, anything is possible. After hearing that, Madeleine wanted curly hair. In American, anything was possible. Even curly hair. Madeleine went on to became Governor of the state of Vermont. 
My uncle became the toast of Washington D.C.,mwith my mother's sister Louise on his arm. I never met her. She died in a car accident when she was thirty, before I was born. Edgar and Louise were pulling out on a dark night, onto a dark road, and they were hit. By a dark car. 
It changed my uncle forever. Shattered every bone in his body. My Aunt Louise was killed instantly. No seatbelt laws in those days. Her head hit the dashboard. I cannot look at a dashboard without thinking of this woman I've never met. The church overflowed with lives she had touched. 
My middle name is Louise. I was raised knowing she is my guardian angel. I've tried to live up to her name. But it's hard to live up to someone who's passed. My family tells me she was perfect.
So was my uncle. To me. Discovering who my uncle was, has taught me that you don't have to die for people to want to live up to you. 
My uncle lived a large life. He won a Pulitzer Prize. That made him really cool to us kids.  But to him, it was more an example of how the world still needs to change. To do more. Than give an award for trying to change the world. He wrote a book in the '60's called The Wasted Americans. He went undercover unveiling issues within our welfare system. 
I thought I knew my uncle. You always think you know someone when you think they'll be around forever. So you can ask them about their life. And then they are gone.
I know the uncle I have loved. But there's a whole other side of him. That other people admire, but I had only heard about.  So I Googled my uncle. 
He served in the Vermont Senate, the Vermont  House of Representatives and as chairman for its Committee on Health and Management. He directed a judicial management study for the Vermont supreme court. He was the head of Special Olympics and had stints as special advisor to the U.S. ambassador to France, inspector general for the federal Office of Economic Opportunity and deputy director for the domestic peace corps. 
He also worked as a reporter for the Buffalo Evening News and the Chicago Tribune. 
Throughout his career, May was a member of several boards including vice president of the American Public Welfare Association, trustee for the University of Vermont, and director of the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation.
He is the author of "The Wasted Americans" and "Dealing with Drug Abuse."  His articles have appeared in magazines ranging from Harper's to Family Weekly. And not so finally, he won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting in 1961.
Edgar is a rare breed. He's the ultimate New England gentleman. His jaw rarely moved when he spoke. He was a politician who looked you in the eye and shook your hand. The weathered skin around his kind eyes and on his palms made you trust him. He lived on an estate called Muckross. A funny name for a glorious fairytale grotto that would make angels drool, if only the pipes worked properly, or a maid would come. 
Edgar is known for his clutter. His kitchen an historical collection of antiquities. I remember as a child being fascinated by his french coffee press. I remember at forty being fascinated by his French Coffee Press. 
He is a man who does not fix it if it isn't broken, or if it is. No need for things that make life easier, if it does not make life better. 
His computer was a huge leap of technological adventurism. His large fingers poking out elegant sentences reserved for long-hand. 
Edgar has always been a man before his time. And the beauty in him is he stayed that way. Preferring phone calls over email, but resorting to email in great effort to stay connected with the younger generation of our family. 
He was smart that way. Because he was the ant-politician politician. He knows how to connect with others, because connection and meaning is what feeds his soul. His whole purpose is to leave this world a better place. 
He has instilled in my children a passion for reading. He instilled in me the personal quirk of leaving classical music playing in my home, even when it's empty. To turn off the television, light the fire, and pick up a book. Each time I do, I think, this is what Edgar would do. 
But now he is dying. In his hospital room at the VA surrounded by loved ones who know him so well they don't need to speak. 
That's when you know you love someone. When no words are needed amongst yourselves to express what a wonderful human being lays before you, different than he was before. Strokes have slowed his brain, his heart is compromised, but his spirit is strong because it knows what it wants. Because he is ready to go. He's said so. For a year. Exhausted from Diabetic complications, his bones aching from the long Vermont winters, and no mountains left to climb. 
My uncle found a beauty in dying. He was peaceful. He felt the touch of his loved ones who never left his side during his final days in the hospital after a series of strokes. My uncle's life is too large for a niece's essay to get it all in. Because I don't know all of the things he did as a young man. I know what he did as an uncle. When we made picnics in his cluttered kitchen and swam in his enormous pond filled with fish that nibbled your toes in the type of cold water only Vermonters know. It is a real man's pond surrounded by a protective forest that fog would blanket in the mornings. I know the piano in his foyer he kept our pictures on that we never knew he had, that mom had sent over the years, of us with crooked teeth that he found perfect. I know the table he'd set in his enclosed sitting area on a table with candles and his recipes from The Silver Spoon we would awe with a glass of red wine. And the worms that lived in the soil in his back yard. They were my favorite part of the visits. Because he wanted us to become one with the earth. He'd teach us as kids it's ok to get our hands dirty. 
It is now his time to run his weathered fingers through the soil. I should be sad. I am. But if I know my uncle, it's the last thing he'd want, for anyone to be sad. However, he would be happier knowing I had learned to use a French Press. 
There will never be another Uncle Edgar. That is what saddens me. Because this world needs one. But letting go of him means a better, more deserving world will get to have him. And part of loving is letting go. 
I look forward to that other world,  with him standing at the door, his arms stretched out with large weathered hands on my shoulders. He'll smile, his deep gravely voice exclaiming how wonderful life is, that we are together again. We'll hug. And in that world, we won't have to let go.

 

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